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The Interwar Years: Timeline, Society & Economies

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  • 0:01 Interwar Years
  • 0:41 Roaring Twenties
  • 2:57 Great Depression
  • 5:22 Rise of Fascism
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the varied experiences of the two decades in between the 20th century's two major world wars, from the prosperity of the 1920s to the depths of the Great Depression to the rise of fascism.

Interwar Years

Some things, like glaciers, can take years or centuries to show significant change. Other events, like forest fires, can change in an instant. In between the 20th century's two world wars, society experienced both types of change. Some, like changes in women's fashion and public life, were the results of decades of slowly changing social customs. Others, like the Great Depression, changed the world virtually overnight. In the rest of this lesson, we will explore the major trends and events of the interwar years, which lasted from 1918-1939, the period of time between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.

Roaring Twenties

In the United States, Canada, and Europe, the 1920s are often nicknamed the Roaring Twenties. The decade saw a period of economic progress and industrial production the likes of which had never been seen before. Western factories and industrialists stopped making instruments for war and began instead to manufacture products for the public that could be sold in peacetime. The boom in industrial production fueled urbanization as people left their countryside farms to live and work in factories in major metropolitan centers.

The goods they produced for the public fueled a consumer culture that has sustained through the present day. Leisure and pleasure became attainable goals for industrial workers after their day or week on the factory line. Furthermore, new products that made everyday life easier continued to roll out of factories and were marketed as essential products. For example, the mass production of automobiles from assembly lines in Detroit suddenly made a family car an attainable goal.

The 1920s also saw a significant shift in the public lives of women. For centuries prior to WWI, women in Western society were largely expected to remain inside the home, raising children and caring for the house and their husbands. During WWI, many women worked outside the home, providing equipment and goods for the war effort. Although women were expected to relinquish their positions as men returned home from war, many women sought to maintain their presence in the public sphere.

Many young, unmarried women began to participate in flapper culture, a style of dress and behavior that was very modern in the 1920s. Why exactly they were called flappers is still a point of debate. One theory claims flappers were named after the fashionable, unbuckled boots they wore, which flapped as they walked. Others say that it began in England as a slang term for young prostitutes.

Flappers were proud of their public presence and often drank and smoked in public alongside their male counterparts, drove cars, and engaged in casual sex. In addition, they dressed counter to conventional norms, wearing shorter hair, ankle or even knee-high skirts, and hats. Flappers were abhorred by conservative women of the period and even disliked by suffragettes and feminists who viewed flapper culture as superficial. Nonetheless, flapper culture helped women gain greater acceptance in the public sphere and radically redefined women's role in society.

Great Depression

After the appearance of new amenities, like cars and refrigerators, and greater cultural vibrancy, for men and women alike, the excitement and economic successes of the 1920s gave way to the greatest economic catastrophe of the century. Stores, which were offering their own forms of credit at high interest to consumers, were forced to take a loss when consumers began failing to make payments.

Banks lent without safeguards against financial crises. They handed out huge sums of money and used customer deposits to fund the loans. They also accepted those same customer deposits without any guarantee that customer money would be immediately available to them in the future.

Stock market speculation, the practice of engaging in risky investments to profit from short-term fluctuations, played a huge role in precipitating the economic collapse. Speculation on the market by savvy financiers artificially inflated the prices of large portions of the stock market. Moreover, much of the money being tossed around on the market was increasingly made up of the savings of the growing American middle class. The truth was that the prosperity of the 1920s had been built upon the shaky legs of risky financial practices, and these practices led to a worldwide economic downturn, now known as the Great Depression.

The economic house of cards came tumbling down on October 28, 1929, a day which was infamously nicknamed 'Black Monday.' So many stocks were sold so quickly that day that many traders were forced to work through the night to simply record all the stocks that had been traded, and by the end of the day, the Dow Jones had dropped 13%. By November, the market hit rock bottom, wiping out the life savings of many middle-class investors. The ensuing panic caused even more economic ruin, as those still with deposits in savings accounts and other bank products rushed to the bank to withdraw their money. Most banks ran out of cash on hand in hours and were forced to turn away customers, telling them their life savings had vanished in a matter of hours.

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