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The Jazz Age

In 1920's America - known as the Jazz Age, the Golden Twenties or the Roaring Twenties - everybody seemed to have money.

In 1920's America - known as the Jazz Age, the Golden Twenties or the Roaring Twenties - everybody seemed to have money. The nightmare that was the Wall Street  Crash of October 1929, was inconceivable right up until it happened. The 1920’s saw a break with the traditional set-up in America. The Great War had destroyed old perceived social conventions and new ones developed. 

The young set themselves free especially, the young women. They shocked the older generation with their new hair style (a short bob) and the clothes that they wore were often much shorter than had been seen and tended to expose their legs and knees. The wearing of what were considered skimpy beach wear in public could get the Flappers, as they were known, arrested for indecent exposure. They wore silk stockings rolled just above the knee and they got their hair cut at male barbers. The President of Florida University said the low cut gowns and short skirts "are born of the devil they are carrying the present generation to destruction".

An advert for lipstick - Flapper style

The Flappers also went out without a man to look after them, went to all-night parties, drove motor cars, smoked in public and held men’s hands without wearing gloves. Mothers formed the Anti-Flirt League to protest against the acts of their daughters. But after the horror of the First World War, the younger generation mistrusted the older generation and ‘did their own thing’ which flew in the face of the establishment.

The person who the Flappers most looked up to was Clara Bow - the vamp in the film "It".

Linked to the growth of an alternate generation, was the growth in jazz. This lead to new dances being created which further angered the older generation. The Charleston, One Step and Black Bottom were only for the young and the last one angered the establishment by name alone. The most famous jazzmen were Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman. The combination of the new music, new dances and new fashions outraged many: 

"The music is sensuous, the female is only half dressed and the motions may not be described in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that there are certain houses appropriate for such dances but these houses have been closed by law. 

"The Catholic Telegraph".

Along with jazz went the ‘crazies’ when people would do crazy things for fun such as sitting on top of a flag pole for as long as possible; marathon dances that went on until everybody had dropped and wing flying when you stood strapped onto the wing of a flying plane until it landed.

This was also the era of great sports champions such as Babe Ruth the baseball player and Bobby Jones "the greatest amateur golfer of all time."

The 1920’s made Hollywood. 100 million people a week went to the movies. In the 1910’s the stars of movies were never named (especially true for women) but by the 1920’s stars were world famous. For many films, the star was more important than the film itself and they could earn a fortune. Slapstick comedy was dominated by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle. The leading women were Clara Bow and Mary Pickford and the leading male star was Rudolf Valentino. When he died in 1926 aged just 31 people queued for miles to see his embalmed body and riots broke out.

The decade saw the first "talkie" - "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson. Many silent screen stars lost their jobs as their voices sounded too strange or their accents were difficult to understand.

The stars lived lavish lifestyles - Beverley Hills was the place to live and they cultivated in peoples minds the belief that you could succeed in America regardless of who you were.

Even murderous gang bosses achieved stardom. The most famous of all was Al Capone - the gangster boss who all but controlled Chicago. His fame rivaled that of Hollywood's superstars.

Al Capone

In 1918, Prohibition had been introduced into America. This law banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol. However, there was a ready market for alcohol throughout the 1920's and the gangsters provided it. Capone's earnings at their peak stood at $60 million a year from alcohol sales alone with $45 million from other illegal ventures. Notorious in Chicago, Capone achieved national celebrity status when he appeared on the front of the celebrated "Time" magazine. 

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"The Panama Canal Today"

"The Panama Canal Today" | Precious's Panama Canal |


Annototiaon-The Panama Canal is still in session President Jimmy negotiated the path and granted full control of the canal to panama. They say the waterways age is starting to catch up and is causing traffic jam for the ships.


Today, the Panama Canal is still a roaring thoroughfare (although an increasingly outdated one). After more than 60 years under the near-exclusive control of the United States, Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera of Panama and President Jimmy Carter negotiated a path to full Panamanian sovereignty. TheirPanama Canal Treaty, which went into effect in 1979, granted full control of the canal to Panama after a transition period of 20 years. On Dec. 31, 1999, the Panama Canal Authority assumed full control of the waterway.

And although the Panama Canal Authority has managed the canal successfully since then, the waterway's age and its volume of traffic are starting to catch up to it. It's become somewhat of an international trade traffic jam, with fleets of ships waiting offshore to go through. Many vessels are also no longer built asPanamax ships, the maximum size the canal can accommodate. The owners of post-Panamaxsupertankers and naval ships find it more efficient to increase their loads and take alternate routes than wait in line at Panama.

Panamanians who depend on the canal for their country's livelihood can't afford to see it become obsolete. With Nicaragua planning its own canal and threatening the old monopoly, Panamanians enthusiastically voted in favor of a 2006 referendum to modernize the canal. An additional larger set of locks -- a third lane -- will double the waterway's capacity [source: Lacey].

Some environmentalists, however, aren't too happy about the expansion plan. The canal's traffic, as well as the populations of Panama City and Colón, already take a tremendous toll on the area's watershed -- an area filled with diverse wildlife and important to intercontinental migrations. But planners say that the new set of locks will use water-saving basins to conserve 60 percent of the water used on each transit [source:Matalon]. Reforestation of surrounding areas should also help keep the reservoirs flowing and traffic bustling.

To learn more about the Panama Canal and international trade, traverse the links on the next page.


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Read our history

Read our history | Precious's Panama Canal |

The Isthmus of Panama, only about 50 miles wide at its narrowest point, was characterized by mountains, impenetrable jungle, deep swamp, torrential rains, hot sun, debilitating humidity, pestilence and some of the most geologically complex land formations in the world.  Most of this was apparent to the explorers and surveyors who explored and measured the land.  What was not obvious was the geological makeup of the land, which is a constant challenge even today, one that is held at bay, but not yet conquered. Another thing that was apparent was that building a canal across Panama had already defied and defeated the technical expertise of one of the greatest nations on earth.

Low green mountains rising up behind coral shores look benign and inviting.  However, unlike most mountain ranges, instead of being formed by folding due to lateral pressure, these mountains were formed by the upward thrust of individual volcanic actions.  Independent formations of different types of hard rock are interspersed and layered between softer rocks and materials in a disorderly and unpredictable patchwork of strata and angles.  The Isthmus has also been subjected to several periods of submersion beneath the sea, thus adding cavities of marine materials to the geological mix.  This, in addition to there being six major faults and five major volcanic cores in just the short distance between Colon and Panama City adds to the area's geological challenges.  Engineers of the time were unaware of this complex Isthmian geology, and perhaps fortunately so, for it might have frightened them off.

Figuring in to the surveyors' difficulties was the tropical rain forest that covered the hilly terrain from base to summit, a density of vegetation nearly incomprehensible to the inexperienced or uninitiated.

Panama's tropical climate, with a temperature averaging 80 degrees and an annual rainfall of 105 inches, creates ideal conditions for jungle growth similar to that of Brazil's Amazon jungle.  Indeed, the Panama jungle was used as a training ground for U.S. troops sent to Vietnam, as well as for survival training for astronauts going to the moon.  This type of jungle must constantly be beaten back for, should vigilance waver, it will resume its ever-forward advance over hard-won clearing.

Flooding, especially of the Chagres River, was another very serious problem.  Because of the terrain's precipitous slopes, the heavy rainfall gathers quickly into streamlets that flow quickly into the river, causing it to swell at a rapid rate, thus creating floods.  What happens is nicely described in the official words of The Climatology and Hydrology of the Panama Canal:

"Although nearly the entire country, from its headwaters to Alhajuela, is clothed with vegetation, much of which is dense, the slopes are so precipitous, and the rock lies so near to the surface, that severe tropical rain storms convert the precipitous banks of the Chagres into a series of small torrents and cascades, causing the river to rise suddenly and discharge almost inconceivable volumes of water."

On July 19 and 20, 1903, for example, following two days of heavy rains, the Chagres River (normally some forty feet above sea level at Gamboa) rose to sixty feet above sea level, and its normal discharge rate of 3,000 cubic feet per second had increased to more than 31,000 cubic feet per second.

French engineers under de Lesseps had been unable to control the Chagres floods, and the American effort did not fully succeed either, until construction in the 1930s of the Madden (Alhajuela) Dam above Gamboa.  The French had to periodically endure the disheartening wiping away by flood of bridges and equipment and the redepositing into the hard-won excavation of tens of thousands of tons of earth, rock and debris.

Finally, both malaria and yellow fever were endemic to the Isthmus.  For several hundred years, outsiders came to this “Fever Coast,” especially seamen passing through, died from diseases purportedly caused by "miasmal mists" supposedly emanating from swamps and marshes.

"When the trade winds die out, and the hot sultry air of the isthmus ceases to move, a white mist will sometimes rise out of the swelling ocean and hover like a fog over land and sea.  The white mist is the precursor of fever and sickness, and those of the isthmus who know remain within doors, unwilling to meet the ghost of the ocean half way.  In the early days ... the white mist that rose from the disturbed soil of the isthmus was far more disastrous in its killing effects than the mists of the ocean.  It rose from the soil like incense from a brazier.  It carried with it from its underground prison all the poison of putrefaction, and wherever it enclosed its victims, there fever and death followed ..."

While it may seem ridiculous today, at the time there were no other, more credible, explanations.  In fact, when it was ultimately proven that the bites of insects, namely mosquitoes, carried the dread diseases -- the Stegomyia fasciata for yellow fever and the Anopheles for malaria -- the idea was looked upon as equally preposterous, and proponents of such concepts were soundly ridiculed.  Thus was the state of medical knowledge of the period.  Had it been the Americans instead of the French on the Isthmus at the time, they would have suffered similarly.

It can be seen that, in some ways, the French fate on the Isthmus had already been sealed.  It seems incredible to us now to realize the difficulties that had to be endured to proceed towards their goal.  Whatever their managerial shortcomings might have been, the valiant French can never be faulted for their courage and determination.

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Interspersed- Scatter among or between other things; place here and there.

Isthmian- : a native or inhabitant

Malaria- Malaria is a parasitic disease that involves high fevers, shaking chills, flu-like symptoms, and anemia.


Scaffolding-  a temporary structure used to support people and materia

Pestilence- a contagious or infectious epidemic disease that is virulent and devastating;

Modernize- to adopt modern ways

Uninitiated- Not knowledgeable or skilled; inexperienced.

Monotonous- lacking in variety; tediously unvarying

Reservoirs- A natural or artificial pond or lake used for the storage and regulation of water.

Accommodate- to make fit, suitable,

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The Workers 3

The Workers 3 | Precious's Panama Canal |

Annototiaon- The working conditions of these workers weren’t as bad as I thought but then again they were, From what I read men was dying because of disease and of poor living conditions. The pay they made was based off their ethnicity background. As ,you can see from what I read you it takes no genius to know that what these faced was misguided and they should of took other ways out.




In the decade-long American effort to construct the Panama Canal, tens of thousands of laborers 

Panama Canal Museum Canal laborers head to work worked


sacrificed and died while building the largest canal the world had seen to date. Combating harsh terrain, disease, and deplorable living conditions, workers from around the world held a variety of different jobs in the canal zone, their pay and quality of life often directly related to their ethnicity.

Long before the U.S. attempt at building the Panama Canal began in 1904, workers from around the world had been coming to the isthmus. In the early 1850s, the Panama Railroad Company imported thousands of African and Chinese workers to lay the tracks for the railway lines that would make the construction of the Panama Canal possible. Most would die from malaria or suicide.

Throughout both the building of the Panama Railroad in the 1850s and the French excavation 30 years later, workers from Jamaica were recruited heavily. In 1881, French recruiter Charles Gadpaille ran advertisements throughout Jamaica, offering wages much higher than average on the Caribbean island. The campaign showed the "Colón Man," a Jamaican who had gone to work in Panama, returning to his home country a rich and prosperous man. This ideal caught on quickly in the largely working-class country, and drove a huge migration of Jamaicans to Panama in the latter half of the 19th century. But the promise of riches was an empty one: in reality, West Indians earned $0.10 an hour and the work was treacherous. During the eight-year French excavation period, of the more than 20,000 workers who died, most were West Indians. Strikes proved fruitless, as there were always more men eager to take the jobs. Despite the heavy recruitment of laborers from the West Indies, Colombia, and Cuba, only one in five workers stayed on the job longer than a year.

The U.S. Gathers a Workforce
When the United States announced its plan to build in Panama, promises of grandeur breathed fresh life into workers recruited to the area. "You here who are doing your work well in bringing to completion this great enterprise are standing exactly as a soldier of the few great wars of the world's history," Teddy Roosevelt announced to workers during his trip to Panama in 1906. "This is one of the great works of the world."

In December of that year, two years into the project, there were already more than 24,000 men working on the Panama Canal. Within five years, the number had swelled to 45,000. These workers were not all from the United States, but from Panama, the West Indies, Europe, and Asia.

The base of the workforce, however, once again came from the West Indies. After experiencing the empty promises of the French in the 1880s, most Jamaican workers were unwilling to try their luck on the American canal project, and so in 1905 recruiters turned their attention to the island of Barbados. West Indian labor was cheaper than American or European labor, and a West Indian worker was eager to believe a rags-to-riches tale spun by a recruiter. The "Colón Man" was reborn as representatives from Panama boasted of a rewarding work contract, including free passage to Panama and a repatriation option after 500 working days. By  the end of the year, 20 percent of the 17,000 canal workers were Barbadian.

Panama Canal Museum Laborers from Barbados arrive on the isthmus


West Indians recruited with promises of wealth and success confronted a very different reality upon arrival at the Isthmus. The dense and untamed jungle that covered the 50 miles between coasts was filled with deadly snakes. The venom of the coral snake attacked the nervous system, and a bite from the ten-foot mapana snake caused internal bleeding and organ degeneration. The rainy season, which lasted from May to November, kept workers perpetually wet and coated in mud.

Initially, accommodations for canal employees provided little protection against the wet weather or jungle life. The Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) housed most workers in dilapidated barracks built two decades earlier by the French. Some employees opted instead to pay for rent in one of the two coastal cities, although options there were not much better. Others who could not find housing near their work site pitched tents or lived in old boxcars or barns.


Library of Congress Spanish workers shovel by hand The living conditions exacerbated the poor hygiene in the area, and newcomers quickly learned about the serious threat of disease on what was dubbed "Fever Coast." Smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, dysentry, hookworm, cutaneous infections, and even the bubonic plague infected workers throughout the American excavation period, but yellow fever was the most treacherous ailment, both physically and mentally. Just the mention of an outbreak caused such panic that defection rates were higher than mortality from the disease itself. Experts predicted that yellow fever would kill hundreds of workers each year. Malaria, while less lethal, was more common. A strain of the disease called "Chagres Fever" led to jaundice, coma, and severe internal hemorrhaging. Even more damaging was its ability to recur after a patient had recovered. Statistics on illness among workers were staggering: in 1906 alone 80% of the total workforce was hospitalized for malaria.


As work on the canal entered its second year, the death toll for laborers was four percent and 22,000 were hospitalized. Every evening, a train traveled to Mount Hope Cemetery by the city of Colón, its cars brimming with coffins, forcing the men to confront the great odds against their survival.

U.S. citizens were used sparingly in Panama because they were both disease-prone and demanded higher wages. In North America, however, the transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869 and produced many U.S. workers adept at rail jobs: switchmen, signalmen, locomotive drivers, mechanics, electrical engineers, and foremen. Skilled U.S. laborers came to the canal with the promise of a generous pay package that included free benefits and services, 42 paid vacation days and 30 days paid sick leave -- much more than the majority of West Indian canal workers could expect.

The local Panamanian citizens were initially tapped as a logical and cheap source of unskilled labor. Though more resistant to yellow fever than the foreign workers, locals proved to be equally susceptible to malaria and pneumonia. Worse, local laborers suspicious of Americans' power-grabbing ambitions did not prove to be the most enthusiastic workers, earning them a reputation as lazy and irresponsible. Open hostility between workers ultimately added to Panamanians' dissatisfaction, and they did not make up a large percentage of the work force.

Unequal Treatment
The apartheid system governed every aspect of a worker's life. The distinction began as a division between "skilled" and "unskilled" laborers, but as time passed it evolved into a purely racial divide. Skilled employees went on the Gold Roll and were paid in gold coins. These workers earned paid sick and vacation time and were housed in better accommodations than their unskilled counterparts. Those on the Silver Roll, the unskilled workers, were paid in balboas, or local Panamanian silver. West Indian workers, plentiful in numbers and eager to work, could be paid 10 cents an hour -- half of the salary of a European or white U.S. worker. Over time, the Gold Roll became comprised of white U.S. citizens exclusively, while the workers on the Silver Roll, by far the majority of the workforce by the end of the construction period, were largely non-white.

Discrimination extended to living quarters 

National Archives Living quarters for West Indians in Cristobal made available to each group of workers. Barracks were distinctly worse for West Indians than for whites; as many as 72 West Indian men lived in a 50- by 30-foot hut. Mess halls for black workers had no tables or chairs and fed up to 8,000 men a day with unappealing, simple food. Inadequate housing and malnutrition made West Indian workers more vulnerable to injury and disease. Hospitals on the isthmus routinely located their black wards in the worst parts of the buildings. While the average death rate in 1906 was around 4% of the whole labor force, the rate for West Indian workers was closer to 5%.


In stark contrast, white workers had a luxurious life in the canal zone. The dismal quality of life in the first years of construction on the Panama Canal had sent American workers away in droves. When the turnover rate of skilled U.S. laborers reached 75% in the summer of 1905, the ICC realized they needed to create incentives for Americans to stay on the isthmus. One of the first projects was building a new cold-storage unit to keep fresh, perishable foods. Then, the ICC set to work improving the living conditions. In 1906, 2,500 structures were either renovated or built new, including two-story family homes that featured screened-in verandas, modern plumbing, and electricity. 

Panama Canal Commission The ICC Band A year later, American workers celebrated Independence Day on July 4, 1906 with games, athletic competitions, and dancing. This was the beginning of recreation in the canal zone. Baseball leagues, social clubs, and fraternal organizations sprang up to fill lazy Sundays. By that winter, the canal zone had paved roads, warehouses, dormitories, and dining halls.


Attractive enticements to keep white workers on the isthmus became the norm. New cottage homes, public schools, churches and bakeries opened in towns and camps along the route of the canal. Bachelor "hotels," built to house single workers, turned into social gathering places filled with noise and smoke. 

Library of Congress The ICC Hotel Tivoli at Ancon YMCA clubhouses charged Gold Roll employees $10 a year for access to bowling lanes, billiards tables, chess boards, and a host of organized social events. In 1911, workers published a yearbook titled The Makers of the Panama Canal that contained biographies of selected employees and pictures of clubs and brotherhoods on the isthmus. By 1913, there were dances and band concerts every Sunday, and nine women's clubs.


White workers were encouraged to bring their wives and families to the isthmus with increasingly extravagant incentives. Housing for married workers was provided rent-free, and homes increased in luxury according to a worker's place on the pay scale. In 1908, over 1,000 families were living on the isthmus and the ICC was spending $2.5 million a year for entertainment and games for white workers.

The ICC provided nothing, on the other hand, for the accommodation, provisions, or entertainment of Silver Roll employees.

The Labor
Work on the Panama Canal could be dull and monotonous or deafening and treacherous. Laborers could be tasked to virtually any project in the canal zone, each with unique dangers and each requiring its own set of skills.

Perhaps the worst job -- one to which almost all West Indians were assigned at some point -- was dynamiting. The greatest danger lay with the material's instability; it could blow up at any moment or malfunction upon detonation, remaining unignited until exploding later by accident. Laborers heading out for dynamiting duty frequently carried all their belongings with them, understanding their relatively low odds of a safe return to the barracks. 

Library of Congress Workers load holes in the Culebra Cut with dynamite The worst accident to occur during the canal's construction, in fact, was caused by the premature explosion of dynamite in the Bas Obispo cut on December 12, 1908, causing the death of 23 workers and injuring 40 others.


The most taxing physical labor was in the excavation of the Culebra Cut. Each day workers moved miles of construction track and filled the 160 spoil trains that ran in and out of the Cut. Landslides occurred in the Cut with little to no warning, often burying workers and equipment within seconds and wiping out months of progress.

In 1909, construction of the locks brought a new host of potentially lethal dangers. Eight stories up, riveters worked without safety harnesses on precarious scaffolding, which could become unhooked with any sudden movement. Falling materials would hit other sets of scaffolding on the way down, causing scores of deaths and injuries. A job on the railroad was no easier. Due to the number of train cars running from multiple directions around the clock, working by the spoil dumps on the rail track required constant vigilance so as to avoid getting run over or hit by a swinging boom. In 1914, 44 employees were killed by railroad accidents.

Although the ICC made significant improvements in the second half of the U.S. construction period, treacherous construction methods and deadly diseases took their toll: at least 25,000 workers died during the combined French and U.S. construction periods of the Panama Canal.


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Avalon Project - Convention for the Construction of a Ship Canal (Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty), November 18, 1903

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