Today, as we sit around our high definition televisions, watching world events unfold through the eye of a camera lens, we find it easy to dismiss radio as simply a preamble to the past. However, the radio, my friend, was and still is, far more than that.
It was the first modern form of mass communication, allowing immediate information to be broadcast to thousands all across America; permitting listeners to experience an event as it occurred, drawing people together as never before. For the first time in history, one person with a microphone could speak to many, influencing them, and perhaps even changing their lives. Instead of reading it in a newspaper, people actually heard their president speak to them about the policies that affected them. Rather than read about Lindbergh meeting President Coolidge after his flight to Paris, people witnessed it with their ears and imaginations. In fact, the week before Lingbergh’s arrival, stores reported a huge spike in radio sales proving that when the radio broadcasted in the 1920s, everyone listened.
During the first years of radio, broadcasters decided that people needed a mix of education, culture, entertainment, and news. There were such shows as “Things to Tell a Housewife about Cooking Meat,” baseball and football games, boxing matches, organ and piano concerts, church services, and bedtime stories for the kids.
Jazz, blues, and country music also began playing on the radio. Fiddlin' John Carson made his radio debut, one of the first country music performers to modulate the airwaves. The Grand Ole Opry, originally known as the WSM Barn Dance, made its first broadcast on November 28, 1925. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, two highly influential blues singers of that era sang frequently as well as Louis Armstrong, who made history with the “Hot Five.”
Sitting around the radio had become a past time for children as well. Shows like Sam n Henry, later changed to Amos and Andy were very popular. The storyline was about two African-American Alabama men who came to Chicago to find their fortunes. Another hit radio show was Will Rogers, a cowboy who did rope tricks while making humorous political observations.
It was clear that by the end of this era the radio had changed, and was changing the life of America. Increasingly, people ceased to refer to themselves just as Pennsylvanians, Texans, or Californians as radio brought the nation into their homes and gave them a national identity. A single event, a boxing match, an inauguration, a football game, a concert, a comedy sketch, a political speech, or a sermon, gave Americans the chance to share in a common experience, as it still does today.
Fads of the 1920s: Comical Family
Comic strip popularity steadily grew from one panel drawings in the 1800s to full storylines at the turn of the century. They were a staple of newspapers and were even being featured on pages together, rather than just alongside news stories.
The 1920s was a transitional period in the world of comics. Primarily because the surge in comic book popularity was about to explode, but also significantly because comic strips developed a focus on families.
Joseph Patterson, editor of the Chicago Tribune is considered to have stake in the family focused transition. Through his guidance Sidney Smith worked on The Gumps, a story about an ambitious middle class family, which premiered in 1917. They were very ordinary, with familial stereotypes, like the loud father, the rich uncle, and the annoying maid. Patterson was a driving force in the strip, utilizing his nicknames for the masses, “gumps” to name the family in the strip, telling stories of regular family life, without any gimmicks. Popularity for the plain family’s strip drove it to films in the early ‘20s, led by animation director Wallace A. Carlson. They launched a craze for continuity strips, which also transitioned into a radio program.
Gasoline Alley, created by Frank King was another family centered strip, mixing domestic humor with small town nostalgia. It began appearing in the Chicago Tribune in the Sunday page The Rectangle, and was known as the first strip to allow characters to age. In the strip, Walt, Doc, Avery, and Bill would get together for weekly conversations about automobiles. It depicted a gentler view of nature while also using the art to express daydreaming. The main character of the group was Walt Wallet, who adopted a baby when he was left on Walt’s doorstep. Unlike other comic strip children he did not remain a baby, but progressively grew up.
Another, more specific family focused style also emerged in the ‘20s, featuring comics about the daughter of the house. These strips included Martin Branner’s Winnie Winkle and Russ Westover’s Tillie the Toiler. Winnie Winkle debut in the Chicago Tribune Syndicate in 1920, conceived by Patterson. The story focuses on a young woman supporting her parents and adopted brother in an early strip about working women. It began as a gag strip, but eventually developed into a soap opera style.
The 1920s saw the creation and popularization of many comic characters in newspapers and journals. The many offerings ranged from family centered to political satires, mischievous little boys to sweet orphan girls. While some were printed only for a short while, all made a lasting impression on the American comic strip.
Fads of the 1920s: The Birth of "Talkies"
The movie factory of the world remains the same place today as it was in the 1920s. During the ‘20s, Hollywood, movie capital of the world, reached its greatest ever output, producing an average of 800 feature films annually. This milestone has not been beaten, even today.
By 1929, the filmmaking studios that were to dominate Hollywood for the next half-century were the giants, sometimes dubbed "The Big Five." They produced more than 90 percent of the fiction films in America and circulated their films both nationally and internationally. They included: Warner Brothers Pictures, Paramount, RKO (the smallest of the Big Five but produced Citizen Kane and King Kong later), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (symbolized by a roaring lion at the start of pictures), and Fox Films.
There were also three small studios in Hollywood, two of which grew up to be mega studios. Universal Pictures' first successes were W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello comedies, the Flash Gordon serial, and Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Columbia Pictures was in their infancy but established themselves in the ‘30s with such films as It Happened One Night, Rita Hayworth films, and Batman serials. The final small studio in existence was United Artists, who formed in 1919 by movie industry icons Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith as an independent company to produce and distribute their films.
Then there were studios that were in the category of “Poverty Row.” These studios, or independents existed on Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. The movies where cheap, independent pictures that were made with low budgets, stock footage, and second tier actors. Two colossi of today were members of poverty row, Walt Disney Studios being one of them. Walt and Roy Disney originally opened their first studio in 1923 in Los Angeles in the back of the Holly-Vermont Realty office, and called it Disney Bros. Studio. It really wasn’t until 1928, with the release of Steamboat Willie, an animation with sound, that Disney began to really take off. During this time, 20th Century Pictures was also on poverty row but went on to become the parent company to MGM.
Movies were silent because of trouble they would have with synchronizing and amplification. In 1926, Hollywood studio Warner Bros. introduced the "Vitaphone" system, producing short films of live entertainment acts and public figures and adding recorded sound effects and orchestral scores to some of its major features. The change to “talkies” went relatively swift and by 1929, almost all movies had sound.
With the birth of "talkies," the era of movie stars was in full swing! Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge, Norma Shearer, Harold Lloyd, William S. Hart, Janet Gaynor, Tom Mix and Tony (his horse), Colleen Moore, Gloria Swanson, Constance Talmadge, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, and Rin Tin Tin were the biggest stars of the "talkie" era.
Unfortunately, the late '20s was full of static sound from early equipment and artists in front of and behind the camera struggled with the strict limitations of the early sound equipment and their own uncertainty as to how to utilize the new medium. Many stage performers, directors, and writers were introduced to cinema as producers sought personnel experienced in dialogue-based storytelling. Many major silent filmmakers and actors were unable to adjust and found their careers severely shortened or even ended.
Fads of the 1920s: Toys & Games
A major driver of the toy and game industry of the 1920s was the invention of the radio, which enabled the sharing of information to a larger audience, creating the birth of pop culture. Reflected by societal changes, the 1920s brought about toys and games that are still played with today!
The early 1920s were whelmed with toys and games that were not created in the decade, but made a substantial impact. The decade prior saw the invention of Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets—attempting to mold children’s minds early in the hopes of becoming engineers. Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the Teddy Bear was invented after the President’s 1902 hunting trip in Mississippi when he would not shoot a bear, which was caught for him and tied to a tree, because he believed it was unsportsmanlike. Based on a political cartoon in The Washington Post, a New York store owner created a cute stuffed bear and put it in his store window with a sign that said “Teddy’s bear.”
Also not created in the 1920s, but found its way to the United States in 1922 was the Chinese tile game revolved around skill and strategy, Mahjong. Soon after, in 1923, Henry and Helal Hassenfeld founded Hassenfeld Brothers Co., which became Hasbro in 1968!
While many toys of this time were still created from metal and wood, it was the invention of polystyrene in 1927 that completely changed the toy and game market. A tough durable plastic, polystyrene was the first type of plastic that was strong enough to suit the toy industry. It also enabled toy manufacturers to produce dolls, toy cars, and model sets more cost efficiently.
First marketed as peppermint candy and looked like a cigarette lighter, PEZ was recreated to market towards children with the addition of heads on the dispensers. The yo-yo became popular during the ‘20s after Donald F. Duncan purchased the original yo-yo company in the United States and introduced the looped slip. To ease children’s fears of visiting the doctor, play doctor’s bags were created as toys.
Trendy dolls during the ‘20s included Madame Alexander Dolls and Raggedy Anne. Both were popular during the Depression, specifically Raggedy Anne with her reddish yarn hair and red striped legs, she was a symbol of simpler times from the past.
Fads of the 1920s: Slang, It's the Cat's Meow!
Sandwiched between two World Wars, the 1920s was a time of both hope and despair. It is often thought of as a time with great prosperity and ongoing rural poverty. Wages were up and workers had more money to spend, especially on entertainment. For the first time, millions of commonplace Americans invested in the stock market as stock prices soared upwards. Yet after WWI, farm commodity prices fell dramatically and black sharecroppers in the South were scarcely surviving economically on an average wage. It was a very contradicting era as prohibition became the new law, woman gained the right to vote, and “talkies” first entered the entertainment scene.
People, especially young people, began expressing themselves with slang. Many phrases and terms of the 1920s are still used by people today, with examples like, “sweetheart,” “baby,” “dolled up,” and “giggle water...” okay, just kidding about the giggle water.
The term “tin pan alley” was created and used to reference the music industry in New York City, located between 48th and 52nd street. Though the term's origins are unclear, the most popular theory says that it was originally a derogatory reference to the sound made by many pianos all playing different tunes in this small urban area, producing a disharmony comparable to banging on tin pans. In time this nickname was widely embraced and it came to describe the U.S. music industry in general.
Considering this was the time of prohibition, many slang terms often reflected alcohol, drinking, and having a good time, especially since prohibition outlawed all of these things. Slang during this time also echoed the changing morals and ideas of society. For instance if someone was to say, “I have to go see a man about a dog,” that can be translated into someone going to buy whiskey.
An attractive female was referred to as a “sheba,” while their male counterparts were nicknamed a “shiek” or “daddy.” After drinking some “hooch,” or bootleg liquor, at a “speak-easy,” (a bar selling bootleg liquor) and feeling quite “spifflicated,” (drunk) the two might snuggle up for some “necking.” Hopefully, she won’t be a “dumb Dora” and tell her “crush” that “the banks closed!” This phrase refers to no kissing and the man taking his advances further.
Given the criminal nature of the 1920s, it should come as no surprise that much of the slang also refers to criminal activity. For instance if someone were to say to you, “Let’s hop in the “breezer and go for a ride,” you should not get into that man's convertible, as his intentions are to “bump you off,” or kill you. The police during this time were referred to as “fuzz,” “bull” or “dick.” If you were unfortunate enough be “double-crossed,” becoming a “fall guy” and “on the lam” (on the run), a “ducky” idea was to hide out, and “don’t take any wooden nickels.” Better translated to, “don’t do anything stupid.”
Other popular phrases were:
“Now you’re on the trolley!” – “Now you’ve got it!”
“Drug Store Cowboy”- a man who hangs out trying to pick up girls on street corners
“Fire Extinguisher” – a chaperone.
“Horsefeathers!”- an expletive, just like “applesauce!”
“Putting on the Ritz”- doing some expensive, or in high style, refers to the Ritz hotel
“Rag-a-muffin”- a disheveled individual
“Torpedo”- a hired gun
"Flapper"- a stylish, young woman with short skirts and shorter hair
"Dapper" - a flapper's father
If you know any words or phrases from the 1920s, don’t be a “wet blanket,” email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell her about it!
If this “hit on all sixes” for you, keep an eye out for phrases from the 1930s!
Fads of the 1920s: The Harlem Renaissance
Literature has long been a vehicle for social change through artistic expression. Allegories about unfair kingdoms, satires magnifying the problems of government, and various other literary devices are used to instill an emotional response regarding the plight of a people. The 1920s in the United States saw a movement by African Americans, both critical and lyrical.
The early twentieth century encompassed a period of major changes and struggles in the United States. The 1920s fit between the first World War and the Great Depression, shifting opportunities and beliefs throughout the country. When more jobs were opening in the northern cities, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the south for urban areas like New York. The small area of Harlem in Manhattan drew the largest population of black people in the country ushering in the Harlem Renaissance.
It was originally named after the anthology The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke in the mid 1920s, who considered it to be a coming of age for the spirit. Impacting mostly urban areas throughout the United States, specifically African American culture in the 1920s and into the ‘30s, it was a literary and intellectual movement affecting literature, drama, music, visual arts, and dance.
Racism was still deeply entrenched in the American psyche, making good, economic opportunities scarce for people who weren’t Caucasian. The creative expression unleashed during the Harlem Renaissance embodied the spirit of a group unwilling to be forced down. It was also a period in which whites recognized the racial pride within the black community.
Magazines and newspapers owned by African Americans flourished, making it easier to solidify their cultural changes, rather than being constricted to mainstream white society. Leading literary offerings of the time included Charles S. Johnson’s magazine Opportunity and the brilliant W.E.B. DuBois’ journal The Crisis. Johnson was a proud promoter of racial equality, preferring to work toward civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities with liberal white groups in a style of sideline activism. His hopes were focused on improving race relations through short term practical gains, using Opportunity to do so. DuBois was much more aggressive in his determination for racial equality, including helping found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Within The Crisis and other significant works like The Souls of Black Folk he freely commented on current events and the agenda of the NAACP.
Literature outside the news-oriented medium was dominated by poetry, novels, and autobiographies. Poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen brought forth a combination of jazzy poems and a look at the struggle black people dealt with. Hughes did this with an unabashed belief in the theme of black is beautiful while Cullen combined styles of poetry considered white or black, making him popular within both cultures. Also among them was Zora Neale Hurston, whose novels, plays, and autobiographies were filled with realistic glimpses at racism, hopes for the future, and biting humor. Other luminaries of the time included Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, and Nella Larsen.
Whether through tight beats or striking honesty the Harlem Renaissance declared that African Americans were part of the United States, wanted respect, and planned to fight for both.
Fads of the 1920s: G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S
The first thought that comes to mind when 1920s fashion is mentioned is quite often flappers and gangster suits. These styles were famously all the craze in the 1920s but have you ever stopped to wonder how these new styles and the “modern woman” came about? Much like our society today, the people of the '20s were influenced by the mass media.
Fame was a new concept in the 1920s and with the introduction of movie stars, famous athletes, Broadway shows, and singers and songwriters, came the explosion of mass media coverage. The world was rapidly changing and it was becoming popular for people to visit theaters, speak-easies, dance clubs, and so on. Along with personal encounters, women’s magazines and catalogues were becoming readily available for all women, not just the elite. Vogue and Harpers Bazaar became increasingly popular magazines and they began to set their focus mainly on fashion.
Some of the most influential male stars from the '20s were Al Capone and John Gotti. They were famous, rebellious, dangerous gangsters who knew how to dress. They donned the infamous “gangster suit” and created a criminal like business man persona. This outfit became increasingly popular because after all, these were the men who had the money, the excitement, and the most beautiful women.
Louise Brooks and Gloria Swanson can be credited as two influential female stars of the 1920s. They helped make popular such fashions as: colorful patterns, silk, fur coats, rayon stockings, straight shift dresses, and accessories such as handbags, bracelets, gaudy necklaces, pocket flasks, and close fitting hats. Along with clothes and accessories, footwear for women also became a focal point. Shoe styles were influenced mainly by the increasing popularity of dances such as the Charleston.
Glamour also became an extremely important trend even in the middle class. Women were more conscious of face, figure, posture, and grooming. At this point the cosmetics industry began to boom because many women wanted the alluring look of their favorite movie star.
The increased magazine coverage and the ability to see the most famous stars provided exposure for the most popular styles and fashions. Because of the increase in popularity and demand, the stunning new designs and colors were being mass produced and women could buy them from stores such as Montgomery Ward and Sears. At this point in history, the everyday housewives had the ability and desire to look glamorous, thus creating the “modern woman.”
Fads of the 1920s: The Devil's Music
Studying pop culture in history opens inlets to our past, connections with events forgotten, and new understanding for the paths we have taken. It is by appreciating our past that we can foster better understanding of the present and the journey that got us here.
Pop culture often dictates how society changes, teaching us about other cultures within the American melting pot, encouraging creativity, and, mostly, entertaining us. Scoop would like to take a deeper look into American pop culture in an episodic format. Over the coming weeks we will break down pop culture by decades, in the categories of music, fashion, popular phrases, books and poetry, TV and radio, toys and games, movies, and comic books. Within each decade we will explore beloved trends, how they were accepted, how some were resented, and the intrinsic social changes they led to.
Just prior to the 1920s, World War I soldiers returned to their homes and reentered the work force, prohibition of alcohol was the new law, and Henry Ford was introducing the assembly line. America was on the threshold of dynamic change.
Undermining the law of prohibition, speakeasies were created to enable illegal drinking and dancing. The most well known speakeasy owner was the Italian American gangster boss of the Chicago Outfit: Al Capone. As flappers would mingle at the speakeasies they would listen to what was dubbed the Devil's Music—jazz! Starting in New Orleans' Red Light District, jazz became the leading genre of the Roaring Twenties. Having its roots from African American communities, jazz was socially unacceptable by the older generations because they deamed it immoral.
With the creation of radio, radio stations began to proliferate throughout the entire United States during the twenties, further promoting the Devil's Music. One jazz musician leading America in this new genre was composer, pianist, and bandleader, Duke Ellington. Calling his own style, "American Music," Ellington was one of the most influential figures, even Stevie Wonder wrote a tribute song about him in 1976, titled "Sir Duke."
Also on the airwaves was America's highest paid entertainer of the '20s, singer Al Jolson. Jolson was able to sellout nine shows in a row at the Winter Garden theater in New York; with more than 80 hit jazz, blues, and ragtime records, this amazing feat was no surprise. Louis Armstrong was also a famous singer of the '20s and was famous for his jazz trumpet solos. Also known as Satchmo, Armstrong assited in shifting jazz from improvisation to solo performers. Stealing thunder from the gentlemen was blues singer Bessie Smith. Receiving multiple Grammys for her records, Smith continued to be popular even through the '30s.
Broadway could not even escape the new wave music. Composer George Gershwin created many compositions that are now jazz standards and songs which many singers and musicians have recorded, including Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra, Sublime, and Sting. Gershwin's famous award winning composition was "Rhapsody in Blue," for a piano and orchestra, in 1924.
With the new jazz music taking over, a new dance had to be created to measure up to the beat, and it was called, the Charleston. Named after the South Carolina city, The Charleston was created by James P. Johnson for the Broadway show Runnin' Wild. Just like the music to accompany it, the dance fad was also considered immoral and provacative.
Just as quick as jazz blew up, the bubble burst with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression. Almost putting the music industry out of business, jazz, blues, and ragtime continued to survive and is now viewed as a respectable art form.