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Movies, radio, and sports in the 1920s

In the 1920s, radio and cinema contributed to the development of a national media culture in the United States. 


  • For many middle-class Americans, the 1920s was a decade of unprecedented prosperity. Rising earnings generated more disposable income for the consumption of entertainment and leisure.
  • This new wealth coincided with and fueled technological innovations, resulting in the booming popularity of entertainments like movies, sports, and radio programs.

Leisure and consumption in the 1920s

The increased financial prosperity of the 1920s gave many Americans more disposable income to spend on entertaining themselves.
This influx of cash, coupled with advancements in technology, led to new patterns of leisure (time spent having fun) and consumption (buying products).
In this period, movies and sports became increasingly popular, while commercial radio and magazines turned athletes and actors into national icons.

Cinema in the 1920s

As the popularity of “moving pictures” grew in the early part of the decade, movie "palaces" capable of seating thousands sprang up in major cities. A ticket for a double feature and a live show cost 25 cents. For a quarter, Americans could escape from their problems and lose themselves in another era or world. People of all ages attended the movies with far more regularity than today, often going more than once per week. By the end of the decade, weekly movie attendance swelled to 90 million people.
The silent movies of the early 1920s gave rise to the first generation of movie stars. No star captured the attention of the American viewing public more than Charlie Chaplin. Sad-eyed with a mustache, baggy pants, and a cane, Chaplin was the top box office attraction of his time.
Charlie Chaplin is shown sitting in a doorway with his arms folded, accompanied by a small, shabbily dressed child.
Charlie Chaplin’s nickname “The Tramp” came from the recurring character he played in many of his silent films, such as The Kid, which starred Jackie Coogan in the title role. Image credit: OpenStax College.
In 1927, the world of the silent movie began to wane with the New York release of the first “talkie”The Jazz Singer. The plot of this film, which starred Al Jolson, told a distinctively American story of the 1920s. It follows the life of a Jewish man from his boyhood days of being groomed to be the cantor at the local synagogue to his life as a famous and “Americanized” jazz singer. Both the story and the new sound technology used to present it were popular with audiences around the country. It quickly became a huge hit.
Southern California in the 1920s, however, had only recently become the center of the American film industry. Film production was originally based in and around New York, where Thomas Edison first debuted the kinetoscope in 1893. But in the 1910s, as major filmmakers like D. W. Griffith looked to escape the cost of Edison’s patents on camera equipment, this began to change. When Griffith filmed In Old California—the first movie ever shot in Hollywood, California—in 1910, the small town north of Los Angeles was little more than a village. As moviemakers flocked to southern California, not least because of its favorable climate and predictable sunshine, Hollywood swelled with moviemaking activity.
By the 1920s, the once-sleepy village was home to a profitable and innovative US industry.

The power of radio and the world of sports

After being introduced during World War I, radios became a common feature in American homes of the 1920s. Hundreds of radio stations popped up over the course of the decade. These stations developed and broadcasted news, serial stories, and political speeches.
Much like in print media, advertising space was interspersed with entertainment. Yet, unlike with magazines and newspapers, advertisers did not have to depend on the active participation of consumers: Advertisers could reach out to anyone within listening distance of the radio. On the other hand, a broader audience meant advertisers had to be more conservative and careful not to offend anyone.
Three white women sit in a living room. One of them is tuning a radio while the other two look on.
Photograph of the Brox Sisters, a popular singing trio, listening to the radio together in the mid 1920s. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The power of radio further accelerated the process of creating a shared national culture that had started when railroads and telegraphs widened the distribution of newspapers. Radio was far more effective than these print media, however. Radio created and pumped out American culture onto the airwaves and into the homes of families around the country.
Syndicated radio programs like Amos ‘n’ Andy, which began in the late 1920s, entertained listeners around the country. In the case of the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy, it did so with negative racial stereotypes about African Americans similar to those portrayed in minstrel shows of the previous century. With the radio, Americans from coast to coast could listen to exactly the same programming. This had the effect of smoothing out regional differences in dialect, language, music, and even consumer taste.
Radio also transformed how Americans enjoyed sports. The introduction of play-by-play descriptions of sporting events broadcast over the radio brought sports entertainment right into the homes of millions.
Radio helped to popularize sports figures and their accomplishments. Jim Thorpe, who grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, was known as one of the best athletes in the world: He medaled in the 1912 Olympic Games, played Major League Baseball, and was one of the founding members of the National Football League.
Other sports superstars were soon household names as well. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Helen Wills dominated women’s tennis, winning Wimbledon eight times in the late 1920s. “Big Bill” Tilden won the national singles title every year from 1920 to 1925. In football, Harold “Red” Grange played for the University of Illinois, averaging over ten yards per carry during his college career. The biggest star of all was the “Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth, who became America’s first baseball hero.

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In what ways is today's media culture--broadcasting sports, celebrities, and advertising--different from the media culture of the 1920s? In what ways is it the same?

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