American History / Social Developments In The 1920s

Social Developments In The 1920s

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Autor:  anton  11 March 2011
Tags:  Social,  Developments
Words: 3118   |   Pages: 13
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At the turn of the century, life drastically changed for Americans, especially in the 1920’s where new social developments extremely affected their lives. During this time period, America transformed into a consumer society that contrasted with the production of primary industrial goods and an ethic of scarcity, restraint, sacrifice, and frugality of the 19th century. The 20th century was now known for leisure, relative affluence, and an emphasis on consumer goods and personal satisfaction. Things like amusement parks and professional sports became very popular and middle-class people could now enjoy items like interior decoration and indoor plumbing. The advertising business was booming and began the process of wants and consumption. Other innovations and ways of life were also developed in this time which changed American lives forever.

After World War I ended, trends started to move faster and faster and the war made the United States a world power. Higher wages, lower prices, installment buying, and new technological advances helped spread the delight of our consumption. This made new products like electric irons, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners more common for every family to own. Americans also spent more money on leisure and by 1928, one-fourth of the national income went to leisure items. One observer was able to capture this newborn emphasis on leisure by saying: “To call this a land of labor is to impute last century’s epithet to it, for now it is a land of leisure.” (Dumenil, Lynn, p. 176)

In 1907, Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company decided to build the Model T. It came out in 1908, was priced $850, and came in one color - black. As years went on, prices dropped and sales increased which made the company the world’s largest automobile manufacturer. Ford wanted to build his cars more efficiently instead of one at a time so he used Eli Whitney’s idea of interchangeable parts and ideas from Chicago’s great meat-packing houses for the use of the assembly lines in his factories. The automobile quickly became one of the most crucial “inventions of re-making leisure.” More people were able to take advantage of the cheaper, mass produced cars and the amount of cars sold showed it. In 1900, 800 cars were produced, in 1912, over one million, and by 1929 over 27 million cars were on the highway.

The automobile industry was very crucial to the economy. Not only was it a major industry and employer, it supported many other industries like component parts, steel, rubber, and road building. It also helped the construction industry because they were needed to change the American landscape in that the roads were built for these cars to travel. These roads made places like Los Angeles possible. This also caused the exploration of oil and led to new corporations like Texaco and Gulf Oil. Domestic oil production grew by 250% in the 1920s and oil imports rose as well. The automobile minimized regional differences among Americans and also changed the leisure patterns. More people took drives to the country and went on vacations. The car industry also developed new ways to sell and distribute products. Customers were now using a new type a credit, the installment plan, and companies were able to sell cars through networks of dealers too. This plan included the customer paying a down payment, or initial payment, then paying the remaining balance in a series of payments. The automobile changed American lives in that it gave the people a strong sense of power and freedom. They felt power because they were now able to own such a luxury as a car. They also had freedom to go wherever they pleased.

During this time, movies were around but were still without sound. Ideas that led to the addition of sound in a film came from research by American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Neither of these companies could nor would enter into filmmaking but were willing to contract their equipment to Paramount or other large Hollywood studios because they didn’t want to risk their sizable profit positions. Warner Brothers then took the necessary equipment from AT&T in the spring of 1925 and on August 6, 1926, they premiered its new “Vitaphone” technology.

In the early years of the century, movies only applied to the working class audiences. But after 1910, they targeted the middle-class by opening theaters in more “respectable” districts and producers made their films more interesting by adding a plot which attracted a wider audience. By 1920, movies were played in motion picture “palaces”, which were exotic buildings with uniformed ushers. These came to be part of the assumption that films were a “democracy of consumption”, or that these so called palaces could be enjoyed by all classes equally. Movies also carried a message and showcased consumer goods like clothing and plots sometimes containing themes relating to American consumer culture.

Films also projected a new view of womanhood. A few rising female stars of the 20s included: Madge Bellamy, Clara Bow, and Joan Crawford, which represented the modern woman. However, these ladies did not use their bodies to attract the opposite sex in films but their clothes, cosmetics, and jewelry that were on them. Many movies used the “makeover” plot which was when an ordinary, boring woman would trade in her old-fashioned clothes for flapper attire to regain her husband. The aim through most films was marriage and the maintenance of it. They were also tended to tame sexuality and stop it from changing the overall social life of Americans. As well as the automobile, movies transformed the leisure patterns of Americans in that movie going became a part of their daily lives.

The radio was another important invention of the 1920s. Guglielmo Marconi started the progress of this invention in 1901 and on December 12th the first signals were sent across the Atlantic Ocean; starting in Cornwall to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where Marconi was based. The first experimental radio station sent out a few broadcasts in 1906 from Massachusetts but regular broadcasting did not begin until 1920 in Detroit, Michigan.

At first, the radio was a hands-on form of entertainment. You often had to construct your own equipment and try to pick up distant signals from radio stations. It didn’t change into a more modern form until in the mid 1920s and the National Broadcasting System, the first national network, emerged in 1926. The Radio Act of 1927 was then passed to regulate rather chaotic stations that were conducive to both national network and commercial radio. This made radio programs and people like Jack Benny and Amos and Andy nationally known by the 1930s. The radio was the national medium that molded American opinions and taste.

The television was invented in 1923. However, in earlier years other people also worked on this new innovation. In 1842, English physicist Alexander Bain invented an automatic copying telegraph for sending still pictures. Later in 1884, German inventor Paul Gottlien Nipkow patented a complete television system. Then in 1894, American inventor Charles F. Jenking described a scheme for electronically transmitting moving pictures. It wasn’t until 1923 that Vladimir Zworykin, a soviet electronic engineer, filed a patent application for the “iconoscope” or television transmission tube. And on March 17, 1927, he applied for a patent for a 2-way system which had a cathode, a modulating grid, an anode, and a fluorescent screen. Zworykin’s employers were very unimpressed and he had a lack of corporate support until the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) recognized the potential of his invention and ideas. The television had a very big change on the way Americans now lived. They were now able to enjoy something while being at home. They no longer had to listen to the radio, but could watch television in the comfort of their own homes.

The flapper represented much of what was the Jazz Age of the 1920s. They showed youthful rebellion, female independence, competitiveness, consumerism, and exhibitionism. The flapper was the ultimate consumer and a symbol of liberation. They depended on certain products such as make-up, short skirts, cigarettes, and bobbed haircuts. She supported the growth industries of the 1920s – the clothing industry, tobacco production, cosmetic manufacturers, and the beauty parlor. The adventurous Jazz Age linked consumerism with large corporation’s conservative values and their dominance.

In the summer of 1921, another new American institution caught the public’s eye – the bathing beauty. That September, the first beauty pageant was held in Atlantic City. People were shocked when girls came out with stockings below their knees and skin-tight bathing suits. Tabloids were of course booming. “They presented American life not as a political and economic struggle, but as a three-ring circus of sport, crime and sex, and in varying degrees the other papers followed their lead under the pressure of competition.” (Allen, Frederick Lewis, p.81).

During this Post-war Decade, a first class revolt was taking place against the accepted American way of life. It was assumed that women were the guardians of morality and that young girls were to look forward in innocence to the day they would meet their husband and get married. Instead, the flapper would wear cosmetics, thin dresses that were short-sleeved and sometimes sleeveless, and rolled up their stockings above their knees. Most were even abandoning their corsets and from 1924 to 1927, the sales of corsets dropped 11% in the department stores of the Cleveland Federal Reserve District.

Dancing and music also changed. It was no longer a romantic violin but the saxophone dominated the orchestra. An inch of space no longer separated the male and female but it was like they were glued together – body to body, cheek to cheek. Supposedly “nice girls” were now smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. One lady was to have said, “I’ve kissed dozens of men. I suppose I’ll kiss dozens more.” (Allen, Frederick Lewis, p.91). People didn’t know what to do about this. They thought that every standard for women was being thrown out the window. People that were firm believers of morality rallied. In religious journals, the new style of dancing was said to be polluting, impure, debasing, corrupting, and destroying spiritually. Legislators in several states even introduced bills to once and for all reform feminine dress. And example would be in Utah where there was a bill pending for a fine and imprisonment for anyone who wore their skirts higher than 3 inches above their ankles.

Families were often torn apart from these young women’s behavior. Parents would lie awake at night worrying whether their children were completely lost and without morals. However, young people were a lot more honest then their elders and this time and would retaliate by saying that they felt that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.

Going back to the woman’s appearance and dress; there was an immense change. Professor Paul H. Nystrom’s Economics of Fashion showed a graph regarding women skirt-length. The graph included that the average distance of the hem above the ground was about 10%, or six to seven inches, of the woman’s height in 1919. In 1920, it increased to about 20%. It went back down in the next three years and in 1923 it rose to between 15 and 20%. The curve continued to go upward until 1927 it reached 25%, or above the knee.

Along with the short-skirt came the change in the weight, material, and amount of women’s clothing. The aim of every woman’s ambition was now her boyishly slender figure. Cotton manufacturers somewhat suffered and rayon manufacturers prospered in that silk and rayon stocking and underwear were replacing cotton ones. In 1920, the production of rayon was only 8 million pounds compared to the 53 million pounds in 1925. Women also started to wear flesh-colored stockings and petticoats almost vanished. Women seemed to be dropping off clothes by the layer. This became so pronounced that in 1928, the Journal of Commerce estimated that in 15 years the amount of material required for a woman’s outfit would decline from 19 ј yards to 7 yards.

Women also wanted a freedom of short hair and having a bobbed haircut became very frequent among young girls. In the latter years of the decade, bobbed hair became almost universal of women in the twenties, very common for women in their thirties and forties, and it was not rare for women in their sixties. Along with this new hair cut, came the small cloche hat that women adopted to fit tightly on their heads.

The cosmetic industry prospered very much in this decade due to the women using it so much. Even women who would never even think of using make-up in 1920, found themselves putting it on everyday in later years. Beauty shops were now on every street. They would give facials, perform treatments for wrinkles, and pluck, trim, and color eyebrows; basically all things to enhance and restore youth. Paul H. Nystrom estimated in 1930 that that about three quarters of a billion dollars was spent of beauty and cosmetics.

All of these changes in women’s fashion gave the woman a sense of freedom. They didn’t want freedom from the man and his desires but wanted to be able to allure a man from even the golf course or the office. These changes were also signs that all women worshipped youth.

During this time, feelings against the Negro, the Jew, and the Roman Catholic, took an ugly flare-up. Negroes immigrated by hundreds of thousands during the war. They were drawn in by the high wages and job openings in mills and factories due to the white men leaving their jobs to be in the army. They had no choice but to move into neighborhoods all of whites, so they had to deal with prejudices everyday. The Negro population doubled in a decade in Chicago and blacks were crowed into areas of all whites. There would be beatings, stabbings, gang raids through Negro districts, shootings, mobbing, and destruction of property. There was also a prejudice toward Jews. Landlords avoided renting to Jewish tenants and even schools did like to let Jewish boys and girls into their schools.

This is where the Ku Klux Klan comes in. It was first founded back in 1915 by a Georgian named William Joseph Simmons. However, the first five years were nothing compared to when 1920 arrived. They stood for white supremacy and southern idealism. They would even appoint people to sell memberships called Kleagles. Memberships were ten dollars and four would go to the Kleagles. Kleagling became one of most profitable industries of the 1920s. The Klan grew quickly and in 1924, membership was up to nearly 4.5 million. It dominated seven states: Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, and California. “The objects of the Order as stated in its Constitution were “to unite white male persons, native-born Gentile citizens of the United States of America, who owe no allegiance of any nature to any foreign government, nation, institution, sect, ruler, person, or people; whose morals are good, whose reputations and vocations are exemplary…to cultivate and promise patriotism toward our Civil government; to practice an honorable Klannishness toward each other; to exemplify a practical benevolence; to shield the sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood; to maintain forever white supremacy, to teach and faithfully inculcate a high spiritual philosophy through the exalted ritualism, and by a practical devotion to conserve, protect, and maintain the distinctive institutions, rights, privileges, principles, traditions, and ideals of a pure Americanism.””(Allen, Frederick Lewis, p.67).

Members of the KKK would also not tolerate anything having to do with the black man. For example, if white girl reported a Negro looking at her, a band of Klansmen would take him into the woods and “teach him a lesson.”

The KKK affected the people living in the United States because the gang brought fear to the people. They knew of the horrible crimes they committed and the things that they were capable of doing. Luckily, as years passed, their power slowly decreased and the number of members did also.

Sports became and American obsession in the 1920s. At the Dempsey-Carpenter fight in 1921, nearly 75,000 people paid for tickets and spent over one and half million dollars. This was the first of the huge million dollar events of the decade. Babe Ruth later raised his home-run record to 59 and the World Series in 1921 broke records for attendance and gate receipts. Crowds swarmed to collage football games, more and more tennis clubs were being formed, and business men discovered golf.

Prohibition started with the passing of the 18th amendment which was put into effect on January 16, 1920. The amendment came before the Senate in 1917 and was passed by a one-sided vote after only 13 hours of a debate. When the House of Representatives accepted it a few months later, the debate regarding the amendment only occupied one day. The Volstead Act was later passed to enforce the amendment. This also slipped through with ease.

You would think that the surest method of enforcement would be to shut off the supply of liquor at its source. However, the coast line and land borders held an invitation to smugglers. Illicit distilling also took place, even in people’s own basements. As time went on, people started to dislike prohibition more and more. They just wanted to relax and be themselves. This caused people to smuggle illegal alcohol which in turn resulted in gangs and gang violence.

“The nineteen twenties have been called the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the Golden Age of Nonsense, the Golden Twenties, the Roaring Twenties, the Whoopee Era, the Lawless Decade, the Age of Hoopla, and many other things.” (Churchill, Allen, p.1). Despite all the different names for this decade, the nineteen twenties was a time period of new inventions, sports, dance and music, new styles of dress, and much more.

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