Roaring Twenties: Prohibition Exhibition Release
May 6, 2011 3:14 pm
Roaring Twenties: Prohibition Exhibition
Here in the United States, the 1920s was a period of dramatic social and political change. This decade saw more and more Americans move from rural agricultural land and into metropolitan areas. During this economic boom, the nation’s total wealth more than doubled between the years of 1920 and 1929. The term ‘consumerism’ soon became part of the English vernacular as national advertising campaigns promoted the latest trends that were now readily available through chain department stores. The era was an optimistic time. People from coast to coast were buying new fashions, cars, and technology. Women danced in stylish new fashions, like the flapper dresses, and were waving their hair.
Though there was a lot of excitement in the nation, many Americans were uncomfortable with this new underground, sometimes racy, culture, but for the younger generation residing in New York, Chicago, New Orleans and most metropolitan cities – the 1920s were indeed “Roaring!”
However, the twenties were not all fun and games. In September of 1929 the world watched one of the most prosperous times in American history quickly slide into the deepest of holes. Stock prices began to fall, and a month later the stock market crashed causing the Great Depression.
From the Great Depression a new era of bank robbing gangsters were created, but even previous to 1929, the 1920s experienced a dramatic rise in organized crime which was born out of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting alcohol.
The ruthless gangsters of the twenties were well-known for their tailored “zoot suits,” fast cars, and their Tommy guns that were used in bootlegging illegal liquor. Gangsters like Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and George ‘Bugs’ Moran were becoming more powerful than the law enforcement agencies supplying, owning or managing the Speakeasies that provided relief from prohibition laws.
It was in these Speak Easies where the Jazz musical genre exploded. Much of the older generation in America had viewed this type of music as immoral as its common ties to illegal activity. Amid the controversy, some of the most influential names in the history of music rose to stardom during this period. They include Jazz greats like; Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Bennie Goodman and many more.
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Indeed, one of my favorite periods - for music, clothing and automobiles, at least. Socially and politically however, the 1920s in the U.S. were quite similar to the first decade of the 21st Century. There was a corrupt Congress beholden to Big Business (case in point - the Teapot Dome scandal) and presidential administrations that did nothing to stop the abuses (Warren, Coolidge and Hoover)that let to the Crash of 1929 and subsequent depression. Few people today realize that Al Capone was a big supporter of the Volstead Act and was instrumental in the passage of the 18th Amendment that outlawed alcohol (gee...I wonder WHY?) He was a murdering thug with the blood of thousands on his hands, yet in the end, what he went to prison for was TAX EVASION - a real commentary on society's values. There were even U.S. military interventions in the Caribbean, Latin America and China (the latter depicted in the film "The Sand Pebbles"). Like now, there was a war on science (the Scopes "Monkey Trial"), and there really wasn't much of a middle class (that came after WW II) -just a relatively small number of the rich and a large number of working poor. While "flappers" is among the popular icons of the era, most average Americans (particularly in rural areas, where the Depression was already starting) were quite right-of-center. But at least our great-grandparents of 80-90 years ago had great cars to drive, lots of great eye-candy and some really HOT music to dance to...this was the beginning of the Era of the Great American Song, standards by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin Brothers and others that continue to live today... There is a little good in all evil.
These are very nice items and I've bought several of them. However, a little historical corrective--gangsters of the 1920's and early 1930's did not wear zoot suits, which became stylish in the late 1930's and 1940's. If you look at photos of Al Capone, John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson, etc. you'd see that they were wearing suits with a jacket that fell to the upper thighs (unlike a zoot suit, where the jacket went to the knees), a vest (usually), and a fedora (the hat worn with a zoot suit was not as high in the crown and sometimes was a pork pie hat). In addition, the pants of a zoot suit were usually pegged or narrowed at the cuffs as opposed to the more straight leg versions worn by the mobsters in the 20's and early 30's. Just a little FYI.
@Ghost58: Yes, thank you for pointing that out. "Zoot suits" were indeed a fashion of the Swing Era (ca. 1937-1950), and were favored by those in society who were oppressed: primarily Americans of Italian, African and Latino ancestry. According to author and historian Bill Osgerby, the "zoot suit" was an expression of rebellion, defiance and independence. This style actually caused race riots in Los Angeles during World War II between white sailors and Latino youths, known as the "Zoot Suit Riots" (really!)