The 1920s & 1930s:
A New International World
The 1920s: How They Roared!
With the launching of this new Modern era came an explosion of talent in many fields. Young authors of the 1920s wrote about their feelings of disillusionment and alienation following the end of World War I in 1919. Many were part of the “lost generation” of American expatriates in France who fought censorship in the U.S. so their works could honestly reflect sexuality and explicit language. This group included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Henry Miller, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
At the same time, New York was experiencing the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revolution of the 1920s that showcased African-American artists, musicians and writers, including W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Aaron Douglas, and Louis Armstrong. The movement traveled to Europe, where it was free to grow without the social restrictions imposed by American culture. Interwar Paris specifically, fostered African American culture to develop their freedom of expression, cultural exposure, and unique voice in all forms of artistic endeavor.
Other cultural hallmarks of the 1920s included the compositions of George Gershwin, who wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, classical composer Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, and the appearance on the jazz scene of legends-to-be Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, as well as the signature dance craze called the Charleston and the advent of talking pictures. We can also thank a then-14-year-old Les Paul for paving the way for rock music through his invention of the forerunner of the electric guitar in 1929.
The interwar period that followed the end of World War I – the first war where airplanes and automobiles changed how battles were fought and won—ushered in a new world of speed and travel. Distances between countries and cultures were lessened and allowed for easier spread of cultural exchanges and for the first time a truly international world. The lyrics to the post World War I song “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” spoke to the changes in the world brought about after rural American soldiers returned home after experiencing foreign society.
The 1930s: How They Soared during the depths of the Depression
If the 1920s were all about youth and jazz, hedonism and optimism, the 1930s were marked by the harsh reality of the Great Depression. The stock market crashed in 1929 bringing a period of vast unemployment and financial distress to most Americans. This was rapidly followed by the devastation of the Dust Bowl, where severe drought and dust storms devastated much of the Middle America farmland. Both of these tragedies provided a setting for authors such as John Steinbeck.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives helped put thousands of Americans back to work, and led to the construction of many famous landmarks such as the Hoover Dam. During the Depression, many artists were given government funding to create works of art to lift the spirits of the American people. The New Deal programs of Roosevelt’s administration included, among its many initiatives, the Federal Art, Theatre, and Writers’ Projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
These WPA projects employed some 5,000 artists and writers. Many famous artists began their careers through the support of the WPA. The WPA built 125,000 buildings and produced almost 475,000 works of art. Even today, more than 70 years after it ceased to exist, WPA works can be still be found in New York City and throughout the United States. Murals in the recently closed Bronx Central Post Office have Landmarked status so, although the building can be used for other purposes, its façade and its murals can’t be altered. The Story of the Recorded Word, an imposing oil painting in the third-floor lobby of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and the mural, Flight, at the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia airport in Queens, are examples.
To stimulate the economy and give people a chance to escape the difficulties of their daily lives and envision a brighter future, a series of World Fairs were hosted in various cities throughout the country. These brought new architecture, a hint of the wonders of future technology and examples of international culture to Americans.
A trip to one of the thousands of movie theaters that sprang up in every community was a way to escape the realities of daily life. People of all ages flocked for a long afternoon or evening of escapism, with two double features, newsreels, cartoons and short subjects –all for only ten cents! These new movie palaces brought images of exotic lands, glamorous Hollywood film stars and elaborate Art Deco sets to Americans everywhere.
The 1930s also brought with it the Golden Age of radio, where for the first time, news, information and entertainment linked American homes everywhere, as evidenced by Orson Welles’ re-creation of an alien landing in War of the Worlds that created nationwide public panic. Television made its public debut at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and the following year, Walt Disney’s Fantasia introduced stereo sound to moviegoers.
One of the design hallmarks of the 1930s was the streamlined look that graced everything from buildings to cars and trains to cocktail shakers and furniture. Inexpensive mass-produced products brought new design to homes struggling to bring some light into their difficult live.