The Autumn Garden dramaturgy: the 1920s

Table of Contents

The 1920s – An Overview

The 1920s is sometimes referred to as the “Jazz Age” or the “Roaring Twenties“, when speaking about the United States and Canada. In Europe the decade is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Twenties“. Since the closing of the 20th century, the economic strength during the 1920s has drawn close associations with the 1950s and 1990s, especially in the United States. These three decades are regarded as periods of economic prosperity, which lasted throughout almost the entire decades following a tremendous event that occurred in the previous decade (World War I and Spanish flu in the 1910s, World War II in the 1940s, and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s).

However, not all countries enjoyed this prosperity. The Weimar Republic, like many other European countries, had to face a severe economic downturn in the opening years of the decade, because of the enormous debt caused by the war as well as the Treaty of Versailles. Such a crisis would culminate with a devaluation of the Mark in 1923, eventually leading to severe economic problems and, in the long term, favour the rise of the Nazi Party.

Additionally, the decade was characterized by the rise of radical political movements, especially in regions that were once part of empires. Communism began attracting large numbers of followers following the success of the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks‘ determination to win the subsequent Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks would eventually adopt a policy of mixed economics, from 1921 to 1928, and also give birth to the USSR, at the end of 1922.

The twenties marked the first time in America that the population in the cities surpassed the population of rural areas. This was due to rapid urbanization starting in the 1920s.

The 1920s also experienced the rise of the far-right and fascism in Europe and elsewhere, being perceived as a solution to prevent the spread of Communism. The knotty economic problems also favoured the rise of dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, such as Józef Piłsudski in Poland and Peter and Alexander Karađorđević of Yugoslavia.

The Stock Market collapsed during October 1929 and drew a line under the prosperous 1920s.

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.

Important Historic and Cultural Events


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 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

War, peace and politics


Literature and Arts

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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. Try the other versions, I just love Young Frankenstein. :-) Irving Berlin wrote it.

Books That Define the Time

· Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston |  Black life in a Black community

Other Artistic Feats of the Decade

Culture and religion

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.


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.

More Fads

Since the 1920s was a time of celebration, there were many fads. People loved to dance, especially the Charleston, Fox-trot, and the shimmy. Dance marathons were something everyone went to every weekend. The longest dance record ever recorded was a record of 3 weeks of dancing. Another fad of the 1920’s was the radio. People “tuned” in every day to listen to music, as jazz, sports and live events. A favorite for listening to jazz was “the king of jazz”, Louie Armstrong. The latest fashion fad was the flapper, a fad for women. The movie was also the latest thing. The start of 3-D movies was in the 1920’s. The average American had a lot to look forward to, in the 1920’s, that’s for sure!


World leaders


Timeline of the 1920’s

1920 – November 2: First Radio broadcast; President Warren Harding elected; women get their first vote

1921 – September 8: First Miss America pageant held in Atlantic City; November 11: Unknown soldier of World War I buried

1922 – November 26: Archaeologist Howard Carter finds tomb of Tutankhamen near Luxor, Egypt

1923 – August 2: President Harding dies; August 3: Vice President Calvin Coolidge is sworn into office as president

1924 – February 3: Former President Woodrow Wilson dies; November 4: Calvin Coolidge is elected President

1925 – October 2: Scottish inventor John Baird invents the first form of a television

1927 – First talking movie, The Jazz Singer released; May 20: Spirit of St. Louis and pilot Charles Lindbergh land in Paris

1928 – September 19: First Mickey Mouse talking film, Steamboat Willie, released by Walt Disney; November 6: Herbert Hoover elected President

1929 – October 24: Start of the Stock Market Crash


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: