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The 1920s - An Overview Next
Digital History ID 3380

 

In 1931, a journalist named Frederick Lewis Allen published a volume of informal history that did more to shape the popular image of the 1920s than any book ever written by a professional historian. The book, Only Yesterday, depicted the 1920s as a cynical, hedonistic interlude between the Great War and the Great Depression--a decade of dissipation, jazz bands, raccoon coats, and bathtub gin. Allen argued that World War I shattered Americans' faith in reform and moral crusades, leading the younger generation to rebel against traditional taboos while their elders engaged in an orgy of consumption and speculation.

The popular image of the 1920s, as a decade of prosperity and riotous living and of bootleggers and gangsters, flappers and hot jazz, flagpole sitters, and marathon dancers, is indelibly etched in the American psyche. But this image is also profoundly misleading. The 1920s was a decade of deep cultural conflict. The pre-Civil War decades had fundamental conflicts in American society that involved geographic regions. During the Gilded Age, conflicts centered on ethnicity and social class. Conversely, the conflicts of the 1920s were primarily cultural, pitting a more cosmopolitan, modernist, urban culture against a more provincial, traditionalist, rural culture.

The decade witnessed a titanic struggle between an old and a new America. Immigration, race, alcohol, evolution, gender politics, and sexual morality all became major cultural battlefields during the 1920s. Wets battled drys, religious modernists battled religious fundamentalists, and urban ethnics battled the Ku Klux Klan.

The 1920s was a decade of profound social changes. The most obvious signs of change were the rise of a consumer-oriented economy and of mass entertainment, which helped to bring about a "revolution in morals and manners." Sexual mores, gender roles, hair styles, and dress all changed profoundly during the 1920s. Many Americans regarded these changes as liberation from the country's Victorian past. But for others, morals seemed to be decaying, and the United States seemed to be changing in undesirable ways. The result was a thinly veiled "cultural civil war."

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