Culture in the 1920s: Loosening Social Structure
Culture in the 1920s: Loosening Social Structure
According to one journalist in 1920, Americans were “weary of being noble” after a decade of intense progressive reform, morality, and self-righteousness. The 1920s saw a restless culture, spearheaded by America’s youth rebelling against the moral restrictions of past generations.
The Sexual Revolution
During the 1920s, some Americans—especially young college students—challenged traditional notions of proper behavior. Buoyed by the decade’s prosperity, young people threw raucous parties, drank illegal liquor, and danced new, sexually suggestive steps at jazz clubs. One of the symbols of this decade was the flapper, a name given to the fashionable, pleasure-seeking young women of the time. The archetypal flapper look was tomboyish and flamboyant: short bobbed hair; knee-length, fringed skirts; long, draping necklaces; and rolled stockings. Although few women actually fit this image, it was used widely in journalism and advertising to represent the rebelliousness of the period. The traditional bastions of American morality lamented these developments, and especially criticized the new dances and college students’ proclivity for drinking and smoking. These critics, however, soon found themselves facing much larger opposition as the older generations began to adopt some of the socially liberated practices of their children.
With new social thinking and activities came new social conventions. Most prominently among the youth of the 1920s, sex became far less taboo than it had been previously. Sex was more openly discussed and premarital sex more common. Such activity led naturally to the promotion of birth control, though it was still widely illegal. The sexual revolution brought with it changing ideas about women. Female sexuality was less suppressed, skirt hems were worn higher, and makeup became more common.
It is important to note that although the Roaring ’20s and its attendant characters and events came to symbolize the decade, these stereotypes fit only a small segment of society. Traditional values, especially outside the cities, were not discarded completely, or even much changed.
The Eighteenth Amendment, which made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages, went into effect in January 1920. Enforcement of prohibition, however, was sporadic and underfunded and faced opposition in many states and cities, especially northern cities, where many prohibition laws were repealed. Given this lax enforcement, many Americans viewed prohibition as something of a joke. Bootleggers smuggled liquor from the West Indies and Canada, while speakeasies in every city provided alcohol illegally. Organized crime controlled the distribution of alcohol in major American cities, and gangsters such as Al Capone made a fortune while law enforcement officials often looked the other way. Capone’s income in 1927 was reportedly over $1 million, while the average American’s income was below $2,500. Prohibition fueled much debate within the United States until its repeal in 1933.
The Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance
The 1920s saw the flowering of African American culture in the arts. In music, black culture expressed itself through jazz, an improvisational and spontaneous musical form derived in part from slave songs and African spirituals. Jazz first emerged in the early 1900s in New Orleans then spread to Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere. The 1920s is often called the Jazz Age because jazz flourished and gained widespread appeal during the decade. The improvisational character of the music was often associated with the “loose” morals and relaxed social codes of the time. Among the famous jazz performers of the period were Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington.
The flowering of black literature in the Northeast, especially in Harlem in New York City, was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Black artists explored the African American perspective through poetry and novels. One of the most famous authors of the time was the poet Langston Hughes, who published “The Weary Blues,” in 1926. Harlem was the site of social activity as well as intellectual activity, as prominent and wealthy blacks hosted extravagant gatherings for Harlem Renaissance figures.
The “Lost Generation”
One reason it is difficult to separate stereotypes about the 1920s from reality is the attention paid to these stereotypes by American authors and the media. The author who best represented this trend was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote extensively about the rebellious youth of the Jazz Age in stories and novels such as This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, and The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. In The Great Gatsby, his most famous novel, Fitzgerald criticized the superficiality and material excess of America’s post-war culture, portraying prosperity gone wrong in wealthy New York society.
Many other literary figures rose alongside Fitzgerald to dissect American postwar society. Several notables, including Sinclair Lewis, attacked America’s prevalent Protestant, middle-class, conformist morality. Lewis’s satirical critique, Babbitt, was published in 1922. H.L. Mencken was the journalistic counterpart to the alienated novelists, using political satire in his magazine, American Mercury, to attack the political leaders of the day and the American “booboisie,” as he called the middle class.
Disgusted with the American life they saw as overly material and spiritually void, many writers during this period lived in Europe, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, the most famous expatriate, wrote The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and A Farewell to Arms in 1929, both reflecting the horror and futility of World War I. The self-imposed exile of these writers from America is one reason they were nicknamed the “lost generation.”
Entertainment and Popular Culture
The 1920s saw the growth of popular recreation, in part because of higher wages and increased leisure time. Just as automobiles were mass-produced, so was recreation during the 1920s. Mass-circulations magazines like Reader’s Digest and Time (established 1923) enjoyed enormous success. Radio also rose to prominence as a source of news and entertainment during the 1920s: NBC was founded in 1926 and CBS a year later. Movies were the most popular leisure attraction of the times, making stars out of Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Mary Pickford. In 1927, with The Jazz Singer, movies began to include sound, and 1928 saw the first animated sound film, Steamboat Willy. Professional sports gained a new popularity, as well. Baseball star Babe Ruth enjoyed massive fame, as did boxers such as Jack Dempsey. College sports rose to national attention, as demonstrated by the fame of the Notre Dame football team’s “four horsemen.” The 1920s also saw the emergence of nonsporting national heroes like Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic in May 1927.
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