The speakeasy. The flapper. Al Capone. Boosterism. Prohibition. Cars and consumer culture. The roaring twenties. Through these popular images, the colorful decade of the 1920s still resonates among generations that never experienced it. Yet the popular stereotype of this crucial decade largely obscures its greater cultural and historical significance. From a cultural and historical perspective, the 1910s and 1920s were marked by a deep clash of cultures.
During the previous half century, the United States had undergone probably the most dramatic metamorphosis of its short history. It had transformed itself from a fragmented, regional agrarian economy into one of the most powerful industrial and urban economies of the world. The prospect of economic opportunity drew millions of immigrants from abroad into its factories and cities. The farmer, who had occupied a favored place in American mythology since the time of Thomas Jefferson, rapidly gave way to the industrialist, the capitalist, and the entrepreneur. The town, the cultural center of preindustrial America, rapidly gave way to the city. The Victorian value system that prioritized restraint and had dominated mainstream American life in the nineteenth century gave way (over a half-century of struggle) to the more relaxed morals of the twentieth century. In an increasingly consumer-based society, leisure and pleasure were now prized over hard work and self-denial.
|The automobile was a principal symbol of the new era.|
The economic, political, and social changes of the past half-century
manifested themselves in a widespread clash of cultures. As twentieth
century modernity increasingly challenged Victorian traditions, this
provoked a defense of older values. The watershed years for this fundamental
transition in American culture were the 1910s and 1920s. Although the
various sides in the cultural debate cannot easily be defined, historians
have noted a general division between those who embraced the new changes
and looked with hope to the future and those who idealized the past
and resisted cultural change. At the same time, the values of the new
industrial economy as well as the lingering traditions from Victorian
America suffused all sides in this cultural debate and blurred the lines
between the various parties.
One such area of conflict centered on Prohibition. The temperance movement, the effort to limit and/or ban alcohol consumption, began in the early nineteenth century, but it was not until the eve of the 1920s that reformers succeeded in passing a constitutional amendment that forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. This passage of national Prohibition precipitated a major cultural clash in the 1920s between those who favored Prohibition and those who wished to repeal it. Ironically, industrialization influenced both movements. Those in favor of Prohibition believed that alcohol consumption limited one's ability to participate productively in the new industrial society. Those who opposed the amendment believed that an outdated moralism was responsible for Prohibition and argued that the changes of the past several decades, which they deemed to be progressive and objective, had rendered the morality of preindustrial America obsolete.
Another area of conflict was the changing role of women in American society. The transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial one created new opportunities for women, particularly single young women. Now enjoying the freedom that comes from having an independent source of income, many women created a new culture for themselves that centered on consumer culture and mass entertainment. Many, however, considered the new woman to be a threat to social morality and opposed the flapper, the icon of the new woman in the 1920s, and what she represented.
The 1920s were also marked by a high degree of racial and ethnic conflict. One of the least-remembered facts regarding the 1920s is that it was the golden age of the Ku Klux Klan. While the KKK purported to represent "old-fashioned values," it unabashedly adopted the new methodologies of the industrial economy. Although the Klan continued to target African Americans, it focused much of its attention on the rising immigrant population of the cities. Indeed, the clash between immigrants and those who opposed virtually all immigration to the United States, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, was very prominent in the 1920s. Yet, at the same time, the workforce that the new immigrants represented was crucial to the health of the industrial economy, which greatly complicated this cultural debate.
One of the most prominent episodes of the 1920s, the Scopes trial, epitomizes the complexity of this cultural clash. The trial of John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher accused of teaching evolution in the classroom, took on a life of its own when prominent politician William Jennings Bryan agreed to serve as prosecutor while famed lawyer Clarence Darrow came to Scopes' defense. The trial soon became an international spectacle. Although caricatured in such films/plays as Inherit the Wind as a clash between ignorant, backwoods fundamentalists and enlightened moderns, the reality of the Scopes trial was far more complex. The people of Dayton were not nearly so backward as they were portrayed in the media. Taking advantage of the national media, so-called Dayton boosters engineered the trial to attract tourism and economic opportunity to their town. Nonetheless, the trial took on a life of its own and, to many, brought into sharp focus some of the issues at stake in the great cultural debates of the decade; however, a close look at the positions of each side demonstrates that they were much more complex than most people view them today.
Just as the icons of the 1920s, such as the speakeasy and the flapper, are still with us today, so too are the legacies of these cultural clashes. The issues at stake were never fully resolved. The debate over prohibition continues today in the debate over cigarettes and the legalization of marijuana and other controlled substances. The place of women in American society continues to be a subject of much discussion. Many recent events show that race continues to be a compelling issue in American politics and society. Indeed, even the issues at stake in the Scopes trial continue to be debated on public school boards around the country, most recently in Kansas. A look at the cultural clash of the 1920s provides an important historical backdrop to issues that continue to resonate in American culture.