In 1985, Robert Ballard discovered the sunken skeleton of the
April is Jazz appreciation month. What better way to celebrate than by checking in with the 1920s Jazz Age? This was a decade of social and political upheaval and a last hurrah before the Great Depression. The Jazz Age was known for its optimism and relentless pursuit of consumerism, which was bolstered by a flashy sense of mass culture. All of this was a bit misleading, to say the least. The magazines and advertising agencies of the 1920s promoted a set of values that, in reality, was limited to a select population (mostly the urban and affluent set). Regardless, this image is what stuck in our popular consciousness. Here are some facts about the Jazz Age:
1. Radio influence: Jazz had already existed for decades, but its popularity blossomed in the 1920s. Large-scale radio broadcasts entered Americans’ homes in 1922. This allowed jazz music to spread through the public consciousness unabated, and people loved being able to enjoy popular music in their own homes. Sadly, white American jazz singers attracted the most advertisers and received the most initial airplay. African American artists like Louis Armstrong weren’t favored by radio until much later, although Armstrong and his colleagues found much success playing in speakeasies with the Creole Jazz Band and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.
2. The Flapper: From music to fashion to dance, the emblematic flapper girl embodied the spirit of the Jazz Age. She smoked, danced, and drank and behaved unapologetically. She was (per the 19th Amendment) able to vote. She worked in white-collar jobs and earned her own money. She enjoyed more sexual freedom than previous generations of women, thanks to the earliest forms of the IUD and diaphragm.
3. Mass culture: Many Americans possessed disposable income and used it to purchase appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners (which also freed up time for flappers). The first commercial radio station materialized in Pittsburgh, and 500 more stations followed throughout the U.S. in only a few years. Three-quarters of the U.S. population attended a movie theater on a weekly basis (as opposed to about the same percentage who attended only annually as of 2012).
4. The rise of automobiles: As Fitzgerald told us in The Great Gatsby, automobiles were a great source of pleasure and dread. In the 1920s, the Ford Model T cost around $260. Teenagers and young adults quickly discovered the benefits of a backseat, lending the nickname “struggle buggy” (where makeout sessions happen) to the automobile. By 1929, one automobile existed for every five Americans.
5. Prohibition of alcohol: The 18th Amendment (ratified in 1919) and the Volstead Act were tricky pieces of legislation. They did not outlaw the consumption of “intoxication beverages,” only to sell and manufacture it. By the time the 19th amendment went into effect on January 16, 1920, many establishments had already stockpiled a gigantic supply of alcohol. Those consumers who weren’t lucky enough to live by a speakeasy had to make do with homemade moonshine.
6. Writers of the Jazz Age: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works embodied the spirit of the age, and Gatsby remains the most famous entry of the decade. Fitzgerald, who described the era as “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” used his titular character to “expose the excesses of Consumerism.” Other novelists who rose to success during this era included Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Erich Maria Remarque, and D. H. Lawrence (who shocked and awed with Lady Chatterley’s Lover).
7. The Great Migration: African Americans moved en masse from the South to the North, and they brought their music with them. Jazz and blues music rose in popularity, and Duke Ellington joined James P. Johnson and Fats Waller in New York, helping The Cotton Club to become the most famous Harlem establishment. The Harlem Renaissance authors joined the literary set with Langston Hughes and Claude McKay exploring the theme of American racism.
8. The Ku Klux Klan: Outside the excitement of cities, many American citizens grew weary of the trampling of “values” during the Jazz Age. They also opposed the migration of African Americans to northern cities. This led to a resurgence of the KKK (and all associated racial bigotry) after World War I. On August 8, 1925, over 40,000 members of the KKK marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. The organization’s numbers rapidly fell after their Grand Dragon, David Stephenson, received a life prison sentence for his murder convictions.
9. The Red Scare: After World War I ended, the anti-Communist “Red Scare” spread throughout America. Most of this fear dissipated by late 1920, but a strong undercurrent of nativism remained. This led to the National Origins Act of 1924, which contained restrictive immigration policies and quotas. Eastern Europeans and Asians were excluded in favor of hopeful immigrants from Northern European countries and Great Britain.
10. The Chicago Mafia: Al “Scarface” Capone and other members of the Chicago Mafia (including “Bugs” Moran) ruled the underground world of alcohol during prohibition. The pressures of the public to reduce organized crime led to the rise of “Untouchables” like prohibition agent Eliot Ness, who aimed to attack “the most corrupt police force in the country.” Capone’s ties within the police force were notorious, including his role in the the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (two years his arrest and the end of the Capone party).