The Roaring Twenties

The '20s actually were just like this.

"There seemed little doubt about what was going to happen. America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it."

"The era of wonderful nonsense", as conservative newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler later termed it. A dizzy, giddy time of petting parties, bootleg gin, jazz, and flappers. When coffee cost a dime.

The setting of many an Agatha Christie mystery, this is one era that absolutely lives up to the stereotypes and then some. The Great War was over, (most of) the Western world had never been so prosperous — time to par-tay! And after four years of trench warfare and a flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people, most everybody needed cheering up.

Style is almost exclusively Art Deco moderne, all minimalist lines and coolly fluid shapes. (Side point- Art Deco's fascination with streamlining household objects whose actual wind resistance is irrelevant proved popular because leveling incomes led for the first time to a group of people who could afford good design but not household servants. It seems that a streamlined Art Deco lamp is easier to dust than a frilly Victorian one...) There were plenty of additional opportunities for employing that style in the many new consumer appliances that came on the market. Electric refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, fans, toasters, phonographs, radios and other gadgets were sold by the millions, with installment plans allowing more people than ever to buy them.

Dresses are short and so is ladies' hair. Bobbed hair had actually emerged earlier, around 1915, and was popularized during the late 1910s out of convenience during the war, as well as through the earlier 1920s. Hemlines gradually rose from ankle to calf-length during the First World War and to knee-length by 1925. Hosiery and high heels were on display, and younger women sometimes rolled down the tops of their stockings and applied rouge to their knees. Despite those costumes you buy these days, most dresses were not fringed or figure-hugging, and above-the-knee hemlines were nonexistent for grown women at any time. Dresses had boxy and boyish silhouettes, dropped waists and were minimally or highly decorated depending on the occasion. Women's hat styles included a head-hugging shape called a cloche (after the French word for "bell").

Characters include gangsters and G-men, flappers and their sheiks (sort of proto-metrosexual young males), languid white movie idols and jolly black jazz singers and dancers, and lots of cheery collegiate types who wear huge fur coats and wide Oxford bags and play ukuleles while dancing the Charleston and shouting "23 skidoo!" People sat on flagpoles and swallowed live goldfish, and stunt men swung golf clubs and played tennis while standing atop airplanes in flight. The basic idea was to shock, amaze and amuse at all costs; there were apparently some women of the era who would greet their guests in the bath.

The fun and excitement is only heightened by the fact that much of it is totally illegal, at least in the USA. There Prohibition is in full swing, so gin is made in bathtubs, smuggled by the likes of Al Capone and served in 'speakeasies', hole-in-the-wall bars highly prone to raids by stolid, humourless cops, or an ambush by the eccentric Izzy and Moe prohibition agent team in disguise. Hip flasks are handy for taking your booze along for the ride, and the mixers in cocktails will take the edge off the cheap stuff. Unless you're Treasury Agent Eliot Ness or one of his elite team of incorruptible agents, The Untouchables, be extra cautious to never insult a tough-looking Italian in a sharp suit, or you'll find yourself looking down the barrel of a Tommy Gun (some of those Jewish and Irish guys are no pushovers either).

However, this growth of the influence of modern life in urbanized northern states ran headlong into more conservative communities (especially in the south) which tried to keep modern ideas like the theory of evolution out of their schools. The state of Tennessee tried to do so with the Butler Act, which banned evolution from school curriculums. The small town of Dayton, suffering from an economic slump, took advantage of this and persuaded the local teacher, John Scopes, to be indicted under this law in order to have a big publicity trial to bring in the tourists. The plan worked perfectly, and the resulting "Monkey Trial" (as journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken famously dubbed it) proved to be one of the most dramatic and publicized of the century, with the confrontation between the noted populist leader and religious conservative William Jennings Bryan and the famed defense lawyer and noted agnostic Clarence Darrow being the highlight of the event. As it happens, the prosecution's win was never seriously in doubt, but the victory was a Pyrrhic one for religious fundamentalists, with Bryan being publicly embarrassed by Darrow's questioning that forced him to concede that a literal interpretation of the Bible was indefensible; Bryan died less than a week later. (The trial would later be immortalized, albeit with certain dramatic liberties taken, by the classic play Inherit the Wind and its subsequent film adaptations.)

Meanwhile, the African American community started to finally gain its voice in American culture. Many black Southerners moved to Northern cities during the 1910's and the early part of this decade. Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, was the most famous African American community, and so many of the most famous African American writers, artists, and musicians were based there that many historians call this period the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other famous authors wrote stories that captured the African American experience and were read by millions, and Jazz started to spread throughout the country when white people realized that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and the others sounded really awesome. This trend would continue in the 1930s, leading to Big Band and Swing music. Such progress had its limits, though: lynchings continued, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) enjoyed a peak in membership, and while African-American Josephine Baker became a big star in Paris, she faced racial hostility in America. Meanwhile, intellectuals of the community, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, planted the seeds of what would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement.

As for entertainment, silent films became an art medium of their own with classic films like The Wind and Metropolis setting new heights for screen drama and the great silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton gaining enormous popularity. The fact that they didn't have sound meant that movies still hadn't killed off Vaudeville or Minstrel Shows just yet, but the advent of talkies late in the decade finished the job, however. Radio progressed quickly through the last of its experimental phases and was firmly established as a mass-market medium by the end of the decade (including radios in cars for the first time), also changing the meaning of "popular music" and establishing the "pop idol" (Al Jolson, Ted Lewis, Rudy Vallee) in the process. Magazines and newspapers enjoyed a booming circulation, including plenty of tabloids to fill everybody in on sensational trials and the scandalous doings of celebrities. Meanwhile, ultra-low-def mechanical television had brief success with early adopters (essentially beta-testing it) before The Great Depression killed it off by the mid-'30s. The advent of (relatively) high-definition all-electronic TV would have to wait until another postwar prosperity boom in the late '40s.

During all this, of course, the relics of The Gay Nineties, now doughty dowagers and grumpy old Colonels, look on disapprovingly, condemning everything from short skirts and hair, to make-up and swimming wear. Of course, the Bright Young Things weren't really listening, and since those killjoys were among the ones who thought Prohibition and that not-so-great Great War were such good ideas, who could blame them? The new-fangled movies took a lot of the heat, as much for the off-screen antics of the stars as for the films' content (paging Mr. Arbuckle). That said, resentments against immigrants, Jews and Catholics played a part in a time when the Irish-Catholic Al Smith faced bigoted attacks on his religion during his failed bid for the U.S. presidency. Many studio execs were immigrants, Jewish, or both, and critics charged they were intentionally corrupting America's youth with their films. Local consorship boards threatened to make life difficult for the studio bosses, who started thinking that guy who ran the Post Office might be able to help.

One should also note that while things were just swell in America, Britain and much of Western Europe (where it was dubbed The Golden Twenties across The Pond), if you were in an area hard hit by World War I (say, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey or the entire Caucasus Mountains region before the Soviets annexed it) this was not a fun time. However, it doesn't mean that they didn't try, once they were able to pull themselves together again. But in Germany, there are rightwing paramilitary groups who have some very grand ambitions and there will be a few people who get a chilling feeling that one loudmouth Austrian with a toothbrush mustache is going to be very big trouble.

America's booming wealth and newfound geopolitical importance meant that lots of American writers and intellectuals (many of them disaffected by what they saw as the country's political complacency, puritanical moralism, and empty materialism) spent time in Europe during this period, soaking up Europe's old culture even as European thinkers dreamed of wiping it all clean and starting over. The contrast between "naive" Americans and "decadent" Europe set a fictional pattern which has endured nearly a century.

Soviet Russia (called USSR since 1922), after a devastating civil war, experienced a short period of economic growth thanks to the NEP (new economic policy), a series of reforms that allowed free enterprise and private property. A new Soviet bourgeoisie was born, with a penchant for over-the-top parties and a slavish fascination with American fashion, music and dance. The Soviet Nouveau Riche (typically called a nepman) was a stock character in 20's Russian satire. Rather funny, they left behind the most durable heritage in Soviet arts and design, as most Soviet architecture and industrial design from the 1920s to the 1970s was ludicrously similar to period American design.

This period lasted sometime after World War I till the Crash of 1929 or just before the New Deal of 1933, or the entire Prohibition era (1920-1933). In cultural terms however, the 20s didn't end until 1935. Understandably, there was much nostalgia for this period as soon as it ended, with a lot of 1930's movies (especially the gangster ones) being set during this decade, and it was often a nostalgic setting during The Forties, The Fifties, The Sixties, and well into The '70s and The '80s. Actually, it has gotten to the point of people from almost a century later still relating to this decade.

For the 1939 movie of the same name, click here.

Also see: The Gay Nineties, The Edwardian Era, The Great Depression, The Forties, The Fifties, The Sixties, The '70s, The '80s, The '90s, Turn of the Millennium, and The New Tens for more decade nostalgia.

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    Twenties Slang 

This ain't baloney, this is Serious Beeswax, as most words and phrases we use nowadays originated from this decade, so here are some examples, see?:

  • "Ab-so-lute-ly"
  • "And how!" - I agree!
  • "Applesauce" - Nonsense!
  • "Attaboy!/Attagirl!" - well done, son/lad/lass/boy/girl/kid.
  • "Baby" - sweetheart, also a respectable word.
  • "Bank's closed" - No Hugging, No Kissing
  • "Baloney" - Blatant Lies or just nonsense
  • "Bear cat" - Tsundere
  • "Beat it" or "23 skidoo" - get lost or GTFO!
  • "Bee's knees" or "Cat's meow" - an extraordinarily splendid person, idea or thing.
  • "Big cheese" - important person
  • "Big six" - The Big Guy
  • "Blind date" - dating a stranger
  • "Bootleg", "hooch" or "giggle water" - alcoholic beverage
  • "Bump off" - to kill
  • "Butt me" - I'll take a cigarette, please.
  • "Cheaters" - eyeglasses
  • "Crush" - infatuation
  • "Dick" - no, not that dick, a private investigator
  • "Doll" or "Dame" - sexy woman
  • "Double cross" - backstabbing
  • "Dogs" - shoes
  • "Drug-store cowboy" - ladies' man
  • "Dumb-bell" - stupid person
  • "Earful" - enough
  • "Egg" - big cheese living the big life.
  • "Fall Guy" - frame victim
  • "Flapper" and her "Dapper" - a girl and her dad.
  • "Fire extinguisher" - cock blocker or chaperone
  • "Fish" - first timer in college or in prison.
  • "Fly boy" - aviator
  • "For crying out loud!" - the period's Big "OMG!"
  • "Gams" - woman's legs
  • "Gin mill" - illegal liquor joint
  • "Gold Digger" - woman who marries a man for his wealth
  • "Goofy" - in love
  • "Hard-boiled" or "bimbo" - tough guy. Overlaps with "big six".
  • "Hit on a sixes" - to perform 100 percent
  • "Hoofer" - dancer
  • "Hotsy-totsy" - pleasing
  • "I/You/They is" - replacing "am" or "are"
  • "It" - sex appeal
  • "Jock" - high school/college athlete
  • "Kisser" - mouth
  • "Middle aisle" - to marry
  • "Moll" - gangster's girl
  • "Nertz" - "Aw, nuts"
  • "Nifty" - great
  • "Nix" - No!
  • "Pipe down" - shut up
  • "Putting on the Ritz" - go high style
  • "Sap" - fool
  • "See?" - essentially a Verbal Tic that comes at the end of sentences, see?
  • "See a man about a dog" - an old excuse to where he's leaving without any apparent reason
  • "Sheik" and "Sheba" - man and woman with sex appeal, respectively
  • "Spiffy" - an elegant appearance.
  • "Swell" - wonderful
  • "Tomato" - sexy woman
  • "Torpedo" - hired gun
  • "What's eating you?" - What's wrong?
  • "Whoopee!" - having a gay old time
  • "You slay me" - that's funny.


     Popular tropes 

Works set in this time period:

    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Tintin. First appeared in January, 1929. Tintin Tintin In The Land Of The Soviets (1929-1930).
  • The Necronauts comic is set during this period, and involves several celebrities of the time.
  • King Mob of The Invisibles gets to travel back in time to the Roaring Twenties.
  • The Grace Brannagh incarnation of Promethea held that role in the Twenties and Thirties.
  • An Abrafaxe arc (Mosaik No. 301-322) is set in America in 1929. Prohibition-era gangsters abound, Abrax is a G-man and Califax makes a fortune selling hotdogs, but as he invests his profits on the stock market he loses it all on Black Friday.
  • The Italian Disney series The Amazing Adventures of Fantomius-Gentleman Thief is mostly set in this period, crossing in the Thirties in its eleventh story.

    Comic Strips 

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 


    Live Action TV 
  • Poirot, the TV series; the books actually span a much longer period. (The Miss Marple series, meanwhile, is set in a different version of this trope - what might be called the suburban one. Middle-aged housewives sit around musing how hard it is to get good help since The War gave the rabble ideas.)
  • Upstairs Downstairs (seasons 3-5)
  • Boardwalk Empire
  • In the Charmed episode "Pardon My Past", Prue, Piper and Phoebe time-travel back to the Twenties.
  • The House of Eliott
  • Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
  • Downton Abbey: Starting in Series 3.
  • Ken Burns produced a three-part documentary entitled Prohibition about, well, Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties take up most of the second and third episodes.
  • Underbelly: Razor begins in 1927. The prequel, Underbelly: Squizzy, ends in 1927.
  • Though we never get to see it, the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Course: Oblivion" has a holodeck program set in Chicago of that period, which would have been the place for the duplicate Voyager's Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres' honeymoon.



  • Capcom's unreleased Kingpin is centered on mobsters and gangsters of this period.

    Tabletop Games 

     Video Games 

  • Lackadaisy, whose only inaccuracy is that the world is populated by anthropomorphic felines.
    • And the presence of a cathedral radio, and a few anachronistic cars (by one year). And, maybe, checkbooks.
  • Chess Piece takes place at the near end of this decade. Of course, it being an alternate universe, some things are very, very different. Like ghosts inhabiting Antarctica, demons ruling Australia (no, really), and America being ruled by a kindly demonic-looking king.
  • Problem Sleuth, save for the occasional Anachronism Stew.
  • Alleged Whiskey is set in 1928 California, just before talking motion pictures became popular.

    Western Animation 

  • At Knotts Berry Farm, the "Boardwalk" area, which now holds most of the park's thrill rides, was previously called "The Roaring 20s," a literal theme park version of the era.

Works made in (but not necessarily set during) the twenties:

Alternative Title(s):

Roaring Twenties, The Golden Twenties, The Twenties, Prohibition Era, The Jazz Age