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Historiographical Analysis of the 1920s in America

Published on 25th March 2017

When asked about the 1920’s, the modern American will, more likely than not, conjure images of jazz music, the Great Gatsby, dancing, and the decade’s ultimate symbol: the flapper. There is a relatively simple, homogenized view of the decade today, in some ways a phenomenon that is remarkably and ironically fitting. However, as so often happens in contemplations of history, this view portrays a highly limited idea of a decade that was infinitely more complicated and rife with contradictions. These contradictions occurred in all walks of life, but are made most apparent through the lenses of class, race, and ethnicity, expounded upon in works such as Joshua Zeitz’s Flapper, Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice, and Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal.

Capitalism tends to carry with it a type of social hierarchy, in which there are both winners and losers. It is quite easy to look back on “the era of wonderful nonsense” as though such a slogan captures the whole essence of the time. However, there was still very much a social hierarchy buried beneath the idyll of 20’s excess. True, it was an idyll that many aspired to, as Zeitz notes in his text: “…though few women…lived like Lois Long, increasing numbers of them encountered her image every day…Flapperdom was every bit as much an expression of class aspirations as it was a statement of personal freedom.”[i] For many, though, it was made unattainable or very difficult to achieve by means of social barriers that were a result of such a social hierarchy. If one were to look at 1920’s iconography, the sight of well-to-do white people enjoying themselves would assault the eyes. Even while this was often the case, such imagery is a contradiction in and of itself, completely bereft of the divisions of class, race, and ethnicity that so plagued the 1920’s. 

These divisions were born of the decade’s status as ushering in an era of modernity into the country. The later stages of the industrial revolution had produced incredible new technologies, weaning the country off of inconvenient and unreliable steam power in favor of oil and gas. The automobile and the airplane were making the world smaller and smaller. Further, the economy had mobilized vociferously during the Great War, and the United States escaped from its events unscathed, quite the opposite of Europe. These advances and others created jobs and thus income. Further, they created disposable income. The great cities of New York, Chicago, Detroit, and others were suddenly locations of opportunity and prosperity so, naturally, millions flocked there, mostly poor African Americans from the South in the Great Migration, and mostly poor Europeans from Italy, Poland, Ireland, Hungary, and other nations. The problems that arose are the problems that one would expect from a mass convergence of all walks of life in a concentrated area in a short time, problems of ethnonational and racial tension and class discrimination. These advances and problems happened to come to a head in the 1920s.

There is perhaps no greater symbol of the decade than the flapper. Carefree, exciting, and hedonistic, with a striking bob haircut and a loose dress, the flapper was in many ways the polar opposite of her Victorian-era mother. The rise of consumerism and the aforementioned advancing technology and economy fostered her development and soon, she encapsulated everything that the Roaring Twenties were about, essentially rebellion against the old social order. Out were the days of prim cotillion, courtship, and doting parents. In was an era where the ‘modern woman’ did as she pleased simply because she could. Suffrage had been extended to women with the 19th Amendment and the surging job market meant that she could be independent. Perhaps most importantly, she could now be a consumer, and companies knew it. Ads sprung up advocating the flapper ideal. Lois Long’s work in the New Yorker and the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald showed America how the flapper ought to behave. Fashion houses like that of Coco Chanel showed how the flapper ought to look. The silver screen accomplishments of actresses like Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, and Louise Brooks did a little of both. Soon enough, an entire flapper image was created, all so that women knew what was in and how to achieve it, by purchasing things, of course.

The contradiction here is one of class, both in a clash of Victorianism and modernism, and in a perhaps more subtle schism within economic class. Quite simply, the modern woman was more of an idea than anything, and many struggled to define what it meant. Zeitz argues that this idea went beyond the simple hedonism of the time, that “the ethos of the consumer market glorified not only self-indulgence…but also personal liberty and choice.”[ii] It blurred the line between what was proper and what was not. All of a sudden, Victorian morality was turned on its head, placing firmly the torch of social change into the hands of young women. Even so, the flapper ideal gave women something to strive for, the problem here being that everybody was striving for the exact same thing. There was a push to have the ideal figure. One advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes claimed that women ought to “light a Lucky and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat.”[iii] Zeitz draws attention to the fact that, while knockoffs and fake jewelry made fashion available to the masses, the flapper ideal still portrayed “Clara Bow modeling a $25 silk blouse, doeskin gloves retailing at $8.50, rose beige chiffon stockings retailing for $4.50, and a $30 lizard skin pocketbook,”[iv] not necessarily a cheap outfit. Certainly, actresses such as Bow played a major influences on what young women thought they ought to look like and, in Zeitz’s words, “it was the Jazz Age movie moguls who really sealed the deal-who shaped popular notions about the female body and how it should be displayed…”[v]

These ideals of flapperdom were quite a tall order for all but well-endowed women to achieve. While America was indeed a consumer culture, not everybody could consume equally, although many tried. Zeitz states that “Experts agreed that it would cost the average working girl at least $117-more than $1,200 in today’s money-to affect the flapper look with passing success.”[vi] Thusly emerges the contradiction of the new woman. It was all well and good to rebel against social order, just so long as you were privileged enough to be a part of it: white and middle/upper class. As such, the flapper was a bastion of social change, but also of social inequality as a flapper ideal was foisted upon the nation, an ideal that would ultimately lead to a fair amount of homogenized consumerism that in many ways widened class divisions, and it largely avoided any mention of one of America’s oldest social conflicts: that of race.

The contradiction of race in 1920’s America was sharp indeed. It was a time of opportunity and of poverty. It was a time of liberation and of repression. The African American had secured his freedoms, but hearts and minds are slow to change, and such was the case in the United States at the time. The South was largely still attempting to hang on to the strict racial inequality of the Antebellum years and, while Constitutional amendments protected the freedoms of African Americans in theory, the law did little to stop white mobs from horrifically lynching men who dared to be too successful, and a special amount of ferocity was meted out when the crime of talking to a white woman occured. In the face of intense racial oppression, many left for the opportunity provided by the great cities of the North: places like Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Detroit in particular is significant here due to the simple population explosion it experienced at the time, of which a sizeable piece consisted of African Americans. In Boyle’s words, “Some thirty thousand colored people came to Detroit during the Great War, thousands more in its immediate aftermath…they were looking for…the promise of opportunity, the chance for something better.”[vii] The great automobile plants, namely Ford, offered this opportunity. The problem that arose was quite simple. People just needed somewhere to live, and thus, conflict arose.

There is a general misconception that racism simply did not exist in the North, that all of the discrimination one reads in the history books took place south of the Mason-Dixon Line. However, even though public segregation was not as intense as it was in the South, private segregation was another matter. Boyle, in Arc of Justice states: “Detroiters grew more and more insistent on keeping Negroes in their proper place.”[viii] He also explains the reasons why this was so: “husbands and wives talked nervously of fragile family budgets, mortgages years from being repaid, and the specter of plummeting property values.”[ix] It was well known at the time that the presence of African Americans in a neighborhood actually depressed the values of the surrounding homes, a racist corruption of the idea of curb appeal. The established white families of Detroit took many steps to prevent this, including restrictive covenants, clauses written into the deeds of the homes, preventing them from being sold to African Americans. Real estate agents selectively sold based on race because, according to Boyle, “to defy the new racial conventions took more courage-or more avarice-than many real estate agents and landlords had.”[x] Perhaps most dangerously, people also formed neighborhood ‘improvement associations,’ which met with a singular purpose: to keep neighborhoods ‘lily white.’ The city, aided by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the classical philosophical battle of self vs. other, was wracked in what was looking to be a race war, simply because African Americans wanted to take part in the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, something, at least in the eyes of KKK sympathizers, reserved for the ‘Noble Nordics.’

Racial social change was involved in and shaped by 1920’s ideals. African Americans founded cultural meccas such as Harlem, and pioneered many of the Jazz age’s hallmarks, such as the Charleston dance craze and Jazz itself. Boyle quotes James Weldon Johnson as saying that “Harlem is indeed the great mecca for the sight-seer, the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented of the Negro world.”[xi] Even so, the experience of these things was shaped by not just segregation and racial oppression, but the struggle against such evils. W.E.B. Dubois’s Talented Tenth reshaped African American culture. Men such as himself and James Weldon Johnson, the brilliant NAACP leader who penned ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ crafted a narrative around this struggle that came to be a major facet of African American life. It was a slow struggle, as the Sweet Trials preceded Brown v. Board by several decades, but it did happen. Zeitz argues in his book that the flapper introduced America to the modern age, but Boyle’s shows that African Americans, too, got their modern age. The fledgling NAACP was just beginning to exert real influence and The People vs. Sweet was one of the first of many civil rights victories in a struggle that really continues to this day, but began in earnest in the Jazz Age. The new woman changed America in the cosmopolitan streets, while the new African American changed it in the courtroom

While there was a Great Migration occurring from South to North, there was another one occurring from East to West, Eastern Europe to the United States in particular. European immigrants of the 20th Century made the transatlantic voyage for the same reason that many people made the Great Migration: opportunity and freedom from oppression. They were chasing the ideal of prosperity. Many were poor and some, such as Jews, were religiously ostracized in their home countries. However, much like with the African Americans, they faced a native white population unenthused with their presence. In Making a New Deal, Lizabeth Cohen discusses the city of Chicago and its working class population, a great number of whom were 1st generation immigrants, come to find work in the steel mills, the meatpacking industry, and many others. However, the challenges that faced the new immigrant concerning modernity were different from the challenges facing the new African American or new woman. Ossian Sweet was simply attempting to live free from prejudice. Clara Bow and Zelda Fitzgerald wanted to break from their Victorian roots. Italian, Polish, and Irish Americans, among others, were less keen on leaving behind their pasts.

The new immigrants faced the difficult challenge of embracing American modernity while preserving their native histories. As Cohen explains, they did this in a number of ways. They “saw radio as a way of keeping their countrymen and women in touch with native culture.”[xii] “They bought in their own kind of stores from compatriot merchants.”[xiii] Ethnic movie theaters and grocery stores sprang up to cater to the interests of the neighborhood. Silent movies were actually preferred as spectators could add their own commentary in their own language. Cohen claims that “the ethnic character of the community quickly became evident. The language of the yelling and jeering…provided the first clue.”[xiv] They created their own mutual aid societies and banks and, in reference to banks, Cohen asserts that “Here they could speak their foreign tongue, send money to relatives abroad with ease, and for those groups…with few building and loan associations, get help buying a home.”[xv] All of these examples demonstrate that, while ethnic Americans were as wrapped up in the modernity of the 1920’s as anybody else, they were, at least for a time, able to consume on their own terms and create a unique ethnic consumer culture. While the commercialization of the era threatened to homogenize society, the new immigrants were able to stave off the threat due to their dual identities. Many of Lois Long’s disciples belonged to middle class white America, but the ethnic consumers of the new American culture were not just Americans. They were Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Mexicans. On the West coast, they were Chinese and Japanese. They were proud of these identities and held on to them, incorporating them into their American lives. In many ways, ethnicity did not shape social change. Ethnicity was social change.

The 1920’s, no matter who was experiencing them, were a time of immense social change and upheaval, and different groups reacted differently. All of them, however, had aspirations at least seemingly made achievable by the new decade. The ideals of flapperdom swept through the country, though the lower classes could not afford it. African Americans fought for real equality, and a true fight it was. Ethnic Americans created new identities as cultures blended around each other. Social barriers made it difficult for each of these groups to achieve their end goals. However, their actions to circumvent these barriers did as much to make America modern as any new technology or style. They helped to make America socially modern.


[i] Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, and the Women who Made America Modern (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), 93.

[ii] Ibid., 69.

[iii] Ibid., 196.

[iv] Ibid., 264-265.

[v] Ibid., 208.

[vi] Ibid., 81.

[vii] Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 106.

[viii] Ibid., 106.

[ix] Ibid., 134.

[x] Ibid., 108.

[xi] Ibid., 201.

[xii] Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135.

[xiii] Ibid., 119.

[xiv] Ibid., 123.

[xv] Ibid., 81.