Cultural Themes: The 1920's & Modernity


I. Introduction: The 1920's ushered in cultural trends that historians identify with "modernity". These were characterized by:  

1. Fairly wide-spread economic prosperity based on greater mass production of consumer goods—especially autos--and a drive towards consumerism & a credit economy.  

2. The new emphasis on consumption was promoted through a new mass culture--radios, movies, mass circulation magazines became popular. These mediums broke down provincialism and promoted a national mass consumer culture.


3. Prosperity and consumerism were tied to the development of the advertising industry, which was now linked to a popular new field of study: psychology, with its emphasis on self-discovery and fulfillment.


4. Advertising and mass consumer culture brought about a shift in values: greater emphasis on personal pleasure, leisure activities, and entertainment. Sports became the new national pastime, also promoted by tools of mass culture.

These changes were troubling to many Americans on both ends of the political spectrum--though the various critics of modernity were troubled by different things .


1. Antimodernism surfaced among educated, secular Americans, who felt alienation from industrialization, with its impersonal bureaucracy, and its cheap mass-produced goods. Mass culture was seen as homogenized and inauthentic, and so they turned to cultural pluralism - a celebration of the “primitive,” which carried a challenge to Victorian sexual morality  


2. There was also a flowering of African American culture in the 1920s: the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age. White folks disillusioned with mass culture discovered this music at this time and it became popular b/c it was so “authentic”. A wave of black nationalism and pride accompanied this


3.  However, to many religious Americans the nation seemed to have  turned to new secular values from older values of self-denial & the Protestant work ethic  to self indulgence & materialism, & tolerance of loose sexual morals among women.   This perspective fuelled a conservative backlash, as seen in revivals of the KKK and .the rise of fundamentalism, as seen in the Scopes trial.


II. Economic prosperity of the 1920s. This period saw economic prosperity and a stock market boom leasing to several trends


A. Consumer Culture: prosperity, advertising & consumption hallmarks of modernity


          1.  The general prosperity of 1920's was linked to the election of Warren G. Harding, and the Republicans controlled the presidency throughout the 1920s


                    a. this meant a new approach to big business by government


                    b. crusades for government to reform big business waned in the 1920's


          2. This was a new period of glorification of businessmen in the media, as seen in best-selling book of the era by an ad-executive:


                    a. Bruce Barton, published a best-seller in 1924 called The Man Nobody Knows


                             - he argued that Jesus was really the founder of modern business 

 -He (Jesus, not Barton) took 12 men from bottom ranks of society & formed an organization that conquered the world

           3. In this new culture of abundance, new consumer patterns arise:


                    a. cheaply mass produced goods spurred mass consumerism  

b. 9 out of top the 20 industries by 1930 specialized in consumer goods: radios, watches, cigarette lighters, household appliances, etc.


c. this was a shift from the late 19th century when most industrial production was in capital goods such as railroads.

4. The introduction of credit buying--a revolutionary new way of doing business--spurred this consumer revolution

                     a. by 1927 nearly 6 billion $ worth of goods bought on credit:  

b. this was necessary b/c 65% of the American middle class made under $2,000 a year

c. average annual income was  $725 total; costs of living: $ 290 food, $190 housing, $110 clothing; this left only $135 to consume with

  5. All of this money & credit made buying easier but the desire for consumer goods was fuelled by the rise of mass culture  

B. Toward a Mass Culture: In the 1920's - isolation of small towns & rural communities was being broken down by numerous things that knit our nation together: autos, paved roads, parcel postal service, growth of & chain dept. stores; and a new media: movies, radio, telephones, more mass-circulation magazines


1. Movies

 a. by the end of the 1920's nation had 23,000 theaters; movie attendance grew rapidly; 

in 1922 - 40 million Americans attended movies, by 1930 - 115 million 


b. in 1927  the Jazz Singer  starring  Al Jolson was the first "talkie"--or movie with a sound track

c. Movies fed materialism & encouraged an emphasis on leisure  & recreation: entertainment was often like the fabulous Zeigfeld follies - lavish, extravagant, mindless musicals - escapism  

2. Mass circulation magazines and books also contribute to consumerism and the development of a mass--culture

a. 1920s: Saturday Evening Post, New Yorker, Readers Digest, Time began 


b. beginning of the new Book of the Month Club, which got Americans all over the nation reading the same books

3. Radio May 2, 1920 professional radio broadcasting began when KDKA in Pittsburgh carried the  presidential election returns

a. by 1929 - 40% of all households carried radios and more than 800 stations broadcasting under CBS or NBC


b. radio broadcasts of sports events began in 1921 when the World Series was broadcast for the first time 

c. this created  a new type of hero-worship; heroes had had existed before but now they were media-created & marketed creatures (as they are today)

         4. Mass media contributes to a huge expansion of advertising

a. by 1929 ad agencies spent over 3.4 billion $ annually, or $15 for every man, woman, & child in America


b. the advertisings industry was tied to new field of psychology --Edwards Bernays - 1 of founders of the advertising industry was the nephew of Sigmund Freud


c. ad agencies hired psychologists to design campaigns to manipulate people's drives and desires


d. this meant a shift in the focus of advertising from "this is a good product" to "this will make you happy"

5.This promotes a new philosophy of self worth: you are what you own; character, religious affiliation, social standing are old-fashioned criteria for self worth; define yourselves by your consumer goods!!

C. Advertising and consumerism tied into a new focus on the self, which was found in psychology & the rise of the "therapeutic ethic"


1. Psychoanalysis was all the rage in the1920's;  Freud was widely accepted in  America & many folks went into analysis


2. The therapeutic ethic stated that ones' personal  happiness was the supreme virtue of life-- over family or community-- and that happiness could best be defined as "that which gives the self the greatest pleasure & the least trouble"; thus biblical injunctions & societal taboos against certain behavior were just foolish


3. Linked to this was the idea that we deserve a pain-free life; we can, through psychoanalysis solve ALL our problems -not  learn to live w/ them or learn lessons from them

 D. these trends also linked to beginnings of changes in sexual morals (discussed in your reading)


          1. Over the  decade of 1920s, divorce rose by 50%


2.  Many women cut their hair, began smoking & wearing rouge & abandoned their corsets & bustles --the hussies!


3. Some women also rebelled against the Victorian ideal that they were "passionless" and some embraced sexual experimentation--having lovers, both in marriage and out of  marriage; remember that this was a minority, but it was still scary to people concerned w/ "traditional" morality

III. Reactions to the new culture: not everyone was happy.


A. Anti-modern Bohemian culture - a small minority of people--mostly disillusioned intellectuals & artists


1. These raised an outcry against American Civilization that had given us WWI--a horrible war,  an industrial revolution which broke up communities & made many suffer, and a mass culture that seemed soul-less,


2. These critics had a fascination with the "primitive"; they gathered in Greenwich Village to study native cultures from around the world (collected art, read mythology, studied Indian religion etc.)


3. Some of them then moved from NYC to the Southwest to be close to the Indians and established communes of artists and intellectuals

 a. Mabel Dodge Luhan - founded the Taos commune, where she lived with the Pueblo Indians b/c they were "pure & primitive" and "natural", unlike city folks


b. the artists and intellectuals at this commune included the writer  D. H. Lawrence and artists like Georgia O'Keefe

 4. This interest in the "primitive" was also linked to the development of anthropology as a popular field of study


a. anthropologist Franz Boas established the 1st chair in anthropology at Columbia in 1896, and trained the first generation of American anthos who produced a flurry of studies in the 1920s:


b. among these were Ruth Benedict, Margaret Meade, Robert Lowie, Alfred Kroeber, and Leslie White

 B. The Harlem Renaissance - between 1920 - 1930 African-Americans stepped up a migration to Northern cities that had begun during the War as African-Americans followed jobs in the war industries

1. In NYC, the black pop doubled - most settled in Harlem; by 1930  Harlem had a population of 165,000


2. Harlem experienced a flowering of black culture w/ newspapers, magazines, theater groups, & libraries, artists & musicians - playing jazz in "hot" clubs like the Cotton Club


3. Acts like Louie Armstrong and Bessie Smith became very popular among middle class whites


4. The 1920's was also an era of black political activism focused on what comes to be called Black nationalism and on a new philosophy of separatism


a. Marcus Garvey - a West Indian man who believed in racial pride--he thought that African American culture was superior to white culture and that both God & Jesus were black, not white 


Garvey hated both the approaches to civil rights that were common at the time: accommodation, as preached by Booker T, and agitation for integration, as preached by W. E. B. Du Bois


He founded the Universal  Negro  Improvement Association to preach this message and promote immigration to Africa


He argued that African Americans would never find justice in the US. and should return to Africa


He founded the Black Star Steamship Line to transport Blacks to Nigeria  

Garvey was popular w/ working class blacks; was based in Harlem in early 1920's


Many, however, considered him to be a charlatan & perhaps he was; he was at least a bad manager--his Black Star line went bankrupt & sentenced to jail for fraud for 5 years, served 2


But he stirred ethnic pride - encouraged Harlem Renaissance & Jazz Music

Garvey stood in contrast with the more mainstream civil rights leader, W.E.B. Du Bois

b. W.E.B. Du Bois was the 1st black person to get a Ph.D. from Harvard--he was an historian


His dissertation "The Suppression  of the African Slave Trade to the USA " (1896) is still a standard work on the subject.


He was an outspoken critic of Booker T. Washington and accommodation


Rather, he encouraged militancy - fight for education, voting rights, political & economic power.


In 1905 called the Niagara Falls Conference to gather civil rights activists to work for these goals, and in 1909, these folks founded the NAACP  

All of this activism by African Americans contributed to the rebirth of the KKK

C. The KKK: While some whites enjoyed the cultural elements of their African-American neighbors, others participated in a backlash of racism and anti-Catholic bigotry. 


1. The resurgence of the Klan was in part due to the release of the movie Birth of a Nation (1915) by DW Griffiths, which portrayed the original Klan as noble white Southerners fighting against rampaging black rapists and rapacious Yankee scalawags during Reconstruction


 a. The Klan was reborn in Atlanta by people w/ the same vision: claimed to be defending American values in a period when old values seen as eroding

 2. William J. Simmons - the founder of the new Klan grew up poor in rural Alabama, fought in the Spanish / American War then became a circuit riding preacher  for the Methodist Church of the South (before he was fired for "moral turpitude)


When Birth opened in Atlanta, he  took out ad in Atlanta papers for people who wanted to join the "World's Greatest Secret, Social, Patriotic, Fraternal & Beneficent Order" for men of intelligence & character

he claimed that this was  simply a fraternity dedicated to 100% Americanism & to WASP supremacy

3. Simmons mostly just talked until 1917, when the country went to war; he decided that the nation needed defending against "alien enemies, slackers, strike leaders & immoral women" lest the victory be endangered


a. Klan entered fight as member of Citizen's Bureau of Investigation


b. this organization posted warnings of unpatriotic activity, hunted draft dodgers, intervened in strikes, marched in parades


c. this was quite popular - by 1919 several thousand members

 4. After the war, the organization grew more racist and aggressive; still claimed to be defending 100% Americanism against: "Niggers, Jews, Catholics, aliens, dope smugglers,  bootleggers, night clubbers, road houses, Sabbath violations, sex, marital 'goings - on' & scandalous behavior"


a. KKK was found mostly in South, Mid-West & West (not in North East or large cities)-but was found in both rural & urban areas of the mid-west

b. at it's peak it had 5 million members and:


c. it dominated local politics in many cities in Texas, Okla., Miss, Alab, La, Ark, Ga, Oregon, NC; in 1924 the Klan took over the Republican party of Colorado

5. KKK began a sharp decline in 1925, however, b/c of scandal & factionalism


a. in 1925 Grand Dragon David Stephenson kidnapped & raped  his secretary, driving her to suicide & the Klan lost droves of members


b. nonetheless, it was still somewhat influential - in 1928 contributed to defeat of Catholic Alfred E. Smith in Presidential election; but by 1930 had only 9,000 members 

D. Fundamentalism v. Modernism in Dayton, Tennessee, 1925.


1. Background: Religious fundamentalism is found in every major religious tradition--in each it has different forms & emphasis and each movement rose as a reaction to modernity--to the scientific and secular culture that arose at the turn of the century.


a. modernity created a perceived crisis in which fundamentalists were embattled by the forces of evil & threatened w/ annihilation, 


b. this destruction could only be stopped by a return to certain fundamental beliefs and practices


2. Yet, ironically, fundamentalism in the U.S. was essentially a modern movement b/c it was based on understanding scripture as a literal truth—as empirical factual texts, not as sacred stories with deeper spiritual meaning that were not meant to be taken literally


a. This is a modern, post-enlightenment view of ancient texts, not a traditional view of sacred texts


b. Christian scriptures were written in the pre-modern ancient world where knowledge was viewed very differently than in the modern world


sacred stories in scriptures--were written to convey meaning--not practical knowledge--it was a way of making sense of everyday life w/ reference to larger purposes


likewise, history was often less about accounting for what actually happened and more concerned w/ the meaning of the event than what actually happened


the ancients called this form of knowledge, mythos; stories that were meant to convey factual knowledge were called logos; these two forms of knowledge were distinct and separate 

c. In early 20th C America, fundamentalism sought to uphold scripture as logos, not mythos; thus, fundamentalist appropriated the very modernity they fighting 

American fundamentalism arose in response to the problems of modernity as well

3. Following the industrial revolution, Christians involved in the Social Gospel began to diverge more sharply between the liberals & conservatives


a. some churches became more liberal in their theology in an attempt to make peace w/ the modern, scientific world: believed that the practice of Christian love was more important than doctrine & liturgy


thus doing social work instead of emphasizing sin & redemption; some advocated an interpretation of the bible that was more sociological than theological; downplayed the miraculous & tried to see the larger truths in the stories instead


many reconciled science and evolution w/ their faith b/c saw each as providing different information—this was, ironically, a more traditional ancient view of scripture


4. This trend worried other Christians who feared that this kind of thinking led to moral decay: they preferred a literal interpretation of the bible and restoration of certain fundamental beliefs--felt they must conserve their faith so called conservatives

a. conservatives drafted a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals between 1909-1912, which outlined the fundamentalist position:


b. emphasized 5 core doctrines: the inerrancy of the bible; the virgin birth; the atonement of sins thru Christ's sacrifice; the resurrection of the dead, & the second coming of Christ and final judgment


c.1916-"World's Fundamentalist Association" formed to promote these ideas 


5. When WWI broke out, the slaughter seemed to fundamentalist to confirm that it was the end of the world; they sought out signs of the end


a. also the Balfour Declaration--Brits pledged support for a Jewish state (1917);


b. Bolshevik rev--looked like USSR was to be the power from the North that would attack Israel & spark Armageddon.


c. League of Nations seemed to be the revived Roman Empire led by anti-Christ


d. b/c of this great fear of the end of the world, Fundamentalists saw themselves as on the front line against satanic forces led by secularists and liberals; 

6 . the root of this evil is science and the expression of this scientific evil is the theory of evolution


a. From 1921-29- fundamentalists tried to pass some 37 anti-evolution laws in some 27 states


b. the campaign was most fruitful in the South where Tenn., Miss., Ark. All passed laws and other states enacted informal censorship thru local school boards


7. In Tenn., in 1925, the state lege passed a law making it illegal "for any teacher in any of the universities, normal, and all other public schools of the state to teach any theory that denies the divine creation of man as taught in the bible and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals."


a. the ACLU offered to defend anyone who chose to break the law


b. later that spring, in Dayton, Tenn. a young biology teacher at Central High School named John Scopes took up the challenge & lectured on evolution


c. his friends complained & Scopes arrested-bound over to the grand jury the trial was set


8. For the prosecution: William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, noted pacifist activist former secretary of state (under Wilson)


Bryan had been leading the charge against teaching evolution; 


he went on tour w/ a talk called: " The Menace of Darwinism," in which he opened by offering $100 to anyone who would claim descent from a monkey--no one ever took him up on it

in the lecture he blamed Darwin for modern science that created modern weapons and for Social Darwinism that, he claimed, had encouraged the Germans to go to war to assert their superiority

9. For the defense: Clarence Darrow, famous criminal lawyer and militant agnostic; he tried to argue it as a constitutional issue

a. he challenged the constitutionality of the law requiring the teaching of biblical creation for the TN state constitution also forbade the state from giving "preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship"

b.  and there were many different views of creation in many different faiths

this argument, however, seemed to be lost on the prosecution, for whom this was a cultural issue; the following exchange is from the trial:

Defense :Does not it [the law] prefer the bible to the Koran?

Prosc.: It does not mention the Koran

Def.: Does not it prefer the bible to the Koran?

Pros.: We are not living in a heathen country.

Def.: Will you answer my question? Does not it prefer the bible to the Koran?

Pros.: We are not living in a heathen country so how can it prefer the bible to the Koran? 

c. the judge then disallowed this line of reasoning so he tried several others                      

d. finally he put Bryan on the stand as an expert witness on the bible, where his fundamentalism was at first applauded:

he believed in Bishop Usher's dates for creation: 407 B.C., on October 17, @ 9:30 am


but under cross examination, he had to concede that the world was more than 6,000 years old, that the 6 days may not have been 24 hour periods, and that he had never read any scholarship on the bible itself nor on evolution


he admitted that: "I do not think about things I don't think about and I only think about things I do think about sometimes." 

the national press ridiculed Bryan without mercy even though he won the case 

11. In the end: Scopes was found guilty and fined $100; the ACLU paid the fine


a. this fine w as later overturned by the TN Supreme Court on a technicality, thus preventing any appeals


b. But Bryan had been publicly humiliated, and he died in his sleep a few days after the trial


Conclusions about Scopes: The ridicule of fundamentalism only served to further alienate many people for whom religion was very important and whose modern interpretation of ancient texts--a literal reading rooted in logos rather than mythos--was rooted in deep anxiety about the world that could not be assuaged by rational argument. Although the fundamentalist cause remained strong in the rural south and mid-west fundamentalists retreated from politics until the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, when they became a significant political force in the Republican party.  At this time, they will bring a very similar critique of late 20th C America.

 Overall Summary: The decade of the 1920's saw new values & emphasis in American culture that led to cultural conflicts.   Mass culture & consumerism were part of a new philosophy of self – indulgence, leisure, and pleasure. Modernity had its detractors, however. These critics rejected modernity in favor of the “primitive” authentic cultures of  Southwestern Indians and the Harlem Renaissance—which was in itself a significant artistic movement.  Cultural discord included the rise of KKK and the resurgence of fundamentalism as seen in the Scopes Trial.