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6.5 Conclusion

The 1920s saw dramatic economic growth as factories churned out consumer goods that were marketed and distributed throughout the nation. Local economic control gave way to a national consumer market as business mergers consolidated industries and fueled a meteoric rise in the stock market. Americans were increasingly likely to wear the same clothing and listen to the same radio programs, even drink the same beer and eat the same processed meats. Technology spurred the popularity of the new and uniquely American jazz music, while the burgeoning US film and fashion industry spread the uniquely American image of the “flapper.” Americans were increasingly likely to celebrate their new identities as consumers, especially those wealthy enough to enjoy the prosperity of the decade. Popular books such as the Great Gatsby protested the hollowness of material wealth but seldom converted its readers to disdain their quest for it. By the end of the decade, the Depression reminded Americans that material goods might bring temporary pleasure, but material security was simply too important to leverage.

Prohibition symbolized the contradictions of the decade: a conservative power structure reflected in the affairs of business and government and a rebellious popular culture that flourished behind this façade. The ease with which the affluent flouted laws meant to curb their power reflected the selective enforcement of Prohibition laws, which created one system of justice for the rich and one for the poor. Women and minorities were allowed a rare glimpse of these power structures as they labored in the background of resorts, largely unnoticed and undisturbed as long as they kept their “place.” For the men of the middle class and a fortunate few laborers, there were the speakeasies with their mixture of jazz, liquor, and the promise of fast times and faster women. Jazz was not invented in these resorts or hidden haunts, but these places offered a sample of the era’s celebration of sexual liberation and its fusion of black and white musical traditions. This culture arose from the collective experiences of people who traveled the nation in search of work, and its improvised music reflecting the improvised lives of its creators.