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The Lost Generation and 1920s Pop Culture

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1920s Pop Culture

Life During the Jazz Age

Pop culture during the 1920s was characterized by the flapper, automobiles, nightclubs, movies, and jazz.  Life moved fast as a new sense of prosperity and freedom emerged at the end of World War I.  Products were manufactured in mass-produced packaging.  Billboards popped up all over the cities.  Crossword puzzles, board games, and marathon dancing became the new "crazes."  New technology became available for ordinary citizens, and because of this, the era also came to be known as the "Machine Age."

Radio in the 1920s "knitted the nation together."  It started as local stations, but as technology improved, national stations became more and more popular.  These national programs were sponsored by manufacturers and distributors of brand-name products.  Stations broadcasted everything from news and music to politics and news.  "Amos 'n' Andy" was a popular comedy program of the time.


In 1903 The Great Train Robbery became the first story sequence movie to reach the big screen.  It was shown in five cent movie theaters across the country that came to be known as "nickelodeons."  As the movie industry began to grow, Hollywood in Southern California quickly became the movie capital of the world because it enjoyed long hours of sunshine among other advantages.  The earliest movies were not required to follow a code of censorship, but the outraged public soon forced the screen magnates to establish one.  The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, became the first "talkie" upon its release in 1927, and color films began to be produced around the same time.  Movies experienced one of the fastest growths in popularity of all time; movie stars were able to command as much as $100,000 for a single picture.  As movies became more and more popular among the younger generation, much of the rich diversity from the Old Country was lost.


Life at Home
The 1920s were affected immensely by the new methods of mechanization.  Cars, radios, and electrical products were produced more quickly and effectively, so producers were able to sell them at a price that made them affordable for almost all Americans.  This increased mechanization earned this time period the title of the "Machine Age."
The censuses of the era revealed that more Americans than ever were beginning to move from the countryside to the cities, where women took low-paying jobs as retail clerks and office typers.  The feminist movement remained powerful and was strengthened by Margaret Sanger, who led an organized birth-control movement.  In 1923, The National Women's Party began to campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
The churches of the 1920s also witnessed a change as the Fundamentalists were replaced with Modernists, who viewed God as the "good guy" and saw the universe as a friendly place to live.  Churches had to compete with automobiles and other fads of the time, so they began to show wholesome movies of their own that were geared towards the younger generation.


The Flapper Lifestyle
Advertisers during the 1920s were the first to acknowledge sexual allure as an effective method for selling everything from soap to car tires, and the old-timers were taken aback by the sudden erotic explosion.  Women began to proclaim their freedom by fashioning themselves after the flappers.  They sported dresses with shortened hemlines, showed off their rolled stockings, "bobbed" their hair, and painted their cheeks and lips with rouge.  Flappers smoked cigarettes and were daring enough to wear the new one-piece bathing suits.


The Jazz Age & Harlem Renaissance
Jazz music spread from New Orleans with the Great Migration of African Americans in search of improved economic opportunites during World War I.  It was pioneered by Handy "Jelly Roll" Morton and Joseph "Joe" King Oliver, both blacks, but all-white bands, such as the one led by Paul Whiteman, soon followed.  W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" became an instant classic.  Jazz captured the spirit of the time, and even today it is considered classical American music.
The blossoming African American communities in the north witnessed a new sense of racial pride.  In New York City, with about 100,000 African American residents during the 1920s, Harlem became one of the largest black communities in the world.  A new spirit of of artistic, cultural, and social creativity soon flourished.  Whites flocked to the Cotton Club in Harlem and nighclubs on the south side of Chicago, such as the Savoy, to witness performances by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Honore Dutrey, Baby Dodds, King Oliver, Lil Hardin, Bill Johnson, and Johnny Dodds.  Alain Locke, a black intellectual, believed political and social advancement could be made through the arts.
The United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was founded by Marcus Garvey, also from Harlem.  He promoted the resettlement of African Americans to their "African Homeland" and went so far as to sponsor the Black Star Steamship Company.  His goal was essentially to keep blacks' dollars in their own pockets while promoting the "back to Africa" movement.


African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance produced a rich body of literature including poetry, fiction, drama, and essays.  Langston Hughes spent most of his life in Harlem writing poetry and came to be known as "the Poet Laureate of Harlem."  His first volume, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926.  Other writers of the Harlem Renaissance include Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Clullen, and Claude McKay.
With the new bust of culture came a new generation of writers.  This new generation displayed youthful energy, the ambition of exluded outsiders, and a resentment towards betrayed ideals.  H.L. Mencken criticized marriage, patriotism, democracy, prohibition, and middle-class American society in American Mercury, his monthly magazine.
World War I had also caused a stir against traditional values, and writers of the 1920s established new codes of morals and understanding and fresh methods for expression.  F. Scott Fitgerald's This Side of Paradise became a kind of Bible for aspiring flappers and their bewildered pursuers.  It was followed by The Great Gatsby in 1925, which criticized the glamour and cruelty of an achievement-oriented society.  Many disillusioned Americans became expatriates in Europe, as described in The Sun Also Rises and  A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1926 and 1929).  Other prominent writers of the time include Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Eugene O' Neill.


Art & Architecture
Artists of the 1920s captured images of American factories and skyscrapers in what came to be known as Precisionism.  Simplified, hard-edged shapes, geometric structures, and impersonal painting characterized precision, logic, and purity.  The art of this era embodied the relationships people felt existed between industry and religion and science and the machine.  Black painters and sculptors strove to create a unique African American identity.
Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects of the era felt as if buildings should grow upwards from their sites.  The completion of the Empire State Building in 1930 marked the birth of the skyscraper.  It towers 102 stories above New York City.



Pop Culture Bibliography

This page was created by Lauren Howard.