Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Jazz, Liquor and Bootleggers: America in the Twenties

Human life in this world has often seen transitions. These transitions have occurred in every age, in every century. However, the latest transitions, which have been occurring in the twentyfirst have never ever impressed me; rather they have only incited deep sentiments of distaste and contempt in me. The twentieth century was a bit better, but not the best. The nineteen nineties did see some good developments; but it obviously had to be the nineteen twenties which every citizen of post-war America would have loved to live in. Alas, there are very few from that period who are still alive, and most of them are in their late ninetees or hundreds. Yet, their memories are so sharp; after all could anyone forget the days of America's golden age.

The Prelude 1918 - 1923

The period of progress and transition which is referred to as the "Roaring Twenties" or the "Jazz Age" had its origins in the optimistic and progressive thinking of a new generation of Americans who emerged from the rigors of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 had destroyed the power of the enemy they had so feared so completely that Americans felt more secure. As a result, the economy soared to new heights. The purchasing power of the Americans had increased dramatically and they spent lavishly on enjoyment and dress. This phase of progress was coeval with the passing of the Volstead Act on January 29, 1920 which made the sale of all forms of liquor, illegal. This led to the birth of a prosperous bootlegging business whose captains smuggled in alcoholic drinks from Canada. For this reason, the period starting from 1920 and ending with 1933, when Prohibition was brought to an end by an amendment, is also known as the "Prohibition Era".

Another major invention which epitomized American thought and culture during the 1920s was the Colt-Thomson sub-machine gun whose inventor General John T. Thomson released a version for the general public in 1919. This gun, known colloquially as the "Tommy gun" was the most lethal weapon ever handled by the American public and soon found favor with the managers of the bootlegging business who used them to effect some of the most gruesome murders ever committed.

The Golden Age 1923 - 1929

Prosperity and development in America was at its peak between 1923 and 1929. Motor cars became the most preferred means of transportation. Ford, Dodge Brothers, Packard, Haynes and Winton were some of the top car manufacturers. Lavish lifestyle, costly vacations and expensive jewellery became the trend of the times.

The year 1923 which saw the death of American President Warren Harding also saw the rise of a hitherto unknown gangster called Alphonse Capone or Al Capone in the distant city of Chicago. Capone rapidly rose in the ranks of organized crime, eventually displacing his boss Johnny Torrio and snatched control of crime syndicates all over the USA. Known popularly as "Scarface", Capone was the most dreaded gangster of the time and virtually ruled Chicago till the early 1930s with his money and muscle power (at one time, he even had a mayor of Chicago William "Hale" Thomson, popularly known as "Big Bill" in his pay). This period is remembered in Chicago for gangwars, nightclubs where illegal booze and jazz music were served, rampant corruption in the administration and police force and the gruesome civilian murders and police encounters that took place.


A typical gentleman of the 1920s wore a shirt made of cotton or silk and suspenders. Men belonging to the rapidly growing American middle-class wore buttoned jackets over their shirts and a coat on top of their jackets. Not infrequently, ties or bowties replaced buttoned jackets. Hats, monocles and walking sticks were the fashion of the time and were used even by men who weren't bald or blind or lame. Sunglasses were sported by film stars.

In women's fashion, skirts decreased in size during the time. It was a marked deviation from the conservatism of the Victorian Age. A typical woman of the period who bopped her hair and wore short skirts and excessive makeup was known as a "flapper".

Jazz Music

Jazz originated in the city of New Orleans in the early 1900s as a fusion of Afro-American, Jewish, Italian and post-Victorian European music styles. However, jazz music flourished largely during the 1920s supported by the active patronage of mafia dons as Al Capone who roped in jazz stars to play in their night clubs. Louis Armstrong, arguably one of the greatest exponents of jazz, performed during this period. The fast-paced jazz renditions appeared more glamorous and attractive to the critical and unorthodox American public than the slow-paced classics of 18th century European musicians. Jazz marked the transition from the sonatas and waltzes of Mozart and Beethoven to pop and rock music of our times.


The 1920s saw the transition from black-and-white to color and from silent to the talkies. The film-production business which, during the early 1900s, was the preserve of the adventurous few, grew manifold during the 1920s. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, John Gielgud, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy and Bob Hope were some of the stars whose careers bloomed in the 1920s. Comedian Bob Hope who passed away in 2003 at the age of 100, once recounted his nerve-cracking experience performing for Al Capone. The Toll of the Sea, the first film in Type 2 Technicolor was produced in 1922. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first talkie while The Viking(1927) was the first film shot in Type 3 Technicolor. On With the Show made in 1929 was the first talkie produced in Technicolor. Following these firsts, there were so many movies filmed in Technicolor that it was estimated that color would replace black-and-white movies entirely by the year 1930. However, this was not to be as the Great Depression struck and Hollywood returned to black-and-white in order to cut down upon production costs.

Walter Elias Disney brought out his first Mickey Mouse animation film in 1928. This was a milestone in the history of motion pictures. Over the next few years, many cartoons were made, mostly by Disney but some also by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Paramount. Most of these early cartoons such as The Wizard of Oz were filmed in Technicolor.


The 1920s saw impressive milestones set in different sports and field and track events of the time. Baseball legend Babe Ruth was at his peak in the early 1920s . He set towering records that have stood for decades. Finland's Paavo Nurmi set the record for long-distance running (1,500m). Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1927 and became a celebrity in his time. However, celebrity status did prove to be a bane to Charles Lindbergh when his toddler son was kidnapped for ransom in 1932 and later, killed.

The Wall Street Crash and the Last Stage 1929 - 1933

On the 24 of October 1929, famous in history as "Black Thursday" the Wall Street crashed. The prices of shares rapidly fell bringing down the American economy. It spelt the doom of millions of Americans and precipitated the Great Depression. Millions were left jobless and destitute. However, the Roaring Twenties lasted well until 1933, when a second fall brought further ruin.

The impact of the Great Depression was widespread. Production of costly color movies were stopped. Car showrooms were filled with unsold motor cars. There were labor movements in the USA. Elsewhere, Communism was increasingly touted as the best alternative to the capitalist system of economy which prevailed in the USA. United Kingdom was another country which was hard hit by the Great Depression. The Government of British India drastically increased the price of salt and other commodities which led to widespread famine. These events indirectly led to M. K. Gandhi's Dandi March. In Burma, there were nationalist movements calling for the separation of the colony of Burma from British India and for the expulsion of the extortionary Chettiar moneylenders from India.

The strength of the Labor Party increased manifold in Great Britain. A series of Round Table conferences were held to chart out a solution to the India question. There was general disillusionment in all developed countries with the existing capitalist system of economy.

On February 14, 1929, hitmen from Al Capone's outfit in disguise as police officers "raided" a stockade of illegal liquor belonging to a rival gangster "Bugs" Moran. Assuming them to be police officers, the seven members of Moran's outfit turned their backs to the "officers" and stood with their arms held up in the air. Immediately, the "police officers" opened machine gun fire killing seven of them on the spot. Forensic evidence showed that the seven victims were almost cut in two by machine gun fire and that many of the victims had their faces shot off by shotgun blasts for good measure. People in the neighborhood saw the police go in and heard what they thought were a series of backfires, which were common at a garage. The "police" later led some men out to the car and left. This act evoked widespread condemnation and public outrage. One newspaper branded Al Capone as "public enemy number one". The expensive and luxurious lifestyle of these gangsters while the rest of the American population was suffering in poverty at the height of the Great Depression evoked the ire of the general public. Al Capone, however, did escape once again due to lack of evidence, but was arrested in 1932 on charges of income tax evasion. He was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for eleven years, the longest prison term ever awarded for income tax evasion. Al Capone, however, did not serve his full term. He was released after six and a half years due to good behavior. However, by the time, he was out of jail, his crime empire had been liquidated. Thus ended the career of one of the most dangerous gangsters of the twentieth century.


The 1920s typified the inter-war mindset of America. It marked the transition from the Industrial Revolution to the Age of Computers. Most of the gadgets that we come across in our daily lives today as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, tube lights, lawn movers, televisions, washing machines and elevators gained widespread acceptance during this period. There was also an increase in the popularity of amusement parks and roller coasters. A number of path breaking inventions were made during this time. John Logie Baird invented the television in 1927; Alexander Fleming invented penicillin in 1928. The Zippo, the first modern cigarette lighter was invented in 1932.

The 1920s witnessed a spurt in the demand for motor cars which were available at far cheaper prices. The horseless carriages of the early 1900s with their heavy and costly brass fittings and headlight were shunned for more compact, fashionable and cheap cars. Ford released its Model A in 1927. This was perhaps the first motor car which targetted the lower-middle class American population.

By the early 1930s, roadways were expanded to cover the whole of America. This, gradually threw railway companies out of business. The durability of vintage-era cars made long distance travel easy and comfortable.

This period also witnessed many political changes. Imperialism was universally condemned and human rights and values respected. Monarchism was shunned in favor of democracy. Apparently, there were many movements for democracy all over the world. There was an astonishing amount of racial equality in America where Afro-American artistes and Afro-American culture were held in high esteem for the first time, notwithstanding the fact that the ultra-racist Ku Klux Klan was at the zenith of its popularity during this period. Almost all popular jazz musicians of the period were of Afro-American ethnicity and received extravagant amounts of money as salary. In Europe, the period saw the rise of rightist movements as Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. In India, the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were passed in 1919. According to the provisions of these acts, free and fair elections were held for the first time in Madras province. The League of Nations was established in 1919 to arbitrate in disputes between different countries in the world. Drastic growth in transport and communications fostered globalization and inter-cultural dialogue.

The 1920s are viewed by some as a dark age where there was widespread degeneration and immorality. To some, it was a golden age when one could aspire for the sun and the stars and yet get them. America was at the zenith of its prosperity. Monarchs had lost much of their power and influence worldwide as the general inclination of popular thought was in favor of democracy only to be replaced by film stars, bootleggers, inventors and businessmen who lived in regal splendor. However, we can never chose to ignore the twenties, as the nineteen twenties made the America we know today. This was probably the period when the United States surpassed the United Kingdom in the quest for leadership among the world's nations. Above all, the 1920s more than any other period in American history, exemplified the great "American Dream".

“The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but, given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon... be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.... When the war ended, the most vital of all issues both in our own country and throughout the world was whether governments should continue their wartime ownership and many instrumentalities of production and distribution. We were challenged by a peacetime choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines — doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of those ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government. It would have meant the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness. By adherence to the principles of decentralized self-government, equal opportunity, and freedom of the individual, our American experiment in human welfare has yielded a degree of well-being unparalleled in all the world. It has come nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear of want than humanity has ever reached before. Progress of the past seven years is the proof of it. This alone furnishes the answer to our opponents, who ask us to introduce destructive elements into the system by which this has been accomplished.”

-Herbert Hoover, President of the United States of America, 1929 to 1933.



Blogger Arjun said...

I'm amazed at your knowledge!! Way to go buddy! :)

11:11 PM  
Blogger Ravichandar said...

Thanx da :-)

8:24 AM  
Blogger senthil said...

'America in the Twenties'---- an valuable informative article and I should appreciate the excellent efforts put in to collect all these information and real facts.
Great work Ravi… Continue your efforts. All the best..!!!


10:33 PM  
Blogger savin said...

A very good article.. What I liked in your way of writing is that u keep the reader hooked to it until the last line.. Appreciate ur effort.

10:05 AM  

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