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4. What were culture and politics like in the 1920s and 1930s when Lewis was writing?


The 1920s, also known as the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties, was a lively time in U.S. history when young, modernist ideas collided with old, traditionalist values. The end of World War I marked a turning point in American society. The horror of war, along with the use of forms of mass destruction including planes, tanks, and poison gas, created a somber mood that the average person tried to forget through jazz and booze. In this decade, the workweek was reduced from sixty to forty-eight hours and families began vacationing in the summer.

While the 1920s monetarily separated the lower and upper class, people were brought together to drink during Prohibition. As part of the Volstead Act, the 18th Amendment eliminated the licenses of brewers, distillers, and wholesale and retail sellers of alcohol. Prohibition helped inspire many of the characteristic images of the 1920s. Men and women piled into speakeasies, and breaking the law became the rule, not the exception. This was the time of Eliot Ness, Al Capone, and the Chicago mobsters. A culture emerged from these speakeasies that included flapper style and dancing to the Charleston.

During this decade, President Warren G. Harding brought the word "scandal" to the White House. There were a number of famous trials including the Scopes Trial, otherwise known as the "Monkey Trial," where William Jennings Bryan took a trip to the stand to fight the teaching of evolution. In the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, two supposed robbers and murderers were tried, convicted, and executed. However, much evidence remains that the men were killed for their anti-capitalist political views. In the Leopold and Loeb trial, two law students were convicted of killing fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks for the thrill. The decade began with the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids and ended with the beginning of the Great Depression.

After Harding's death, President Calvin Coolidge declared that America's business was business, and ordinary people's trading on the stock market increased dramatically. Easy credit led to increased consumerism. Advertisements abounded, encouraging consumers to buy luxury items, like cars and radios. In 1930, not many people owned a radio, but by the end of the decade, one could be found in almost every household. During this time, Henry Ford revolutionized industry by speeding up production. He was also one of the first employers to view his workers as customers.

The 1920s were also a decade of reform. On August 26, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. This period included a push for other women's rights, including contraceptives and birth control clinics. Reform movements focused on improved wages, hours and conditions, and opened the doors wider for women's education. There were more women in the workforce than ever before. Like men, it became more common for women to smoke and drink. In fashion, women's hemlines jumped from their ankles to their knees, and their dresses and swimsuits were much skimpier. Bobbed hair also became popular.

Famous names of the 1920s:

Theater: John Barrymore, Irving Berlin, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Eugene O'Neill, Anna Pavlova, Will Rogers, and Florenz Ziegfeld
Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright
Visual Arts: Ansel Adams, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Pablo Picasso
Jazz: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Bessie Smith.
Philosphers: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jean Piaget
Science: Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein
Film: Charles Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, and Mack Sennett
Popular American Authors: Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg
Popular European Authors: Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and William Butler Yeats.


At the end of the decade known as the Roaring Twenties, on October 24, 1929, or Black Thursday, the Stock Market crashed, ruining the fortunes of many companies and leaving some investors penniless. Major causes of the crash were stock market speculation and the unequal distribution of wealth in the 1920s. The decade of the 1930s was also the time of the Great Depression. The Depression did not affect only one class, though. From 1930 to 1933, unemployment quintupled, and fifteen million people were out of work. Children left school to help support their families, although not much work was available. This period saw the rise of labor unions including the Knights of Labor and the conservative and strong American Federation of Labor.

In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected by a popular majority of seven million votes, and his New Deal presided over the rest of the decade. He implemented the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and provided work and services for the American people. Part of the CWA, the Public Works of Art Project was an experimental program in federal work relief, providing the unemployed with public service jobs during the bitter winter of 1933-34. For example, it hired artists to paint murals on public buildings. Both programs funded government projects to aid public welfare and to employ Americans.

On August 14, 1934, President Roosevelt signed the social security bill, surrounded by reporters and cameramen. It provided a social safety net for older Americans. He used the radio to reach the American people, speaking to American families through nationally broadcast fireside chats.

The Depression called for cheap, escapist entertainment, and radio programs flourished. Comedians Fred Allen, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns, and Bob Hope, as well as mystery programs like The Shadow and Suspense were popular. Board games also became popular, and Monopoly flew off the shelves in 1935.

William Randolph Hearst continued to feed the American people with print; by 1934 he published 33 newspapers that reached eleven million readers. He reported major events that occurred during the thirties, including the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the 1934 Dustbowl in America's Midwest, the 1937 Hindenburg crash, and Adolf Hitler's 1938 move into Austria. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Famous Names of the 1930s:

Music: Bing Crosby, the Dorsey brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, and a young Frank Sinatra
Sports: the Negro League and the domination of the New York Yankees in baseball, led by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth
Film: Fred Astaire, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Ronald Colman, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, and Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy
Popular Authors: Pearl S. Buck, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Margaret Mitchell, John Steinbeck, H.G. Wells, Thornton Wilder, and Virginia Woolf.
Aviation: Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Read more about the Great Depression. The New Deal Network. also has a lot of information on the arts, politics, and international affairs, as well as links to a variety of archives.

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