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Living the Twenties: A,B,C

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2020 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of the 1920s over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for A, B and C.

It is worth noting that an extended version of this series is available to buy.

We often think of Avant Garde art as a 20th century phenomena but they were actually born in the 1800s and then exploded after the end of WWI.

Many and varied as they were, all of these artistic movements refused tradition to seek a new language, a new way to describe the world around them and often did so in an impetuous, alternative, sometimes shocking way.

The Salon des Refusés

On May 17, 1863, the Salon des Refusés opened in Paris. It collected artworks that were rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which held the prestigious Paris Salon every year.

These rebellious artists sought a new way of expression by breaking away from the classic mode of fine arts. Most of them were activists involved in the attempt to shake and possibly change society using their arts as a tool for a social change.

The very name these artistic movements chose for themselves reveal their activism. The French term Avant-garde means vanguard or advance guard, and it’s a military term that designates the part of an army that goes forward ahead of the rest. It was probably first used by the influential thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of socialism, who saw arts as a powerful force of social change and innovation already in 1825. In his view, afterwards embraced by all the Avant Garde movements, artists should be the explorers who would show a new way to the rest of their people.

The Avant Garde of the 1900s

The experience of WWI had been traumatic. Many historians point out as that experience was ‘inexpressible’ for the ones who suffered it. Many veterans, both men and women, chose silence because they thought nobody would understand what they felt.

But among these young people, many were artists, and they did choose to try and express the epochal change. The new world that had emerged from WWI was also, in many respects, ‘inexpressible’ because nobody owned the language to express it. The old words, the old mediums, the old ways, all felt inadequate to express the new feeling, but also the new fears and insecurities that the earthquake of the Great War had created.

Avant Garde artists chose to walk away from a naturalistic representation of reality, a faithful and tidy representation of the surface, to sink deeper into the human soul and try to represent what was there. They wanted to capture the feeling, more than the looks.

All the Avant Garde movements used aggressive forms of representations to shock the public into thinking. Their violent colours and deformed shapes were designed to push the public to go beyond what they knew, explore a new dimension, try and find a new language.

Avant Gardes also chose unusual subjects. They started to represent what had been taboo in arts as well as society at large: sex (including homosexual relationships), illness, deformity. Movements like Expressionism and Modernism produced artwork about the veterans with their ruined bodies or the effect of illness. All this was subjects of art that the public was unaccustomed to and, in many cases, unwilling to see.

Art, they felt, wasn’t just what was good and beautiful, but what was real, what people experienced every day and sometimes didn’t want to see.

Because of this activism, this social involvement of so many Avant Garde artists, the Vanguards of the 1900s often influenced and involved themselves in politics and social movements. And because of their innovative language, they mostly stood against any conservative thinking.

Their rebelliousness was ultimately their undoing. Born from the destruction and possible rebirth of the post-WWI years, none of them survived the repression of the pre-WWII era. At the outbreak of WWII, they had mostly died out.

The Twenties were a time a great innovation. The old world that had existed in the 1800s died in the fires and destruction of WWI. The 1920s saw the emergence of a new world. But it didn’t happen overnight. Most of that innovation that became available to an increasing number of people in the 1920s had its roots in the 1800s. The 1920s were just the breakthrough.

We tend to consider the late 1800s – at least in the Western World – as the Victorian times. This gives an untrue homogeneous feel to decades which differed hugley from each other, and were hardly all characterised by the social rules and costumes under Queen Victoria’s reign.

Change came slowly, especially in comparison with the 1900s or indeed the early Industrial period. Inventions – though there were many – didn’t really enter people’s lives and so they seemed less apparent, even less important than the spinning jenny and the steam engine.

The Victorian elites were not fond of changes. They had painfully created a new industrial world and wished essentially to preserve that against the threat of revolution from below and invasion from without.

Europe experienced a long peace the likes of which the continent had never known before. The conflicts and fights of the late 19th century took place mostly outside of Europe’s borders, and the same was largely true for the United States post Civil War as well (with the Indian wars and Banana Wars largely happening away from the Major US cities).

Any change could upset that balance. In fact, the risk became ever stronger, the more the century progressed. The discrepancy between the actual advancement in many fields and what society was ready to accept became ever larger as the century wore on.

And then WWI, one of the most important events of the contemporary world, happened. The younger sections of society responded enthusiastically to the beginning of the Great War, something that to us – who know what that conflict was going to be – seems almost inexplicable. The war was seen as an opportunity to achieve something, to right old wrongs, to return home having accomplished some minor feats of heroism.

The Great War started off not too dissimilar to the wars that saw the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860s and early 1870s. Everyone reckoned that it would last only a few months, enough to re-establish a few political balances and open the way for new social attitudes to become acceptable.

What nobody realised at first was that life had gone far ahead of them. The weapons that appeared in the war were the result of discoveries and inventions that have piled up during the century and were powerful beyond anyone’s expectation. They created conditions of war that were so new nobody knew how to handle. New solutions were necessary, and those too were provided by both the new technology and the new social changes.

On the fields of WWI, medicine leapt ahead further than it ever did during the preceding century. Technologies which had previously been mere curiosities, such as planes and gas, found their application on the battlefields. And on the home front, social barrier fell as the men who had gone to war left space for women to find a new independence and new roles in industry.

When the war was over, going back on any of these fields was impossible. The new technologies, the new discoveries and procedures, even the new way in which people related to each other, slipped out of the emergency of war to insinuate into people’s everyday life.

What in the 1800s had been curiosity and during the war had been emergency, in the 1920s became the new normalcy.

We think to the 1920s as a time of great prosperity. Yet, poverty was still very present in most parts of the Western World. For most of the countryside dwellers and entire sections of the city dwellers – unskilled urban workers and recent immigrants, for example – poverty was a fact of life.

What was uncommon and so attracted the attention of both the contemporaries and later the historians, was that an entire, quite large section of society, the middle-class, saw an unprecedented growth in prosperity.

Between 1919 and 1929, the results of industrialisation started to become apparent. Machines, the introduction of the chain line and other innovations in term of shifts and work organisation, allowed workers to work less and still produce more than their fathers and grandfathers. The workweek went from seven to six days in many countries. In some instances (for example in the Weimar Republic) it even went down to five days, at least for a time. The hourly wages increased slightly, and, more importantly, some family could rely on two providers, as women working outside the home started to become a socially acceptable occurrence.

At the same time, many inventions that in the 1800s were just curiosities and generally too expensive to be marketable were employed to mass-produce items for everyday life at approachable costs.

In a moment when at least the middle-class had more money and more free time on their hands than ever before, more goods were produced at more affordable prices. And in the time after the trials of WWI, people wanted to treat themselves and have fun.

With all these favourable circumstances in place, the market started to respond and give people what they wanted. In abundance.

Market strategies changed dramatically. Consumers’ attitude changed drastically. The way people spent their money changed forever.

The Rise of Advertisements

Advertisements weren’t new in the 1920s. The practice had already started in the late 1800s and was pioneered by men like Thomas J. Barratt and his use of targeted images and slogans but in the 1920s it became a global phenomena.

It became an enticement, a call to action and, beyond that, started to try and create the need for a product. Appealing to how a product could make a person more elegant, more attractive, or make their jobs easier and faster, the new forms of advertisements tried to move the customer to buy.

Many of the new products were not essential, but they could make life easier and more comfortable. Advertisements created the need to buy, so to appear modern and prosperous.

Prosperity was the secret desire of the middle-class. At the moment when they were rising from a state of semi-poverty to a state of almost-prosperity, the middle-class was eager to look prosperous even when they really were not. Appearing to be prosperous was almost as important as being prosperous. Advertisement continuously appealed to this need, which the mass-market had itself created.

Contrary to the past, advertisements, especially in magazines, now addressed primarily women. This was a new section of the market that didn’t previously exist because before WWI, very few middle-class women had worked and so had their own disposable income separate from household expenses. Even when men still earned all the money, women would still often manage it, at least in regard to day-to-day life. Appealing to women’s sense of advancement was one of the most successful advertisement strategies of the era.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter. An extended version of this series can be bought here.


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