Lecture 9: The Roaring Twenties


Maybe they weren't really so roaring after all, but that's the reputation, based on popular literature. The decade of the twenties began with bitterness, a climate of reaction against the crusading idealism of the generation previous. Then, speaking generally, Americans settled into two general patterns: making money and enjoying themselves. Of course, those are superficial generalities, and we'll go beneath them to pick up other aspects of American life in the 1920s.



Popular images of the 1920s are those of a happy popular culture—flappers, Fords, bootleg booze, and good times.  There was a seamier side to the 1920s, however—a reactionary attitude of discontent.

Reaction (after the Great War)

Following the Great War, with its overtones of moral crusading, there was a reaction against those things the progressives and internationalists had promoted.  Americans rejected international commitments, preferring to mind their own business.  They also became suspicious of one another at home, persecuting radicals and limiting immigration, and worrying about the godless influence of science.

Republican Politics

The Republican Party was dominant during the 1920s, despite the scandals of the Warren Harding administration.  The Calvin Coolidge administration defined itself as a caretaker, doing little, but in fact, it pursued policies designed to protect the interests of wealth.  The Herbert Hoover administration believed in self-help and volunteerism, but also used to government to assist business.  Prohibition was a particularly troublesome political issue of these times.

Jazzing Things Up

Music, dance, sex, the behavior of young people, and the roles of women were aspects of the 1920s that characterize the era, somewhat nostalgically, in the popular mind, but were sources of concern at the time.

Heroes of the 1920s

Although there was plenty of talk about social values going to the dogs during the 1920s, there are were individuals whom Americans enshrined as heroes.  Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were two of these, representing strong (and somewhat contradictory) American values.  Technology figured in both their biographies, and technology figured largely in the changing lifestyles of Americans of this era.

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“The Young Woman in the Character of a Wife”

It's interesting to read Tocqueville's comments on women in a democracy in association with the study of the shocking behavior of young women in the 1920s.


·         Describe the young American woman as Tocqueville observed her. How does he account for her position?

·         How does the status of a married woman differ from that of a young single woman?


Scopes Trial Home Page at UMKC – lots of material on the so-called Monkey Trial

Flapper Fashion at Christi’s Fashion Pages (Louise Brooks Society)

Film Review

Inherit the Wind

Elmer Gantry

The Great Gatsby

Book Review

Allen, Only Yesterday

A journalist’s famous first take on the history of the 1920s

Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Classic lifestyle novel of the 1920s

MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry

Revival of the Ku Klux Klan

Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity

The best single history of the era