- The Nineteenth Amendment
- 1920s urbanization and immigration
- The reemergence of the KKK
- Republican ascendancy: politics in the 1920s
- The presidency of Calvin Coolidge
- 1920s consumption
- Movies, radio, and sports in the 1920s
- American culture in the 1920s
- Nativism and fundamentalism in the 1920s
- America in the 1920s
In the 1920s, radio and cinema contributed to the development of a national media culture in the United States.
- For many middle-class Americans, the 1920s was a decade of unprecedented prosperity. Rising earnings generated more disposable income for the consumption of entertainment and leisure.
- This new wealth coincided with and fueled technological innovations, resulting in the booming popularity of entertainments like movies, sports, and radio programs.
Leisure and consumption in the 1920s
The increased financial prosperity of the 1920s gave many Americans more disposable income to spend on entertaining themselves.
This influx of cash, coupled with advancements in technology, led to new patterns of leisure (time spent having fun) and consumption (buying products).
In this period, movies and sports became increasingly popular, while commercial radio and magazines turned athletes and actors into national icons.
Cinema in the 1920s
As the popularity of “moving pictures” grew in the early part of the decade, movie "palaces" capable of seating thousands sprang up in major cities. A ticket for a double feature and a live show cost 25 cents. For a quarter, Americans could escape from their problems and lose themselves in another era or world. People of all ages attended the movies with far more regularity than today, often going more than once per week. By the end of the decade, weekly movie attendance swelled to 90 million people.
The silent movies of the early 1920s gave rise to the first generation of movie stars. No star captured the attention of the American viewing public more than Charlie Chaplin. Sad-eyed with a mustache, baggy pants, and a cane, Chaplin was the top box office attraction of his time.
Charlie Chaplin is shown sitting in a doorway with his arms folded, accompanied by a small, shabbily dressed child.
In 1927, the world of the silent movie began to wane with the New York release of the first “talkie”—The Jazz Singer. The plot of this film, which starred Al Jolson, told a distinctively American story of the 1920s. It follows the life of a Jewish man from his boyhood days of being groomed to be the cantor at the local synagogue to his life as a famous and “Americanized” jazz singer. Both the story and the new sound technology used to present it were popular with audiences around the country. It quickly became a huge hit.
Southern California in the 1920s, however, had only recently become the center of the American film industry. Film production was originally based in and around New York, where Thomas Edison first debuted the kinetoscope in 1893. But in the 1910s, as major filmmakers like D. W. Griffith looked to escape the cost of Edison’s patents on camera equipment, this began to change. When Griffith filmed In Old California—the first movie ever shot in Hollywood, California—in 1910, the small town north of Los Angeles was little more than a village. As moviemakers flocked to southern California, not least because of its favorable climate and predictable sunshine, Hollywood swelled with moviemaking activity.
By the 1920s, the once-sleepy village was home to a profitable and innovative US industry.
The power of radio and the world of sports
After being introduced during World War I, radios became a common feature in American homes of the 1920s. Hundreds of radio stations popped up over the course of the decade. These stations developed and broadcasted news, serial stories, and political speeches.
Much like in print media, advertising space was interspersed with entertainment. Yet, unlike with magazines and newspapers, advertisers did not have to depend on the active participation of consumers: Advertisers could reach out to anyone within listening distance of the radio. On the other hand, a broader audience meant advertisers had to be more conservative and careful not to offend anyone.
Three white women sit in a living room. One of them is tuning a radio while the other two look on.
The power of radio further accelerated the process of creating a shared national culture that had started when railroads and telegraphs widened the distribution of newspapers. Radio was far more effective than these print media, however. Radio created and pumped out American culture onto the airwaves and into the homes of families around the country.
Syndicated radio programs like Amos ‘n’ Andy, which began in the late 1920s, entertained listeners around the country. In the case of the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy, it did so with negative racial stereotypes about African Americans similar to those portrayed in minstrel shows of the previous century. With the radio, Americans from coast to coast could listen to exactly the same programming. This had the effect of smoothing out regional differences in dialect, language, music, and even consumer taste.
Radio also transformed how Americans enjoyed sports. The introduction of play-by-play descriptions of sporting events broadcast over the radio brought sports entertainment right into the homes of millions.
Radio helped to popularize sports figures and their accomplishments. Jim Thorpe, who grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, was known as one of the best athletes in the world: He medaled in the 1912 Olympic Games, played Major League Baseball, and was one of the founding members of the National Football League.
Other sports superstars were soon household names as well. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Helen Wills dominated women’s tennis, winning Wimbledon eight times in the late 1920s. “Big Bill” Tilden won the national singles title every year from 1920 to 1925. In football, Harold “Red” Grange played for the University of Illinois, averaging over ten yards per carry during his college career. The biggest star of all was the “Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth, who became America’s first baseball hero.
What do you think?
Why do you think the development of cinema radio was so important to American culture?
In what ways is today's media culture--broadcasting sports, celebrities, and advertising--different from the media culture of the 1920s? In what ways is it the same?
Want to join the conversation?
- In paragraph 4 of the section "Cinema in the 1920s" it says that film producers moved out of New York to "escape the cost of [Thomas] Edison's patents on camera equipment". So my question is, doesn't the federal government regulate copyrights? How would moving to California help?(15 votes)
- why were silent movies able to have music but not talking?(8 votes)
- A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound (and in particular, no audible dialogue). ... Most early motion pictures are considered lost because the nitrate film used in that era was extremely unstable and flammable.(4 votes)
- What do you think caused the increase in financial prosperity that gave people more income to spend on themselves?(5 votes)
- Did traditionalists oppose the popularization of the radio?(2 votes)
- I think the advent of any new technology will have those who oppose it. The Luddites are a good example of this, and labor unions are frequently opposed to technology because they say it could cause the loss of jobs.
Those who were traditionalists may very well have been opposed to these new things, but there were probably those traditionalists who saw the benefit of the new tech and were early adopters as well.
People enjoy their comfort, and change - particularly big changes such as these - tend to intrude on that comfort causing anxiety and opposition.(3 votes)
- How did changes in technology contribute to new ways of life during the 1920’s?(2 votes)
- The reason it was called the "roaring twenties" was that everything was becoming more modern, and technology was becoming more and more useful(2 votes)
- radio had the effect of, "smoothing out regional differences in dialect, language,"
This surprised me since certainly in the UK radio / TV has not changed regional accents or dialect at all. And although I have never been to the USA it seems to me that the 'Noo Yoork' nasal twang is still easily distiguished from a more southern drawl. I wonder what do American readers think?(1 vote)
- Did the radio have any sort of influence in social movements during the 1920-1950s?(1 vote)
- Well, after the radio was invented, people and organizations could get their messages to more people, and more easily.(2 votes)
- Were animated programs around in the 1920's?(0 votes)
- There were some. Felix the Cat was made in 1920. Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie came out in 1928. Betty Boop didn't appear until 1930. The first full length Disney animated film, Snow White, came out later, in 1937.(4 votes)