Translations of this material:
- into Russian: Бурные двадцатые. 15% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by mirla 24.04.2010
The Roaring Twenties is a phrase used to describe the 1920s, principally in North America but also in London, Paris and Berlin. The phrase was meant to emphasize the period's social, artistic, and cultural dynamism. 'Normalcy' returned to politics in the wake of World War I, jazz music blossomed, the flapper redefined modern womanhood, Art Deco peaked, and finally the Wall Street Crash of 1929 served to punctuate the end of the era, as The Great Depression set in. The era was further distinguished by several inventions and discoveries of far-reaching importance, unprecedented industrial growth, accelerated consumer demand and aspirations, and significant changes in lifestyle.
The social and societal upheaval known as the Roaring Twenties began in North America and spread to Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Europe spent these years rebuilding and coming to terms with the vast human cost of the conflict. The economy of the United States became increasingly intertwined with that of Europe. When Germany could no longer afford war payments, Wall Street invested heavily in European debts to keep the European economy afloat as a large consumer market for American mass produced goods. By the middle of the decade, economic development soared in Europe, and the Roaring Twenties broke out in Germany (the Weimar Republic), Britain and France, the second half of the decade becoming known as the "Golden Twenties". In France and francophone Canada, they were also called the "années folles" ("Crazy Years").
The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with modernity, a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology. New technologies, especially automobiles, moving pictures and radio proliferated 'modernity' to a large part of the population. Formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality in both daily life and architecture. At the same time, jazz and dancing rose in popularity, in opposition to the mood of the specter of World War I. As such, the period is also often referred to as the Jazz Age.
The Roaring Twenties is traditionally viewed as an era of great economic prosperity driven by the introduction of a wide array of new consumer goods. The North American economy, particularly the economy of the US, which had successfully transitioned from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, subsequently boomed. The United States augmented its standing as the richest country in the world, its industry aligned to mass production and its society acculturated into consumerism. In Europe, the economy did not start to flourish until 1924.
In spite of the social, economic and technological advances, African Americans, recent immigrants and farmers—along with a large part of the working class population—were not much affected by this period. In fact, millions of people lived below the poverty line of US $2,000 per year per family.
The Great Depression demarcates the conceptualization of the Roaring Twenties from the 1930s. The hopefulness in the wake of World War I that had initiated the Roaring Twenties gave way to the debilitating economic hardship of the later era.
At the end of World War I, soldiers returned to the United States and Canada with wartime wages and many new products on the market on which to spend it. At first, the recession of wartime production caused a brief but deep recession, known as the Post-World War I recession. Quickly, however, the U.S. and Canadian economies rebounded as returning soldiers re-entered the labor force and factories were retooled to produce consumer goods.
The 1920s was a decade of increased consumer spending and economic growth fed by supply side economic policy. The post war, post progressive era political environment saw three consecutive Republican administrations in the U.S. All three took the moderate position of forging a close relationship between those in government and big business. When President Warren Harding took office in 1921, the national economy was in the depths of a depression with an unemployment rate of 20% and runaway inflation. Harding proposed to reduce the national debt, reduce taxes, protect farming interests, and cut back on immigration. Harding didn't live to see it, but most of his agenda was passed by the Congress. These policies led to the "boom" of the Coolidge years. One of the main initiatives of both the Harding and Coolidge administrations was the rolling back of income taxes on the wealthy which had been raised during World War I. It was believed that a heavy tax burden on the rich would slow the economy, and actually reduce tax revenues. This tax cut was achieved under President Calvin Coolidge's administration. Furthermore, Coolidge consistently blocked any attempts at government intrusion into private business. Harding and Coolidge's managerial approach sustained economic growth throughout most of the decade. However, the overconfidence of these years contributed to the speculative bubble that sparked the stock market crash and the Great Depression. The government's role as an arbiter rather than an active entity continued under President Herbert Hoover. Hoover worked to get businessmen to respond to the crisis by calling them into conferences and urging them to cooperate. Hoover's vigorous attempts to get business to end the depression failed.
When the income tax was established in 1913, the highest marginal tax rate was 7 percent; it was increased to 77 percent in 1916 to help finance World War I. The top rate was reduced to as low as 25 percent in 1925. The "normalcy" of the 1920s incorporated considerably higher levels of federal spending and taxes than the Progressive era before World War I. From 1929 to 1933, under President Hoover's administration, real per capita federal expenditures increased by 88 percent.
In 1920-1921 there was an acute recession, followed by the sustained recovery throughout the 1920s. The Federal Reserve expanded credit, by setting below market interest rates and low reserve requirements that favored big banks, and the money supply actually increased by about 60% during the time following the recession. By the latter part of the decade "buying on margin" entered the American vocabulary as more and more Americans over-extended themselves to speculate on the soaring stock market and expanding credit. Very few expected the crash that began in 1929, and none suspected it would be so drastic or so prolonged.
New products and tecnologies
Mass production made technology affordable to the middle class. The automobile, movie, radio, and chemical industries skyrocketed during the 1920s. Of chief importance was the automobile industry. Before the war, cars were a luxury. In the 1920s, mass-produced vehicles became common throughout the U.S. and Canada. By 1927, Ford ended the Model T after selling 15 million of them. Only about 300,000 vehicles were registered in 1918 in all of Canada, but by 1929, there were 1.9 million, and automobiler parts were being made in parts of Ontario near Detroit, Michigan. The automobile industry's effects were widespread, contributing to such industries as highway building, motels, service stations, used car dealerships and new housing outside the range of mass transit.
Radio became the first mass broadcasting medium. Radios were expensive, but their mode of entertainment proved revolutionary. Radio advertising became the grandstand for mass marketing. Its economic importance led to the mass culture that has dominated society since. During the "golden age of radio", radio programming was as varied as TV programming today. The 1927 establishment of the Federal Radio Commission introduced a new era of regulation.
Hollywood boomed, producing a new form of entertainment that shut down the old vaudeville. Watching a movie was cheap and accessible; crowds surged into new downtown movie palaces and neighborhood theatres, with even greater marvels like sound appearing at the end of the decade.
The new technologies led to an unprecedented need for new infrastructure, largely funded by the government. Road construction was crucial to the motor vehicle industry; several roads were upgraded to highways, and expressways were constructed. A class of Americans emerged with surplus money and a desire to spend more, spurring the demand for consumer goods, including the automobile.
Electrification, having slowed during the war, progressed greatly as more of the U.S. and Canada was added to the electric grid. Most industries switched from coal power to electricity. At the same time, new power plants were constructed. In America, electricity production almost quadrupled.
Telephone lines also were being strung across the continent. Indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many regions.
These infrastructure programs were mostly left to the local governments in both Canada and the United States. Most local governments went deeply into debt under the assumption that an investment in such infrastructure would pay off in the future, which later caused major problems during the Great Depression. In both Canada and the United States, the federal governments did the reverse, using the decade to pay down war debts and roll back some of the taxes that had been introduced during the war.
Urbanization reached a climax in the 1920s. For the first time, more Americans and Canadians lived in cities of 2,500 or more people than in small towns or rural areas. However the nation was fascinated with its great metropolitan centers that contained about 15% of the population. New York and Chicago vied in building skyscrapers, and New York pulled ahead with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Buildings. The finance and insurance industries doubled and tripled in size. The basic pattern of the modern white collar job was set during the late 19th century, but it now became the norm for life in large and medium cities. Typewriters, filing cabinets and telephones brought unmarried women into clerical jobs. In Canada, one in five workers was a woman by the end of the decade. The fastest growing cities were those in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region, including Chicago and Toronto.[dubious – discuss] These cities prospered because of their vast agricultural hinterlands. Cities on the West Coast received increasing benefits from the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal.