The Roaring 20s

The 1920s was an era unto itself, so much that it was the first decade to be given a nickname.  They called it “The Jazz Age”, or better known as “The Roaring 20s”, and roaring it was.  The world was on the brink of change.  Automobiles, electricity, moving pictures, jukeboxes, and airplanes—marvels of the modern age brought about a new mindset in the American public.  The world was now a much faster, much louder, and more bombastic place than it had ever been before.  It was as if the old world, the world as it had been for centuries, was over—ended at the conclusion of The Great War, and to follow was a much newer, much shinier modern world, one that called for a victory party.  In America, however, the victory party ceased to end and wouldn’t do so until the decade to follow.

It’s an ironic twist that the decade of decadence was ushered in under perhaps America’s most controversial act of the 20th century—the Volstead Act, a move by the United States that enforced the prohibition and sale of alcoholic beverages.  The effects were disastrous.  A faction of the general public was unwilling to give up their right to drink.  The result was a rise in bootlegging and organized crime.  Across America, the manufacturing and sale of illegal liquor surged.  It was served in the backrooms and basements of underground establishments called speakeasies—accessible with secret passwords.  They started as small, simple backrooms where one could buy a drink, but later evolved into bigger, hidden establishments complete with music, women, and alcohol of all sorts.

With the prohibition of alcohol, it seemed the average American was now a lawbreaker, a social change that ushered in an era of being care-free and having looser morals.  To the horror of moral crusaders, it appeared that women, too, were now taking part in the ills of society.  Prior to the 1920s, drinking establishments were considered “off-limits” to women.  Those who did occupy bars and saloons were considered a lower class of females.  The social change of the 1920s, however, resulted in a surge of young women visiting speakeasies.

To accent the newer and faster lifestyle of the 20s, drastic changes were being made to women’s fashion.  Bobbed, or shortened hairstyles were all the rage, yet it wasn’t just the hair that was shortened, dresses, too, became shorter, looser fitting, and much “louder” as they were adorned with beads and tassels.

With the emergence of speakeasies, and a high demand for illegal liquor, organized crime syndicates grew throughout the era.  The high number of criminal organizations, all vying for territory in the sale of illegal alcohol, turned several large American cities into violent battlegrounds.  Crime bosses like Al Capone of Chicago, or Johnny “The Fox” Torrio, charitable yet vicious men, became iconic figures of the crime world.  They, with the likes of bank robbers like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, created a culture of crime in America with law enforcement struggling to keep pace.

The 1920s also saw a new era in America’s favorite pastime—the game of baseball was changing as well, and in a way that echoed the changes in the decade.  For years, baseball was stuck in a “dead ball era”, a style of play that favored low scoring games and pitching.  The 1920s saw a new icon on the diamond, however, and he embodied everything that made the 1920s “roaring”.  George Herman Ruth, known by his fans as “Babe” Ruth, brought a heavy hitting style of play that turned the game into a homerun slugfest.  The game was now much bigger, and more bombastic.  To accentuate his style of play, Babe Ruth was boisterous, flamboyant, and did everything in excess.  In sports and popular culture, he became the embodiment of the decade.

There’s no denying that the 1920s were a decade of change.  It was a decade to usher in the modern world, demonstrated greatly by the passing of the 19th amendment.  Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and put into effect on August 18, 1920—the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote in America.  It was a milestone that was decades in the making, one that required a long and difficult struggle to achieve.

America was a nation on the rise during the decade.  Not only was the social sphere of the nation advancing, but also was technology and industrialization.  Due to a rapid rise in the nation’s wealth, mass production and mass consumerism was changing the face of the nation.  Suddenly, department stores, catalogues, and chain stores began popping up around the country, making it possible for the same items to be sold coast to coast.  The result was mass culture, people able to purchase the same items coast to coast.  For the first time in history, America was a consumer society.

As the decade wore on, each year became more “roaring” than the last.  Like all parties, however, the end had to come.  On October 29, 1929, the roaring 20s came to a crashing halt—the day known as Black Tuesday when the stock market collapsed, and the era of the Great Depression began.  In the years to follow, several Americans found themselves on the brink of poverty, working and striving to survive in a harsh economy.  It was a decade that saw the rise of fascism in Europe and a massive drought that kicked up dust storms nationwide.  Much like its predecessor, the decade too earned a nickname, the “Dirty Thirties”.

Though the roaring 20s were over, the era impacted American history like few others did.  Today, we look back on the time and remember it for the events that made it known as the Roaring 20s, a decade that was decadent to say the least.

I hope you enjoyed the story, but also, I hope you join the McLeod County Historical Society in ringing in the dawn of a new “Roaring 20s”.  On Thursday, December 12 at the Crow River Golf Club, the MCHS will be holding its first ever Roaring 20s Gala.  There will be drinks, fine dining (sirloin steak or almond encrusted chicken breast), games of chance, live jazz music, silent and live auction, and the comedic stylings of Dan Bublitz Jr.  Call the Historical Society (320)587-2109, or e-mail to register you and a guest for this special evening.  Reservations are $50 per person and must be made prior to the event.  RSVP by Friday, December 5th.  This event is a fundraiser for the MCHS and is being sponsored by New Era Financial of Hutchinson, MN.

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