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Useful Notes / The Roaring '20s

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  • After its full potential was discovered during the war, the automobile began shaking off its "horseless carriage" reputation and became an everyday necessity. Actually, the carriage-like bodies of early automobiles lost popularity as "closed cars" became popular. "Open cars" survived by catering to younger people and those who now could afford a car.
  • Connecticut was the first state to allow 16-year-olds to drive in 1921 (initially accompanied by an older licensed driver). By the late 1920s, most states had set said age as the minimum.
  • An oil boom in Texas and other states led to the consolidation of gasoline as practically the sole source of automobile fuel for decades.

  • Aviation also saw a boom after WWI, with the first air lines establishing by 1920. By the end of the decade many airlines were doing regular passenger service, although trips were only made in short routes and were extremely expensive.
  • Aviation technology greatly advanced during this period, with the wartime-era wooden biplanes giving way to aluminium planes.
  • Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927 between New York and Paris. The following year, Amelia Earhart made her own flight between Newfoundland and Southampton.

  • As the call for modernity was in and all things Victorian was out, the new look for the new woman was to look unfeminine as possible. The choice silhouette called for a straight silhouette, specialized by bras that flattened the chest and girdles that padded the waist and flattened the hips, a dropped waist, and a dress that hide the curves. note 
  • Perhaps one of the great innovations in the 1920s other than the Little Black Dress, was the One-Hour Dress, which was, what it says, a dress sewn in an hour or under. Prior to the 1920s, a dress, even the simple ones, can take several hours, if not the rest of the day.
  • Even if makeup was now acceptable in the 1920s, the notion of heavy makeup was still reserved for actresses and "ladies of the night". And contrary to the modern depictions of 1920s makeup with their dark smokey eyes and dark lips, makeup was bright and rosy, the shape of eye makeup was droopy unlike some modern makeup tutorials that use cat eye makeup. Speaking of eye makeup, pencil-thin eyebrows were only worn by the very fashionable women by plucking or shaving them out, and everyday women combed their brows inwards, and eyeshadow was not mass-produced for everyday women until the next decade. Here are videos of how to achieve that look that was applied by everyday women in the 1920s.
  • Starting in the middle of the decade, pants became wider and baggier, with the most voluminous being "Oxford bags". They were named so after students at the University of Oxford started wearing them to hide knickers and plus-fours underneath.

  • Comedy was still the most popular genre during the last years of The Silent Age of Hollywood with Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin beginning to do more ambitious works while Harold Lloyd became the most prolific actor of the era. Unfortunately neither of them weathered the transition to talkies very well (both Lloyd and Keaton made a few talkies before retiring while Chaplin was notoriously hostile to sound and his output became minimal). By the latter half of the decade, producer Hal Roach would make huge stars out from Laurel and Hardy and the kids from the Our Gang films.
  • Meanwhile, Fatty Arbuckle, one of the biggest comic stars of the 1910s found his career ruined after a sex scandal which flared up Moral Guardians. To avert a federal censorship code or, even worse, numerous censor boards on the city and county level, movie studios then called Postmaster General Will Hays to lead a self-regulatory body: The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (MPPDA, now the MPAA—Motion Pictures Association of America). This also resulted in the The Hays Code, clearly laying out what could not be depicted in an MPPDA-approved film.
  • During this time, the studios with the most resources began making more ambitious features. With time, studios such as Paramount, Universal, the nascent Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and (at the end of the decade) Warner Bros. and Radio Pictures formed the Hollywood "studio system", controlling every aspect of production and distribution. Smaller studios such as United Artists and Columbia specialized in B-movies. The smallest studios were known as the "Poverty Row", whose output ranged from cheap Western serials to lurid proto-exploitation films. This structure would last until the late 1940s.
  • The German film industry entered a golden age with the rise of expressionism: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Metropolis were all filmed during this period. Most films made during the Weimar Germany era featured scathing criticism of the country's propensity to fall under strong authoritarian controls as well as militarism.
  • The oldest surviving animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was made in Germany in 1926.
  • Rudolph Valentino became Hollywood's first heartthrob after the success of The Sheik in 1922. Thousands of women reportedly killed themselves upon his death in 1926.
  • Clara Bow became the first proto-sex symbol with her appearance in 1927's It, which led to the idiom "It girl".
  • While adding sound to film was attempted since the days of the kinetoscope, only by 1923 a workable system was introduced in the form of Lee De Forest's Phonofilm. However it was not until 1926-27 when the first fully-working sound systems were introduced: Warner Bros' Vitaphone sound-on-film system and Fox's Movietone sound-on-film process.
    • Vitaphone premiered with Don Juan in late 1926 while Movietone was presented with Sunrise, both with music-and-effects tracks. WB's The Jazz Singer became the first film to feature talking sequences in late 1927, while their Lights of New York (1928) was the first all-talking film. Europe's first all-talkie was Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929).
  • The Rise Of The Talkies made movies the prime means of entertainment. However many (most famously Chaplin) thought that sound was turning movies into a cheap version of theatre. Also, many popular actors lost their jobs for not having voices good enough for the primitive microphones.
    • The feeling about theatre was not helped by the fact a wave of musicals flooded movie houses in 1929-30, such as The Broadway Melody, On With The Show, Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Show of Shows.
    • The fact that films now had sound meant that there was less need for live musicians. At the peak of the Silent Age, theaters the largest source of employment for musicians in large cities as the music scores (or at least, some music that would accompany the film) had to be performed live. The talkies, combined with the Great Depression, would leave many of them without a job.
  • In 1929, the first Academy Awards were given, honoring movies made during the 1927-28 film season. The first winners for Best Picture were the 1927 war film Wings (Outstanding Picture) and Sunrise (Artistic Film), while The Broadway Melody won the Best Production Award for 1928-29.

    Food and Drink 
  • In the United States, the fabrication, importation and consumption of alcoholic beverages was banned from January 1920 by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (popularly known as the Volstead Act), which would remain in effect until its repeal in 1933. People would circumvent the law either by traveling abroad (and smuggling some alcohol in the process), having whiskey prescribed for a cold, or making their own booze (at their own risk). Breweries then resorted to manufacture either non-alcoholic beverages, malt or cheese products.
  • The decade saw the birth of restaurant chains, with White Castle in the East Coast and A&W in the West Coast introducing concepts that would be associated with fast food, such as hamburger sandwiches and car service.
  • Whereas soft drinks had previously been promoted as little more than "health tonics" not meant to be consumed periodically, the 1920s saw Coca-Cola, Orange-Crush, Pepsi-Cola and other brands becoming increasingly popular, eventually turning into an icon of American life.
  • The increasingly hectic and urbanized lifestyle of people in industrialized countries allowed for the widespread adoption of canned food. The introduction of electric refrigerators also meant that one could buy food for several days.
  • An unexpected effect of Prohibition was the popularization of smoking, an habit previously reserved for either rich men of a certain age who used cigars or pipes, or disreputable crooks who preferred cigarettes (or chew tobacco). By the end of the decade, men and women, young and old were using tobacco products. Ironically, at the same time, the very first studies linking smoking to lung cancer were published in Germany.

  • American literature of the era was marked by the "Bright Young Things"/"The Lost Generation", consisting of young men and women settling in Europe (primarily Paris), discontented with American society. Notable writers include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
  • English writers P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie became well-known during the decade with their oeuvres, which became the model for the Genteel Interbellum Setting.

    Live-Action Television 
  • In spite of not creating any of its components, Scotsman John Logie Baird became the first to actually putting them together and making them work in 1926, thus being named the "inventor" of television. The BBC made its first television experiments with Baird's mechanical system in 1927.
  • In the other side of the pond, there was a real craze about television in 1928, after General Electric began television transmissions in January of that year, followed by Charles F. Jenkins a few months later, to the point that it was thought that television would be commonplace in a few years' time, before the market crash dashed any hopes of that happening. At the same time, Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth developed an electrical transmission system, which by the late 1930s would become the norm.

  • "Popular music" is considered to have emerged during this decade (1920 marks the beginning of the "Songbook Era" of American Music), as people form different places began listening to the same songs (something hastened by the rise of radio), and new genres surge in reaction to the symphonic music dominant during the previous century. Many of the biggest hits came from the New York music publishing collective "Tin Pan Alley".
  • Jazz music exploded in popularity during this era with bandleaders such as Paul Whiteman, Ben Bernie and Ted Lewis and singers Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor becoming the first "music showmen". Singer and saxophonist Rudy Vallée became the first proto-"teen idol" at the end of the decade.
  • Composers George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Ferde Grofé became instrumental to turn jazz into "America's classical music" by writing complex concerto arrangements like "Rhapsody in Blue", "Mississippi Suite" and "You Do Something To Me", just to name a few. Other notable composers include Irving Berlin ("Always"), Harry Ruby/Bert Kalmar ("Who's Sorry Now?"), Ray Henderson ("Bye-Bye, Blackbird"), Jack Yellen/Milton Ager ("Ain't She Sweet"), Vincent Youmans ("Tea for Two"), Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart ("My Heart Stood Still") and Thomas "Fats" Waller ("Ain't Misbehavin'")
  • Jazz quickly had two starkly different styles: Bands of the West Coast tended to have classical leanings while those located in the Northeast became influenced by black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and "King" Oliver.
  • The mechanical method of recording present for decades became replaced in 1925 by the electrical microphone process developed by Western Electric, a step that led to universal acceptance of recorded music.
  • Country Music, at time known as "Hillbilly Music", was recorded for the first time in this decade, as well as spreading nationwide through radio. Rooted in folk songs and popular music from English, Scottish and Irish settlers, these often featured impersonal narratives of tragedies which contrasted with much of the pop music produced in the decade. The launch of the radio program Grand Ole Opry helped spread the popularity of country music and established Nashville, Tennessee as the genre's home base. Some of the big artists from this decade include "Fiddlin'" John Carson, The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers,
  • Blues music, often referred to at the time as "Race Records" as these were recordings for non-white audiences by non-white musicians, gained some popularity outside of local communities.
    • The "Urban Blues" or "Classic" Blues style, which combined folk music mixed with pop music and was typically performed by female vocalists (like Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Lucille Bogan) accompanied by a pianist or small jazz ensembles, gained particular popularity in this decade. While some singers initially performed with a refined singing style, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith later used a rougher, more earthly vocal style. This style eventually lost popularity near the end of the decade as more mundane styles of blues, typically performed by men with guitars, gained popularity.
    • More rural styles of blues, such as Delta Blues from the south, gained popularity with African American communities starting in the mid-20s. Recordings typically featured a single musician playing a lone instrument (often the slide guitar for musicians from the Mississippi) though live performances often had a full band performing. In contrast to urban blues, this style tended to be dominated by male musicians. As time went on, this style would influence other regional styles of blues.

    Western Animation 
  • The twilight years of The Silent Age of Animation were noted by the prominence of cartoons featuring live-action actors interacting with the cartoon characters starting with Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell, sparking many imitators like Dinky Doodle and Alice Comedies. Both series made their respective creators Walter Lantz and Walt Disney known in the animation field.
  • Felix the Cat became the first animated superstar, sparking a plethora of merchandise, novelty songs and comic strips. However, Pat Sullivan's alcohol-aggravated unruly behavior made it hard to do business with him and the rise of sound ended the series after a number of poorly-executed attempts in 1929-30.
  • By the late 1920s, the assembly line-like production method pioneered by the Bray studio the previous decade allowed to make a seven-minute cartoon in one week, but their quality was quite subpar. Not more of a quarter of all American theaters were playing cartoons by 1927-28, and according to animator Shamus Culhane, "audiences would groan whenever a cartoon came on". However, Walt Disney premiered his short Steamboat Willie with sound that year, becoming a smash hit and boosting interest in animation and turned Mickey Mouse into the world's most popular cartoon overnight.
  • Note that Willie wasn't the first cartoon with sound: Fleischer made a few Song Car-Tunes shorts in the Phonofilm process in 1926-27 while Van Beuren Studios premiered the Fables short Dinner Time a few weeks before Steamboat Willie was released.

    World Events 
  • Many of the events of the 1920s were, in one way or another, part of the fallout from the Great War: Europe's previously indisputable dominance of the globe was no more, its powers being in financial ruin and many of the former kingdoms splintering, while countries such as the United States, Japan and the newly-formed Soviet Union rose as major players, the former spending the decade trying to grasp its new-found place on the international front.
  • In hindsight, a large amount of the hedonism that encompassed the decade can also be attributed to the aftermath of The Spanish Flu. The pandemic ended in 1920, after two years or so of public knowledge and an indeterminately longer period of it occurring in the background behind government cover-ups (so as not to distract from the War effort). Marked by constant attempts at enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing measures to limit the spread of the disease (not unlike the COVID-19 Pandemic over a century later), the attempts at responding to the pandemic ultimately led to a sense of widespread societal fatigue that culminated in a backlash once it ended, represented in the highly interpersonal nature of the lifestyles that became popular in the 1920's.
  • In the United States, the focus on social issues and big business that marked the "Progressive Era" of the previous two decades, embodied by the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) became discredited by American involvement in the "European War", as well as Wilson's failed attempt to join the League of Nations and his suffering a stroke that left him basically incapacitated. With a platform that emphasized a "return to normalcy" and putting "America First", Republican candidate Warren G. Harding handily beat Democrat James Cox in the 1920 election by the largest popular vote margin to date. The 1920s-era GOP was characterized by its staunch defense of free markets and nationalist populism with a strong focus on Christian values instead of the anti-slavery positions of the Lincoln era or Teddy Roosevelt's anti-trust crusades. After Harding died of a stroke in 1923, he was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge, who beat a heavily-divided Democratic Party in 1924. Popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928 (Democrat Al Smith was attacked even by his own party for his Tammany Hall roots, Catholicism and opposition to Prohibition and racial discrimination).
  • In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Party saw its prestige eroded by the war, which allowed for the Labour Party (at the time still alternatively referred to as "Socialists") to rise as a major party. Lloyd George, the last Liberal Prime Minister, stood down in 1922 while the Tories' Stanley Baldwin and Labour's Ramsay MacDonald would rotate in Government. While the country did not experience the extent of the socioeconomic turmoil suffered by its Continental counterparts and the middle class experienced rising standards of life, the post-war downturn severely crippled the working class, leading to growing strife between the Government and the trade unions, which reached breaking point in 1926 with the General Strike.
  • Germany entered the decade humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and the onerous war reparations owed to France and Britain, as well as politically roiled by the chaotic birth of the Weimar Republic. Things went downhill until 1923, when the Ruhr was occupied by the French and the Belgians; the paper mark, already devalued for years as a result of the war, became literally worthless as a result of hyperinflation; and in November, a former Austrian soldier of some 30 years of age called Adolf Hitler, alongside other members of the fledgling National Socialist Workers' Party, approached a period of political violence in Munich and attempted to seize power by marching to Berlin á la Mussolini, but were defeated by the police, with Hitler being jailed. Things slightly improved thereafter, partly as a result of the Dawes Plan.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, the Third French Republic returned to its perennial political instability; Spain's formula of conservatives and liberals taking turns at government was broken up by the military, led by Primo de Rivera; and in Italy, Benito Mussolini, a man kicked out from the Socialists for being too left-wing, reinvented himself as a nationalist figure (the country didn't receive the lands it expected from switching sides to the Entente) and marched with his followers to Rome in 1922, with King Victor Emmanuel III (tired from the perpetual gridlock in the Italian Parliament) immediately accepting to his demands to lead a government, with the Fascists becoming the country's only legal party in 1924.

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