The Roaring 1920s

Change in the Modern Era
The 1920s are viewed by many historians as the beginning of the modern era for the US. Many of the companies that grew most rapidly we would recognize today. Many of the products invented and mass distributed also came about in this decade. Our architecture changed and where we lived changed during the 1920s. So many changes took place within the span of a short 10 years, that many Americans as whole struggled to deal with them. An examination of the 1920s reveals that change came quickly and while some embraced that change, others actively fought against it. We can use the story of the 1920s today as a case study of cultural change. Given that the decade that follows the 1920s was one of immense hardship, it is easy to see why even Americans who did not like the rapid change, later viewed this as a special time in our history. The abundance followed by gross depravity cast a very rosy glow to the 1920s and ensured a special place within US history.

Major Changes
The 1920s saw very distinct changes in where Americans lived. Every census prior to the one conducted in 1920 revealed that more than 50% of Americans lived in rural areas. The 1920 census and each one after, puts more than 50% of Americans in urban areas. We became an urban nation in 1920. The cities could offer more employment opportunities as businesses grew. Not everyone stayed close to the urban centers though. With the development and availability of the automobile, those with more income could move farther away, but still remain close enough to get to work and enjoy some of the new features of the cities. The automobile significantly impacted the US as a whole. Not only did it change where people lived, but it changed our architecture as we built new rooms in our homes to accommodate the car. It also spurred a little known industry at the time, the gasoline industry into a business of epic portions today. The auto mechanic became a new skilled trade as well.

The automobile changed our ways of life in profound ways and significantly contributed to the mass culture of the 1920s. Americans were no longer as isolated from one another and had many common experiences, which the automobile accommodated. Even the automobile itself in time became an object of that mass culture as Americans today will pledge a loyalty to one manufacturer over another while never owning actual stock or interest in the company. I am sure you know “Ford people” or “Chevy people”. People name their cars today. My black Honda Civic is known as The Vadarmobile and my friend’s old Mitsubishi was “Miss Bitchy”. When I owned Spike, my 1971 Chevy Chevelle and went to a muscle car show in Comfort, TX once, I became instant family with the other Chevy owners. People from states away gave me their email addresses and information on where to get stock parts. A sense of mass culture develops when people who are strangers suddenly become friends over something they share in common.

Mass culture developed quickly in the 1920s as opportunities grew for it to expand. Americans began reading the same things as newspapers were bought out and merged. With only one choice for news, they all read the same things and could talk about this article or that article they found interesting. The radio was invented and now Americans could hear news stories, the recounting of a baseball or college football game. They could hear the blow by blow account of a boxing match. The Tuney/Dempsey fight garnered almost nationwide attention as the US Marine took on the prizefighter. While thousands attended the fight, more listened in and those Americans could all talk about the fight as if they had been there. Baseball was the number one popular sport and this was the era of Babe Ruth. So many Americans became Yankee fans that did not live anywhere near New York. You probably know Yankee fans who have never and probably never will live near New York. Those same friends probably at least give a nod of approval to people that they don’t know at the mall who wear Yankee merchandise if they are wearing the same. That is mass culture. When the Spurs were in the process of defeating the New York Knicks for the world championship a few years ago, I was stopped at the Huebner/Babcock light. I’ll never forget the AMC Pacer (tiny old car) with “Go Knicks” plastered all over it. The entire intersection gave him the finger as he drove through it. That is mass culture.

Mass culture significantly impacted young people. College football came into its own in the 1920s. It also organized and saw the creation of stricter rules and guidelines for safety. For example, the flying wedge, a defensive play where the defensive line clothelines the offensive line, was banned. The death rate on the field declined in the 1920s as a result. Americans could go to games in their cars and travel with them if they didn’t go too far out of town. They identified with their local teams. While they would never attend that college, they still saw themselves as “Buckeyes” in Ohio and “Longhorns” in Texas. Another aspect of mass culture that we can identify with today.

College culture changed as well. In fact the lives of young people even beyond college changed in the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald explained the college climate to older and more conservative readers in This Side of Paradise. Shocking to many older Americans, Fitzgerald wrote of kissing, dating, and sex. This shocked so many because of the unwritten rules between parents and their daughters that forbade any such activity until marriage. That was why kissing at the wedding was so special because that was the first time the bride had ever kissed a man. When courting involved spending time on the young lady’s front porch talking while Dad cleaned shotguns inside, this would be more realistic. However, the car changed all of that. Young couples went out unchaperoned now. Once this book comes out and Americans discuss more and more the changes to courtship with the automobile, the obvious conclusion that they birthrate would skyrocket. Fitzgerald did interview one woman and used her in his book as she told him she had probably kissed a dozen guys so far but the semester was only half over.

Women not only dated and kissed, they also began wearing scandalously short clothing. The hem line on dresses went up an entire inch above the ankle in one year. This dramatic turn of events shocked older women especially. Then the dresses lost their curves and became straight, the iconic flapper dress. Then the skirts just kept going up higher and higher until they approached the knee. The dresses now looked more like the undergarments that were supposed to be under the dress. Why don’t they just walk outside naked? Not only did they barely wear dresses that actually showed their throat and arms, scandalous, they wore these teeny tiny bathing suits that were only one piece and sometimes had skirt. They also smoked cigarettes, cut their hair short, and drank in speakeasies. For the older generation, they had lost all the senses. A friend of my grandmother had been a flapper. She would tell us about smoking, not because she wanted to but because her parents told her not to, drinking, and flaunting all those traditional norms. Later in life she would be kicked out of a couple of nursing homes, so that independent spirit remained with her all her life. Women had agency in new ways in the 1920s.

Drinking was technically illegal. Most Americans did not like the 18th Amendment. The night before it went into effect, thousands got more drunk than they had ever been in their lives. In addition to the moral arguments against alcohol, reformers argued that the crime rate would go down. Crime just organized though around people like Al Capone. Al Capone was everyone favorite villain for a time as he provided what they wanted. He also gave to charities and made sure no real breaking of the law could be tied back to him. When the pressure against him would mount, he would run off somewhere like Miami. Then he was states away when someone was killed for example. He maintained a place in Indiana that is now a huge resort and spa. In Capone’s day, it was a mental asylum. He built a house to the side to live in and had the mineral springs funneled into pools for him to use, a bowling alley was built and he remodeled the entire round building that was the asylum. I visited it once. They have done a remarkable job restoring the 1920s tile that still lines the entire downstairs. Americans could drink illegally in speakeasies where you had to know the password to get in. They could go to “coffee houses” that beverages other than coffee in the cups. One place on 85th street in New York was famous for this. They always kept real coffee on hand if they learned from the local cop on the take that a raid was coming. They would send waitresses around telling them to dump all the alcohol in the alleyway behind in the place by spreading the word to 86 it, since the alley was technically 86th street. The restaurant industry still uses the term to indicate something they don’t have. Legally, one could still drink if they had a prescription. Beer was listed as a treatment for kidney disease and wine as a treatment for heart disease. An alarming number of Americans suddenly had kidney and/or heart disease. Many also suddenly joined the Catholic church, some suspect that the wine used in communion could have been a motivator for this since many left the church when Prohibition ended with the 21st Amendment in 1933. It is easy to remember these two amendments, at 18 a person cannot legally drink in the state of Texas, but at 21 the can. Now you will never forget that. You’re welcome.

Americans worked hard in the 1920s. While new white collar positions opened up in accounting and business management, women joined the workforce in greater numbers as well. They needed those jobs to buy the new houses and the new “labor saving” devices like ovens and clothes washing machines. The new devices actually increased the amount of work women in particular did at home, because new standards for cleanliness became the norm. Families bought many of these new devices like refrigerators with credit. There was no credit scoring system and no regulation. That use of credit helps to explain why the economy expanded so dramatically. The new items people wanted to purchase, could be bought on credit. It was a very unstable prosperity however that would collapse in 1929, but in the meantime, more people bought stuff and more companies sought new stuff to sell them. The three biggest industries are also easy to remember. One could say the automobile drove the economy, the airplane industry made it take off, and the chemical industry caused it to explode. Again, you’re welcome.

Americans bought the new plastic items, the pyrex glass, cheap razors, and radios. They also bought refrigerators, ovens, and clothes washers. The US completed the transition from producer society to consumer society. They went to Sears and bought GE products. Companies no longer tried to create monopolies but began selling a variety of items, creating an oligopoly. General Motors is a good example of this. General Motors includes Chevrolet, GM, and used to include Pontiac and Saturn. They ran different dealerships and it would appear they were separate companies, but they were never separate. Companies had to appear this way to keep the government from charging them with creating a monopoly.

Henry Ford focused on the automobile, however. He had seen the assembly line used in the airplane industry and felt it would work well in the automobile industry. He dramatically lowered the amount of time it took to produce a car from 14 hours to an hour and a half. He flooded the market in the 1920s so the price dropped dramatically. Middle class along with the upper class could afford them. His workers could afford them as he extended credit. He also did not want to have to constantly train new workers he knew would get bored easily working on an assembly line, so he offered them the $5 day. The work might be mind numbing, but in paid extremely well, 5 times what other factories paid. He applied the ideas of scientific management, Taylorism, to make it even more efficient. Taylorism involved management timing the most efficient worker, studying their movements, and then forcing all the other workers to do the same. While unions and workers hated Taylorism, it took hold.

Resistance to Change
Workers did not like Taylorism, but some did benefit as auto industry workers. Mostly in rural areas, an older and more conservative base of Americans embraced a religious fundamentalism that rejected these most of these other changes as immoral. They rejected science, especially evolution. They wanted to see women go back to wearing the longer and more covering dresses and they saw immigration as a rising cause of concern. The most apparent example of this rejection was the Scopes trial. John T Scopes of Tennessee decided to openly teach evolution in his class. The Tennessee legislature had just passed a law prohibiting that. He told people in town he planned to do it and then did. For that he would get arrested and tried. It became a national story when Clarence Darrow offered to defend him. He was one of the most well known and popular attorneys. Former nominee for President, William Jennings Bryant, offered to prosecute for the state. It quickly became one of the biggest trials of the 1920s. It reached a climax when Darrow called Bryant to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible and the story of creation. Scopes was found guilty, he did not really hide that he had broken the law. His goal and that of Darrow’s was to put the law itself on trial. Just after the trial, Bryant died of a heart attack.

In both rural and urban areas, some Americans were becoming increasingly concerned about immigration. Americans may not have had access to the actual numbers to see 32 million people had migrated from southern and eastern Europe, but they did notice the people themselves. In response, the government passed 4 different sets of laws restricting immigration from 1917-1927. In 1917 they added a literacy test. In 1921, they decided to set a quota limit as immigrants came in through Ellis Island. Taking the most recent census data they had, Congress passed a limit of 3% of the total immigrants from each country as represented in 1910. So if the census recorded 100 people from a country, the quota would now be 3 people. In 1924, they revised the law and lowered the percentage to 2% and went back to the census of 1890. Why would they used an older census? Most immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were not really recorded in older census documents and 1890 had smaller numbers than the newer records. In 1927, they changed the way it would look for numbers. It was still based on percentages from 1890, but now there was an overall cap of 150,000 immigrants per year total. What percentage of that 150,000 any nation got was based on the percentage of people from that country in 1890. Highlighting many of the struggles immigrants faced were Sacco and Venzetti. The two Italian immigrants were charged with robbery and murder on very scant and circumstantial evidence. This became the second biggest trial of the 1920s as Italian papers started covering it. Given that their alibis all spoke a broken English, HG Wells later said, they did not appear to be taken seriously by the jury. They were found guilty and executed in 1927. Both were exonerated in 1977, 50 years later as many Americans now believe they were found guilty due to their status as immigrants more than the likelihood they committed this crime.

Congress knew they had the support of at least 3.5 million Americans for most of their restriction laws. They knew this because of the rise of the KKK. The KKK became active in 1915 but really rose in popularity in 1920, hitting a high point of membership in 1924 capped off even with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The group held some different goals and was organized differently this time. First of all, the group would extend you credit to pay the membership fee. Another difference is the fact that some of the largest branches of the KKK are found in northern states and cities. It was more of an equal opportunity hate group as they hated anyone not exactly like them. They voiced their hatred against African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, alcohol, the “new woman” (flapper), and evolution. They glorified old time religion and fundamentalism. The WKKK served women who wanted to join. Most discussed joining as a social activity, but they clearly discriminated against the same groups as the men. Their membership declined dramatically after internal squabbles of who the next leader would be and then when a scandal hit their organization. After 1927, they go very quiet.

Americans tried to work within the government when social pressure seemed to fail. The flappers marked one of the most visible changes to their society. In an effort to change the direction they seemed to be taking, local leaders began creating laws to govern their dress and behavior. In Ohio, a bill was introduced that proposed fines and imprisonment for wearing a shirt that showed more than 2 inches of a woman’s throat. Virginia and Utah tried to pass laws proposing fines and imprisonment for showing more than 2 or 3 inches of leg above the ankle. One small town in Arkansas made sex illegal within city limits, but added quickly, unless a couple was married.

The Change of the 1920s: Discussion Question
So many changes took place in the 1920s that the whole decade makes for a very interesting case study in how Americans respond to change. Looking at the issues discussed here, which development of the 1920s do you think resulted in the greatest change? How would you argue Americans handled that change? Do you think Americans today have difficulty accepting change? Do we embrace change more or resist it? What examples can you cite to support your argument?

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