I guess everyone has a basic sense of what historical elements go into dieselpunk, and what sorts of artistic and musical and mechanical elements stand out as typical sources of inspiration. Curiously, though, the period of c. 1920-1945 doesn't seem to have been regarded as a coherent unit by historians of any of the various trends that flourished during the period. Instead, it gets split into several different overlapping "Ages", some clearly defined, others more vague. This is a review of some of them -- I'm sure I'm missing others.
- Interbellum or Inter-war period. November 11th, 1918 to September 1st, 1939. The time -- not quite 21 years -- between World War I and World War II. Despite its name, there were actually quite a few wars in the period; the period from 1918 to the early 1920s saw wars in Eastern Europe that arose from the collapse of the Russian, German, and Austrian empires; China suffered from civil war and invasion by the Japanese throughout the period, and particularly from 1931 on; other notable wars of the period were the Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-6) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). During most of this period, international affairs were overseen by the League of Nations, organized January 10th, 1920, continuing nominally until 1946, though its central organs had in fact ceased to function in 1939-1940.
- Golden Age of Aviation. Covers much the same time as the interbellum period, though its boundaries are less strict. With the return of trained pilots from the First World War, military aviation's successes were translated into civil aviation, and every year saw new records broken. 1919, the year after the War, saw the non-stop crossing of the Atlantic by Alcock and Brown in June. Lindbergh's crossing from New York to Paris in 1927 was considered an heroic feat. By the 1930s, airplanes were carrying passengers on short-haul flights all over the globe. For most of the period, however, long-distance passenger travel was the exclusive province of the zeppelin, though only a few large rigid airships were ever produced after World War I. The Graf Zeppelin circled the world in 1929, and then inaugurated transatlantic service from Germany to South America (and occasionally the United States). International zeppelin service came to a tragic end, however, on May 6, 1937, with the explosive crash of the Hindenburg. Plans for resumption of airship transport were doomed by the beginning of World War II.
- Prohibition Era. January 16th, 1920 to December 5th, 1933. During this period of nearly 14 years, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned by law in the United States. The result was a notable change in American culture; drinking alcohol went 'underground' (sometimes literally) and an entire way of life grew up around bootlegging and the speakeasy. Prohibition also led to the rise of organized crime, which was best able to profit from selling black market liquor; together with this came gang warfare and increased urban violence.
- Golden Age of Radio. In the United States, it began August 31st, 1920, with the initiation of popular broadcasting by radio station 8MK in Detroit. Other stations with commercial sponsors soon followed suit, and by the mid-1920s radio sets were widespread, broadcasting news, music, drama, and of course advertising, uniting the country for the first time with a common form of entertainment. (Almost all of this early material is now lost, as it was performed live and generally not recorded.) Radio faced the prospect of competition from television already in the late 1930s, but the outbreak of World War II hindered television development. After 1945, televisions were again marketed, but it was not until 1949-1950 that television began to surpass radio as a primary source of home entertainment.
- The Jazz Age, or Flapper Era, covers about the entirety of the "Roaring" 1920s -- 1920-1929. The period was characterized, of course, by jazz music (live and recorded), a new and at the time, shocking change from the popular music of the 1910s. It was a time of reckless hedonism and wild partying, bobbed hair and rising hemlines, indulgence (despite Prohibition) in drinking, and rebellion against Victorian/Edwardian ideas of femininity and sexuality. Of course, much of the ostentation and experimentation of the time was only available to the wealthy; however, the period also saw significant movement into the middle class. The Jazz Age also brought with it reaction, in the form of religious fundamentalism and preaching against the evils of liquor, dancing, and 'petting'.
- Art Deco. A recent term for styles of art and architecture that, in their own time, were simply called "modern". Art Deco started sometime in the early 1920s -- perhaps 1923 -- though forerunners of the style can be seen back as far as the 1910s. It was in some ways a simplification and streamlining of the preceding Art Nouveau style, removing superfluous ornament and focusing instead on large solid masses, parallel or converging lines, and simple but sweeping curves. It was, however, the first self-consciously futuristic style, trying not merely to be fashionable, but to anticipate fashions to come. In the early 1930s, Art Deco was transforming itself into what is now called "Streamline Moderne", marked by curved corners, simple right angles and uninterrupted horizontal or vertical elements. By 1940, Art Deco had become unfashionable, and Streamline Moderne was losing its distinctiveness as some of its elements were folded into the bland international style (which, at least in architecture, still prevails today). The entire artistic period is sometimes called "Machine Age", suggesting the repurposing of mechanical forms in the decorative arts.
- The Great Depression. October 29, 1929 to sometime in 1939. A drastic downturn in the world economy that lasted for about a decade, marked by high unemployment, deflation, and stagnant or negative growth. The Depression was at its worst during its earliest years (about 1930-1933), with continually shrinking economies. In the United States, the Roosevelt administration responded with the New Deal, a package of economic programs intended to encourage economic growth and restore employment. In the United Kingdom, the Depression led to the formation of a Conservative-led coalition ("National") government that lasted from 1931-1940. The Depression was also a major factor in the collapse of democracy in Germany (1932-1934). The Depression ended, in terms of unemployment, as various countries switched over to a war economy either in anticipation of, or as a result of, the Second World War.
- Noir. A term denoting the bleak, morally ambiguous world of film noir, a cinematic style that began in 1940 and continued to the late '50s or early '60s, distinct both from the artistically less inspired crime B-films which preceded it, and the '30s pulp detective fiction which inspired it. With several notable exceptions, noirs were usually low-budget and shot on monochrome film, even in the color era. Noir is characterized by the use of large blocks of black ("noir") shadow to outline or interrupt lighting. Scenes are therefore usually at night, illuminated by artificial light; scenery may be cluttered, seedy interiors or almost equally claustrophobic foggy urban or mechanical exteriors , suggesting a labyrinth in which the characters are trapped. Themes are crime, lust, betrayal, and short bursts of intense violence; heroes are often broken men who must violate their own codes in order to achieve an imperfect justice. Noir refers to the style, however, not the subject matter; The Maltese Falcon for instance, was made in 1931 as straight crime drama, and again in 1941 as noir. Although strictly only visual drama can be "noir", noirish themes penetrated radio and written fiction as well.