American Cultural History 1920 – 1929

FACTS about this decade.

  • 106,521,537 people in the United States 
  • 2,132,000 unemployed, Unemployment 5.2% 
  • Life expectancy:  Male 53.6,   Female 54.6 
  • 343.000 in military (down from 1,172,601 in 1919) 
  • Average annual earnings $1236;  Teacher’s salary  $970 
  • Dow Jones High 100  Low 67  
  • Illiteracy rate reached a new low of 6% of the population.  
  • Gangland crime included murder, swindles, racketeering 
  • It took 13 days to reach California from New York  There were 387,000 miles of paved road. 








Early modernism in art, design, and architecture, which began at the turn of the century, continued through to 1940 and the war. In cities, Skyscrapers (first in 1870s) were erected and hundreds of architects competed for the work. The first successful design was the Woolworth Building in New York.   In Chicago, the Wrigley building was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White while the Chicago Tribune Tower was designed by Howells and Hood.  The Art Deco design was exemplified by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings (depression projects – the Empire State Building completed early 1931.) Frank Lloyd Wright was prolific during this period, designing homes in California and in Japan.  The term Art Deco (1925-1950) is derived from the International Art Exposition in Paris in 1925.  In the 20s and 30s art of that style was referred to as modern.  Designers included Karl (Kem) Weber and Eliel Saarinen.

My mother and grandmother

Art movements included the modernist movement [George Luks, Charles W. Hawthorne], abstract expressionism [Willem de Kooning], surrealism, and dadaism [Georgia O’Keeffe, Morgan Russell, Man Ray],  realism [ Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, Leon Kroll] and landscape [Aldro Thompson Hibbard, N.C. Wyeth].   Horace Pippin is considered one of America’s foremost primitive or naive painters.  The best museums featured shows by these important artists.
Web sites

  • World Wide Art Resources from the Metropolitan Museum of Art    | Searchable by artists, movement, galleries, museums, architecture.
  • 1925 The Year in Review   | Museum of Art – an online art museum.


N65122.5.A7D86 1986 American Art Deco Includes art deco of the 20s and 30s – exhibitions, furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles, architecture, jewelry, painting and much more.  Very complete – with col and b&w illus.
N6494.D3I5 1985 In the Mind’s Eye: Dada and Surrealism Excellent resource for these movements – includes American art and artisits.
NA680.F723 1983 Modern Architecture  1920-1945 Photographs, floorplans and review of architecture during this time.
N6505.C7 1994 American Art:  History and Culture Overview by era.  By Wayne Craven.
ND205.Z4 1987 300 Years of American Art I consider this the best source.  Very good explanation of movements, then 1 page entry on important artists, a color photo of one of their works, 10 year average of value of their art, and public collections list.  2 volumes.


Following WWI (the war to end all wars), talented young authors, some expatriates in France, wrote about their feelings of disillusionment and alienation. A sense of rebellion developed and the victorian idea of decency was considered hypocritical.  Writers began to write frankly about sexuality. Three important groups during this period were:

 The Algonquin Round Table, also called THE ROUND TABLE, informal group of American literary men and women who met daily for lunch on weekdays at a large round table in the Algonquin Hotel in New York City during the 1920s and ’30s. Many of the best-known writers, journalists, and artists in New York City were in this group. Among them   were Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott (author of the quote “All the things I really like are immoral, illegal, or fattening”, Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley,Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Marc Connelly, Harold Ross, Harpo Marx, and Russell Crouse.

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give;

Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

           RESUME by Dorothy Parker

Harlem Renaissance is considered the first important movement of black artists and writers in the US.  Centered in Harlem, NY, and other urban areas during the 1920s, black writers published more than ever before.  Influential and lasting black authors, artists, and musicians received their first serious critical appraisal.  This group included Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Alain Locke , who was considered the chief interpreter for the Harlem movement.

Southern gentle lady,
Do not swoon.

They’ve just hung a black man

In the dark of the moon.
They’ve hung a black man
To the roadside tree

In the dark of the moon

For the world to see

How Dixie protects

Its white womanhood

Southern gentle lady,

Be good!

Be good!

Silhouette by Langston Hughes

The Lost Generation, the self-exiled expatriates who lived and wrote in Paris between the wars.  These writers, looking for freedom of thought and action, changed the face of modern writing.  Realistic and rebellious, they wrote what they wanted and fought censorship for profanity and sexuality.  They incorporated Freudian ideas into their characters and styles.  This group included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I am very busy finding out what people mean by what they say.

Quote by Gertrude Stein, who coined the phrase, Lost Generation

Others who were important during this decade include e. e. cummings experimented with language (and punctuation!),  William Faulkner was an important part of the Southern Renaissance,  Edna St. Vincent Millay expressed the defiance and desires of her generation from Greenwich Village, and Eugene O’Neill drew attention to a serious American stage.  AND, we can’t leave out the beginning of the Golden Age of Mysteries. and introducing America’s own contribution to the mystery novel, the hard-boiled, with writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashielle Hammett and paving the way for the future.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

e.e. cummings

  • Links to Book and Author Sources of the 20s 
  •  Literature Collections Online   |  University of Pennsylvania  links to literature collections online 
  •  Algonquin Round Table   |  Links to Algonquin and the writers who met there. 

Library of Congress browsing areas for books by authors if this period include: Literary History and collections(6000 Plays, 6160 Humor) PS American Literature 130-153 Women and Other Minorities, 260 Southern Lit, 350 Drama, 400-600 Special Topics 634 Plays, 648 Short Stories, 3500 begin to look for the authors of this time by name)

Books That Define the Time

  • The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot   |  The ultimate indictment of the modern world’s loss of personal, moral, and spiritual values.  
  • The New Negro by Alain Locke  |  A hopeful look at the negro in America  
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald    |  The American dream  that anyone can achieve anything   [ Connect to a  Fitzgerald index. ]  
  • Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill  |  A look at 30 years in the life of a modern woman  
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway  |  The lost generation of expatriates  
  • Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis  |  A satirical look at small town life  
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner  |  Details the moral decay of the Old South  
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston  |  Black life in a Black community 

Books About Writers of the Twenties
 REF PN771.G27  Twentieth Century Literary Criticism Vol 26, p. 45-126.  This TOPICS volume of TCLC is  an excellent source for excerpts from critical essays on the Harlem Renaissance.
E173.A793 Annals of America Vol 11-12 contain essays by the important writers of the time, including excerpts  from books listed above.
PS153.N5H26 1984 The Harlem Renaissance Remembered Essays about the people of the Harlem Renaissance. 
PS159.F5P59 1996 American Expatriate Writing and the Paris Moment Pizer focuses on 7 major writers self-exiled to Paris following WWI. 
REF 1003.2.C66 1993  American Literacy  4-6 page essays on 50 books that define the American culture.
PS129.C27 1988 Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s Includes photographs in Paris – includes the dark side of life there.
REF Z1219.C96 1905 (annual)  Book Review Digest  Indexes and abstracts book reviews. Use it to find books written during the period and their reviews

newbery medalChildren’s Newbery Book Award winners of the twenties: In 1921 Frederic G.Melcher had the Newbery Medal designed by René Paul Chambellan. The bronze medal has the winner’s name and the date engraved on the back. The American Library Association Executive Board in 1922 delegated to the Children’s Librarians’ Section the responsibility for selecting the book to receive the Newbery Medal.

1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon
1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes

1925: Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger

1926: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman

1927: Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James

1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji

1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly


Fads and slang of the day:
  • A period of slang: slang used for “girls or women”:  a broad, a bunny, a canary (well, one who could sing), a charity girl (one who was sexually promiscuous), a dame, a doll, cat’s meow, cat’s whiskers
  • Jazz age jargon included: Joe College – better yet a Joe Yale – or a Joe Zilch , jazzbo, jellybean, blind date, upchuck, jazz babies, pos-a-loot-ly, and the real McCoy.
  • Games included mah-jngg, ouija boards, and crossword puzzles
  • Endurance races of all sorts gained popularity and included  Marathons and flagpole sitting
  • Dance marathons – began in 1923 and really became the rage.
  • Harry Houdini was the great escape of the 1920s.
  • American Baseball!  and other sports were very popular.
  • Miss America contest began in Atlantic City in 1921. Margaret Gorman (16 years old) was the first winner with measurements of 30-25-32
  • Dance crazes included the Charleston,  the Black Bottom, and the Shimmy.
  • Dining at Sardi’s.

LINKS to Fads & Fashion Sites:

  • Early 20th Century Fashion | Links to world wide fashion at the turn of the century. Good ones..
  • The Flapper Culture and Style | The Jazz Age.
  •  The Roaring 1920s  |  A collection of links to more information.

Books on Fads & Culture

REF E169.1.P19 1991  Panati’s Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias  Arranged by decade, includes fads, dance crazes, radio, tv, popular books and songs.
E 169.1.R7755 1964  Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America Important essays analysing mass culture in American history. 
E169.1.S9733 1984 Culture as History : The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century Excellent source for this topic. Events which transformed the social, political and cultural face of America in this century. 

Costumes / Fashion

My mom on the left - with a friend. Men: Clothing for men became a bit more conservative in the 1920s.  Trousers widened to as wide as 24 inches at the bottomes.  Knickers grew in width and length and were called ‘plus fours’.  White linen was popular during the summer.  And during the winter, an outstanding American coat was popular – the racoon coat.  These were very popular with the college men. The slouch hat was made of felt and could be rolled up and packed into a suitcase. A wool suit was only $15.85. Garters were 40 cents. All this and a 12″ long cigarette holder. Cigarettes were 10 cents a pack.

Women:  By 1921 the longer skirt was back – some long and uneven at the bottom.  The short skirt was popular by 1925.  This period was called the Flapper Age.  No bosom, no waistline, and hair nearly hidden under a cloche hat.  This decade began the present hey-dey for the manufacturing of cosmetics.  Powder, lipstick, rouge, eyebrow pencil, eye shadow, colored nails.  They had it all!  AND pearls.

This period marked the spread of ready-to-wear fashion.  More women were wage earners and did not want to spent time on fittings.  The status symbol aspect of fashion was losing its importants as class distinctions were becoming blurred.  Inexpensive fashion became available.  America moved ahead of other countries  mass production of contemporary style clothing for women.  America even produced several designers of this fashion including Jane Derby.


GT596.E9 1986  History of 20th Century Fashion  Very good chapter on Developments in fashion manufacture from 1918-1939 and one on New fashion makers 1920-1930.  .
GT738.B97 1987 A Visual History of Costume: The Twentieth Century Photographs or illustrations.  Presented by year, each includes a note, information about the head and the body and a description of accessories.
GT605.H35 1992  Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing  Includes an overview of the 20th century,  then chapters on contributors to changes in fashion. If you only see one book, this is the one.  It has photographs of people during the 20s including  the dandy outfits of the Ku Klux Klan to Eleanor Roosevelt’s enticing wardrobe.


Thanks to Henry Ford and mass production, one could buy a ford for $290.  The Volstead Act became effective Jan 16, 1920 and made the sale of a drink containing as much as one half-ounce of alcohol unlawful. This one unsuccessful act brought about much of the flavor of the Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties as we know them. This was a period of  prohibition and intolerance, speakeasies, flappers, gangsters, and crime. Hootch was supplied by Dutch Schultz and Al Capone.  The Nineteenth Amendment had passed the previous year allowing women the right to vote in national elections.  At the beginning of the decade the US was paralyzed by the grip of the red scare . Racial tensions were high and quotas were set for immigrants coming into America. The Ku Klux Klan was very active during this period. The decade was a wonderful one for all of the arts and literature in America. Technology grew – the country shrunk – as popularity of automobiles, radios, and movies exploded. Buying on credit or installments was an outcome of the industrial age. In the fall of 1929, the New York Stock Exchange was more active than it had ever been. Economists predicted a permanent high plateau. By October 24, 1929, Black Thursday, the stock market crashed and panic broke out. Banks closed. The nation stayed in this depression through the end of the twenties and most of the thirties.  Check out the Regulatory environment of the 1920s.

During this decade, Presidents were
1913-1920 Woodrow Wilson | 1921-1923 Warren G. Harding

| 1923-1928 Calvin Coolidge| 1928-1932 Herbert Hoover

Links To the People and Events of the 20s

  •  Illinois Trail – 1920s  |  Excellent coverage of the decade, from speakeasies to politics.
  • 1920s timeline   |  News arranged chronologically.  Very helpful.
  • American History from 1860 to the present | Web Guide for this period.
  • American Memory Project   | By the Library of Congress, digitized library of photographs
  • Turn of the Century From Reconstruction to WWI – from U.S. History Net.
  • Historical Atlas of the 20th CenturyCollection of maps and stats of the 20th century.
  • Two views of the 20s   | The Roaring 20s and the Boring 20s
  • Industry and Technology | Pictures and essays from Library of Congress.
  • Biography Index | Biography of over 15,000 famous persons.
  • Genealogy Guide |; Helpful in locating past people, places and events
BOOKS about the 20s

Library of Congress browsing areas :
E -F – U.S. History [ Remember, history covers all areas of the library.]

Important Historic and Cultural Events

  • First Transatlantic flight: Charles Lindbergh , James Doolittle first one-day. 
  • Air flying companies outbid the railroads for transporting the mail  (1926) 
  • Business travelers took to the skies on scheduled coast to coast flights  
  • Flappers, the Roaring Twenties, prohibition, speakeasies and bootleg whiskey 
  • Gangland warfare,  Sing Sing, sawed-off shotguns, and Al Capone 
  • Women vote for the first time in a national election (1920) 
  • Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debate evolution. 
  • Ku Klux Klan is active in the south and midwest.  Burnings multiply 
  • Admiral Byrd  | Flew over the North and South Poles during the 20s 
  • Stock Market Crashed | October 24, 1929, bank closed – panic on Wall Street.  

REF E169.1G664 1995  The Columbia Chronicles of American Life: 1910-1992 Covers topics in the news, entertainment and more – by year.
REF E178.5.A48 1981 Album of American History  This is a great book to give the reader the real flavor of the decade because it is made up of photographs, captions, and brief entries.
REF E169.1 G665 1987 American Chronicle: 6 Decades in American Life 1920-1980 Overview, economic, social, consumer, entertainment, and vital information by year
REF E174.D52  Dictionary of American History From very brief to multi-page signed entries on topics in American History.
REF HA202.B87 1975  Historical Statistics of the United States:  Colonial Times to 1970  2 volume set.  Statistical tables and explanations from the Bureau of the Census.  Covers all aspects of American life. 
REF E169.1A471872 1995  America in the 20th Century  1920-1929 is covered in volume 3.  Typical of Marshall Cavendish, this encyclopedic set is accessible and gives easy to use background information for this decade.  Covers from art to transportation.
REF E173.A793 The Annals of America Use volumes 14 and 15.  Set contains essays and excepts from important writers and on important topics of the time.  Most valuable for this research.
REF E169.M45 1995 The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II Neat book for writers.  Includes slang, crime, transportation, clothing, entertainment, and great events.  Mostly lists – arranged dictionary-style.

MUSIC of the Twenties

Every mornin’, every evenin’
Ain’t we got fun?

Not much money, oh but honey’

Ain’t we got fun?
“There’s nothing surer; the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.” was considered the credo of the roaring 20s. Chicago was hot!  Harlem was hot with Jazz and the so-called “devil’s music’! (The Cotton Club was open to both whites and blacks and packed nightly.)  Jazz was hot! Bessie Smith sang the Blues. But most of the best-selling pop hits were sentimental ballads (I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time and I’m Just Wild About Harry), old-fashioned walzes (Three O’Clock in the Morning and Deep in My Heart) , and nonsense songs (Yes, We Have No Bananas and I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate).  Fanny Brice sang Rose of Washington Square and Second Hand Rose in the Ziegfeld Follies and Vaudeville.  The  Grand Ole Opry was transmitted on the radio from Nashville in 1925. Al Jolson sang his wonderful songs.

People were going places and singing about them; Chicago; That Toddling Town,  Carolina in the Morning, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, California Here I Come (love YouTube), Alabamy Bound, and  Puttin’ on the Ritz by Irving Berlin. (featuring Clark Gable. Try the other versions, I just love Young Frankenstein. :-)


Library of Congress browse areas: ML, look by musical era

REF ML200.H15 1996  A Chronicle of American Music 1700-1995  Arranged by year, historical highlights, world cultural highlights, American art and literature, music – commercial and cultural.
REF ML197.S634 1994 Music Since 1900  Arranged by day, includes important premiers and musical events.
REF ML128.S37L4 1984 The Great American Song Thesaurus Arranged by year, summary of world and musical events, list of important songs.
REF ML390.S983 1986  Show Tunes 1905-1985  Features important composers.  Lists their shows and the published music for each show.


The Silent Screen stars included the chic Rudolph Valentino , sexy  Clara Bow.   Rudy Vallee  sang through his megaphone.  The first talking picture, Don Juan, starring John Barrymore premiered on Broadway in 1926.  This made movies big business.  The first Oscars were given in 1927.  First Oscar movie was a Paramount Picture, Wings.  Emil Jennings and Janet Gaynor won best acting awards.

Broadway reached an all time peak. Gershwin was hot with  An American in Paris,  Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein created Show Boat starring Helen Morgan. Fred and Adele Astaire opened in Funny Face.  There were 268 plays offered in New York City in the year 1927.  This compaired with 50-60 in the 1970s.

Radio networks began during this decade:  David Sarnoff’s NBC and William Paley’s CBS both went on the air.  Billboard Magazine published its first charts in 1928.  Bing Crosby and other crooner singing stars aided their sales with their live and recorded radio performances.


REF PN2189.L85 1983  Twentieth Century Theatre  A theater buff’s bible.  This book lists and describes by year premiers, productions, revivals, events, births/death/debuts in both America and Great Britain.
REF PN1993.5.U6H55 The Transformation of Cinema Volumes 1 and 2 are needed to cover this decade.  A great source for information about early cinema.  Photographs.
REF ML390.S983 1986 Show Tunes: 1905-1985 Limited because it only covers only Jerome Kerns and Irving Berlin [try this letter to Irving Berlin] from this era.  Worth a look for these two – because it lists plays, performances, theater information, and published songs.


  • American Popular Music 1900-1950   |  A look at the music and the times.
  • Music in the Public Domain   |  Includes song lists – with links to some lyrics.
  • Roaring Twenties Online Concert    |  Hear it weekly via your computer or radio
  • Arts of the 20s    |  All of the arts of the 1920s
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