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4 Little-known Facts of 1920s America

Updated on August 9, 2016

Change we can believe in, 1920s style

Whether you prefer "The Roaring Twenties" to "The Jazz Age," or "flapper" to "independent woman," one thing is clear--the landscape was changing in America in the 1920s. People and the groups they joined changed. The jobs changed, finally placing manufacturing atop farming. Women had access to more employment opportunities, too. Radio went hand in hand with sports and politics and everything in between. Talk about change!

While trying to generalize the everyday lives of millions of people seems like a historian's nightmare, some brave souls do it. I'm not nearly smart enough to try; instead, I take a look at the mysteries, contradictions, and remarkable statistics that make the 1920s an amazing time period.

4. Flagpole Fun

A well-funded private sector, inequity in money are aspects of the 1920s that resound with us today. However, progress in food production and electricity paved the way for more leisure time and disposable income. Americans were attracted to buying on credit back then too. At any rate, the extra money gave people confidence and opportunities to snag a bit of fame that the actors and directors experienced in the film industry. A brazen attempt at this came from the man known as Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly. The feat? Sitting on flagpoles for months at a time under all the inclement weather one would expect and living on a liquid diet. A deep (understandable) fascination with Kelly’s antics and many copycats emerged. As the Baltimore Sun reported, the summer of 1929 20 youngsters spent a week on one of the city’s flagpoles. Baltimore mayor William F. Broening called the local epidemic of flagpole sitting that followed Kelly's a demonstration of "the old pioneer spirit" and said it showed “the grit and stamina so essential in life.” Let the record show that, for its part, Cosmopolitan called it “competitive imbecility.”

3. A Country of Immigrants Struggled with Immigration

From all accounts, the 1920s was a time for immigrants. Depending on which side you fall on, Americans were reaping the benefits from Ellis Island or hurting native born population. Sounds familiar to today's opinions, no?

The American population of 1920 was in the majority lily-white and native born. Except one glaring thing--one in four males had one or more foreign-born parents and nearly 45 percent of the white population had either come to the US themselves or were the children of immigrants. But we were entering dark days and immigration reform was to happen on a drastic and even mathematically-confusing scale.
Suddenly immigrants were forced to take literacy tests in which anyone 16 or older had to pass a reading comprehension test in any language. Next, policies barring those from particular areas from entering the country (specifically, the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” except for Filipino and Japanese peoples) were put in place.

The Immigration Act of 1924 enacted a "national origins quota" that limited the number of people from each nationality able to get a visa. Congressional action further restricted immigrants by moving the year on which quota calculations were based from 1910 to 1890 as well as basing the quota off the number of foreign-born. The result was disproportionately favoring Britain and Scotland while Southern and Eastern Europeans were iced out. To sum it up: “homogeneity” was the word of the decade.

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks | Source

2. Women can be Sexual, too FYI

Through silent films, people from all walks of life got to see the stars and cultural standards at work. Flapper actresses gave millions of young women inspiration and hope by the stories Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, and the European enigma, Louise Brooks. Born in rural Kansas, Brooks first wanted to be a dancer. At the age of 15 she had gained a spot in Ted Shawn’s Denishawn dance studio based in Manhattan. She was rather self-conscious about her “country” Kansas roots, and worked tirelessly at reinventing herself through accents, reading, and of course, her clothing and the sleek dark bob that would bring her film stardom.

As dancer and showgirl, Brooks could entertain but it would not bring in the money that films could. Interestingly, of all of the flapper actresses, she was the last to arrive to the scene and the first to leave. She gained more fame in Europe than in the US; it's where the career-defining role as Lulu in “Pandora’s Box” in 1929 was played, The Huffington Post mentioned. Brooks’ attitudes towards sex were outside 1920s norms. The flappers were always cherubic at the end of the day—they might have acted mischievous but only did it to be tamed and readied for marriage and respectability. Brooks, on the other hand, didn't put on any airs. Her rough estimation of the number of men she slept with was 430, she told friends.

By the mid-1930s, Brooks was out of the spotlight. Decades later, her life-long love of reading and writing paid off—critiques of the film industry and its culture along with autobiographical sketches came together in her work Lulu in Hollywood. It got her out of poverty and established a new legacy for the Flapper actress. She eventually donated her own library to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

Who was a bigger badass?

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1. Babe Ruth Wrote the First Sports Autobiography

Few baseball players have made as much an impact on the game as George Hermann "Babe" Ruth, “Sultan of Swat.” His story is basically the American dream--despite a rough childhood, absent parents, and private school nightmares befitting a Dickens novel. Ruth famously said, "If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be in either the penitentiary or the graveyard" which proved a determination for success baseball hadn't seen. The rewards and lavish lifestyle that followed gave plenty of Americans envy. He decided to share his life story. In fact, it came to be the first sports autobiography.
The Saturday Evening Post published a series of articles in 1948 written by Babe Ruth with his cowriter Bob Considine. Ruth had had some stints in coaching but his last at bat was with the Boston Braves in 1935. The serial captured America's attention. Soon a full book entitled “The Babe Ruth Story" emerged. Unfortunately by late 1947 Ruth was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Much of the book ended up being written by Considine.
Ruth’s voice still comes through in the book—in a particularly amusing assessment of dating, he says this about first wife Helen Woodring: “And during my first year as a Red Sox regular I felt old enough and rich enough—I was twenty—to take to myself a wife.” The courtship was quick as apparently he just asked if she would marry him one day. “How about me and you getting married, hon?” As a waitress who waited on him every day, she couldn’t very well escape him, now could she? (Saturday Evening Post. 2/21/48. Vol. 220. Issue 34. p. 109.) The series also included Ruth’s comments on who he would choose to start on his all-star team, and hopeful messages written to him when he was diagnosed with a tumor. Among his well wishers, he mentions Brother Gilbert at St. Mary’s (that private school he went to), “Who helped me get my first start,” and was one of the few kind people there, as well as boxing legend Jack Dempsey who said “Keep your chin up. And keep punching, which I know you will.” (Saturday Evening Post. April 3, 1948). Ruth passed away in August 1948.



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