THE JAZZ AGE
Many Americans rejected the values of business civilization adopted by many in the decade. These people, both men and women, decided that pleasure and private expression were more important than the virtues of Taylorism. Those associated with the Jazz Age adopted more open attitudes toward sex, and adopted jazz music as another symbol of their rejection of traditional society. Rural/small-town America (and some in the cities) saw jazz as “the devil’s music,” as black music, and as a music that helped to promote lewd dancing and sexual contact. For many who went to jazz clubs in Harlem in the early 1920s, these were probably the very reasons they listened to it.
The typical symbol of the Jazz Age was the flapper, a young girl with short hair, a short hemline, a cigarette in her hand, and makeup (all of these things were frowned on in rural/small-town America and in pre- World War I urban America). The number of actual flappers in American cities was always relatively small. Many advertisements of the 1920s portrayed women as sex objects; as a result, in the eyes of many Americans, women lost their respected position as moral leaders of the family.
Statistics do show that both sexual promiscuity and the consumption of alcohol increased among the young during this decade. This revolution was greatly aided by the availability of the automobile, which allowed young people to get away from the prying eyes of parents. Margaret Sanger and others promoted the increased availability and usage of birth control during this period. The behavior of flappers and their male counterparts was looked down on by some urban and by almost all rural observers. It should be noted that this “freer” behavior by young people would be drastically reduced by the massive economic difficulties of the Great Depression and World War II, but would again become pronounced in the 1950s (with critics voicing many of the same criticisms as critics had in the 1920s). By the 1950s rock and roll had replaced jazz as the “devil’s music.”
After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote, many female leaders thought that women would come to have a pronounced role in American political life. Much to their disappointment, this did not occur in the 1920s. Women did not vote in a block “as women.” Yet the overall position of women did increase in the decade. Divorces increased throughout the decade, showing that more women (and men) were leaving unhealthy marriage relationships. The number of women working during the decade also increased, although working women were usually single. Restrictions remained, however. Women seldom received the same pay for doing the same work as a man, and women were almost never put into management positions. Most women still worked in clerical jobs, as teachers, or as nurses.
The Rise of Radio and Motion Pictures
As stated previously, as more and more people read newspapers, listened to the radio, and watched movies, a truly universal mass culture was being created. Movie attendance rose incredibly during the 1920s; in 1922 about 35 million people a week saw movies. By 1929 this figure was up to 90 million people per week. In 1927 The Jazz Singer, staring Al Jolson, became the first “talking” motion picture, a trend that would create new movie stars and ruin the careers of others who had been stars in the silent era.
Nothing created a more national mass culture than did the radio. Station KDKA in Pittsburgh was the first station to get a radio station license in 1920, Radio networks began to form (the National Broadcasting Company being the first in 1926) and brought listeners across the country news, variety shows, and (at first) re-created sporting events.