The Roaring Twenties: Consumerism, Decadence and All That Jazz

Known as the Jazz Age, the 1920s in the West heralded new ideas of liberation, consumerism, and a culture of excess. What makes the Roaring Twenties such a defining era?

Mar 20, 2022By Ching Yee Lin, BA (Hons) History
three classy ladies in car roaring twenties

 

A decade synonymous with profound political, economic, and social change in the western world, the Roaring Twenties was an iconic era. The masses basked in novelty and exuberance as they welcomed advances in technology, art, and culture. Across American and European cities, ideas, mindsets, behaviors, and consumer patterns began to undergo a transformation unlike any other. In the United States, where its effects were most pronounced, this period was called the Jazz Age. But it was the French who captured the 1920s in the most succinct manner – calling it the années folles, which literally means crazy years. True to its wild reputation, the 1920s represent a whirlwind decade that still roars and echoes in our ears today.

 

Liberation and Libation: A Toast to Freedom in the Roaring Twenties

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Men and women celebrating the end of Prohibition by Frank Scherschel, 1933 via Wisconsin Historical Society

 

Too much drinking and too little self-control – these were the two “evils” that made the 1920s in the US such a wild decade. A prelude to this was the ill-fated 18th Amendment in 1919 which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of liquor in the US from 1920 – 1933. Prohibition operated on the belief that the ban could stop alcoholism, health issues, and social problems like family violence. But can the authorities really legislate morality in a progressive, post-war society? Clearly not. Instead of stopping people from consuming alcohol, the ban made them experts at procuring and indulging in them away from the privy eyes of the law. Alcoholics flocked to illicit bars and speakeasies that sprouted surreptitiously around the city. So long as alcohol—whether of good or poor quality—was available, revelers did not care whether it was a high-end social club or a dodgy basement of someone’s apartment. Places like pharmacies and religious institutions where legal alcohol use was permitted also suddenly became popular locations among the healthy and the non-believers.

 

margaret bourke white speakeasy new york photo 1933
A speakeasy in New York full of gay chintz, red and white awnings, indirect lights by Margaret Bourke-White, 1933, via LIFE Magazine

 

Those who were more desperate turned to black-market booze from the lucrative bootlegging industry run by organized crime syndicates. Large-scale interstate liquor smuggling, as well as territorial clashes between rival gangs, were commonplace during the Prohibition era. As organized crime thrived, the profits generated thanks to Prohibition laws were said to have contributed enormously to the wealth of notorious Italian-American crime syndicates based in New York. At a time where the law was governed by human nature, you could even offer law enforcement personnel “tips” in return for tipples. All throughout the Roaring Twenties, the drinking did not stop, not even when thousands were dying every year from consuming alcohol of poorer quality in larger quantities. In 1933, Prohibition laws were eventually repealed, but Americans could never seem to snooze when it came to the booze. They came, they drank, and they drank more and more.

 

Flapping Their Wings: Girls Run Wild and Free in the Roaring Twenties 

women vote first time 19th amendment photo 1920
Women line up to vote for the first time in New York City in 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment by Underwood Archives, via National Geographic

 

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The next Amendment that would significantly alter the course of American history was the 19th Amendment. Ratified in August 1920, the Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, marking the successful crusade of the women’s rights movement following years of agitation. In the November 1920 elections, over eight million American women went to the polls for the first time in history. Coupled with the prior exposure to the workforce during World War I, women made significant strides towards independence as they contemplated their changing role in society. Gone were the days where women were bound to old-fashioned housekeeping duties and supporting roles in the family. With newfound freedoms in a fast-changing society and traditions constantly being challenged, a gender revolution was underway, as womanhood was redefined.

 

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Flappers dancing while musicians perform during a Charleston dance contest at the Parody Club, New York City, 1926, via History.com

 

It was under such promising circumstances when the “Flapper” was born. Carefree, boisterous, and stylish, a new generation of women began embracing a lifestyle characterized by public smoking, alcoholism, partying, and sexual freedom. Such a liberal mentality was also reflected in the appearances of the Flappers. They ditched their stifling corsets for lingerie that embraced a figure freed from old-fashioned beauty standards. They wore heavy make-up and popularised the short and carefree bobbed hairstyles that were thought to be too masculine. They donned revealing dresses with necklines so low it shocked the conservative society which was espousing Victorian ideals that were all too archaic for the modern woman.

 

Much to the disdain of their predecessors who viewed them as socially ill, these free-spirited women broke all the rules and danced their lives away throughout the 1920s. One of the most era-defining dances popularised by the Flappers was the Charleston. Rooted in African American origins, the Charleston involves swinging arms and swift feet movement in an uninhibited style characteristic of the Roaring Twenties. Across major US cities, the Flappers put on their best dancing shoes and dominated nightclubs, dance halls, and even large-scale dance marathons.

 

The Decade of Debauchery: A Little Party Never Killed Nobody

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, via Christie’s

 

“The parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the buildings were higher, and the morals were looser”. No writer has ever so succinctly captured the 1920s’ zeitgeist as did the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set during the height of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby has been hailed as one of the finest masterpieces in American literature. Apart from being a set piece for high schoolers, the novel’s enduring popularity lies in how it aptly encapsulated the era’s prosperity and promiscuity. Indeed, the brimming exuberance of the 1920s inspired decadent lifestyles in the western world that were characterized by a culture of excess. In the US, we had the Flappers. Across the Atlantic Ocean in London, there were the Bright Young Things who might have well been the 1920s’ embodiment of the present-day millennial lingo ‘lit’.

 

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A group of Bright Young Things at a fancy dress party where guests were instructed to come as a living celebrity, 1927, via Mary Evans Picture Library

 

The “Bright Young Things” was a name given to energetic, flamboyant youths from wealthy families whose thrill-seeking behaviors had gripped London in the 1920s. What started out as citywide scavenger hunts by bored, aristocratic girls evolved into theatrical dress parties characterized by drunk and disorderly behavior. Like the Flappers, excessive drinking, flippant drug use, as well as liberal attitudes towards sex and relationships defined the Bright Young Things. To some, this was the prelude to the cult of celebrity ever so pervasive today.

 

Throughout the 1920s, the Bright Young Things dominated London tabloids where reports of their outrageous behaviors and excessive lifestyles both fascinated and irritated the public. Sauntering down the streets in swimwear, mocking the idea of marriage with an elaborate, fake ceremony, and hosting a hedonistic red-and-white-themed party. These were just some antics that reeked of careless displays of privilege and wealth, to the disdain of Londoners struggling financially in the late 1920s. With increased public anger directed towards this debauched culture of excess, the shining light of the Bright Young Things gradually began to dim by the 1930s.

 

Charting the Changing Consumerism in the Roaring Twenties

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Women in fur coats standing by a luxurious convertible, circa 1920, via History.com

 

In tandem with the culture of excess in the Roaring Twenties was the changing consumerism. Rapid urbanization and uninhibited economic growth created a mass culture fuelled by increased consumption and relentless advertising. Like their counterparts in France, Americans were spending on consumer goods such as clothes and cosmetics, and home appliances like radios and washing machines. They also enjoyed motion pictures from a newly emerging Hollywood, as movie-going soon became a popular and affordable national pastime.

 

But perhaps what would be at the core of consumer culture during this period would be the advent of automobiles. Affordable prices, along with the ease of obtaining credit, made it such that most Americans could purchase a car in the 1920s. Concurrently, advances in technology also meant that flying was no longer a pipedream, with commercial aviation made more accessible for the masses. Essentially, the unyielding pace of progress, coupled with technological advancements, saw the US ushering in an unprecedented era of economic prosperity during the Jazz Age.

 

Heralding the Jazz Age of Blossoming Art and Culture

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Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band poses for a studio group shot by JP Jazz Archive, 1924-25, via The Rolling Stone Magazine

 

Riding on economic prosperity, the Jazz Age was a time where arts and culture were flourishing with the emergence of now-iconic trends and styles. True to its name—coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald—the Jazz Age saw the emergence and widespread popularity of jazz music and dance. Despite its African American origins, jazz was a genre well-loved by Americans from all walks of life. A combination of factors led to the unprecedented rise of jazz as the soundtrack of the Roaring Twenties. First, the advent of radio and recording technology made jazz music accessible to all from the comfort of their homes. Secondly, jazz’s upbeat tempo complemented the vibrant speakeasies and dance halls that were in full swing in the 1920s. Metaphorically as well, the enjoyment of jazz represented a paradigm shift in popular culture as youths rebelled against archaic social conventions from their parents’ time.

 

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Rosalinde by George Barbier, 1922, via The New York Public Library

 

Not only was the Jazz Age a golden age for jazz, but it was also when ground-breaking art movements like Dada, Surrealism, and most prominently, Art Deco flourished. Short for Arts Décoratifs, Art Deco with its ornamental designs, geometric shapes, and stylized look, originated in Paris and gained widespread popularity in the west and beyond. Its eclectic styles and rich colors had a major influence on architecture, design, and fashion in the 1920s. Concurrently, Dada and Surrealism emerged as popular art movements during this period. Though originating from Zurich and Paris respectively, Dada and Surrealism were similar in that they represented a radical shift from the convention. While Surrealism favored the elements of surprise, absurdity, and juxtaposition, Dada was a fervid response to World War I which promoted resistance to social conformity.

 

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The Café du Dome in Paris, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts by André Kertész, 1925, via Detroit Institute of Arts

 

With the thriving arts scene in an era of unparalleled cultural blossoming, artists and writers alike gathered at popular cafés in New York, London, and Paris where they interacted with old and new counterparts. This created a vibrant café society culture which became the forefront of artistic and literary centers during the Jazz Age. Along the Rive Gauche in Montparnasse, Parisian cafés welcomed prominent American writers belonging to the Lost Generation such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Along the Rive Droite in Montmartre, these artists and writers would often get lost in the cabarets and dance halls, indulging themselves in the glitzy Parisian nightlife. Profoundly influenced by American culture in the Roaring Twenties, there was no limit to how crazy one could get in Paris during the années folles.

 

End of an Era: The Downward Spiral of Depression and Decadence

new york stock exchange black friday photo 1929
On October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday hit Wall Street as investors traded some 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day. Billions of dollars were lost, wiping out thousands of investors. Shown: the interior of the New York Stock Exchange on Black Friday, October 25, 1929. via History

 

As the parties got bigger and morals got looser, the perceived social corruption associated with decadence and debauchery became a greater cause of concern. Centered on the fallacy of the American Dream, The Great Gatsby was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critique of the declining morality and overwhelming materialism. Likewise, another American writer Sinclair Lewis was particularly outspoken about the moral decay driven by society’s obsession with wealth. Lewis was also a remarkable social critic famed for his eerily accurate prophecy of the Great Depression. Apparently in 1928, while looking out of an office building in New York, he reportedly said, “Within a year this country will have a terrible panic. … Can’t you see it, smell it? I can see people jumping out of windows on this very street.”

 

True enough, in October 1929, Wall Street crashed, sending shockwaves and panic across the US with its effects soon spreading to other continents. A result of stock market speculation and easy credit, the Great Depression caused severe economic repercussions and drove millions to bankruptcy and lunacy. With the extinguished light on Wall Street, the Roaring Twenties descended into silence and gave way to a troubled 1930s plagued with widespread socio-economic troubles.

 

A Century Later, the Roaring Twenties Still Roar

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A party scene from the 1920s from the Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS, via The Guardian

 

Almost like a joyride that ended in tragedy, the Roaring Twenties in hindsight looked set to crash and burn at each point throughout the decade. What else could we have expected from the careless spending, unbridled merry-making, and an utter disregard for prudence and morality? Nonetheless, while the destination was a complete disaster, the journey was spectacular and for the record, profoundly impactful. In this decade, we witnessed an impassioned push for social change and women’s rights, never-before-seen advancements in technology, an unprecedented artistic and cultural flourishing, and not to mention, social and intellectual breakthroughs from past conventions on numerous occasions.

 

More significantly, not only were these transformations prominent in the west, they had far-reaching impacts in Asia and elsewhere in the world. A uniquely American export, jazz, and Charleston attained worldwide popularity. Art Deco buildings sprouted all over cities like Singapore, Shanghai, and Tokyo. And while they were not partying, the Flappers too found their counterparts in China’s modeng xiaojie (“Miss Modern”) and in Japan’s modan gāru (“Modern Girl”). Above and beyond a cautionary tale to Flappers’ wannabes and bright-eyed Wall Street stockbrokers, the Roaring Twenties has remained a decade with a loud legacy, seemingly unsilenced by the sheer passing of time.



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By Ching Yee LinBA (Hons) HistoryBased in Singapore, Ching Yee is a copywriter who focuses on the historical and contemporary issues concerning the Singapore society. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the National University of Singapore and is passionate about topics related to social and cultural history of Asian societies. In her spare time, she enjoys pottery and watching films.