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America in a New Age, Mass Culture

Northern jobs, Universal Negro Improvement Association, New Negro, Columbia Broadcasting System, film magazines

Leisure industries, too, turned to mass production. Amusements of bygone days—amateur theatricals, sleigh rides—gave way to new industries in entertainment and culture. Rural or urban, Americans nationwide read mass-circulation magazines, full of advertising, such as The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, or The Ladies’ Home Journal. They listened on the radio to the same popular music, comedy shows, and commercials, broadcast by new radio networks such as National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Motion pictures gained vast urban audiences, and in 1927 Al Jolson’s film The Jazz Singer introduced sound to movie audiences. Fans followed the careers of movie stars in film magazines. The press also tracked other celebrities, such as Charles Lindbergh, who flew the first transatlantic flight in 1927, or novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, who epitomized an icon of the 1920s, the flapper.

Young and uninhibited, the flapper represented much of what typified the Jazz Age of the 1920s—youthful rebellion, female independence, exhibitionism, competitiveness, and consumerism. Although a symbol of liberation, the flapper was in fact the ultimate consumer, dependent on a variety of products. With her bobbed hairdos, short skirts, makeup, and cigarettes, she supported growth industries of the 1920s—the beauty parlor, the ready-made clothing industry, cosmetic manufacture, and tobacco production. Consumerism linked the carefree, adventurous mood of the Jazz Age with the dominance of large corporations and their conservative values.

Among African Americans, the great migration of Southern blacks to Northern jobs during the war created strong African American communities. During the 1920s these communities were home to cultural revivals, such as the Harlem Renaissance, where art, music, and literature flourished. The “New Negro,” a term used by critic and historian Alain Locke, celebrated African American heritage and racial identity. As black creativity flourished, African Americans began to raise their voices for equality. Interest also arose in black nationalism. Some African Americans became followers of Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who urged racial pride, formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and led a “Back to Africa” movement. At its height the UNIA claimed more than 2 million members. It declined after Garvey was convicted of fraud and deported to Jamaica in 1927.

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