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The roaring twenties in Australia
Whether or not the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society from 1920 to 1929 depends on the circumstances of the Australian population in this decade, because ‘Roaring’ implies the 1920’s were full of dramatic social changes, which may have came about from spontaneous economical or political incidences and new inventions. In the 1920s Australian politics was dominated by the conservative parties and, despite some industrial discontent and hardship, the economy was prosperous and expanding. Australian society was experiencing changes and new developments in many fields.
The use of electricity during the twenties became much more common, and it dramatically altered the lives of people living in the cities and towns. With the value of leisure activities having increased since pre-war days, Australians indulged in the radio, pictures, dance halls and sport.
Women of the 1920s experienced all new liberties with a dramatic diminish in their sense of modesty compared to pre-war days. The development of transport in the 1920s includes motor cars, which were improved and mass produced, and the importance of public transport.
The common belief in the late 19th century was that Aborigines were a dying race, so it does not come as a surprise that they did not benefit from the twenties as much as main stream society. These are already two groups of people who were negatively affected by the 1920s, and evidently a contradiction to using the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ as a description of the character of Australian society. An analysis of Australia’s social, political and economic circumstances in the 1920s will reveal if the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade.
During the 1920s the use of electricity became a great deal more popular among households in Australia, which in itself dramatically altered the lives of people. Gas lights were replaced by electric lights. Appliances such as heaters and electric stoves became common household items with electric power available. Vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and even washing machines were able to be purchased, however only the wealthy could afford them. Advertisers claimed that the new electrical appliances would save labour, however even an electric iron cost half a weeks salary, so women still continued to spend a large proportion of their time in heavy housework. Although home labour-saving electrical devices were expensive, the emergence of electricity as a household resource did have a dramatic effect on leisure activities.
One of the most significant aspects of the 1920s was the emergence of radio as a popular form of entertainment. Broadcasting officially started on the 13th of November 1923, and from then on broadcasting boomed. It was quite expensive to license a radio initially because broadcasting stations were not allowed to be financed through advertising. However, in 1924 the federal government removed advertising restrictions, and introduced the license fee. By 1930, 300000 listeners’ licences had been issued in Sydney alone.
The introduction of electricity as a common resource allowed the radio to become a popular form of entertainment. Australia’s standard of living rose, however it would not be accurate to think electricity was the main factor that proves the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade because many Australians could not afford the new inventions which came about through electricity, making its reliability superficial.
Moving pictures appeared in the first decade of the century, and were probably the most popular form of entertainment during the 1920s. Thousands of people were able to be entertained under the one roof of some huge theatres. Some of these theatres were exquisitely decorated and furnished, creating an atmosphere where patrons received maximum satisfaction. In 1929 “talkies” appeared for the first time in Australia, and thousands of people rushed to see the new talking, moving picture. Despite the popularity of entertainment in the form of mentally stimulating material, such as the radio and pictures, outdoor sport was another major form of relaxation during the 1920s. Thousands went to see Australia’s new sporting heroes in horse racing, tennis, football and cricket.
Australia experienced substantial success in international sporting competitions, especially in tennis where Australia defeated England in the Davis Cup, and in cricket where Australia defeated England in the first Test Series since the end of the war. Thousands of people also went to the beaches. In the early 1920s mixed bathing was still illegal and beaches were segregated. However, with the growing sense of social rebellion, more and more people ignored these laws and came to the beach to swim. Bathing costumes gradually lost pre-war modesty levels also. Evidently, the pictures and out-door sports were a top priority as forms of entertainment for the Australian society in the 1920s. These forms of entertainment contribute to the validity of the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ being an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade because Australians were at that stage indulging in all new luxuries which had never been seen before, and the standard of living was improved by them.
Another activity for leisure that was made popular in the 1920s was music and the dance hall. Dance halls were crowded with people on Saturday nights. Jazz bands played all night in enormous halls with spectacular architecture and fancy names, while new dances became the rage, such as the black bottom. The music and style of dancing was much louder and wilder than in the previous decade, and groups of people would often go from one dance hall to another during the night, reflecting the rebellion towards pre-war modesty and the pressure to conform with regard to social constraints. The popularity of music and the dance hall is one factor which proves the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade because never before had Australian society taken so much liberal actions for the sake of entertaining themselves.
During the First World War the role of women in society changed dramatically. Many had begun working in shops and offices and had found a new freedom and independence while their husbands and sons were away at war. Women’s new independence was obvious in changes in their behaviour and dress at the end of the war. Clothes became freer and more comfortable. A typical socially influenced woman of the 1920s wore a dress which ended above the knee, with hair that was cut very short, and which often had a small cloth hat fitted securely on top. Her facial features would also be emphasised with make-up, which became very popular. This type of “modern girl” of the time was called a flapper, which was derived from America. Besides changing their fashions and social behaviour, women began to gain more legal and professional rights.
A number of acts of parliament between 1918 and 1924 cleared the way legally for women to enter any of the professions. Although women did break free from a lot of pre-war social constraints, the 1920s still saw a substantial distinction between the sexes, as women were more often then not paid half of what a male in the same position would receive. In this context, the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade because despite living in a generally sexist nation, women gained a lot of liberties through independence and how they portrayed themselves to the rest of society, which had never been witnessed to such a degree in Australia ever before.
Economically, many changes took place in Australia during the 1920s. Compared to many foreign countries, Australia strengthened its position economically and achieved one of the highest standards of living in the world. Through the development of the manufacturing industry, 1926 saw employment in manufacturing being greater then rural employment for the first time in Australia’s history. By the end of the 1920s the total value of output of the Australian factories was an astonishing 70 per cent greater than it had been at the beginning. The new factories became more efficient with the greater use of electricity as power, and they were able to produce goods more cheaply and in larger quantities.
The government assisted this expansion of the economy by increasing tariffs to protect local industry, and by borrowing from abroad to carry out public works. The expansion of the economy meant that people had more money to spend and a larger market available to spend it on. Australia’s economical improvements in the 1920s also prove that the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade because a nation’s standard of living is based on the economical status of the government, and in the 1920s both were generally flourishing as a result.
In the 1920s expansion took place in many sectors of farming because of the developments in Australian agriculture. Farming became more mechanised in the 1920s, which resulted in the reduction of demand for labour on farms and also increased output. The influx of motor powered machines also contributed to tractors gradually replacing horses as the main source of motive power on farms. This allowed farmers to carry out a wider variety of tasks easily and quickly on the farm. The mechanisation and resulting reduction in use of horses led to farmers being able to use more pasture land for sheep, as wool was a profitable sideline.
Technology was used to conduct research into seed types by newly formed departments of agriculture. Ultimately, the technologically advancing 1920s created many more benefits for farmers, as they could work with the knowledge that they were using less labour, growing more, selling more, and receiving a reliable income, which is why the improvements in agriculture do not hinder the use of the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ as a description of the character of Australian society in the decade, as farmers were another group of Australian society that benefited in the 1920s and the revolutionary farming implements and ideas that had never been used before in Australia’s history.
During the 1920s all forms of transport were changed. Cars were improved and mass-produced, public transport with buses, trams and trains was developed and air transport began. After the war the motor car became a far more efficient machine, as shock absorbers, dismountable wheels, air filled rubber tyres and electric self starters were all improvements. People welcomed the new upgraded and revised motor cars with earnest, as they were used to the rough and unreliable ride of previous motor car models. The development of the assembly line allowed for mass production of cars. With Ford and General Motors Holden pumping out cars that were made from a mixture of American parts and Australian built bodies, nearly half a million cars were registered for private use by 1929 in a population of 6.5 million.
Besides the practicality of using a car, it was also regarded as a form of entertainment. Most cars were convertibles, allowing people to enjoy the wind and sun while they drove along the new bitumen roads. Unfortunately the influx of motor cars caused a dramatic increase in the number of car crashes in the 1920s, however despite the statistics people continued to observe the benefits of having them rather than being critical. The development of the motor car in the 1920s permanently changed the whole nature of social life in Australia and therefore helps validate the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ as an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade, as never before had Australians had the opportunity to buy such an invention that could be used both for business or pleasure. The influx of motor cars contributes to the idea that the 1920s saw a flourishing social life in Australia.
Despite the gradual decrease in motor car prices in the 1920s, many people still could not afford a car and therefore relied on public transport. The twenties saw public transport systems being vastly improved. Electricity was used when possible to power transport vehicles, such as the replacement of steam and cable trams with electric trams. Buses were popular with their chopped roofs and practicality. The increasing number of tram and bus journeys each year showed that even those families without cars travelled much more than they had in the previous decade. In December 1920, the Air Navigation Act was passed, providing for the establishment of an aviation industry in Australia. Licences were issued for pilots and ground engineers, and all aircraft had to be registered.
Aeroplane pilots were not only responsible for the safe flight of their customers, but their accommodation, baggage and other necessary procedures that are required when travelling long distances. 1920 saw the first flights of Qantas take off. Like the motor car, public transport and the developing aviation industry contributed to the idea that Australia was a land of opportunity and its standard of living was benefiting in leaps and bounds, as the labour-saving inventions revolutionised all of Australian society, and therefore the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade because people were witnessing the booming lifestyle that the government was trying to achieve at a large degree.
Despite these previously mentioned benefits of the 1920s, it would not be accurate to make a general statement that all Australian’s profited financially and socially as there were definitely those who found themselves in conflict. There was much industrial unrest at the time as workers attempted to improve their wages and conditions. Many returned soldiers and their families suffered, workers faced a forty eight hour week, unemployment averaged 9 per cent through out the period, and the government reduced wages so that costs were lower and Australian goods were more competitive on overseas markets.
These factors led to many strikes which were sometimes even violent, such as the police strike in 1923, where ex-soldiers had to be called in to oppress the demonstrators and mobs by force. In general strikes were unsuccessful, especially as volunteer workers prepared to take the jobs of strikers. The decade of the twenties was not in fact a period of general happiness and prosperity, therefore the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is not justified as an adequate description of the character of Australian society in the decade because it contradicts the term, and proves it is superficial despite all the benefits, because not every Australian profited financially.
Although many Australians did not profit financially, there was social prejudice in the 1920s also. One common belief many Australians believed in the late 19th century was that Aborigines were a dying race, which is an excuse to justify their actions. The Aboriginal people did not die out. In fact there was a gradual increase in the number of half-castes. Despite Aborigines making an important contribution as station hands in the pastoral industry of northern Australia, the belief persisted that the Aboriginal people were racially inferior, and the official view was that they should be controlled and ‘protected’ as far as possible from the effects of contact with white people. Government super intendants had power to control the movement, education, health and employment of Aborigines.
Families could be separated and children of mixed descent placed in hostels or institutions. Reserves were created for Aborigines so that they would not mix with white people. Christian churches attempted to come to the rescue of Aborigines by setting up their own missions, however they only helped Aborigines develop a reliance on Europeans. Socially, the 1920s were definitely not beneficial for Aborigines, as they only experienced oppression and racism from narrow minded Australians. At the time it was thought that the Aborigines were being dealt with accordingly because prejudice was often reinforced, however it is now known that oppression is not the key to becoming a culturally understanding nation, sympathy is. The term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is again seen as a contradiction, because it could not be used as an adequate description of the character of Australian society in the decade when observing the situation of Aborigines and the social constraints thy had to endure.
Compared with the political and social changes of the 1920s, the social changes were a revolution. There were vast changes in the way people lived, in the ideas they held, and the way they behaved. Although primarily due to over all economic prosperity, it was also due to new inventions and products, and to the changing nature of the population. This decade may be classified as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ because of the new forms of entertainment and transport, revolutionary changes form pre-war social constraints, economic success and agricultural improvements. However, it is true that some Australians witnessed the 1920s as nothing more than a time to persevere through.
Economically, industrial unrest created much disharmony as workers did not have enough money to provide for themselves, and socially the Aborigines were discriminated against through out the 1920s. Australians experienced many new social liberties that had never been witnessed before in Australian history, as social constraints from pre-war days and the pressures to conform to them were gradually altered. In conclusion, I believe the term ‘Roaring Twenties’ is generally an adequate description of the character of Australian society in this decade but is definitely limited, because those who found themselves in conflict, either socially or economically in the decade, can not be ignored.Date: Oct 12,2021