How 'the jazz age' led to the Great Depression

It was a decade of major technological advancement, of huge growth for the wealthy, of obsession with celebrity - and it ended in bust. Sounds familiar?

University of Sussex American Studies lecturer Dr Susan Currell analysed in detail what is generally regarded as a lively and optimistic period of American history for her latest book American Culture in the 1920s (Edinburgh University Press).

The startling parallels between the 1920s and the first decade of the 21st century became all too apparent when she reached the stage of describing the Wall Street Crash. She says: "As I was finishing the book, I was writing about the banks collapsing in 1929, at the same time as hearing about the current banking crisis on the news."

"What I was high-lighting was that there was an underlying depression that was already going on in America at the time. We think of the 1920s as being a time of boom, but that was only happening for the top ten per cent of the population, as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 'Echoes of the Jazz Age' in 1931."

Despite this, a cultural bonanza was in full swing, partly because of the development of commercial radio stations and the cinema. Radio brought jazz music to the entire country and cinema made modern life visible to even the most remote communities. Dr Currell says: "America went from having no radio stations in 1919, to hundreds by the end of the next decade, creating accessibility to music, opinions and events of the era. And the rise of the movie industry created celebrity culture."

Other developments included America's keen interest in psychotherapy and the popularisation of Freud, as well as the mass appeal of science, with films such as 'The Einstein Theory of Relativity' (1923) shown in cinemas throughout the nation. Other popular developments highlighted growing tensions over race and religion, which includes the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as well as debates over the changing role of women, epitomised in the emergence of the outrageous "flapper".

Dr Currell was approached by Edinburgh University Press to be one of its authors in a series about the decades of the 20th century as a result of her previously published works, The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in America During the 1930s. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s. (University of Ohio Press, with Christina Cogdell).

"Like the 1930s, the 1920s is a decade of contradictions and paradoxes out of which what we consider as modern culture emerged; while they seem like two distinctly opposing eras, having worked on the thirties before I could see how the decades were more similar than is often recognised," she says. "While everyone ignored the underlying economic problems during the 1920s, after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 what was wrong about free-market capitalism became very apparent". As with recent events, "greedy bankers" were blamed then for the uncontrolled excesses that led to the economic ruin of the thirties."

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 11 December 2009