Americans in the 1920s were anxious to put World War I and European affairs behind them. The government leaned toward a foreign policy of isolationism while the public embraced a spirit of nativism, or "Americanism." Though many Americans still struggled with poverty in the 1920s, the middle and upper classes enjoyed increased affluence. Businesses stood ready to feed a growing wave of buying power with new, modern products. Women, who'd won the right to vote, felt a heightened sense of independence. Young Americans sought to break with staid 19th-century traditions, marching to a new beat called "jazz."
No More Meddling
Seeking to avoid future wars, many Americans opposed the country's membership in the League of Nations, believing it would obligate America to police the world. The formation of radical labor organizations in the 1920s fostered a mistrust of foreigners who might be anarchists, socialists and communists. Immigrants became increasingly viewed as a threat to democracy and American values. Nativism -- a belief in the superiority and rights of native-born peoples -- led to public support for government limits on immigration. In urban areas, competition between whites and African-Americans for jobs and housing fueled acts of racism. Racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan saw a sharp increase in membership.
With more money to spend and more products to spend it on, Americans of the 1920s contributed to the formation of a mass culture and and consumerism. The automobile became an affordable commodity in the beginning of the decade and almost a necessity by the end of the 1920s. Paved roads connected rural areas to urban centers, and the habits and values of urbanism spread more quickly. Radios made news and music more accessible while helping businesses to advertise other modern products such as home appliances. Local cinemas offered newsreels and feature films that kept people visually informed about nationwide trends, styles and attitudes.
Women Work and Play
Though the image of a "flapper" often is used to symbolize women of the 1920s, the strides made by women of that decade go beyond the freedom to wear short dresses and bob their hair. Women became a necessity in the workforce during World War I, and many chose to stay there at the war's conclusion. Employment opportunities for women were no longer limited to factory or domestic work but included white-collar jobs such as stenographers, office clerks, saleswomen and telephone operators. Women, such as tennis player Helen Wills and swimmer Gertrude Ederle, also became admired for their athletic accomplishments.
Creation of Youth Culture
After emerging from the darkness of the First World War, American youth rejected the continuation of Victorian mores. Young people embraced everything new and modern, and scores of young people left rural areas in favor of city life. They embraced jazz music, the free-spirited nature of dances such as the Charleston and the opportunity, afforded them by the automobile, to mix, unchaperoned, with the opposite sex. Collegiate style was emulated even by those who weren't attending universities. Many young people openly violated Prohibition by frequenting speakeasies or smuggling liquor into dances and parties. Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who coined the term "The Jazz Age," described 1920s America as a era when "the parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the buildings were higher and the morals were looser."
- Voice of America: America Turns Inward After World War I
- History.com: The Roaring 20s
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: The Roaring Twenties
- Library of Congress: Immigrants, Nativism and Americanization
- The University of Virginia: American Studies: Women of The Klan: Racism and Gender in The 1920s
- Scholastic.com: The United States Turns Inward: The 1920s and 1930s
- PBS.org: Women in The 1920s at The New Jersey College for Women
- PBS.org: The Jazz Age
- Rutgers University Libraries: In Search of Youth: The 1920s and
- FPG/Photodisc/Getty Images