Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s | National Humanities Center

Primary Source Guides

Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s

Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and with the generous support of Barbara Asch and Jonathan Weiss in honor of Burton J. Weiss, Jon’s father.

Black and white photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth building in New York City from 1921
Brooklyn Bridge & Woolworth Building

Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s” is an open educational resource that explores various aspects of American society and culture during the 1920s. This primary source guide is organized into five sub-topics and each section contains a vast collection of primary source materials including historical documents, literary texts, and works of art which have been contextualized with annotations and notes, and feature a set of discussion questions for classroom use.

The Age

  • Examines the 1920s in comparison to the preceding and succeeding decades, highlighting four characteristics that distinguish it.
  • Discusses the benefits and limitations of taking a snapshot view of a historical period.
  • Suggests research methods to test hypotheses about the decade.


  • Delves into how modernity was defined in the 1920s, both on a national and personal level.
  • Explores the aspects of modernity that were embraced, resisted, or overlooked during the decade
  • Examines how social and political divisions of the time were reflected in debates about modernity.


  • Explores how innovations of the “machine age” transformed American life in the 1920s.
  • Examines the perspectives of both proponents and critics of these changes, including artists.
  • Considers the long-term effects predicted from these innovations.
  • Draws parallels between the 1920s discussions on technological innovation and social change and similar discussions in the 21st century.


  • Explores the factors that contributed to or hindered the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s.
  • Discusses how “prosperity” became a source of national pride and was adapted to suit various political and psychological aspirations.
  • Examines the role of workingmen and labor unions in the economic landscape and compares the economic cycles of the 1920s to those before and after the decade.


  • Investigates the social divisions of the 1920s, examining the factors that led to these divisions and how they were influenced by postwar adjustments and the concept of the “modern age.”
  • Identifies common issues that overlapped multiple social divisions and traces the evolution of these issues into the 1930s as the nation faced the Great Depression.

This educational resource provides a comprehensive exploration of the 1920s in America, highlighting key themes, questions, and historical contexts to better understand this pivotal decade in American history.

Institute Scholars
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History / American History / The Twenties / Modernism / United States of America /


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