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The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture Previous Next
Digital History ID 3397


Many of the defining features of modern American culture emerged during the 1920s. The record chart, the book club, the radio, the talking picture, and spectator sports all became popular forms of mass entertainment. But the 1920s primarily stand out as one of the most important periods in American cultural history because the decade produced a generation of artists, musicians, and writers who were among the most innovative and creative in the country's history.

Mass Entertainment

Of all the new appliances to enter the nation's homes during the 1920s, none had a more revolutionary impact than the radio. Sales of radios soared from $60 million in 1922 to $426 million in 1929. The first commercial radio station began broadcasting in 1919, and during the 1920s, the nation's airwaves were filled with musical variety shows and comedies.

Radio drew the nation together by bringing news, entertainment, and advertisements to more than 10 million households by 1929. Radio blunted regional differences and imposed similar tastes and lifestyles. No other media had the power to create heroes and villains so quickly. When Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1928, the radio brought this incredible feat into American homes, transforming him into a celebrity overnight.

Radio also disseminated racial and cultural caricatures and derogatory stereotypes. The nation's most popular radio show, "Amos 'n Andy," which first aired in 1926 on Chicago's WMAQ, spread vicious racial stereotypes into homes whose white occupants knew little about African Americans. Other minorities fared no better. The Italian gangster and the tightfisted Jew became stock characters in radio programming.

The phonograph was not far behind the radio in importance. The 1920s saw the record player enter American life in full force. Piano sales sagged as phonograph production rose from just 190,000 in 1923 to 5 million in 1929. The popularity of jazz, blues, and "hillbilly" music fueled the phonograph boom. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald called the 1920s the "Jazz Age"--and the decade was truly jazz's golden age. Duke Ellington wrote the first extended jazz compositions; Louis Armstrong popularized "scat" (singing of nonsense syllables); Fletcher Henderson pioneered big band jazz; and trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and clarinetist Benny Goodman popularized the Chicago school of improvisation.

The blues craze erupted in 1920 when a black singer named Mamie Smith released a recording called "Crazy Blues." The record became a sensation, selling 75,000 copies in a month and a million copies in seven months. Recordings by Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues," and Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues," brought the blues, with their poignant and defiant reaction to life's sorrows, to a vast audience.

"Hillbilly" music broke into mass culture in 1923 when a Georgia singer named "Fiddlin' John" Carson sold 500,000 copies of his recordings. Another country artist, Vernon Dalhart, sold 7 million copies of a recording of "The Wreck of Old 97." "Country" music's appeal was not limited to the rural South or West; city folk, too, listened to country songs, reflecting a deep nostalgia for a simpler past.

The single most significant new instrument of mass entertainment was the movies. Movie attendance soared, from 50 million a week in 1920 to 90 million weekly in 1929. According to one estimate, Americans spent 83 cents of every entertainment dollar going to the movies, and three-fourths of the population went to a movie theater every week.

During the late teens and 1920s, the film industry took on its modern form. In cinema's earliest days, the film industry was based in the nation's theatrical center--New York. By the 1920s, the industry had relocated to Hollywood, drawn by its cheap land and labor, the varied scenery that was readily accessible, and a suitable climate ideal for year-round filming (some filmmakers moved to avoid lawsuits from individuals like Thomas Edison who owned patent rights over the filmmaking process). Each year, Hollywood released nearly 700 movies, dominating worldwide film production. By 1926, Hollywood had captured 95 of the British market and 70 percent of the French market.

A small group of companies consolidated their control over the film industry and created the "studio system" that would dominate film production for the next 30 years. Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and other studios owned their own production facilities, ran their own worldwide distribution networks, and controlled theater chains committed to showing their companies' products. In addition, they kept stables of actors, directors, and screenwriters under contract.

The popularity of the movies soared as films increasingly featured glamour, sophistication, and sex appeal. New kinds of movie stars appeared: the mysterious sex goddess, personified by Greta Garbo; the passionate hot-blooded lover, epitomized by Rudolph Valentino; and the flapper, with her bobbed hair and skimpy skirts. New film genres also debuted, including swashbuckling adventures, sophisticated sex comedies, and tales of flaming youth and their new sexual freedom. Americans flocked to see Hollywood spectacles such as Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments with its "cast of thousands" and dazzling special effects. Comedies, such as the slapstick masterpieces starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, enjoyed great popularity as well.

Like radio, movies created a new popular culture with common speech, dress, behavior, and heroes. Like radio, Hollywood did its share to reinforce racial stereotypes by denigrating minority groups. The radio, the electric phonograph, and the silver screen both molded and mirrored mass culture.

Spectator Sports

Spectator sports attracted vast audiences in the 1920s. The country yearned for heroes in an increasingly impersonal, bureaucratic society, and sports provided them. Prize fighters like Jack Dempsey became national idols. Team sports flourished, however, Americans focused on individual superstars, people whose talents or personalities made them appear larger than life. Knute Rockne and his "Four Horsemen" at Notre Dame spurred interest in college football. Professional football began during the 1920s. In 1925, Harold "Red" Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" halfback for the University of Illinois, attracted 68,000 fans to a professional football game at Brooklyn's Polo Grounds.

Baseball drew even bigger crowds than football. The decade began, however, with the sport mired in scandal. In 1920, three members of the Chicago White Sox told a grand jury that they and five other players had thrown the 1919 World Series. As a result of the "Black Sox" scandal, eight players were banished from the sport. But baseball soon regained its popularity, thanks to George Herman ("Babe") Ruth, the sport's undisputed superstar. Up until the 1920s, Ty Cobb's defensive brand of baseball, with its emphasis on base hits and stolen bases, had dominated the sport. Ruth transformed baseball into the game of the home-run hitter. In 1921, the New York Yankee slugger hit 59 home runs--more than any other team. In 1927, the "Sultan of Swat" hit 60 home runs.

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