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Have you ever wondered why the 1920s are called the “Roaring Twenties?” When we hear that phrase, we often picture flapper girls with feathers and pearls, jazz musicians playing in dimly lit speakeasies, and Model-T’s rolling down brightly lit city streets. The 1920s probably felt like a non-stop party for many Americans, but did you know that it was a time of both prosperity and trouble?
For the AP US History exam, it’s important to know about the economic conditions, politics, culture, and struggles of the 1920s. This will give you a clear picture as to why this time is known as the Roaring Twenties. It will also give you all the information you need to answer any Roaring Twenties question on the APUSH exam with confidence. Let’s get started!
The first thing you need to know for the AP US History exam is that the 1920s was a time of great economic prosperity as consumerism took hold of the nation. World War I had just ended, and as the nation shifted from a time of war to a time of peace, production of goods also changed from that of military goods to that of consumer goods. Washing machines, irons, refrigerators, radios, and vacuums became staples in urban and suburban homes. New technologies, such as electricity and the assembly line, made products faster to produce and cheaper than ever before. Henry Ford’s Model-T automobile became popular in many American homes as the income of families increased and the price of assembly-line products decreased.
But not everything was so prosperous. While the urban middle and working-class in the cities enjoyed a good standard of living, there were signs of trouble in rural areas. Farmers in the Midwest and South were struggling as the price of agricultural products drastically fell. World War I had created a huge demand for agricultural products, but when the nation returned to peace, supply heavily outweighed demand.
Art and entertainment explosion
A very important topic for the APUSH exam is the “Lost Generation of the 1920s.” 40% of the multiple choice questions on the exam cover social and cultural change, it is important to pay close attention to this section of the crash course.
The “Lost Generation” was a group of writers who were disillusioned with 1920s American society. The significant writers you need to know about are Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his novels Babbitt and Main Street, Lewis criticized the materialism, consumerism, and conformity of Roaring Twenties society. These writers believed that a nation of consumers made it impossible to find personal fulfillment. Many moved to Europe to escape a society they viewed as hypocritical and fraudulent.
In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald described the 1920s as the “Jazz Age.” This is a very accurate description of the time. Music experienced a revolution as black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, and “Jelly Roll” Morton helped create and popularize jazz. This new type of music created a shift in society as young people, both black and white, desired to break from tradition. The older generation viewed jazz as too sensual, which only made young people more rebellious.
The final things you need to know about the entertainment explosion of the Roaring Twenties is that Hollywood movies, such as the first movie with sound The Jazz Singer, became popular, baseball became big business, and national radio network audiences grew to the millions.
Nativism and Science vs. Religion
Immigration and migration reached a historical high in the 1920s. Southern and Eastern Europeans arrived in droves from 1880 to 1920. The Great Migration was a mass-movement of Black Americans from the south to cities in the North and West. All of these “New Immigrants” create anti-immigrant backlash.
For the APUSH exam, it’s important to know about a few examples of nativist sentiment. The first is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which believed in White supremacy and immigration restriction. During the 1920s, the KKK grew in great numbers and became aggressive, not just towards African Americans, but towards Catholics, European immigrants, and Jews, too. Make sure you are aware of the film The Birth of a Nation, by D.W. Griffith, which praises the KKK.
You also need to know about the National Origins Act of 1924, which was a discriminatory law that limited Eastern and Southern European immigration. This act caused a huge decrease in immigrants from those areas, but did nothing to effect the increasing numbers of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants.
Finally, it’s important to know about religious Fundamentalism during the time. For the AP exam, know about the Scopes Trial, which tackled the issue of teaching evolution in high school. This is especially important because it is a good example of the push and pull between the flowering modernism and science of the time, and the traditional religious views of many Americans.
African Americans and women
The most important thing you need to know about African American culture during the Roaring Twenties is the Harlem Renaissance. This explosion of art, music, and literature challenged the social, racial and political inequalities that many Black Americans faced. Key Harlem Renaissance figures you need to know are Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson.
The Feminist movement grew in great strides during the Roaring Twenties, too. Flappers, independent young women who smoked cigarettes, cut their hair into short bobs, and wore makeup, challenged the social norm and traditional gender roles. Margaret Sanger, a birth control activist, attempted to legalize birth control, and even opened the first birth control clinic in America. Another step towards equality for women was the passing of the 19th amendment in 1919, which guaranteed women the right to vote. However, during the 1920s, women did not receive equal wages and were often discriminated against in the workplace.
Politics and foreign policy
You don’t really need to know a lot about the politics of the Roaring Twenties, but just know that the Republican Party prospered. It’s also helpful to remember that the 1920s presidents were Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.
For foreign policy, understand that the 1920s was an isolationist period, with minor exceptions for war reparation payments and international war agreements. The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) ratified by 62 nations, was an agreement that outlawed war as an instrument of foreign policy. The Dawes Plan was a reparation payment plan between Germany and the US.
Why is the Roaring Twenties important for APUSH?
Many AP US History exam questions focus on social, intellectual and cultural change. 1920s America is a perfect example of this. The Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt end with the beginning of the Great Depression, but it was a time that greatly changed the nation. It was a time of consumerism, technological evolution, artistic expression, and social and creative expression for women and African Americans. It was also a time of struggle for farmers, and a time of discrimination for immigrants, women, and African Americans.
If you can understand the contradictions of the Roaring Twenties and how the social, technological, and economic advancements that took place during the time changed the nation for good, you are on your way to a great score on the APUSH exam!
Photo by John Oxley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By the way, you should check out Albert.io for your AP US History review. We have hundreds of APUSH practice questions written just for you!