Roaring: Big Lights, Big Cities

On Lifestyle Changes In 1920s America

Luis A. Mendez
Mar 14, 2018 · 5 min read

Today in most of modern America, the idea of life without going downtown to have a drink with friends, going to the local movie theater on a Friday night or having a light on at night to be able to stay up later is something most don’t have to worry about. In the 1920s, all of this was very new. It wasn’t just men and women who changed this decade: the lifestyle of most Americans did a complete 180 as well.

Before the start of the roaring decade, most Americans lived in an agrarian society, living off the land in rural areas and farms. Electricity lighting up the country’s cities would change that. Younger men and women decided to take the risk of city lifestyle, attracted by the innovations the light bulb had introduced for the urbanized citizen, and they began to populate them in droves.

This would lead to most of the country’s population being clustered around the city rather than the farm or small town. It has been that way ever since.

Electricity in the cities didn’t just allow more lighting, but also electric refrigerators and ranges. Household appliances began to make themselves part of the American family. The streets could also be lit now, with street lights being put up to give some light in the darkness for any late night pedestrian. It didn’t end there, as Times Square began to light up into the infamous sight of lights it would become known as today.

But with lighting bringing younger generations into the city, their habits outside of the home would change as well.

Electricity would allow entertainment to enter homes and apartments in the city through the medium of radio. Now Americans could listen to election results as they happened instead of waiting for the next couple days’ newspapers to figure out what happened. Now they could hear their own presidents through radio addresses. Before this, many Americans might have not even known what the president sounded like, believe it or not.

Radio also allowed the public to follow and listen to shows that would play weekly, a precursor to today’s TV series’ that everyone talks about around the water cooler.

They could tune into a dramatization of a play or book, a mystery or a comedy. Sadly, many of the earliest radio programs have now been lost to history, as recording and archiving weren’t something many stations thought of doing back then.

Of course, there were also the movies: folks out on the town would pack into a movie theater on evenings to catch the newest “motion picture” as they were called. Now back then, you didn’t have home releases or even theaters with multiple screens, so you had a small window of time to watch a film, because after that — barring a re-release some time later — they were gone for good for decades to come. Because of this, coming out to the movies was practically a must for many and the movie industry thrived.

It was in this era that many of the giants of the industry would be founded and grow — from the likes of MGM, Universal Pictures or Warner Brothers. It’s not that film was a new thing: movie screenings were almost a decade old by the time the 1920s began. It had become just as much part of American leisure as reading a book was in the roaring decade.

Throughout most of the decade, films were silent with text cards, the actors’ emotional facial expressions and body language, and sound effects that were piped in by the theaters. We look back now and might consider it a chore to watch such films, but back then it was all they knew.

The medium really achieved a breakthrough when “The Jazz Singer” became the first film to achieve sound in 1927. Ironically, the first words uttered in sound in cinematic history included those of a well known saying many Americans use now: “You ain’t heard nothing yet!”

The decade saw such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lon Cheney, John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks make their mark, while also seeing the start of the careers of Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert and Joan Crawford.

Unfortunately, just as we have some lost radio programs from that period, so did we lose some of the films from that time. There are lost films from the decade that have been found, including a telling of Frankenstein recently discovered after nearly a century thought lost. It gives hope to some that legendary lost films such as “London After Midnight” may one day be found as watchable pieces of art again.

By the end of the decade, the movie industry had achieved enough to have an Academy to present awards, holding their first ceremony in 1929. The best picture award was won by the silent film “Wings,” starring Clara Blow and a younger Gary Cooper. The Academy Awards may not connect with the public as much as it once had but they were and still are considered the biggest event of the year in the film awards’ season some 90 years later.

But of course, another way to entertain yourself in the city was through music, and in the streets of New Orleans and Harlem began a new type of music that would soon take over the country. Jazz — a fusion of African-American influences, the blues and ragtime music — was becoming the go-to music genre to play while at a party, at home or even in a sleazy speakeasy. Eventually, it would spread around the world, with other countries adding their own spin on it.

The 1920s was so important to the growth of jazz that it is commonly referred to as “The Jazz Age.” Rebellious youth would follow the genre as the music for their generation, developing dances such as “The Charleston” with it. Furthermore, with women winning new rights and expressing themselves more freely, women were a big part of jazz like maybe no music genre before it. In fact, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Hardin, was arguably the best jazz pianist of the age.

Not everyone was behind the rising popular new genre. Some traditionalists or even higher up elites turned to classical music hoping it would phase jazz out, seeing it as either immoral or beneath them. Instead, jazz became the face of music for the Roaring ’20s, and it would go on to be a heavy influence for the big band music that would spike in popularity just a few years later.

The newfound home and new lifestyles found in the now more populated and modernized cities in the 1920s changed everything. The country would now shift towards a more urbanized and leisure society, and the hard working rural agrarian ways would become the exceptions. Today, nearly a hundred years since, we’re seeing that change come full circle with the complete difference in values and voting patterns among urban and rural Americans.

Even in those early days of city life, the idea of Republicans winning them wasn’t so far-fetched and even such places as New York City or Philadelphia were winnable for the GOP. Today, cities have clustered together larger populations and in turn they have become almost all dominated by one-party Democratic rule.

It all changed for American society in the cities of the 1920s, but one has to wonder if it also began the gap we’re seeing a century later between what is seemingly to some becoming two different Americas.

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