The Turbulent Twenties
The exhibit was on view from August 25, 2018 through May 11, 2019.
Out of the long decade of the 1920s and all of its turbulence emerged a modern, American society. The museum’s newest exhibit explores this decade, often noted for roaring fun, prosperity, and good feelings. Yet it was a decade couched between the horrors of World War I and the melancholia of the Great Depression. While consumerism was up, jazz was hot, and pop culture was all-consuming, beneath the surface of American society there was turbulence.
Prosperity was a veil Americans put on to impress their neighbors and the world, and to find contentment in self. The government took unprecedented steps to restrict its citizens’ rights and control certain populations. Men and women undermined the law with every drink they consumed at speakeasies. Widespread anti-immigrant attitudes, racial strife, and vigilante violence were indicators of deep fear and anxiety in American society.
Scroll through the images below to experience a snippet of the story.
The Jazz Age in America -- The Jazz Age” was a term coined by American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922 to describe the exciting, flamboyant era he saw emerging in the U.S. A member of the “Lost Generation,” Fitzgerald fully embraced the themes and symbols of the Jazz Age: the flapper, jazz and blues music, and the undermining of Prohibition at the speakeasy. For many Americans, especially the conservative and religious, the Jazz Age was an affront to Victorian values. Women cut their hair short, wore revealing dresses and makeup, and danced to jazz music. African Americans shared their music with white culture. Men and women, white and black, danced and drank together in illicit bars and clubs. It was a classic case of the older generation shocked by youth culture and changing norms. Image: Nine-piece band of Jazz musician Benny Moten Orchestra. Courtesy Kansas City Museum.
American Discontent: Nativism and Racism-- The arrival of new groups of immigrants and the Great Migration of African Americans occurred at the same time. Together, these racial, ethnic, and societal changes created a sense of anxiety in some Americans. This feeling fed the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. It is no exaggeration that each new immigrant group has been perceived as an “other” by Americans. The fear or dislike of immigrants, called nativism, was not new to the post-WWI era. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Turbulent Twenties Nativism
In Johnson County, Klan-inspired activity continued after the 1920s. A Jewish businessman in Overland Park experienced intimidation including a cross burning during the 1930s, and a Klan parade reportedly took place in Shawnee during the 1940s. Klan-sponsored picnics, concerts, and lectures drew crowds of up to 25,000 regional participants. A busload of people departed DeSoto identified with their KKK insignia. Photo courtesy Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Re-Use Restrictions Apply.
The 1920s Come to a Crashing Halt-- When the U.S. Stock Market finally crashed on October 29, 1929, the financial dominoes fell quickly. Banks called in debts. Americans defaulted on loans and mortgages. Banks closed. Businesses fired workers. Unemployment skyrocketed. The veil of American prosperity was lifted, and the reality of the Great Depression settled over the U.S. for the next decade. Soup Kitchen, Charles Trefts Photographs (P0034); The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Columbia.
Wilson Means, of Johnson County, made a living buying and selling neckties to retailers. Like many other Americans, Wilson lost his personal savings and his business in the 1929 Stock Market Crash. To help make ends meet, Wilson's wife, Marian, created quilts and handbags from his tie surplus to sell. This handbag is a physical representation of the Depression-era motto: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” Johnson County Museum Collection.