Chart 1: USA GDP annual pattern and long-term trend, 1920–1940, in billions of constant dollars
The Roaring Twenties was a decade of economic growth and widespread prosperity, driven by recovery from wartime devastation and deferred spending, a boom in construction, and the rapid growth of consumer goods such as automobiles and electricity in North America and Western Europe and a few other developed countries such as Australia. The economy of the United States, which had successfully transitioned from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, boomed and provided loans for a European boom as well. Some sectors stagnated, especially farming and coal mining. The US became the richest country in the world per capita and since the late-19th century had been the largest in total GDP. Its industry was based on mass production, and its society acculturated into consumerism. European economies, by contrast, had a more difficult postwar readjustment and did not begin to flourish until about 1924.
At first, the end of wartime production caused a brief but deep recession, the post–World War I recession of 1919–20. Quickly, however, the economies of the U.S. and Canada rebounded as returning soldiers re-entered the labor force and munitions factories were retooled to produce consumer goods.
New products and technologies
Mass production made technology affordable to the middle class.
The automotive industry, the film industry, the radio industry, and the chemical industry took off during the 1920s. Of chief importance was the automotive industry. Before the war, cars were a luxury good. In the 1920s, mass-produced vehicles became commonplace in the US and Canada. By 1927, the Ford Motor Company discontinued the Ford Model T after selling 15 million units of that model. It had been in continuous production from October 1908 to May 1927. The company planned to replace the old model with a newer one, the Ford Model A. The decision was a reaction to competition. Due to the commercial success of the Model T, Ford had dominated the automotive market from the mid-1910s to the early-1920s. In the mid-1920s, Ford's dominance eroded as its competitors had caught up with Ford's mass production system. They began to surpass Ford in some areas, offering models with more powerful engines, new convenience features, and styling.
Only about 300,000 vehicles were registered in 1918 in all of Canada, but by 1929, there were 1.9 million, and automobile parts were being manufactured in Ontario, near Detroit, Michigan. The automotive industry's influence on other segments of the economy were widespread, jump starting industries such as steel production, highway building, motels, service stations, car dealerships, and new housing outside the urban core.
Ford opened factories around the world and proved a strong competitor in most markets for its low-cost, easy-maintenance vehicles. General Motors, to a lesser degree, followed. European competitors avoided the low-price market and concentrated on more expensive vehicles for upscale consumers.
Radio became the first mass broadcasting medium. Radios were expensive, but their mode of entertainment proved revolutionary. Radio advertising became a platform for mass marketing. Its economic importance led to the mass culture that has dominated society since this period. During the "Golden Age of Radio", radio programming was as varied as the television programming of the 21st century. The 1927 establishment of the Federal Radio Commission introduced a new era of regulation.
In 1925, electrical recording, one of the greater advances in sound recording, became available with commercially issued gramophone records.
The cinema boomed, producing a new form of entertainment that virtually ended the old vaudeville theatrical genre. Watching a film was cheap and accessible; crowds surged into new downtown movie palaces and neighborhood theaters. Since the early 1910s, lower-priced cinema successfully competed with vaudeville. Many vaudeville performers and other theatrical personalities were recruited by the film industry, lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions. The introduction of the sound film at the end of the decade of the 1920s eliminated vaudeville's last major advantage. Vaudeville was in sharp financial decline. The prestigious Orpheum Circuit, a chain of vaudeville and movie theaters, was absorbed by a new film studio.
In 1923, inventor Lee de Forest at Phonofilm released a number of short films with sound. Meanwhile, inventor Theodore Case developed the Movietone sound system and sold the rights to the film studio, Fox Film. In 1926, the Vitaphone sound system was introduced. The feature film Don Juan (1926) was the first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone sound system with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, though it had no spoken dialogue. The film was released by the film studio Warner Bros. In October 1927, the sound film The Jazz Singer (1927) turned out to be a smash box-office success. It was innovative for its use of sound. Produced with the Vitaphone system, most of the film does not contain live-recorded audio, relying on a score and effects. When the movie's star, Al Jolson, sings, however, the film shifts to sound recorded on the set, including both his musical performances and two scenes with ad-libbed speech—one of Jolson's character, Jakie Rabinowitz (Jack Robin), addressing a cabaret audience; the other an exchange between him and his mother. The "natural" sounds of the settings were also audible. The film's profits were proof enough to the film industry that the technology was worth investing in.
In 1928, the film studios Famous Players-Lasky (later known as Paramount Pictures), First National Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Universal Studios signed an agreement with Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI) for the conversion of production facilities and theaters for sound film. Initially, all ERPI-wired theaters were made Vitaphone-compatible; most were equipped to project Movietone reels as well. Also in 1928, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) marketed a new sound system, the RCA Photophone system. RCA offered the rights to its system to the subsidiary RKO Pictures. Warner Bros. continued releasing a few films with live dialogue, though only in a few scenes. It finally released Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking full-length feature film. The animated short film Dinner Time (1928) by the Van Beuren Studios was among the first animated sound films. It was followed a few months later by the animated short film Steamboat Willie (1928), the first sound film by the Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was the first commercially successful animated short film and introduced the character Mickey Mouse.Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack, which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons. It became the most popular cartoon of its day.
For much of 1928, Warner Bros. was the only studio to release talking features. It profited from its innovative films at the box office. Other studios quickened the pace of their conversion to the new technology and started producing their own sound films and talking films. In February 1929, sixteen months after The Jazz Singer, Columbia Pictures became the eighth and last major studio to release a talking feature. In May 1929, Warner Bros. released On with the Show! (1929), the first all-color, all-talking feature film. Soon silent film production ceased. The last totally silent feature produced in the US for general distribution was The Poor Millionaire, released by Biltmore Pictures in April 1930. Four other silent features, all low-budget Westerns, were also released in early 1930.
The 1920s saw milestones in aviation that seized the world's attention. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh rose to fame with the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight. He took off from Roosevelt Field in New York and landed at Paris–Le Bourget Airport. It took Lindbergh 33.5 hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean. His aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, was a custom-built, single engine, single-seat monoplane. It was designed by aeronautical engineer Donald A. Hall. In Britain, Amy Johnson (1903–1941) was the first woman to fly alone from Britain to Australia. Flying solo or with her husband, Jim Mollison, she set numerous long-distance records during the 1930s.
The 1920s saw several inventors advance work on television, but programs did not reach the public until the eve of World War II, and few people saw any television before the late-1940s.
In July 1928, John Logie Baird demonstrated the world's first color transmission, using scanning discs at the transmitting and receiving ends with three spirals of apertures, each spiral with a filter of a different primary color; and three light sources at the receiving end, with a commutator to alternate their illumination. That same year he also demonstrated stereoscopic television.
In 1927, Baird transmitted a long-distance television signal over 438 miles (705 km) of telephone line between London and Glasgow; Baird transmitted the world's first long-distance television pictures to the Central Hotel at Glasgow Central Station. Baird then set up the Baird Television Development Company Ltd, which in 1928 made the first transatlantic television transmission, from London to Hartsdale, New York and the first television programme for the BBC.
For decades biologists had been at work on the medicine that became penicillin. In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming discovered a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. In 1929, he named the new substance penicillin. His publications were largely ignored at first, but it became a significant antibiotic in the 1930s. In 1930, Cecil George Paine, a pathologist at Sheffield Royal Infirmary, used penicillin to treat sycosis barbae, eruptions in beard follicles, but was unsuccessful. Moving to ophthalmia neonatorum, a gonococcal infection in infants, he achieved the first recorded cure with penicillin, on November 25, 1930. He then cured four additional patients (one adult and three infants) of eye infections, but failed to cure a fifth.
The automobile's dominance led to a new psychology celebrating mobility. Cars and trucks needed road construction, new bridges, and regular highway maintenance, largely funded by local and state government through taxes on gasoline. Farmers were early adopters as they used their pickups to haul people, supplies and animals. New industries were spun off—to make tires and glass and refine fuel, and to service and repair cars and trucks by the millions. New car dealers were franchised by the car makers and became prime movers in the local business community. Tourism gained an enormous boost, with hotels, restaurants and curio shops proliferating.
Electrification, having slowed during the war, progressed greatly as more of the US and Canada was added to the electrical grid. Industries switched from coal power to electricity. At the same time, new power plants were constructed. In America, electricity production almost quadrupled.
Telephone lines also were being strung across the continent. Indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many houses.
Urbanization reached a milestone in the 1920 census, that showed slightly more Americans lived in urban areas towns and cities of 2,500 or more people than in small towns or rural areas. However, the nation was fascinated with its great metropolitan centers that contained about 15% of the population. New York and Chicago vied in building skyscrapers, and New York pulled ahead with the Empire State Building. The basic pattern of the modern white-collar job was set during the late-19th century, but it now became the norm for life in large and medium cities. Typewriters, filing cabinets, and telephones brought unmarried women into clerical jobs. In Canada, by the end of the decade one in five workers was a woman. Interest in finding jobs in the now ever-growing manufacturing sector in U.S. cities became widespread among rural Americans.