With the start of 2020, I thought it would be interesting to look back to the 1920s to see how far we have come in the last 100 years.

I found that in most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, I also found that many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

The 1920s was a decade of exciting social changes and profound cultural conflicts – just like today.

Sexual mores, gender roles, hairstyles, and dress all changed profoundly during the 1920s. But for many other people the 1920s seemed to be changing in undesirable ways.

The result was a "cultural civil war," in which a divided society clashed bitterly over such issues as politics, foreign immigration, the theory of evolution, the Ku Klux Klan, prohibition, women’s roles, and race. Sound familiar? Let’s take a look at the 1920s and you can draw your own conclusions on how far we have come.

New Laws

1920 is the only year since the passage of the Bill of Rights, that the Constitution was amended twice in one year.

The 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States which resulted in a 41% increase in drunk and disorderly arrests; drunk driving increased 81%; violent crime and murder went up 13%; the federal prison population swelled by a staggering 366%; and federal expenditures on penal institutions soared a thousand percent, according to documentarian Ken Burns.

These statistics bring to mind our current “war on drugs”.

The 18th amendment was repealed in 1933 by the 21st amendment.

Although the U.S. Constitution never mentioned women could or could not vote, society implied they could not. On August 26, 1920, the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote.

Women flocked to the polls and voted for new laws that helped them move closer to equality.

Women advocated for job opportunities, fairer wages, education, sex education, and birth control.

After women won the right to vote, male candidates catered to women to get elected, and women took advantage, advocating for laws that would allow them to have individual economic security, such as inheritance and divorce laws.

Before the 19th amendment, state laws prohibited women from owning and inheriting property, signing contracts, serving on juries, and voting in elections. Job opportunities for the women who had to work outside the home were limited to the service industry, and wages were low.

Women were encouraged to marry as a way of ensuring economic security. Childbearing was considered a duty of the marriage contract. Due to the Comstock Law of 1873, it was even illegal to send contraception, or information about it, through the mail.

This all changed with women’s right to vote.


The 1920s saw many cultural changes. The “Great Migration” of African Americans from southern farms to northern cities and the booming of black cultures such as jazz and blues music, and the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance – were perceived as a threat to some white Americans.

Millions of people in places like Indiana and Illinois joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1921. To these conservative white citizens, the Klan represented a return to all the “values” that the fast-paced, city-slicker “Roaring Twenties” were trampling. The Klan was not only against Blacks, but Catholics and Jews as well.

After the Russian Revolution, Communist Party organizations were being formed around the world.

In the U.S.A. an anti-Communist “Red Scare” in 1919 and 1920 lead to a widespread nativist, or anti-immigrant, hysteria.

This led to the passage of an extremely restrictive immigration law, the National Origins Act of 1924. This law set immigration quotas that excluded Eastern Europeans and Asians in favor of Northern Europeans and people from Great Britain. (Sound familiar?)

After a Sep. 16, 1920 bombing on Wall Street, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer mounted a campaign to capture and deport “foreign radicals”.

Thousands of “accused communists and anarchists” were arrested in massive nationwide raids. The raids’ organizer was a young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover.

The raids were proved to be fraught with questionable confessions and illegal warrants. Palmer was disgraced and left office. Hoover would go on to lead the FBI from 1924 to 1972.

Music & Literature

The 1920s was the decade that marked the beginning of the modern music era. As noted above, Jazz and Blues became popular helped by the advent of the radio and phonograph. Composers and singers such as Al Jolson, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Fanny Brice, Duke Ellington, Kate Smith, etc. come to prominence during this time. The first licensed radio station broadcast was November 1, 1920 in Pittsburgh, PA. By 1923 there were 500 stations and by 1926 there were 700. At the end of the 1920s, over 12 million households had a radio. The phonograph also became popular during this time. In 1927, 100 million phonograph records were sold.

In literature, “The Lost Generation” were young people who came out of World War I disillusioned and cynical about the world. The term usually refers to American literary notables who lived in Paris at the time, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

These expatriate authors wrote novels and short stories expressing their resentment toward the materialism and individualism that was rampant during the era. 

African American literary and artistic culture developed rapidly during the 1920s under the banner of “The Harlem Renaissance,” named for the historically black Harlem section of New York City. At the time, this cultural awakening was known as the “New Negro Movement” and was represented by notable writers including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, and Virginia Houston.

Harlem also played a key role in the development of dance styles and the popularity of dance clubs. With several famous entertainment venues such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, Harlem attracted people from all walks of life, races, and classes.


The '20s represented an era of change and growth, helping to establish America’s strong position in the world, through its industry, its inventions, and its creativity. America had become a world power and was no longer considered just another former British colony.

However, this growth and change were not without controversy. Social and cultural conflicts–what one historian has called a “cultural Civil War” between city-dwellers and small-town residents, religious conservatives and liberals, blacks, and whites, “New Women” and advocates of old-fashioned family values–are part of the story of the 1920s.

Unfortunately, this “cultural Civil War” is still with us today.

Let’s hope we can learn from the 1920s and come together to truly live up to our destiny as country free of racism, religious intolerance, corruption, poverty and war. The challenge awaits us.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net