With unprecedented prosperity, technology, and leisure like no decade before it, 1920s America roared, soared, and was never bored, igniting endless fads and crazes of excess and frivolity–until it all came crashing down.
The decade before survived the cataclysm of World War I and a deadly global influenza epidemic. This brought about a cynical post-war mindset: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” At the same time, long-simmering efforts like the temperance movement rose to the surface that led to high-minded laws that brought about unforeseen consequences and made law breakers out of the everyday citizen. When the decade ended in 1929 with the crash of the stock market, Americans were left wondering what had happened.
The post-WWI era of the 1920s was a time of prosperity and new opportunities. The economy was booming and the middle class was enjoying a higher standard of living. American women earned the right to vote, which gave many young women a new sense of empowerment. The Volstead Act, which prohibited alcohol, led to illegal saloons called speakeasies that gave people the opportunity to indulge in jazz and liquor. The decade earned two monikers: “The Jazz Age” (credited to F. Scott Fitzgerald for coining the phrase in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age) and the “Roaring Twenties.”
Jazz and Liquor
When Prohibition took effect on January 17, 1920, thousands of legal saloons across the nation closed only to have hundreds of thousands of unregulated drinking establishments called speakeasies pop up. Although Prohibition was meant to ban alcohol and reduce crime, the illegal speakeasy became an American craze, creating a nation of law breakers and emboldening criminals to exploit the new racket. Unlike the previous legal saloons, speakeasies were not subject to pre-Prohibition controls and they welcomed women in as patrons. The massive profits generated by these illicit saloons went to gangsters and crime rates rose. As competition between speakeasies grew, so did the demand for live entertainment. Jazz music and the dances it inspired were the perfect fit for the era’s party mood.
Jazz music, with its roots in ragtime and blues, had emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It spread into the mainstream by rebellious youth across lines of race and age to be the fad of the 1920s. Dance crazes like the Charleston, Black Bottom, and the Shimmy dominated dance floors while Victorian moralists condemned them as too suggestive. Along with this new music came new fads in fashion and the birth of the Flapper–a new independent and sexually liberated woman who wore lipstick and slinky dresses, smoked and drank, worshipped jazz, and bobbed her hair.
Flapper fashion took on a “boyish” look and corsets were replaced by “step-ins” to flatten the chest to mirror men’s style. Women’s restrictive clothing was loosened and lightened to make movement easier. Skirts rose to knee length and waistlines relaxed and often fell to the hips. Actress Clara Bow was the onscreen embodiment of the flapper, and her life off-screen mirrored her films. She made 15 movies in 1925 alone, with titles such as The Adventurous Sex, My Lady’s Lips, and Eve’s Lover. She captured the spirit of the “flaming youth” and became the “IT” Girl of the 1920s.
During this era, Americans generally became more fashion-conscious as fashion trends spread beyond the upper classes. As with the revolution in women’s fashion during the 1920s, men’s clothing also went through changes. The decade was one of progress and individualism as well as an increase in marketing. Men wore their hair short and slicked back. Raccoon coats, patent leather shoes, bow ties, and fedoras were the epitome of men’s style. Men favored well-tailored suits and stylish clothing to project that they were living the good life. Like the rise in women’s hemlines, men’s hemlines rose too in the form of knee-length knickers and plus-fours (knickers with cuffs falling four inches below the knee), influenced by Britain’s Prince of Wales, whose good looks and style was regularly featured in the American press.
The African American community particularly that of the Harlem Renaissance–a golden age of African American music, literature, and art that took place in the Harlem neighborhood of New York–placed great emphasis on stylishness. The conk hairstyle–created with a hair straightener made from lye–was trendy among African American men and was popularized by musician Cab Calloway.
Fashion and other fads were also influenced by matinee idols–a craze for male theater or film stars adored by female fans. With more time and disposable income to spend on entertainment, people of the 1920s went crazy for the movies. Hollywood packaged male stars of the silent screen and churned out movies to meet the demand they created. Very popular were the “Latin lovers,” or actors who specialized in characters of ostensibly Latin descent. Movie magazines endlessly printed about them, with Rudolph Valentino, Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ivor Novello, being some of the biggest stars of the day.
The The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, a talking picture by Warner Brothers, premiered on October 6, 1927 and was a smash hit. Other studios went with sound, but some continued to make silent films just in case talkies were merely a fleeting craze. However, the prosperity, technology, and leisure of the 1920s created the perfect setting for incredible public demand for talking pictures. With the rise of full-length talkies, came the demise of once popular silent film stars. Those with thick accents were pulled as well as those for whom the voice just didn’t match the face. The most notable to fall were Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, and German actor Emil Jannings. Clara Bow had two strikes against her: a thick Brooklyn accent plus backlash against her on-and-off screen flapper lifestyle which was no longer in vogue by 1929.
Radio had its own male idols with the debut of the crooner. Advancements in radio technology and the development of sensitive microphones that better transmitted natural-sounding voices led to a style of singing softly termed “crooning.” The first successful crooner was Jack Smith, known as “The Whispering Baritone.” Another was Art Gillham who gained national fame in 1924 when he appeared with Will Rogers on the presidential election night broadcast. Later, Rudy Vallee opened at a New York club in 1928 and became a star.
Radio itself became a craze in the 1920s as it brought the entire country into average American homes for the first time. The first commercial radio broadcast went out on November 2, 1920, transmitting the Harding-Cox presidential race results. Advancements in technology led to rapid development of earphone-free radio and the American public raced to stores to buy a radio of their own. Many stores offered installment plans, which meant that more households could purchase them. Families gathered around the radio in their living rooms listening to popular shows, which were then regularly scheduled so people could plan their daily activities around their favorite ones. There was something for everyone: soap operas, detective stories, comedies, vaudeville, Westerns, and others. The Grand Ole Opry premiered in 1925 as an hour-long “barn dance,” and Amos ‘n Andy, debuted in 1928, centering around a group of African American friends in the city, both of which were hugely successful.
Americans were not just obsessed with entertainment–even countries became all the rage. In the early 1920s, archaeologist Howard Carter was exploring Egypt’s Valley of the Kings where the pharaohs were buried, and he unearthed the tomb of King Tutankhamun. The news made headlines across the U.S. and Egyptomania was born. Advertisers saw the potential profit and the market was flooded with Egyptian-inspired consumer products: lipstick, jewelry, soaps, and cosmetics. Fashion designers drew from Egyptian motifs and colors and fashion shows were filled with lotus patterned silk garments in mummy-wrapped styles. The obsession with all things Egyptian was the basis for the Art Deco wave of the 1920s. Geometric shapes of Egyptian patterns found their way into home décor, handbags, and ornaments. Even President Herbert Hoover named his dog “King Tut.”
At the same time, China became the competitor of Egypt in terms of country crazes. Playing the game mah-jongg was the fad and all things Chinese were fashionable. The first mah-jongg sets marketed in the U.S. were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch in New York starting in 1920 to great success. In America, playing mah-jongg often involved decorating rooms in Chinese style and dressing in costuming with props such as Chinese fans, enameled trays, and lacquered tea sets. By 1923, the mah-jongg craze was in full swing. A hit song that year was Eddie Cantor‘s rendition of the tune, “Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jongg.” The new year of 1924 began with a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration of a chic young woman playing mah-jongg.
People of the 1920s had an energy and enthusiasm for all sorts of fads, but especially events that tested the limits of human endurance, such as eating competitions, gum-chewing contests, long-distance tango races, and kissing marathons. Popular were talking contests, such as “The World’s Championship Gabfest” and the “Noun and Verb Rodeo,” that were sometimes even held in large arenas like Madison Square Garden. From March to May 1928, the American public was captivated by the First Annual Trans-American Footrace, an 84-day, 3,400 mile footrace from Los Angeles, CA to New York City, nicknamed the “Bunion Derby.” Flagpole-sitting was another popular fad. In 1924, a former sailor and stunt man, Alvin Aloysius “Shipwreck” Kelly, drew a crowd in Los Angeles where he spent 13 hours aloft on a pole with a specially constructed platform that held him up by thumb holes like those on a bowling ball. The stunt gained him national publicity and as word spread, flagpole-sitting became a nationwide craze.
Although competitions based on appearance had been around since at least the mid-19th century, beauty pageants began to gain respectability in the 1920s. In 1921, Margaret Gorman from Washington, DC was crowned the first “Miss America” in Atlantic City, NJ. In the years following, the pageant results, and later the contests themselves, were broadcast on radio nationwide.
Travel & Health
Steamship travel among the middle class also took off during the era. New immigration laws significantly cut the flow of immigrants to the U.S. in the 1920s. Facing a huge loss of income, steamship companies converted their steerage spaces into low-cost cabins marketed to middle class tourists. While the wealthy continued to sail in style, those in the middle class for the first time found themselves on luxury liners with more pleasant second-class and third-class accommodations. Steamship lines also began to experiment with cruising—leisure trips to scenic spots around the world. The U.S. economy was booming and steamship travel among the middle class became the thing to do.
Another fad in travel for the average American was going to a health resort, usually a thermal underground mineral spring or “hot spring,” where they could “take the water.” The automobile, which became much more affordable by the 1920s thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line manufacturing, now made it possible for city dwellers to drive out to the country to visit these spas. White Sulphur Springs, WV and Mineral Wells, TX were popular destinations with luxury hotels and posh amenities. In 1924, Franklin Roosevelt went to a spa town in Georgia for his paralytic illness and it was he who would rename the town Warm Springs and bring it fame as the “Little White House” years later. For fashionable East Coasters, it was Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, which had the luxurious Grand Union Hotel, mineral waters, and race track. For those living in the middle of the country in cities like Chicago, it was Hot Springs, AR. Railroads and highways brought droves of people to Hot Springs for health-related ailments and relaxation and it became a place for celebrity sightings, including the Chicago White Stockings baseball team and Al Capone. Taking the waters became less fashionable in the later part of the decade with the discovery of penicillin for certain diseases as well as the financial crisis of the Great Depression.
The 1920s was also the golden age of aviation when pilots became heroes, records were broken, and aircraft became more technologically advanced. Aviators like Charles Lindbergh and his female counterpart Amelia Earhart (dubbed “Lady Lindy“) were exalted and worshipped by Americans. Air races and daring record-setting flights dominated the news as aviation captivated the public’s fascination. Barnstorming was a phenomenon that really captured the public’s attention. Pilots would travel to rural areas, rent local barns to use as their headquarters, and give exhibitions of flying and perform aeronautical stunts. This type of entertainment was known as flying circuses. One of the most popular stunts was “wing-walking,” the act of stepping out on the wings of an airplane in flight, which sometimes led to the death of the performer. Lindbergh started his career as a wing-walker as did other young men, but it was pretty young women performing the stunt who drew the largest crowds. Women became quite popular barnstormers, including aviatrix Lillian Boyer and Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
With prosperity and increased leisure time after WWI, baseball gained national popularity as advancements in radio could transmit scores over longer distances. Professional baseball player “Babe” Ruth was a huge celebrity and his fame went way beyond the game. He led the Yankees to seven World Series championships and was home run champion for 12 seasons. His hitting prowess not only made millions of dollars for the Yankees franchise, but he was also credited for “saving” baseball from national disgrace after the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. In addition to being an amazing ball player, Ruth was a colorful personality and newspapers endlessly reported about him.
In books, one novel in particular started its own mania, but it is probably not the first one that comes to mind when you think of The Jazz Age. The Great Gatsby (1925), which is considered the novel that personifies the social, cultural, and political tensions of the 1920s, did not become popular until the 1950s, decades after its first publication and after the death of its author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1921) that became a publishing phenomenon. The book condemned what Lewis saw as the small-mindedness of American small towns. Everyone read it and Main Street became the hot topic of conversation that left people wondering if America was as vulgar, ignorant, and prejudiced as Lewis depicted. The book also coincided with the growing feminist movement of the 1920s with its female protagonist Carol Kennicott. The book’s success put Sinclair Lewis on the map and he went on to publish a series of best-selling books throughout the decade.
There were so many fads and crazes in America during the 1920s that it was impossible to include all of them in this blog post. Share other ones we may have missed in the comments!
- Popular Fads and Crazes through American History by Nancy Hendricks (2018)
- Search Chronicling America* to find more newspaper coverage of the fads and crazes of the 1920s and more!
- Check out these guides on related topics in Chronicling America:
Babe Ruth: Topics in Chronicling America
Flappers: Topics in Chronicling America
Early Jazz Music (Backlash and Opposition)
Prohibition: Topics in Chronicling America
- Read related Headlines & Heroes blog posts:
Amelia Earhart: Mystery and True Heroine
Those Fluttering Flappers!
Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1921-1940
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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What an enjoyable post! I learned so much. Thank you!