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Living the Twenties: J,K,L

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 J, K and L.

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

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of jazz in the 1920s. Far from being a mere form of music, jazz was the language of the new world. It incarnated everything modern, new, daring and futuristic. There is a reason it was often called the Jazz age.

The African-American origin

Nobody knows exactly where, when, and how jazz arose. It is generally accepted that it began in New Orleans at the very end of the 19th or very beginning of the 10th century, probably as a popular form of art, made by musicians with no formal music education belonging to the African American community.

From the beginning, jazz went hand-in-hand with a bawdy life. Discriminated against for their race, their practitioners found jobs by necessity mostly in underground bars and brothels, managed by the underworld.

When in the 1910s the Great Migration began, many of the African Americans who immigrated to the northern cities of the US were jazz musicians, who continued to practice their music, very often in the same underground environment.

But then, at the beginning of the 1920s, Prohibition happened and legal alcohol sales were banned.

Prohibition and the rise of the Jazz Culture

Prohibition did not end Drinking culture in the USA but it certainly changed it. The Middle and Upper Classes were much less targeted than the working classes and women were much less targeted by men. The macho working class atmosphere of Legal Saloons were replaced by underground speakeasies which catered to both males and females and were much more middle class and fashionable. Speakeasies had Jazz music in a way a Saloon would not. These drinking places were at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts going on at the time, as it united mostly black musicians with mostly white audiences.

Especially young people thronged to them to have fun at the sound of that music that spoke of everything new and forbidden. Jazz was wild, dissonant and had nothing traditional about it. It allowed for dances were bodies shook violently and touched. Young people from all walks of life were now exposed to and attracted to this thrill.

Jazz then escaped out of the segregated, secret places, and became a mainstream form of expression which crossed the race line in America and then the oceans to other cultures.

Jazz became extremely popular in Europe too, where a new brand of European jazz arose.

Still, not everything was well for this form of music.

The Jazz controversy

Jazz was controversial for many reasons, especially in the United States.

On both shores of the Atlantic, scholars and musicians discussed whether jazz was even music since it didn’t follow any of the traditional rules. Because it rested heavily on improvisation and personal intuition, jazz was even difficult to teach.

The fact that it was so wildly syncopated suggested that it loosened civil behaviour and restraints, liberating a more primitive, more animal part of the human being. The wild swing dances done to jazz were far more sensual and less formal than the classic white dances.

In Europe, where the first school of jazz was founded in Germany in the 1920s, this was generally considered good. It was a way to communicate with a more primeval, more authentic part of the self. Jazz became enormously popular, and many European musicians adopted it as their own. Though there would, of course, be push back, Nazi officials often hated Jazz and had strict rules on its performance.

The situation was far more complex in America. There was a racial element to the discussion and a fear that the popularity of jazz put the African American community, which had long been suppressed and discriminated against, in a position of mastery. The best and most popular jazz musicians were black and this was a hard stroke to the colour line at a time when White Supremacy was at its most oppressive in terms of race massacres and lynchings. Jazz, much like Blues, was the product of a culture under attack and an oasis in that hostile environment.

Musicians, both black and white, wanted to learn jazz from the African American masters. Youths of every colour and social position adopted jazz and its language though as a result they also changed it. The Swing dances of the 1940s were a white middle class and ultimately tamed version of the original black swing dances and Paul Whiteman was the first major Jazz star to make it big, on the basis largely of being white and so more acceptable. But once he'd opened the door, many black jazz musicians were able to become famous playing that music, in a way Black entertainers had rarely previously been able to do. The 1920s was the decade of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

Risen from the heady 1920s environment, jazz as a national phenonium died out as the Great Depression loomed over America, and the shadow of nationalism spread over Europe. But the changes it brought about were never forgotten, and in time, decades later, it rose again.

The Twenties were a time of great innovation in the field of appliances for the kitchen and elsewhere. Many discoveries and inventions had already been made during the 1800s but WWI gave a great push to the application of these inventions. In the 1920s, when the war was over, many new appliances appeared on the market, with prices many people could afford.

The new electrified houses were a game changer in terms of opening the doors for new appliances designed to make housework easier being able to be used by more people and so became a symbol of modernity.

The number of electrified houses increased steadily from the end of WWI throughout the 1920s and 1930s when almost all urban houses had electricity. The production and commercialisation of house appliances increased accordingly.

In a short decade, home appliances went from being expensive and unreliable toys for the rich to moderately priced, dependable and useful tools for the middle-class. Though some of them remained too expensive and too little dependable to become common in the house.

Which were the most common appliances of the 1920s?

Many house appliances first appeared on the mass market in the 1920s, though they might have looked quite differently from the ones we are accustomed to today.

Vacuum cleaner

Already in the 19th century, different devices that swept dust from carpets existed, but the vacuum cleaner that used the same principle as those that we use today was invented in 1901 in England by Hubert Cecil Booth. It was so big it could not enter buildings, only its tubes would go in from the windows.

The first portable vacuum cleaner that had an electric motor and a rotating brush was invented by a janitor from Canton, Ohio, James Murray Spangler in 1907. Lacking the money to begin his own production, Spangler sold the patent to William Henry Hoover in 1908. Hoover redesigned the vacuum cleaner and later added disposal filter bags.

Smoothing irons

Ironing clothes was a hard, tiring job because it required to stand by a heating stove for a long time, no matter the weather. Throughout the 19th century, more than one person had considered powering irons with electricity. Henry W. Seely of New York first made this idea workable already in 1881.

Still, it was only when electricity became commonly available in the home, in the 1920s, that electric irons become more common. But the question on whether it was more reliable or effective was open. Many people still preferred to use the traditional flat iron for a few more decades until better versions of the electric irons became available.

Washing machine

The name washing machine may be deceptive since the first washing machine didn’t look at all like the one we know today. The first electric washing machines were quite simple devices. They had a motor that powered the agitation of the water, detergent and soiled items and drove the wringer into which wet items had to be inserted by hand. Alva J. Fisher invented it in 1908 and the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago marketed it.

The job of washing clothes was among the most tiring, time-consuming and messy work of the housewife. Fisher’s washing machine was still laborious if we think of it with our minds of today. It still made the job a lot faster and less of a hustle.

By the 1920s, it had become affordable by many middle-class households.


The history of the electric refrigerator is a bit different.

Early versions of some electric appliance existed by the 1920s. But they were expensive and not very dependable. In fact, most households preferred to continue relying on the iceboxes, the traditional insulated chest cooled by blocks of ice that had been in use since the 1860s. Some even still used underground storage.

The first refrigerator that many households would afford was the General Electric’s “Monitor-Top,” first produced in 1927. It worked with a compressor assembly that emitted such great deal of heat that needed to stand above the cabinet.

Did appliances really make the life of housewives easier?

It may seem that with all these innovations the work of the housewives became less tiring and time-consuming. That – as advertisements were eager to point out – these women could use their free time for themselves and for the pursuit of their interests.

But often that time was instead used on keeping their houses and their families cleaner or working in paid jobs outside the home. Since they had more time because the machine did a part of the job, women were expected to use the extra time to do extra work.

WWI defined the lives and the souls of all people of the interwar years. That is, until another unthinkable tragedy happened: WWII.

The Lost Generation was the generation of youths who, born right before or right after 1900, came of age during the war. But the feeling of disillusionment they experience affected even younger people who never took part in the war.

The words most often used to describe this generation are disillusionment, rebellion and alienation.

This was a generation who entered the war with enthusiasm. Born at the end of the long 1800s – a century of peace, but in many ways also of stagnation – these young people thought that war was the right way to set things right. The way to revitalise a stuffy society that fed on itself and didn’t create anything new.

The war was everything but renewal.

It was death and illness. It was destruction and desolation.

The only thing that it effectively managed to do was destroy the trust and hope these young people had for their fathers. The Lost Generation felt betrayed by all the old values and robbed of any future. There could be no future that rested on those old, useless values, but a different set of values was hard to see from where they stood.

Stripped of the past and of the future, what remained to this generation was the present, and they set out to enjoy it at its fullest, while they could.

The Lost Generation in the United States

In the United States, the Lost Generation refers more specifically to a group of young intellectuals and artists (writers, most of them), who fought in the war and felt the betrayal of their hopes sharply.

These young men and women were rebels who rejected everything they fathers had created. They didn’t believe in the capitalistic way of life, especially the brutal incarnation it was manifesting in America. They hated the consumer market that seemed petty and middle-class to them. They also rejected traditional gender roles and enthusiastically embraced the rebellion of the New Woman and enjoyed a freer relation between men and women. They refused to abide by the accepted laws. Openly against Prohibition, they consumed alcohol in speakeasies and private parties and enjoyed the modern, devil music.

The only thing they seemed to believe in was the present and the enjoyment of the present since the past was rotten and dead, and the future was blurry and uncertain, and probably not worth hoping for.

It was in many respects, more of an intellectual stance than a general feeling. Most of American young people felt less despairing as they enjoyed one of the most prosperous moments in the country's history. The despair would come later.

The Lost Generation in Europe

Or the Generation of the Trenches, as Europe called it. It referred to the young men and women who fought in the Great War and who lost a lot more than anyone had the right to demand of them.

The loss of lives was staggering. Entire villages in Europe lost most of their young male population. Even when both men and women who had served in WWI came home, they were not the same who left. Many (especially young men) had lost parts of their bodies and were going to be invalid for the rest of their lives.

But many men and women had wounds that weren’t visible and only lived in their minds and souls. Those wounds they also had to live with the rest of their life. Wounds that often were not acknowledge as such by anyone. Not even by themselves.

The terrible experience of war chanced these youths forever. They could never trust their elders again, who they felt had created that devastation, and robbed them of any possible future.

These were young people educated at the very end of the Victorian era for a Victorian world. That world didn’t exist anymore after the war. And so they felt they lived in a world nobody had prepared them for, but the war had sucked away the strength and the will to create a new one.

On a larger scale, this transferred to all that generation, whether they had experienced the war or not. These young people had a general sense the life was senseless, and one would get as much fun as possible while they could because the world was ephemeral. Any success was ephemeral. Life itself was ephemeral.


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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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