Investigative Question

Why were the 1920s filled with political, social, and economic extremes?

The 1920s is often characterized as a period of Prohibition, gangsters, speakeasies, jazz bands, flappers, and conspicuous consumption, which overshadows the complex realities of this era. In reality, the 1920s is a decade of extremes: broad cultural leaps forward to embrace modernity and simultaneously a deep anxiety about the country changing too fast and for the worse. Students consider this question as they learn about the movements of the 1920s: Why were the 1920s filled with political, social, and economic extremes? For middle-class white Americans, the standard of living rose in the 1920s, and new consumer goods such as automobiles, radios, and household appliances became available, as well as consumer credit.

Students learn how productivity increased through the widespread adoption of mass production techniques, such as the assembly line. The emergence of mass media created new markets, tastes, and popular culture.

Movies, radio, and advertising spread styles, raised expectations, promoted interests in fads and sports, and created gendered celebrity icons such as "It Girl" Clara Bow and Babe Ruth, the "Sultan of Swat." At the same time, major new writers began to appear, such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Sinclair Lewis. As students learn about the prosperity and proliferation of consumer goods on the market in the 1920s, students learn that with these changes came both intended and unforeseeable consequences, many resulting in social effects on people and impacts on the environments where they lived (see appendix G for Environmental Principle IV).

This question can help frame students' understanding of the 1920s: How did culture change in the 1920s? Students should explore cultural and social elements of the Jazz Age. Women, who had just secured national suffrage with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, experienced new freedoms but also faced pressure to be attractive and sexual through the growing cosmetics and entertainment industries, and related advertisements.

The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act triggered the establishment of speakeasies. These not only represented a challenge to Prohibition but established a vast social world that broke the law and challenged middle-class ideas of what should be allowed. In those arenas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) patrons and performers became part of what was tolerated and even sometimes acceptable as LGBT-oriented subcultures grew and became more visible. At the same time, modern heterosexuality became elaborated through a growing world of dating and entertainment — a celebration of romance in popular media, the new prominence of young people and youth cultures, and a new kind of marriage that valued companionship.

American culture was also altered by the first Great Migration of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during and after World War I, which changed the landscape of Black America. The continued flow of migrants and the practical restrictions of segregation in the 1920s helped to create the Harlem Renaissance, the literary and artistic flowering of Black artists, poets, musicians, and scholars such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, and Zora Neale Hurston. Their work provides students with stunning portrayals of life during segregation, both urban and rural.

LGBT life expanded in 1920s Harlem. At drag balls, rent parties, and speakeasies, rules about acceptable gendered behavior seemed more flexible for Black and white Americans than in other parts of society, and many leading figures in the Renaissance such as Hughes, Locke, Cullen, and Rainey were lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The Harlem Renaissance led many African Americans to embrace a new sense of Black pride and identity, as did Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist leader of a "Back to Africa" movement that peaked during this period. 

In addition to American political leaders' reluctance to embrace change, many Americans did not embrace the social and cultural openness of the decade. These people found a voice in many organizations that formed to prevent such shifts. The Ku Klux Klan launched anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and moralizing campaigns of violence and intimidation; vice squads targeted speakeasies, communities of color, and LGBT venues.

As a reflection of the anxiety about the changing demographic composition of the country, the United States Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) that the country could restrict the right to naturalization based on race. Congress, encouraged by eugenicists who warned of the "degradation" of the population, restricted immigration by instituting nationality quotas the following year in 1924.

Similar fears about outsiders hurting the nation led to campaigns against perceived radicals. Fears of communism and anarchism associated with the Russian Revolution and World War I provoked attacks on civil liberties and industrial unionists, including the Palmer Raids, the "Red Scare," the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and legislation restraining individual expression and privacy. Legal challenges to these activities produced major Supreme Court decisions defining and qualifying the right to dissent and freedom of speech. By reading some of the extraordinary decisions of Justices Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes (Schenck v. U.S. (1919) and Whitney v. California (1927)), students will understand the continuing tension between the rights of the individual and the power of government. Students can engage in a debate that weighs the need to preserve civil liberties against the need to protect national security. Learning about the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), formed in 1920 with the purpose of defending World War I dissenters, and the NAACP, established in 1909 to protect and promote the constitutional rights of minorities, helps students identify organizational responses to unpopular views and minority rights. Students can synthesize their studies of the 1920s by addressing these questions: Were the 1920s a "return to normalcy?" Why or why not?

This inquiry set provides resources that frame the 1920s as a decade of extremes in social, political, and cultural developments, including political anti-radicalism, intense nativism, and expansive explorations of gender. Many of these sources feature California as a center of anti-radicalism (through the Criminal Syndicalism Act) and nativism (in the form of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies). Following on the heels of some of the most robust Progressive-era legislation (California passed prohibition, anti-gambling, suffrage, and anti-monopoly legislation earlier than other states in the 1910s), California also gave birth to some of the most significant changes in the 1920s, not to mention the president who would first preside over the nation's Great Depression. In this sense, students should center their home state prominently in their study of this important decade.

At the same time, a wider lens can yield different perspectives. In California and across the nation, the 1920s were also a time of expansive possibilities in terms of consumer culture, mobility, art, and gender expression. While the figure of the flapper looms larger in our popular imagination of the era, she is most often understood as white and middle class or wealthy. Flapper aesthetics and imagery were also taken up by Latinas, female impersonators, a nascent interracial LGBT culture, and in African American blues music. This inquiry set invites students to consider how the modern sexual and social freedoms the flapper embodied took on different meanings in different cultural contexts.

Literacy Support (Unit 11.5, Source 5: "Hamilton Lodge Ball Is Scene of Splendor")

Teacher background:

This article, appearing in The New York Age in February 1930, reports on a Harlem drag ball. It makes use of historical slang that may be unknown or have different connotations to a modern reader (e.g. sheik, sheba, frail, freakish). This literacy activity will guide students to (1) assess their current understandings of terms, (2) use free online dictionary resources to add to or complicate these understandings, and (3) determine what the terms likely meant in the context of the article. The lesson will build dictionary literacy skills while raising student awareness about language change and the historical context of words. The lesson will also highlight vocabulary related to gender, sexuality, and race and will include vocabulary related to opulence and pleasure in order to prompt students to consider how the text relates to overall social trends of the 1920s.


  1. Provide context. Before reading together, students should be oriented to the fact that this is an article written in a black newspaper about a drag ball in Harlem. It assumes students have already been introduced to the Harlem Renaissance as well as the growing visibility of the LGBT subculture.
  2. Interpret and discuss text.
    • Read the text once together as a class and, without yet closely reading for details or defining terms, make sure students have a basic understanding of what the event was and who was in attendance.
    • To maximize student opportunities to talk and negotiate meaning, ask them to work in pairs or small groups to complete the vocabulary exploration section of the student handout.
      • Have students complete the first two columns of the vocabulary chart, tracking their contemporary understandings of some of the vocabulary used in the text. Not all students will have baseline understandings of all of these terms, and that's okay.
      • Show students how to use the online version of Green's Dictionary of Slang and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary to complete the remainder of the vocabulary chart, which asks them to expand their understandings of words. (Green's is sufficient for most words, but Merriam-Webster's is a useful supplement. If your school has a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is a great substitute for Merriam-Webster's in that it offers more historical context for the definitions given.) Note for students that Green's Dictionary of Slang shows dates of first appearance, and that you can use the toggle on the right side to expand for historical examples of each definition.
      • Also, let students know that in exploring some of the definitions, they may encounter objectionable material in the form of uncomfortable meanings; encourage them to focus on the senses of the words and examples that seem most relevant to the article at hand.

      • After students have had time to work in groups, guide the class in discussing the possible meanings of these terms in the context of the article.
      • Ask students to answer questions 3 and 4, collecting examples of words in the article that relate to gender or that connote opulence or showiness.
    • Ask students to write and reflect on the connections of this text to the unit overall. What social trends of the 1920s does this text exemplify?
  3. Extend the learning.
    • Students can look at definitions of the words studied in this lesson as they evolved after the 1920s to understand how the culture of that decade might have had a role in shaping the future evolution of the words. (For example, Green's Dictionary shows a 1972 reference to "sheba" as "a homosexual black man.")
    • Have students play with other resources to explore historical language or slang in this or other texts:
      • Corpus of Historical American English (free, but requires registration about a certain number of searches)
      • Oxford English Dictionary (subscription-based)
      • Google Book Ngram Viewer
      • Dictionary of American Regional English


11.5 1920s Student Handout

11.5 1920s Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.