Weird History
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How People In The Roaring Twenties Spent Their Free Time

Updated August 28, 2020 12.0k views14 items

"For the healing of the nations there must be good will and charity, confidence and peace," President Calvin Coolidge declared at the end of 1923, as the shadow of WWI continued to loom over America. What was life actually like in the decade that came to be known as the Roaring Twenties? While most history textbooks emphasize the country's recovery from war, the 1920s were full of great change and progress for many Americans. During this decade, the economy doubled, meaning people bought more goods and had more time to invest in leisure activities. It was an era of seemingly endless prosperity, which came to a sudden halt when 1929's Wall Street crash triggered the Great Depression.

In those golden moments before economic disparity took hold, what did people do for fun in the 1920s? This was the decade in which national treasures like baseball, jazz, and cinema became entrenched in the common culture. It was the decade in which families sat around and tuned into their new radios to catch up on current events or fictional dramas. It was the decade in which automobile sales soared and car culture was born. It was also the decade of speakeasies, courtesy of Prohibition.

The next time you decide to sit on a flagpole, consult a Ouija board, or buy a raccoon fur coat, you can thank the Roaring '20s.

  • Photo: Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress / No Known Restrictions

    Sitting Atop Flagpoles For Extended Periods Of Time Was A Thing

    In 1924, Aloysius Anthony Kelly started a trend that persists to this day: flagpole sitting. After being dared to see how long he could stay put on top of a narrow beam, he realized he had a special talent when he lasted for more than 13 hours. "Shipwreck" Kelly, as he came to be known based on his claim to have survived the Titanic crash, spent 22+ days atop a pole in New York's Madison Square Garden and 45+ days on a 60-foot pole in Baltimore.

    Kelly's favorite pastime swept the nation, and people all over tried to approach or top his record.

  • Photo: National Photo Company / Library of Congress / No Known Restrictions

    Dance Crazes And Dance Marathons Redefined The Social Scene

    Another popular "human endurance" activity in the Roaring '20s was the dance marathon. For cash and prizes, couples could enter these competitions that literally lasted weeks or months.

    These jazz-inspired shindigs were controversial, and many cities banned them, considering marathon dancing "disruptive, disturbing, and even repugnant." As the Great Depression took hold at the end of the '20s, people entered these marathons not just for fun, but for survival.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Decade Earned The Nickname 'The Jazz Age' For A Reason

    Jazz is the authentic American music, developed by Black musicians in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century. Jazz revolutionized the sound and structure of songs, making music more lively and danceable. The upbeat, celebratory style of jazz culminated in the 1920s, giving the decade another important nickname: The Jazz Age.

    Jazz music was played live in clubs all over the country, where young people flocked to try out new dances like the Charleston. Jazz also brought on the birth of the Flapper movement. Flappers were women characterized by short hair, flashy gowns, and red lipstick. In 1920, the Atlantic Monthly defined the flapper type, explaining these ladies "trot like foxes, limp like lame ducks, one-step like cripples, and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transform the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam."

  • Photo: National Photo Company / Library of Congress / No Known Restrictions

    Mahjong And Other Board Games Were Popular At Parties

    Joseph B. Babcock began importing sets of the medieval Chinese tile game Mahjong in 1922. The version replicated and sold by Babcock was a much simpler take on the original, which made the game widely accessible and commercially successful.

    In Mahjong, a game played by four people, each tile in a set contains unique iconography and imagery that must be matched using skill and strategy. People of all ages were obsessed with the game in the 1920s, and it became an international hit.