The Roaring Twenties
May 2, 1988

This long essay deals with that period of time called the Roaring Twenties. This was the decade between 1920 and 1930, and came to have its nickname because of the time's hectic lifestyle. It is this lifestyle that I will be focusing, and what this essay will mainly be about.

The lifestyle of those of the young who lived in the twenties was fast and furious. They seemed to live just to have fun. World War I was over, and many people wanted to abandon the European ties and live separate lives until they absolutely had to go and be part of the world again. World War I was one of the main causes for most of the major events in the 1920's.

People wanted to forget about the war, and all that had happened during it. Both men and women expected the government to look after them because of what they had experienced, which was a rather unfair expectation, and one that the government could not hope to attain. All national economies were in trouble, with low production, low imports, and low investment. Everything was well below what the pre-war average had been, and soon people began to complain.

Gradually, the government responded. It encouraged people to invest, to spend, to do anything with their money but hoard it. The dollar jumped in value against other currencies, and an economic boom occurred. Production went up, exports went up, investment skyrocketed, and the government breathed a sigh of relief. The country was back on the road to success.

Soon business-loving laws were brought in. Taxes were cut to those who had a lot of money so they could invest it. Tariffs went up on import duty, so that American companies had no competition at all. Monopoly laws were cut down so that there was competition in the marketplace. But most of all, there was no government interference in the economy at all. Everyone believed in the "don't touch" policy, and the government did too. So all this went on without regulation or guidance. The sharemarket boomed, and the scene was set for a profitable time.

During this time the people had been working on their attitudes too. The war had caused some serious thinking to be done, and young people decided it was time to abolish the old 'traditional' standards of before the war, and bring in new and up-to-date ones. During the war, women had worked in place of where the men had been, and their actions after it reflected this. They felt, rightly, that they were independent and self-sustaining, and behaved accordingly. Tight, short skirts were common, as were low-bustline dresses and body-hugging outfits. In short, women had begun to show off their bodies, instead of covering it up. This trend has continued, after a few abortive attempts, through to today. One major difference between the pre-war woman and the 1920's woman was the hair. Previously, it was not considered fashionable or lady- like to wear your hair short. But now they did. Cut short, in a boyish style, was the epitome of fashion. This style came to be known as 'bobbed' hair.

Women in general were changing their attitudes too. No longer were they to play second-fiddle all the time to the man - they wanted some of the action too. They began to be seen a bit more, do things they would not have necessarily done before, and be accepted doing this or that more. But it was the young woman - the woman in her twenties and thirties - that was the real changer. There was nothing in her that was of old - and she made sure of this. She was outspoken, danced provocatively, smoked and drank profusely, swore heavily, and mocked every per-war taboo there was.

Prohibition was introduced in 1920. This was the law in America that made it illegal to brew, import, manufacture, sell or supply alcohol of any sort, and it was a joke. There was no-one to enforce the act, and even of there was, the police force was corrupt. Many gangsters of the time (the period is famous for them) made their money through illicit drink. These people were called "bootleggers", and now the term applies to anything that is gained illicitly, like 'I have a bootlegged copy of "The Wall", by Pink Floyd'. Many employed private armies (many of them made of army veterans) to make sure that other gangsters kept out of their territory and did not take their markets. When an organization was too small, it was taken forcibly by whoever wanted it. The money flowed, and if, by chance, someone was caught, they were bailed out - not in the legal sense of the word - by their friends. The police were paid to look the other way and not notice what was happening. The gangsters could afford it, and they kept their men. Al Capone, the famous Chicago gangster, had a private army of 700 thugs to look after any trouble.

People who would normally never consider of breaking the law did not think twice about walking into a speakeasy bar - one which sold illegal alcohol - now and then.

The arts took a turn for the better during the twenties. Radio blossomed - sales boomed - and families put off the purchase of a car until they had a radio to listen to. It was a great cultural exchange; people sang, told jokes, told stories, gave lectures, communicated on the radio. There were no 'stars' of radio - like (dare I say it) John Burgess. But everyone had to have one.

Science fiction writers began their rise up the literary ladder. Nothing was too complicated, too unbelievable, for the avid audience that read the various books, magazines, and columns that appeared with ever-increasing regularity. A good example is 'Amazing Stories'; this publication recently had four stories taken out of it - all of them hopelessly unbelievable - and made into a movie. The stories themselves were terrible, but you could see that the creativeness was there. Nothing was left unpublished in the twenties, and everything was sucked up by a gullible but loyal audience, even if it did not have a shed of scientific backing. People used scientific words, and astrology lifted several terms straight out of physics - like 'dimensions', 'planes', and 'scopes' - for use in their own fields. Anything with a suspect scientific background was OK. This went for scientists too. People regarded them as the 'men in white lab- coats, the keepers of the secrets of the universe'. They were supposed to know everything.

Actors, singers and showmen were also popular. The silver screen was the place to be, or, failing that, in a theatre watching one was the next best thing. The now-famous Walt Disney started his empire that decade, and the huge MGM studios went up. Radio gave stiff competition to the movies, however. Radio talked, while movies showed. The armchair attraction of the radio; not having to go anywhere; worked well for radio, but then 'talkies' were introduced and the sheer novelty of being able to hear as well as see what was going on caused a resurgence in the number of movie goers, and a general return to popularity for the industry.

Singers, like Gladys Moncrieff, were popular. She combined singing with a little bit of acting and a very funny script, and this lead to her being very widely accepted in the halls of fame. She was an Australian, and on her opening night in Sydney, she received eighteen curtain calls.

But the twenties was really the time of Jazz. Black singer Louis Armstrong made Jazz the number one style of musical entertainment, with his warm personal touch, sheer ability, and innovative pieces. He made Jazz good to listen to, and set the scene for a black musical revolution. People suddenly realized that blacks had musical talents to be exploited. Jazz was listened to so much during the twenties that the period came to be known as 'The Jazz Age'. Armstrong made the music what it was.

The 1920's were a time of social upheaval all around the world. People were throwing off old values and bringing in new ones that were more fitting with the times. This was prompted mainly by the war, as it caused everyone the think and sort themselves out. And as this can be applied to one person alone, it can also be applied to a nation as a whole. The USA is the most outstanding example of this. While other countries, such as England and Australia, were having their own mini-cultural revolution, the US was having a major one. No stone was left unturned, and not much was the same after World War I.

The economy was in excellent shape; imports were dropping, exports were rising, the American Dollar was worth a lot of money overseas, there was almost total employment, productivity, efficiency and profits were all up, and expenses were down. Investment was where all the 'smart money' was; tied down securely overseas or invested in a local venture. The stock market was booming, and prices were nearly four times as much as they had been four years ago.

The year was 1929, and the decade was drawing to a close, but the mood was not. Young ladies with high, provocative skirts and boyishly cut hair were still 'in', and so was prohibition. Gangsters still roamed the ghettos, and the arts were still very popular. But underneath it all, times were changing.

Up to seven years earlier, for farmers the depression was already apparent. Between 1919 and 1929, farm prices fell an average of 22% because of over-production. There were no government regulations, and no clauses in the Constitution to allow for it. So farmers bought high and sold low - it was a seller's market. They became poorer and poorer, and eventually they could get no worse. For them, the depression had begun.

Throughout the decade businesses had been squeezing more and more out of the consumer. Corporate profits were up 62% - a huge amount - but wages were up only 11%. This meant that the average consumer could not keep pace with the inflation, and could afford less. New items in the home became scarce. By 1929 5% of the total American population had 33% of the nation's wealth. This means that if there were 100 people and 100 dollars, five of them would get 33 dollars, and the rest would get 66 cents each. People stopped spending and started saving. Uncertainty, caused by a lack of government guidance, led to a leveling off of the stock market rise. For Americans, the dream of unending prosperity, like that enjoyed in the middle twenties, was over.

On the 24th of October, 1929, Black Thursday, the biggest stock market crash in history shook Wall Street. The Dow Jones average lost 40 points in one day, and 13 million shares were traded. Today, this may not seem all that a greater figure, but today we have computerized trading, and everything gets done a whole lot quicker. In the space of nine days, $40,000,000,000 was wiped off the value of the market. Reacting quickly, a group of powerful bankers pooled their resources and bought shrewdly. Confidence was restored, and the market leveled off once more. That was a Friday.

The next Monday the market opened normally, but trading soon resumed its previous slide, and nothing could help it now. The bankers went broke, and the Depression had begun for everyone.

The crash led to a huge shortage of cash for many people. They had all been tied up in some sort of speculative affair, and when the market crashed, so did they. The need for cash led most of them to call in their debts, and they looked to Europe for this. Most European countries had cash invested in them by the Americans, and the Americans wanted it back. And they had to pay. The result was a loss of cash in Europe, and no-one had any money to pay anyone else with. One by one, countries around the world, including Australia, went down. Production was back to pre-war levels, and everyone was back where they started. For many countries, including America, the Depression did not end until half way through the Second World War.

And so the twenties ended. From the grand times of bootlegged alcohol to the grim times of Depression, the people of the twenties had seen it all. They had lived through social and cultural upheaval, and now they had to live with the Depression. A rather sad way to end an otherwise great decade.


"Milestones of the Twentieth Century", Reader's Digest