World History 2 213 - 12.5.3 A New Culture for the Masses

Alongside the expansion of democracy, the 1920s also shepherded in a new world of mass culture and mass media. Technological innovations let people connect nearly instantaneously and have shared experiences without being in the same place. Where the infrastructure existed, it was radio and the movies that made this possible.

Radio wave technology had been pioneered in the late 1800s, but its widespread use and cultural influence were still decades off. By the 1920s, radio’s value as a news medium was becoming clear, but its true influence came from commercial radio shows, supported through another new medium called advertising that filled the airwaves in the mid-1920s. From that point through the interwar years, people could gather to hear the latest episodes of entertaining soap operas, mystery shows, and westerns, along with news items and live reporting of sports events.

Silent films had ruled movie theaters in the 1900s and 1910s, but beginning in the late 1920s, “talking pictures” emerged and quickly became the dominant form of motion pictures. Mass media technologies meant people could watch the same movies, follow the same soap operas, and cheer for the same teams despite being hundreds or thousands of miles apart. These experiences created a mass culture for the first time, uniting people whose lives had once been dominated by regional and local concerns.

The film industries in many countries developed somewhat differently in the 1930s. In the United States, the industry was centered in Hollywood, a district in Los Angeles, California. The bosses of movie studios wanted to make films that were popular with audiences and relatively cheap to produce. In other countries, the film industries were similarly popular, but many were also supportive of artistic experimentation in film. The German film industry took a modernist approach, seen in the silent 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example, and many of its films critiqued politics and society in the postwar era. In Japan, the film industry went through a period of reform in the 1920s as producers and directors began adopting different filmmaking techniques instead of simply recording a theatrical production. Some films took leftist positions that reflected the growth of unions in Japanese society, but other genres such as those featuring samurai characters also became popular and well known.

People were also embracing new ways of living in the 1920s. Women, in particular, were ready to fulfill their updated expectations for themselves. The “New Woman” of this era abandoned the traditions of the past to enter an exciting future. Women in many countries were also adopting new plans for their lives, such as pursuing higher education, although a college degree was still quite rare among women. There were also many new jobs in the workplace that women were eager to hold. In Europe and the United States, secretarial work was becoming dominated by women rather than the men who had held such jobs in the 1800s. Nursing also became an important career option for women.

The New Woman was a significant departure from the nineteenth-century Western woman, who wore her long hair piled high on her head and dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. Young women in the 1920s wore knee-length skirts, discarded corsets, and cut their hair short. They went out in the evenings to drink and dance and socialize. A woman who adopted these behaviors became known as a flapper in the United States, due to the way these women danced with arms flapping from their sides (Figure 12.22).

A woman wears a dark dress and striped hat. She smiles and stairs into the distance. Her left hand is on her hip and her right hand is beside her head. She appears to be intentionally posing for the camera.
Figure 12.22 This early photo of American film star Clara Bow personifies the flapper image. After starring in It, a romantic comedy in which she played a salesperson working in a department store, Bow became known as the “It Girl” and symbolized the New Woman of the 1920s. (credit: “Photo of Clara Bow in 1921” by Brewster Magazine/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The spread of this modern image of a woman demonstrated the influence the West and especially the United States already had on popular culture. The New Woman appeared around the world on signs, in books, in song lyrics, and throughout the burgeoning movie industry. Advertisers, in particular, were quick to adopt her image, making it one to which female consumers could aspire. Each country had its own version—the moga (modern girl) in Japan, the garçonne (tomboy or flapper) in France.

Beyond the Book

The New Woman in China

Flip through the pages of the Chinese women’s magazine Ling long, a weekly publication that was highly popular in the 1930s. Look for examples of Western influence on Chinese culture. (Be sure to click the arrows on the left to move forward through the pages, in keeping with the way Chinese books were formatted in this period.) The site includes a feature that will read the content aloud in Mandarin.

  • What are some examples from the magazine of Western influence on Chinese culture?
  • Does anything strike you as unusual in the collection of images in this magazine? How would you characterize the images as a whole?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax