On Saturday 6 November, the RAHS is holding a special online event, exploring the Exciting New World: Australia in the 1920s and 1930s. This is the first in a series of two blog posts about the interwar decades, providing an overview of the broad spectrum of changes which occurred across Australian politics, society, and culture during that time.
For further information and bookings visit the website
Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Intern
‘… the power of the modern … simultaneously exhilarated and alarmed the nation’ — Lucinda Janson, ‘‘Mostly Good and Always Modern’? The Limits of the Modern for Women in the Home Magazine in the 1920s’, ANU Historical Journal II no. 2 (October 2020)
The 1920s was a decade defined by change.
Emerging from the devastation of the Great War with the Spanish flu pandemic quick on its heels, the world at large faced the enormous task of rebuilding from the ashes. Though spared from the enormous destruction endured across war-torn Europe, Australia’s physical distance from the conflict did little to ease its suffering. More than seven percent of the country’s tiny population of five million served overseas between 1914 and 1918, with two thirds of them wounded or killed. Another 15,000 Australians died from influenza after the war’s end: a final, cruel blow to an already grieving nation.
Yet despite the tragedy of the preceding decade, the 1920s marked a turning point towards a hopeful future. This new ‘Jazz age’ brought about positive change in many areas of society, such as technology, arts and culture, women’s freedoms, and the new suburban Australian dream. It truly was an exciting new world, an ‘Australia Unlimited’ – though not for all who lived it.
Indigenous Australians, many of whom had contributed to the war effort side by side with men and women who openly fought for a ‘White Australia’, continued to be marginalised and oppressed by a country still dictated by colonial patterns of violence.
Brave new world: Innovation in technology
All kinds of new technologies were developed during the Great War. Improvements in weaponry, including the first use of tanks and poison gas, made combat more dangerous than ever before, while advancements in both medicine and radio communication allowed armies to operate more effectively across increasingly strained front lines.
Technological innovation continued in the 1920s, reaching even greater heights – literally. The success of flying corps during the war inspired a boom in both aviation and public interest in its pioneers. In Australia, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (‘Smithy’) became a household name after completing the world’s first trans-Pacific flight with Charles Ulm from America to Australia in 1928. That same year, aviator, explorer, and war hero Sir George Hubert Wilkins pioneered Arctic air exploration, flying from Point Barrow in Alaska to Svalbard, Norway with his long-time co-pilot Carl Ben Eielson. He was knighted for the impressive feat.
Also in 1928, the Reverend Dr John Flynn, dubbed ‘Flynn of the Inland’, established the Royal Flying Doctor Service in an aeroplane borrowed from the newly formed Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services – today known as Qantas. Even the American confectionery brand Aeroplane Jelly seized upon the country’s obsession with aviation, breaking into the Australian market in the late 1920s.
The motorcar, too, had its day. National motor vehicle registrations reached over 500,000 in 1928 – close to ten percent of the country’s population. In Sydney alone, car numbers more than tripled in a five-year period, from 33,000 in 1921 to 127,000 by 1926. Unsurprisingly, 1928 also recorded the country’s highest road death toll, of 1,000.
World War I’s innovation in radio communication also flourished into the new decade. Radio station 2GB Sydney pioneered the first sealed-set radio broadcasting system on 13 November 1923. In 1924, Sydney’s 2FC and Melbourne’s 3AR began operations, and by 1929, twenty percent of households across the country had radio, although the distribution was overwhelmingly urban. Alongside radio, cinema made great strides, with the first ‘talkies’ broadcast in Australian picture theatres from December 1928.
The arts and ‘mass’ culture
The 1920s is famous for its unique art deco aesthetic and modernist art and literature, but these were only ripples in the new pond of ‘mass’ culture that permeated the decade. British, European, and American creatives certainly explored the loss of innocence the Great War had precipitated, in such seminal works of anti-war literature as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928). But there was a simultaneous joy at work in other forms of artistic expression, now free from both pre-war Edwardian convention and wartime austerity. A riot of colour invaded modernist art in Australia as seen in the works of Grace Cossington Smith, Norah Simpson, Roland Wakelin, Roy de Maistre, and Margaret Preston, while architecture embraced the languid style of the Californian bungalow during the decade’s suburban building boom.
The proliferation of radio and cinema also meant that America was no longer half a world away: it was on doorsteps, inside homes, influencing the ways Australians – particularly the younger generation, who were less inclined to cling to a British national identity – shopped, dressed, even spoke. For the first time, women were now major consumers, with the popular Home magazine beginning publication in Sydney in 1920.
In fact, white women across the country were met with tantalising new freedoms unimaginable before the war – but not all were so quick to embrace the changes promised by modernity.
Women in the new world
The flapper is the ubiquitous image of the 1920s woman: she of the shimmering, dropped-waist dress, the knee-high hemline, the feathered headband. Think Great Gatsby, or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: the glamorous, ‘modern’ woman stepping from the magazine page or silver screen. The Sydney Living Museums’ Underworld exhibition describes her perfectly:
The flapper was an alluring vision of sophistication and freedom for young women globally. She danced, drank to excess and smoked, drove cars, bobbed her hair and generally defied conventions of ‘modest’ feminine behaviour.
Many Australian women embraced the flapper aesthetic and lifestyle – one only has to browse the Specials of the Sydney police from the 1920s to see them come alive. On the whole, these women were young, white, typically working-class and, in an Australia still devoted to the domestic image of woman as wife and mother, remarkably controversial figures.
As argued by Lucinda Janson, Home magazine worked as a conservative force throughout the 1920s in its promotion of the domestic sphere as woman’s ideal place in the world. Though women made up over twenty percent of the Australian workforce in 1921, they were paid considerably less than men and were mostly employed in domestic or suitably ‘feminine’ pursuits, all of which ended abruptly upon marriage. And although the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was established in 1927, the union movement remained incredibly hostile toward working women.
This is not to say many women did not continue to break ground. Edith Cowan became the first female parliamentarian when elected in Western Australia in 1921. Her Women’s Legal Status Bill made great strides towards rights for white women in the public sphere, laying groundwork that is still visible in the Sex Discrimination Act today. Outside of politics, the McDonagh sisters – Isabel, Phyllis, and Paulette – made headway as the very first women to own and operate a film company in the country.
It would take another World War for white Australian women to truly achieve many of the freedoms they dreamed of in the 1920s, and decades more for the same freedoms to be granted to First Nations peoples of any gender. However, despite conservative attempts to quash what they called ‘the flapper problem’, she remains the face of the decade, the glittering embodiment of the Jazz age: not only in Australia but around the Western world.
The Australian dream: Triumphs and challenges
As motorcar sales soared and hemlines rose higher, another change was taking place across society: that of the new Australian dream. It was paradoxically both urban and rural in nature, driven by returning soldiers and the post-war marriage boom.
In the cities, urban sprawl truly began. With the marriage boom came the building boom, and the dream of a suburban block of land for one’s own. The new Californian bungalow far outstripped the old Federation-style house in popularity, with its simple single-storey design, low-pitched gabled roof, front veranda, and airy interior. Aspiring homeowners even began adding garages from 1920.
Industrial architecture matched suburban in ambition and abundance. The first sod was turned for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1923, commencing what would become a nine-year building project. Construction on the City Circle railway loop also began in the 1920s and would take thirty years to complete, while suburban railway lines reached Sutherland, Liverpool, Parramatta, Bankstown and Hornsby by 1929.
But the new Australian dream did not stop at city limits: soldier settlers promised secure employment and prosperous futures flocked to the bush, where the true Australian character was believed to be forged. By 1924, more than 23,000 ex-soldiers were attempting to make a living on the land in a scheme the government hoped would both support its veterans and boost the rural economy.
It was not to be. Many of the plots of land sold under the 1916 Soldier Settlement Scheme were poor and yielded little crop, especially for idealistic and inexperienced farmers. And as new suburbs flourished in the cities so, too, did crime, perhaps most famously in the ‘Razor gangs’ of Sydney’s Kings Cross and Darlinghurst – nicknamed ‘Razorhurst’ during the height of the 1920s underworld.
Yet the greatest challenge to this new dream of ‘Australia Unlimited’ was posed by those who had lived here for millennia. The country’s First Nations peoples, far from being swept up in the forward motion of this exciting new world, continued to face marginalisation and oppression from all levels of Australian society and government.
Between 1913 and 1927 Aboriginal reserve land in NSW alone halved, from 26,000 acres to 13,000. Forcible child removal continued to be a policy of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board under legislation that would not be repealed until 1969. The Coniston Massacre of 1928, still within living memory, claimed the lives of more than 60 Aboriginal men, women, and children of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye people. Many believe the number is much higher. Constable William George Murray, the leader of the perpetrators, was never convicted. He continued to work as a police constable in the Northern Territory until 1945.
One notable milestone for the rights of First Nations peoples was the formation of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in 1924, under the leadership of Fred Maynard. Excepting its secretary, Elizabeth McKenzie-Hatton, all office bearers were Aboriginal. The AAPA became the target of the Protection Board’s vitriol throughout the 1920s but never wavered in their goal:
Restore to us that share of our country of which we should never have been deprived …
Though the organisation disintegrated in 1927, its core values resurfaced time and again. It would be decades before their own Australian dream even began to be realised.
Exciting new world?
For many Australians, the 1920s did indeed herald an exciting new world. The tragic legacies of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic were not, perhaps, so easy to forget, but innovation in art, aviation, and the Australian dream proved welcome distractions.
In October 1929, at the dizzying height of the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’, the American stock market crashed. The United States and the rest of the world soon plummeted into the Great Depression that would last throughout the 1930s, until the world once again went to war. But, just for a moment, a shiny hope for the future had glimmered.
Blink, and you may have missed her: the knee-high hemline of her beaded dress, swaying to the unpredictable beat of jazz.
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