© 2019 by RROCA-NSW

1920s in Australia

After World War I ended, Australia as a nation was eager to leave the hardships of war behind it. Several introductions to the domestic household, such as the automobile and the wireless (radios), were not only improving quality of life, they were changing the way people lived and shaping the industries around them. This was still the era of traditional social family structure, where the man was viewed as the sole bread winner. However, women started to gain independence to a certain extent, although racial tensions between natives and settlers remained high. The Great Depression in 1929 changed the way Australia operated due to the crash in the global stock markets. This led to a higher unemployment rate higher than ever before. Australians turned to sporting legends like Don Bradman for inspiration.

The two major razor gangs were associated with prominent madams, Kate Leigh (Queen of Surry Hills) and Tilly Devine (Queen of Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo). These gangs began open warfare in 1929, culminating in two riots. The long criminal careers of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh were spawned by a series of well-intended but wrong-headed laws enacted by the NSW Government in the early decades of the 20th century. Designed to eradicate crime, they had the opposite effect. In their wake, vice became a growth industry as criminal entrepreneurs like Tilly and Kate cashed in by ensuring the ongoing existence of vices beloved of many Australians, such as frequenting brothels, using cocaine, all-day drinking, and gambling. Tilly, Kate and their gangs simply went about giving the public what it wanted, and grew rich in the process.

With the new age rapidly approaching, a new age in fashion was also taking flight. When Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew their bi-plane in 1903, little did they know what a world wide phenomenon it would be. Aviation was in, and corsets were out. People not only went to air shows, but also wore aviation equipment wherever they went. Pilots were regarded as heroes, and their planes were seen as a symbol of the perfect modern age. Aviation is still popular, even today. People flock to air shows to watch the latest planes and aircraft in action. The aviation fashion has not continued though. Unfortunately, people don’t wear flying suits around town any more, or wear the over sized goggles. The Ford Model T was by far the most popular automobile of the 1920s. People flocked to buy them, and Henry Ford’s revolutionary factories could produce each car in less than one hour. When you went out driving with your family you usually dressed in full driving attire including the goggles. Not only did people think that the goggles meant they were exclusive in this modern age, but they provided protection for the eyes, as many of the motorcars did not have roofs. Suits were also very popular. The businessman wore a suit wherever he went, even if he was going off to play a soccer game, or slide down a slippery dip. It was incredibly fashionable to have fair skin. Women would go to extreme measures to keep their skin nice and pale. Parasols and hats were popular fashion accessories and often complemented the long flowing dresses the women wore. As the years progressed the fashions began to change. Men no longer wore suits everywhere they went, but donned more relaxed styles of clothing like t-shirts and shorts. Women wore shorter dresses and usually cut their hair in short practical styles.

Through the 1920s the popular musical styles ranged from jazz to soul. Louis Armstrong, perhaps one of the most famous jazz players of all time, rose to fame in the nightclubs of the 1920s. People eager to forget their sorrow and leave their pasts behind them would not only dance to their favourite tunes in dance halls, they would listen to their favourite tracks in the comfort of their living rooms thanks to the revolutionary gramaphone. Movies that incorporated music were now also being released. Ben Hur, the most noted film of the 1920s, incorporated nearly two whole hours of music in the film, which was met with open arms. The audience could now tell what the film was going to be about, just by listening to the music, due to the emotions that could be evoked with instruments. The Charleston became rather famous.

During the 1920s and 1930s people were coming up with new and exciting ways to keep themselves entertained. Newsreels gave way to cinema with 95% of all movies in Australia coming from Hollywood. This was one of the first signs of the upcoming dominance of America. Although not many people in our modern day society go for joyrides in their cars, in the 1920s and 1930s going for a ride in your new Model T or Model A motorcar was the one of the best family outings there was. People would often seek out cheap forms of entertainment. Sports games were affordable and a very exciting way to spend your Saturday afternoon or evening. Soccer, cricket and Australian Rules football were by far the most popular sporting codes and could draw crowds of 20,000 plus. The wireless had just been introduced as well. People could sit down for hours at a time and listen to their set. Beaches like Bondi were growing in popularity. People would flock from all across the country to sit on those golden beaches and take a dip in the cool water. This new “beach rush” saw a change in fashion as well. Designers were designing short and practical swim suits for women. Dancing was a type of entertainment that Australians would go for in parties at home, or out in the public. It was a good way of moving around, and getting exercise. Jazz was popular, but some other dance types like country were popular too.

Transport was changing. Cars were quickly revolutionising the way people were living. They could now go and visit relatives or friends any time they pleased. If they needed to go shopping, they didn’t walk for an hour to get to the shops, they simply took a quick drive in their motor car. Henry Ford’s factories could produce thousands of cars every day. The factories were actually giant moving assembly lines. Henry Ford invented the moving assembly line as a way of hiring unskilled workers to produce cars. The special thing was that every metre or so, someone would do a little job on the bit of car that was going past. Whether it was screwing in a bolt or putting on a door handle, every job was small and very easy to accomplish. This enabled Ford to avoid paying for skilled workers and pay low wages to the working class. By 1921, Australia already has its first airline, Qantas. These new flying machines could fly across the world in days, not weeks. What used to be a trip on the high seas turned into a pleasant and smooth flight flying as the hawk flew from destination A to B. Electric trams were also fast revolutionising the way people traveled. The first trams could only travel a few kilometres an hour, but by 1920, they were reaching speeds of up to 30km/h.


New advances in the field of technology were taking the world by storm. In Australia the radio, or wireless as it was known back then, had just hit the airwaves. In 1923 Australia’s first radio station, 2SB, began transmitting. At first users needed to pay a small fee to the government, but this soon changed to lifelong membership. In 1925 60,000 people had subscribed to the radio in Australia. By 1929 over 300,000 people had a radio license.

The gramophone was also gaining popularity. A gramophone is a fancy piece of equipment that plays vinyl records. People liked to sit down much as we do today, and listen to their music pumping through their speakers. The radio was probably the most noted piece of technology in the period. It boomed, growing from the first station to over 200 stations today. Unlike the past however, we can now listen free. As electricity became more widely used, things like washing machines and hot water started creeping into people’s houses. All of these advances were contributing to a general feeling that society couldn’t really get any better, and people started to buy goods. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built during the Great Depression. It was an attempt to get the economy flowing again. The bridge was maybe one of the greatest industrial achievements of the century. It measured over 1 km long and is the longest arch bridge in the world.

Sport in the 1920s was just as prominent as it is now. Australia’s population not only followed professional sport, but played lots of sport themselves. Australians believed everyone should get a fair go, and this simple but just motto still applies today. Cricket, soccer and AFL were Australia’s favourite sports. Cricket was one of the sports we were really good at. Australians flocked to pitches to see the likes of Gordon Coventry and Sir Donald Bradman. Bradman was a crowd favourite. His quick eye, good coordination, and perfect footwork gave him a freakish ability to score lots of runs, without getting out. It was heroes like Don who attracted massive crowds to the sporting arenas. The wireless radio had a massive impact in sport. People could now follow their favourite individuals or teams, without actually being at the sporting ground. In 1924 people from all over Australia listened to Andrew Charlton win the 1500m swimming finals in Paris.

Aboriginal People
The 1920s and 1930s were scarred with racism towards the Aboriginal People. The Aboriginal Protection Board was meant to ease the tensions and fix Aboriginal problems. What they did was take away children from their parents and place them in white training institutions called missions. The belief was, if they took the children away, the Aboriginal problems would breed out. The generation has now become known as the Stolen Generation. Many of the Stolen Generation have struggled with depression, and some have even taken their own lives. Recently a case was settled for the government to pay compensation for a man who was taken from his parents. This money however is too little and too late. The Australian government also repossessed sacred Aboriginal land for soldier settlement schemes. Aboriginal soldiers who had served Australia in both World Wars lay forgotten or returned back to racism and hatred that they had faced before the war. Aboriginals were also subject to horrid working conditions. They often worked for 16 hours a day, and only received a fraction of what the equivalent white man would receive. It was these racial tensions that in 1928, lead to the murder of 31 Aboriginal men, women and children, in supposed self-defence as a team of investigators researched the death of a Dingo Hunter. On Australia Day 1938 The Aboriginals commemorated 150 years of white settlement not with a day of celebration but with a day of mourning.


1920s in Australia