Radios, Photographs, and Movies
American culture began to take a new shape in the 1920s. Some of its defining features included the book club (where new ideas were discussed), the talking picture (early films), the record chart (listing popular music), and spectator sports (where people attended sporting events to cheer on teams).
The 1920s primarily stand out as one of the most crucial periods in the development of America’s cultural history because the decade produced a generation of artists, musicians, and writers who were among the most innovative and creative our country had ever seen.
The radio had a revolutionary impact among the people of the 1920s. Radio broadcasts for the public began in 1919. Out of all the new technologies advanced during that time period, it was this appliance that filled the homes with music of all types as well as comedy shows. Musical variety programs were very popular. Radio sales went from $60 million in 1922 to a whopping $426 million by 1929.
This newfound source of news, entertainment, and advertising drew the nation together, with over 10 million households having access to radio by 1929. The broadcasts actually had the power to bring societal ideas to the whole nation, whittling away at regional differences and created similar tastes and lifestyles to people thousands of miles apart. Unlike print media, the telegraph or telephone, radio was able to create larger than life personas – and do it in a quick fashion. Celebrities could be created overnight, just by broadcasting their daring feats or amazing stories of rescue or defeat. One such “celebrity” was Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1928. Americans could listen to the tale of his incredible journey over the radio and he was instantly transformed into someone that everyone talked about.
Sadly, radio was also used to spread racial and cultural caricatures and derogatory stereotypes. One such example is the radio show “Amos ‘n Andy”. This show was the most popular in the nation, first airing in 1926 in Chicago. Italian gangster characters and tightfisted Jewish characters also became common characters in radio stories. These types of broadcasts spread vicious racial and cultural stereotypes into homes whose occupants new little about other groups of people. Where once a community of people were similar to one another, this public broadcast paved the way for diversity, but used its influence in a negative way instead of a positive one.
Behind the radio, the phonograph came into vogue and brought the opportunity for people to select what music would be played in their homes. No longer did someone have to play an instrument or sing in order for music to happen. Piano sales sagged as the number of phonographs produced grew from a mere 190,000 in 1923 to 5 million in 1929. The popularity of jazz, blues, and "hillbilly" music fueled the phonograph boom.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist who wrote The Great Gatsby, called the 1920s the "Jazz Age”, and the decade truly was jazz's golden age. In this time period, Duke Ellington wrote the first extended jazz compositions; Louis Armstrong popularized "scat" (singing of random syllables instead of words); Fletcher Henderson pioneered big band jazz; and trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and clarinetist Benny Goodman popularized the Chicago style of improvisation jazz.
Another new form of mass entertainment was the moving pictures. Films broadcast on a big screen became the single most significant new instrument of mass entertainment. Movie attendance reached amazing heights, soaring from 50 million a week in 1920 to 90 million weekly in 1929. According to one estimate, Americans spent 83 cents of every entertainment dollar going to the movies, and three-fourths of the population went to a movie theater every week.
During the late teens and throughout the 20s, the film industry took on its modern form. In the earliest days of cinema, the industry was based in the nation's theatrical center, New York City. By the 1920s, however, the industry had relocated to Hollywood, California. Drawn by its cheap land and labor, the varied scenery that was readily accessible, and a suitable climate ideal for year-round filming, filmmakers embraced the shift to California. Some filmmakers also moved to avoid lawsuits from Thomas Edison and others who owned patent rights over the filmmaking process. Hollywood released nearly 700 movies annually in those early years, dominating worldwide film production. By 1926, Hollywood had captured 95 percent of the British market and 70 percent of the French market.
Like radio, movies created a new popular culture. By reaching the masses with the movies, common speech, dress, behavior, and heroes were able to become popular quickly. Like radio, Hollywood did its share to reinforce racial stereotypes by denigrating minority groups. It also contributed to sharp influences on fashion trends and the celebrity culture of the day.
The radio, the electric phonograph, and the silver screen were able to mirror what was happening in the culture, while also molding the mass culture.
History.com Staff. “The Roaring Twenties.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties.
Display Content Printable Version, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook_print.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3397.
“The Phantom of the Opera (1925).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0016220/.