Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Armory Show - Held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York from February 17 to March 15, 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art, which came to be known as the Armory Show, featured roughly 1,300 works by over 300 American and European artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, John Marin, and Alfred Maurer. Many called the show "an invasion of modern art on America" and considered it to be a benchmark of radical cultural change in the United States, as the show influenced visual artists and writers in the decades that followed.

Avant-garde - A term borrowed from French signifying the small part of the population of artists and thinkers that are "ahead" of the mainstream, bringing new forms and new ideas to the culture. It was originally used in the military, literally meaning "front guard," to signify the scouts who traveled in front of the army to see what was ahead.

Bel Geddes, Norman (1893-1958) - A visionary stage designer, director, producer, theater architect, industrial designer, producer of model photography, and author. A pioneer in stage design, he was involved as writer and/or designer in more than one hundred plays, motion pictures, and other theatrical performances ranging from the opera to the circus. As an industrial designer, he was identified with the popular streamlining style of the 1930s and was responsible not only for his own tradition of functionalism but for a variety of specific creations, including the Toledo scale, Philco radio cabinet, typewriters, cigarette cases, kitchen ranges, poleless tents, and battleships. Bel Geddes's library, professional archives, and personal files were acquired in 1958 by the Ransom Center with the assistance of the Edgar G. Tobin Foundation of San Antonio.

DeMille, Cecil B. - One of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history. Beginning in 1914 with silent films, he became a leading director of "A" list movies through 1956.

Goldbeck, Eugene O. - Well known as a pioneer of panoramic photography, but also appreciated for his photographs of San Antonio, Texas during the 1920s and 1930s. His National Photo Service, established in 1921, was the first and only independent news-photograph supplier headquartered in Texas. In 1967 Goldbeck donated a substantial collection to the Harry Ransom Center that includes 60,000 of his negatives and more than 10,000 vintage prints, his business records, and work by other Texas panoramic photographers.

Gallery "291" - Named after its address on Fifth Avenue in New York City, it was established in 1905 by photographer Alfred Steiglitz to promote modern American and European art and photography.

Hoodoo - A folk spiritual tradition practiced by African-Americans in different parts of the U.S. that is rooted in the Hudu tradition of West Africa. Often confused with Voodoo or Vodoun—a religion that originated in East Africa and that spread to West Africa-Hoodoo is a spiritual practice but not a religion. Hoodoo practices involve the use of natural elements like herbs and roots along with Christian prayer to bring good luck and protection from enemies.

Hurst, Fannie - A prolific author who began writing novels in the 1920s. Her novels were popular but not critically successful, and she used the wealth from her book sales to promote and support African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She famously hired Zora Neale Hurston as an assistant while Hurston was studying at Barnard College.

Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) - A union established in 1905 with a vision to organize all workers under "one big union." Its first leaders included Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs, and it had a membership of 100,000 by 1923. Industrial unionism opposed trade unionism because the latter divided workers according to their skills; when workers were unionized along industry, their solidarity meant more effective strikes. After the mid-twenties, internal strife and harassment from the government caused the I.W.W. to lose members and influence.

Knopf, Blanche - The firm of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. was founded in 1915 in New York City. In 1917, Knopf published 37 books, and the firm officially incorporated in 1918, with Alfred Knopf as president and Blanche Knopf as vice president. The next decade was a period of explosive growth for the still young company. In 1920, Knopf signed Willa Cather, who "was convinced that [Knopf] had set out to do something unusual and individual in publishing"; the firm would publish 16 titles by the author, beginning with Youth and the Bright Medusa in 1920.

Laissez-faire - A French term, meaning "leave alone to act freely," used to describe an approach to business that rejects governmental regulation.

Little, Frank - A labor organizer working for the Industrial Workers of the World who was tortured and lynched by anti-union thugs for organizing copper miners in Idaho in 1917.

Modernism - An art movement spanning roughly the 1890s through the 1930s intent on creating cultural forms responsive to the complex and alienating realities of modern life. These new forms reflected and celebrated the disjointed, and they critiqued the increasing mechanization of the world. In literature, writers challenged traditional narrative unities of time, place, and narrative perspective. In art, styles such as cubism and expressionism reflected new scientific ideas about space and new psychological ideas about consciousness. Often criticized for being difficult to understand, even elitist, modernist art and literature are characterized by unexpected combinations of cultural elements culled from previous historical periods and meant to allow for a reappraisal of history.

Nast, Condé - An innovative publisher who built a magazine empire during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Nast transformed Vogue from a society page into a fashion leader, and made Vanity Fair a touchstone of the cultural trends of the 1920s.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P) - Founded in part by W. E. B. Du Bois in the first decade of the 20th century to address racial prejudice, legal inequality of African-Americans, safeguard the black vote, and advocate for equal housing and employment opportunities for people of color. At first a small organization, it flourished in the 1920s and 1930s under the leadership of James Weldon Johnson. With the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the organization was a preeminent force in anti-lynching efforts.

Pictorialist - Photographers felt that art photography should emulate painting styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including those of the Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites. Pictorialists desired a soft focus image, requiring lens filters and coatings, and darkroom manipulation of negatives. Pictorialism ended with the introduction of modernism and "Straight" photography's emphasis on unmanipulated, sharply focused images of everyday life.

Primitivism - Originally part of an 18th-century reaction against the rationalism of the European Enlightenment-an approach that revalued as positive the less-developed cultures of the colonized peoples living outside of the European experience. Usually believed to universally possess a deeper contact with the unconscious, a less-repressed sexuality, and an artistic naiveté, these "primitive" cultures' art forms-their masks, their pottery, their traditional music and dance, etc.-were imitated by European artists and writers from the romantic period to the modernist.

Pulitzer Prize - The Pulitzer Prize has been given annually since 1917 in literature, drama, and journalism. The literature categories include biography, fiction, and the history of the United States. The prize was established and funded by the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper-publishing giant of the late nineteenth century.

Seneca Falls Convention - Over 300 women and men gathered in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, for the first-ever women's rights convention. At the convention, participants revised and voted on the Declaration of Sentiments, a document declaring rights for women, which had been composed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the convention's organizers. Voting was among the rights Stanton advocated, though Lucretia Mott, another convention organizer, disagreed with its inclusion in the Declaration.

Smithers, W. D. - Wilfred Dudley Smithers was born on August 31, 1895 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where his father was employed as a bookkeeper for the American Mine and Smelting Company. When he was 10, his family moved to San Antonio, Texas. He started his career in commercial photography in 1910, taking pictures of pioneer aviation at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He became an aerial photographer for the U.S. Army Aviation Service during World War I. His interest in ordinary people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border is evident in his photographs of Mexican goat herders, curanderas, miners, and mule trains.

Speakeasies - Underground bars where alcoholic drinks were illegally sold during Prohibition. Their name comes from instructions to customers to "be quiet and speak easy" from bartenders serving liquor without a license to do so.

Straight photography - Also called "idea" photography. Unlike pictorialist photography, images were not manipulated in the darkroom and there was a greater emphasis on geometric compositional experimentation using sharply focused images. The urban landscape often provided the subject matter for these photographers.

Suffrage - The right to vote.

Temperance - In the context of the path to Prohibition, it means to refrain from consuming alcohol or other intoxicating beverages. It can also mean practicing moderation in consumption of alcohol.

Trlica, Jno P. - A Czech photographer and community leader in Granger, Texas, until the mid 1960s. Trlica's studio portraits of area residents, including Czech, African-American, and Hispanic ethnicities, capture personal and public events in the agricultural community, including festivals, religious ceremonies, and conventions.

Vanity Fair - Debuted in 1914 as America's first magazine devoted to the intellectual and social avant-garde, championing the careers of 1920s writers and artists such as Edward Steichen, Miguel Covarrubias, and E. E. Cummings, and routinely reproducing works by Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso.

Wall Street - The street in Manhattan on which the New York Stock Exchange is located. Wall Street is synonymous with the American finance industry.

Zeitgeist - The spirit of the age.