America in 1920's

. Entertainment . The flapper . The Harlem renaissance . Prohibition and Al Capone . A sad sending . Web links
France examen vous ouvre la porte
de la Salle des Profs.

Eric, professeur d'Anglais,
vous invite à découvrir l'Amérique des années 20.

White America emerged from the Great War as a rich and powerful nation. The 1920's saw the vote for women, the first trans-Atlantic phone call, the first talking movie, the first affordable car, the discovery of penicillin and insulin for diabetics, among many other things. Some called the new decade 'The Roaring Twenties' and, in sports, it was the Golden Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald, an Irish American novelist who wrote The Great Gatsby, called it 'The Jazz Age'.


The 1920's was a decade of entertainment. The atrocities of the First World War urged everyone to enjoy life as much as possible. It was now time to celebrate and have fun. People loved to listen to music and to dance the Charleston and the Fox-trot during endless dance marathons that were taking place every week-end.

One of the most striking event was indeed the appearance of the radio which broadcast a huge variety of programmes (news, comedy, music, drama, sports, live events...) that were quite similar to the ones we have nowadays. This was a major breakthrough in everyday life because it brought the Americans together as a united nation.

  • On September 8 1921, the first Miss America contest was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
  • In 1923, Rin-Tin-Tin became the first famous dog to star in a movie.
  • In 1925, the Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the world's largest and most profitable motion-picture studio was founded.
  • In 1926, Winnie the Pooh appears for the first time in the stories written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard.
  • On November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie was the first sound cartoon that made Mickey Mouse famous.

The flapper

The 20's saw the arrival of a new youth that shattered American society. The term 'flapper' first appeared in Great Britain after World War I. It was there used to describe young girls, still somewhat awkward in movement who had not yet entered womanhood. Despite this definition, the flapper became the embodiment of the modern and rebellious spirit of the 1920's. She wore her hair short or bobbed. She used make-up, smoked tobacco and drank hard liquor. She wore baggy dresses or short skirts. She felt free and independent. Some even had a job! However, such a behaviour was considered as being totally unconventional for traditional families and the older generation.

The Harlem renaissance

Between 1919 and 1926, large numbers of black Americans who were living in poverty, migrated to northern cities such as Chicago, Washington D.C or New York. This African-American cultural movement became known as the 'Harlem Renaissance'. It exalted the unique culture of black Americans, who were encouraged to celebrate their heritage. Among the most famous artists are poet Langston Hughes and painter William Johnson.

The Renaissance also included famous musicians and singers who gave birth to Jazz:
  • Louis Armstrong who introduced his scat singing style, in which the voice is used like an instrument.
  • Josephine Baker who starred in La Revue Nègre in 1925 in Paris.
  • Duke Ellington who brought Jazz into concert halls and whose music appealed to whites.
  • Billie Holiday ; her inimitable phrasing and dramatic intensity made her an outstanding jazz singer.
  • Charlie Parker, also known as 'the Bird'; born in 1920, he was one of the most gifted and influential jazz saxophonist. He soon created his own style, later known as 'bebop'.

Prohibition and Al Capone

The leaders of the prohibition movement were alarmed at the drinking behaviour of Americans, and concerned that immigrants from Europe had brought in new drinking habits. On Midnight of January 16, 1920 alcohol became a prohibited substance in America until 1933. Prohibition was meant to reduce the consumption of alcohol, and thereby reduce crime and poverty. It was the contrary. Quickly, disrespect for the law and organized crime grew into an empire. The most famous gangster, who ran Chicago with guns, was Al Capone. He was the greatest symbol of the collapse of law and order during the prohibition era. He got his scars and his nickname, 'Scarface', in a bar fight. In 1930, he became Chicago's 'Public Enemy Number One'. On November 24, 1929 he was sentenced to 11 years and died of a stroke in 1947.

A sad sending

The end of the decade was marked by the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that plunged thousands of Americans into unemployment, poverty and homelessness. The Great Depression began and was to last until mid-1940. America had celebrated for 9 years and was now entering a time of great suffering.
Obviously, the fall of the 20's was as impressive and stunning as its rise. Today, this period is remembered as the most glorious and the most explosive decade in American history, and this is the reason why its fascination still lives on through movies or musicals such as Chicago (2002) or Cabaret (2007).

Eric Durand, professeur d'Anglais, septembre 2008.

Web links