October 13, 2015 13:32 UTC

The Making of a Nation

American History: 'Roaring Twenties' a Time of Economic and Social Change

Congressman T.S. McMillan of Charleston, South Carolina  with two women who are doing the Charleston dance near the Capitol building in Washington D.C.
Congressman T.S. McMillan of Charleston, South Carolina with two women who are doing the Charleston dance near the Capitol building in Washington D.C.

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BOB DOUGHTY: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

The nineteen twenties were a time of economic progress for most Americans. During the administrations of President Warren Harding and President Calvin Coolidge, many companies grew larger, creating new jobs. Wages for most Americans increased. Many people began to have enough money to buy new kinds of products.

The strong economy also created the right environment for many important changes in the day-to-day social life of Americans. The nineteen twenties are remembered now as an exciting time that historians call the "Roaring Twenties."

This week in our series, Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe tell more about that period.


KAY GALLANT: The nineteen twenties brought a feeling of freedom and independence to millions of Americans, especially young Americans. Young soldiers returned from the world war with new ideas. They had seen a different world in Europe. They had faced death and learned to enjoy the pleasures that each day offered.

Many of these young soldiers were not willing to quietly accept the old traditions of their families and villages when they returned home. Instead, they wanted to try new ways of living.

HARRY MONROE: Many young Americans, both men and women, began to challenge some of the traditions of their parents and grandparents. For example, some young women began to experiment with new kinds of clothes. They no longer wore dresses that hid the shape of their bodies. Instead, they wore thinner dresses that uncovered part of their legs.

Many young women began to smoke cigarettes, too. Cigarette production in the United States more than doubled in the ten years between nineteen eighteen and nineteen twenty-eight.

Many women also began to drink alcohol with men in public for the first time. And they listened together to a popular new kind of music: jazz.

Young people danced the Fox Trot, the Charleston, and other new dances. They held one another tightly on the dance floor, instead of dancing far apart.


KAY GALLANT: It was a revolution in social values, at least among some Americans. People openly discussed subjects that their parents and grandparents had kept private.

There were popular books and shows about unmarried mothers and about homosexuality. The growing film industry made films about all-night parties between unmarried men and women. And people discussed the new ideas about sex formed by Sigmund Freud and other new thinkers.

An important force behind these changes was the growing independence of American women. In nineteen twenty, the nation passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

Of equal importance, many women took jobs during the war and continued working after the troops returned home. Also, new machines freed many of them from spending long hours of work in the home washing clothes, preparing food, and doing other jobs.

HARRY MONROE: Education was another important force behind the social changes of the nineteen-twenties. More and more Americans were getting a good education. The number of students attending high school doubled between nineteen twenty and nineteen thirty. Many of the schools now offered new kinds of classes to prepare students for useful jobs.

Attendance at colleges and universities also increased greatly. And colleges offered more classes in such useful subjects as teacher training, engineering, and business administration.

Two inventions also helped cause the social changes. They were the automobile and the radio. The automobile gave millions of Americans the freedom to travel easily to new places. And the radio brought new ideas and experiences into their own homes.

Probably the most important force behind social change was the continuing economic growth of the nineteen twenties. Many people had extra money to spend on things other than food, housing, and other basic needs. They could experiment with new products and different ways of living.


KAY GALLANT: Of course, not all Americans were wearing strange new "flapper" clothes or dancing until early in the morning. Millions of Americans in small towns or rural areas continued to live simple, quiet lives. Life was still hard for many people including blacks, foreigners, and other minority groups.

The many newspaper stories about independent women reporters and doctors also did not represent the real life of the average American woman. Women could vote. But three of every four women still worked at home. Most of the women working outside their homes were from minority groups or foreign countries.

The films and radio stories about exciting parties and social events were just a dream for millions of Americans. But the dreams were strong. And many Americans -- rich and poor -- followed with great interest each new game, dance, and custom.

HARRY MONROE: The wide interest in this kind of popular culture was unusually strong during the nineteen twenties. People became extremely interested in exciting court trials, disasters, film actors, and other subjects.

For example, millions of Americans followed the sad story of Floyd Collins, a young man who became trapped while exploring underground. Newsmen reported to the nation as rescue teams searched to find him. Even the "New York Times" newspaper printed a large story on its front page when rescuers finally discovered the man's dead body.

Another event that caught public attention was a murder trial in the eastern state of New Jersey in nineteen twenty-six.

Newsmen wrote five million words about this case of a minister found dead with a woman member of his church. Again, the case itself was of little importance from a world news point of view. But it was exciting. And Americans were tired of reading about serious political issues after the bloody world war.


KAY GALLANT: The nineteen twenties also were a golden period for sports.

People across the country bought newspapers to read of the latest golf victory by champion Bobby Jones. "Big Bill" Tilden became the most famous player in tennis. And millions of Americans listened to the boxing match in nineteen twenty-six between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. In fact, five Americans reportedly became so excited while listening to the fight that they died of heart attacks.

However, the greatest single sports hero of the period was the baseball player, Babe Ruth.

Ruth was a large man who could hit a baseball farther than any other human being. He became as famous for his wild enjoyment of life as for his excellent playing on the baseball field. Babe Ruth loved to drink, to be with women, and to play with children.

Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth

HARRY MONROE: The most famous popular event of the nineteen twenties was neither a court trial nor a sports game. It was the brave action of pilot Charles Lindbergh when he flew an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. He was the first man in history to do this.

Lindbergh flew his plane alone from New York to France in May, nineteen twenty-seven. His flight set off wild celebrations across the United States.

Newspapers carried story after story about Lindbergh's success. President Coolidge and a large crowd greeted the young pilot when he returned to Washington. And New York congratulated Lindbergh with one of the largest parades in its history.

Americans liked Lindbergh because he was brave, quiet, and handsome. He seemed to represent everything that was best about their country.

KAY GALLANT: The nineteen twenties was also a time of much excellent work in the more serious arts. We will take a look in our next program at American art, writing, and building during the exciting "roaring twenties".


BOB DOUGHTY: Our program was written by David Jarmul. The narrators were Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and images at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


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