Lecture 18: American Culture in the 1920s


I. First, recall that in the aftermath of WWI, a very conservative and often ugly side of American culture dominated—there was the Red Scare, a period of strong Nativism, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and it was a period in which religious fundamentalism was very strong. 

A. The Red Scare occurred mostly in 1919 and involved numerous witch hunts for communists throughout the US. The most celebrated case was the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. 

1. Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants with radical political ideas. They were accused of murder during a robbery in South Braintree, Mass.

2. During their trial the judge refused to allow the testimony of several witnesses who might have cleared the two, but they were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.

3. Many Americans came to believe that the trial had been unfair, andd Sacco and Vanzetti “clubs” were created all over the country to protest the verdict.

4. Despite the groundswell of popular support, the two were executed in 1927.  

B.  Nativism (100% Americanism) was another rather ugly part of the late teens and early 20s. Expecting an economic downturn after the end of the war, Americans demanded and got severe restrictions on immigration. For the next several decades  immigration restrictions were so severe that in the 1930’s, more people left the US than entered! 

C. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan began in 1915 and gained strength until 1924. The KKK believed in White Supremacy and opposed to black rights of all forms. They also distrusted Catholics and Jews. In addition, they were violently anti-communist and against the expansion of women’s rights. 

1. As mentioned in an earlier lecture, the KKK executed some 70 blacks by lynching in 1919. Some of these blacks had served in the War in Europe and were decorated war heros.

2. The KKK’s activities set off an explosion of racial war in 1919—there were race riots in many major American cities in which thousands lost their lives and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage was done.

3. The KKK reached a peak membership in 1924 (4.5 million). By 1930, membership has plummeted to only 30,000.

3. Many blacks joined the NAACP and many others became followers of Marcus Garvey, who advocated “black pride,” and return of all blacks to Africa. Garvey was eventually exiled to Jamaica and his movement collapsed. 

D. Religious fundamentalism also enjoyed great popularity during this period. Fundamentalists (based on a series of pamphlets published in 1910), led by WJ Bryan, believed that industrialization and progressivism changed America for the worst; wanted it changed back!

1. They began a host of movements to fight change, rejecting the new values of urban society, many scientific theories such as Darwinism. As mentioned earlier, the fundamentalists succeeded in some states in getting laws passed prohibiting the teaching of evolution. We have already discussed the Scopes Monkey trial in some detail.

II. Ironically, one of the conservative victories  of 1920 contained in it the seeds for a major loosening of American values and culture later in the 1920s—prohibition. 

A. Prohibition was a moral issue and to a lesser extent a political one. The problem with it was that the attempt to ban liquor was doomed from the start. There were simply too many places people could make liquor and too many borders to guard. The government was unwilling to pay for the huge numbers of extra police that would have been required. 

B. After the passage of prohibition, more people drank than before—drinking had become fashionable protest against the restrictive morality of the fundamentalists.  

C. “Speakeasies” developed in every city. Speakeasies were places that people gathered to drink illegal booze. They became very popular as places to reject the conservative values and led to the emergence of a significant counter-culture. There were some 50,000 Speakeasies in New York City alone. 

D. “Flappers,” women who publicly rejected social restrictions on their dress and behavior emerged from the Speakeasy scene. Jazz became a popular music form because of them also. 

E. Of course, gangs organized to transport and sell liquor proliferated and wars between them created one of the worst outbreaks of crime in history. Gangsters killed 5000—mostly in daylight hours in public places. 

F. Prohibition was abandoned in 1933 with the passage of the 21st amendment to the US constitution. 

III.  The period after 1924 saw a "Revolution in Manners and Morals" in which the conservative values of the past were overturned by the new generation. By the mid-1920s the power had shifted to the young. 

A. Underlying this cultural change was prosperity. Wages in the US had gone up dramatically—people had money to spend.

B. People were disillusioned over the failure of the idealistic Progressives to solve social problems and the failure of Wilson to achieve a lasting, just peace. People lost their motivation to sacrifice and sought money and fun while ignoring social ills.

            C. Thus, the 20’s became the “Jazz Era”, or “the Roaring 20s.”

D. What made such a "revolution" possible?

1. Disillusionment with WWI

2. Emphasis, almost an obsession, with youth

3. The changing role of women, who wanted "emancipation."

4. Foreign Influences such as the very popular writings of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and even Albert Einstein.

5. Others mostly American influences such as Prohibition, Jazz, Tabloids and Movies.  

E. A big part of the 20s was the triumph of escapism over concern. People felt that since Progresivism had failed to cure all the social ills of America, and since Wilson had failed to create a just international peace, they should just forget about these problems and focus on enjoying them selves—“Don’t worry, be hapopy,” would be an appropriate slogan for this period.

1. Old fashioned Victorian Morality and Progressivism were replaced by prosperity and enjoyment became focus of society.

2. Among the side effects of escapism was a widening Generation Gap.

3. The 20s was also a period of hero worship—sports figures such as Babe Ruth, adventurers like Charles Lindberg became national figures.

4. People also succumbed to fads of all kinds, from sitting on flagpoles to wearing short skirts. The development of Radio and the emergence of Talking motion pictures promoted fads country-wide and led to the homogenization of American culture.