The Decade That Roared

46h. Fads and Heroes

Charles Lindbergh
New American hero, Charles Lindbergh, is honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City on June 13, 1927, after returning from the world's first solo transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.

The Roaring Twenties was a time of great change. As exciting as dynamic times may seem, such turmoil generates uncertainty. Sometimes, in an effort to obscure tensions, people seek outlets of escape. Fads — sometimes entertaining, sometimes senseless — swept the nation. Another coping strategy in a time of great uncertainty is to find role models who embody tried and true values. National heroes heretofore unknown to peacetime America began to dominate American consciousness.

Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly
Flagpole sitting was a popular fad of the 1920s and was definitely the thing to do!

New Fads

The radio created the conditions for national fads. Without such a method of live and immediate communication, fads could amount only to local crazes. Roaring Twenties fads ranged from the athletic to the ludicrous. One of the most popular trends of the decade was the dance marathon. New dance steps such as the Charleston swept the nation's dance halls, and young Americans were eager to prove their agility. In a typical dance marathon, contestants would dance for forty-five minutes and rest for fifteen. The longest marathons lasted thirty-six hours or more. Beauty pageants came into vogue. The first Miss America Pageant was staged in Atlantic City in 1921. One of the most bizarre fads was flagpole sitting. The object was simple: be the person who could sit atop the local flagpole for the longest period of time. Fifteen-year-old Avon Foreman of Baltimore set the amateur standard — ten days, ten hours, ten minutes, and ten seconds.

Flappers playing Mah Jongg
Flappers playing Mah Jongg, a popular board game, in the 1920s.

Mah-jongg is a Chinese tile game. Colored tiles with different symbols were randomly arranged geometrically. The object is to remove all the game pieces. Crossword puzzle fever swept the nation when Simon and Schuster published America's first crossword puzzle book. The Book-of-the-Month Club drew thousands of readers into literary circles. Two new periodicals began to grace American coffee tables. The nation's first weekly news magazine, Time, was founded by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden. Their punchy writing on timely stories and eye-grabbing pictures hit the newsstands in 1923. DeWitt Wallace made a business out of condensing articles from other periodicals. His publication, Reader's Digest, began in 1921 and boasted a half million subscriptions a decade later.

New Heroes

No individual personified the All-American hero more than Charles Lindbergh. His courage was displayed to the nation when he flew his Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris, becoming the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. National and international news was hidden in the back pages of the major newspapers while Lindbergh stole the front pages. Confetti flew and bugles sounded in New York City when he returned successfully, and President Coolidge hosted a gala celebration. There was more to Lindbergh's appeal than his bravery. Throughout the ordeal, Lindbergh maintained a hometown modesty. He declined dozens of endorsement opportunities, ever refusing to sell out. Spectator sports provided opportunities for others to grab the limelight. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were role models for hundreds of thousands of American boys. Fortunately, Cobb's outward racism and Ruth's penchant for drinking and womanizing were shielded from admiring youngsters. Football had Red Grange, and boxing had Jack Dempsey. Gertrude Ederle impressed Americans by becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel. These heroes gave Americans, anxious about the uncertain future and rapidly fading past, a much needed sense of stability.

QUIZ TIME: 1920s Quiz

On the Web
The American Experience — Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh was undoubtedly one of the true heroes of the 1920s. This PBS sponsered site delves into the life and times this era's great aviator by using pictures, sound clips, maps, and unusual links to fill out the picture of the man. A wonderful site!
The 1920's Experience
A rather comprehensive site dealing with many of the popular fads and trends of the 1920s. Great interactive graphics and a wealth of information on the few topics they cover here. Check and see if they have what you are looking for, you won't be disappointed.
Music, Arts, and Culture of the 1920s
This site is devoted mostly to the music of the 1920s and provides wonderful Real Audio clips of and links to the music that helped define this era. A wonderful online collection.
Lindbergh's Double Life
Charles Lindbergh, a family man with a wife and three children, maintained several secret extramarital affairs, the details only revealed after his death in 1974.
Houdini, A Biographical Chronology
The "Genius of Escape Who Will Startle and Amaze," Harry Houdini, is celebrated in this American Experience online exhibit at the Library of Congress. Note the underlined text in this biography. Each is a link to one of over 170 images of photographs and personal memorabilia, some with their own descriptive pages.
Mah Jong Museum
The Mah Jong Museum offers this informational website about the Chinese game that swept the United States in the 1920s. Click on the "game history" for links to several articles written in the 1920s about the craze. Interesting pictures are hidden throughout the site, too.
In 1923 at the height of the craze, China exported $l.5 million in mah jongg sets to the United States and had to import bone from Kansas City and Chicago to meet the demand for production of new sets.
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Did you know that by the end of his life, Charles Lindbergh was seen by many Americans as a national disgrace? Read about the fallen hero here!
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OK, it was all the rage in the 1920s, but how DO you play Mah Jongg? Click the link and find out the rules!
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On a friend's dare in 1924 "Shipwreck" Kelly climbed atop a flagpole and sat there for over 13 hours, starting a new fad. 1000s of spectators watch as 100s followed Kelly's lead, but Kelly kept ahead of contenders, once sitting for 49 days!
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