Kulturkampfen ("Wars for Civilization") of the 1920s
World War I and the immediate postwar years gave a series of seemingly decisive victories in what had been ongoing cultural battles. States and municipalites had conducted referenda about the sale of alcohol since 1850 when the first Maine Law passed. In some cities, such as Worcester, Massachusetts, the licensing question whether saloons could operate appeared on the ballot every year. With two exceptions, the "Wets" won. But most years the vote was close, and the "Drys" took heart from the narrowness of their defeats. Suddenly, there was national Prohibition. Newspapers were filled with scenes like this one, courtesy of the National Archives, from Detroit showing police seizing brewing equipment. Just as suddenly the equally long struggle over votes for women ended. This too had been an issue fought out at the municipal and state level as first one city and then another permitted women to vote in school board elections and one and then anther state granted them the franchise across the board. As of 1920 all women citizens could vote.
Arguments over immigration had lasted just as long and had been just as heated. Cities and states could not establish policies in this area. But local battles over schools, licensing of saloons, and numerous other matters pitted immigrants and their children, usually as Democrats, against Yankees and their allies, usually as Republicans. The War temporarily brought large-scale immigration to a halt; then Congress passed a temporary measure limiting it in 1921, followed by a permanent Restriction Law in 1924. The law, the Johnson-Reed Act, also codified the alleged superiority of white Americans of northern and western European backgrounds by imposing quotas based upon national origins which favored those groups.
Left-wing movements had roiled American politics since the 1870s. Most of these, such as the Populists, had disappeared by 1900, leaving the field to socialists. They had elected mayors in scores of cities, an even larger number of state legislators, and a Congressman, Victor Berger of Milwaukee. To their left were the anarchists who refused to participate in electoral politics and instead advocated "the propaganda of the deed." But they hurled more words than dynamite. They did throw enough of the latter, however, to cause episodic fears of impending revolution. Not after 1920, however. The Palmer Raids, in which thousands of immigrants suspected of "bolshevik" sympathies were rounded up and jailed, capped a federal campaign against left-wing movements that began in earnest during the War. Eugene Debs, frequent presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America went to prison for advocating resistance to the draft. The Post Office banned socialist and anarchist papers and periodicals from the mails. The Committee on Public Information seized control of the foreign-language press. After the war, the Justice Department responded to a wave of mail bombs by arresting thousands, usually on very little evidence. It sought the deportation of hundreds.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had imitators on the state level. In New York, state senator Clayton Riley Lusk chaired a special joint committee which raided the headquarters of the Socialist Party and those of other left-wing organizations, seized their files, and alarmed the public with predictions of an immiment "Red" uprising. There were similar legislative committees in other states, notably California. Add to these assaults the internal disputes among left-wingers themselves over the Bolshevik Revolution and the result was an American Left in shambles.
Radical unionism fared just as badly. The Industrial Workers of the World proved an inviting target for the Justice Department during and after the War. The great steel strike of 1919, led by William Z. Foster, soon to run for president as the candiate of the Communist Party, failed. So did the Seattle General Strike. The Boston Police Strike succeeded only in making Governor Calvin Coolidge a national figure for his proclamation that no one had a right to strike against the public interest. Employers largely succeeded in equating industrial unionism with bolshevism.
Given all of this and the landslide victory of Warren G. Harding, few would have predicted the cultural tumult of the 1920s. But tumult there was. Far from proving a triumph for Victorian propriety, Prohibition led to widespread defiance and the rise of organized crime. Drinking, formerly a sign of moral weakness and irresponsibility, became "smart," i.e., sophisticated. Immigration restriction too proved less of a victory than it at first appeared. It did cut off "undesirable" immigration from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia but did nothing to stop those already here, and their children, from coming to play a more and more important role in American public life. Louis Brandeis sat on the Supreme Court. Al Smith became governor of New York, then the largest state, and in 1924 and 1928 sought the Democratic presidential nomination. In major cities, Irish-led political "machines" ran City Hall; Irish-American women dominated the ranks of public schoolteachers; their brothers policed those same cities. Second-generation Jews controlled the rapidly growing motion picture industry, perhaps the most important medium of the day. Immigrants and their children and African Americans wrote and performed the popular music.
Women did not reform politics once they could vote, despite some victories in campaigns for better working conditions and schools. Instead they voted just as their husbands, brothers, and fathers did, at least in national and state-wide races. Despite the presence in almost every state of a cadre of experienced, politically savvy organizers, women voters did not change politics or public life to any marked degree. The twenties witnessed little occupational progress for women, in part because they actually lost ground educationally. In the 1920s women made up a smaller percentage of college students than they had in the 1900s and 1910s. Nonetheless, a "modern young woman" emerged, much to the dismay of suffrage activists and male traditionalists alike. Her dress, her morals, her commitment or lack thereof to family and motherhood, even her bathing attire became the stuff of controversy.
"Normalcy," Harding's promise to the electorate in 1920, proved anything but normal. Millions would join a second Ku Klux Klan out of the belief that Catholics and Jews were taking over the country. The rapid growth of the Klan, in turn, inspired millions more to join various anti-KKK organizations that proved at least as willing to engage in violence. "Fundamentalists" sought to drive "liberals" and "modernists" out of the evangelical Protestant churches, especially the Presbyterian and Baptist churches. William Jennings Bryan organized an Anti-Evolution League and confronted Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee in a battle that pitted evangelical piety against scientific rationalism. (At right is a newsphoto of Bryan preaching in a Dayton pulpit during the Scopes Trial.)
The Broadway stage and the movies also provoked cultural warfare. Both ignored Victorian proprieties with progressively more open displays of sexuality and with ever more daring language. Censorship bills filled legislative hoppers. Ministers, priests, and rabbis all denounced the new license. Meanwhile Americans went to the movies an average of twice a week and so-called "tired businessmen" attended the Ziegfeld Follies and its imitators so faithfully that eight major revues, each with at least a hundred scantilly clad chorus girls, opened on Broadway each year.
Most disruptive of all the cultural battles, perhaps, arose out of the insistence of the young men and women of the twenties that they constituted a distinct and distinctive generation and would live their lives very differently than their parents might wish. Theirs was the first self-conscious generation. They were the first to develop their own slang, their own fashions, their own hairstyles, their own music, and their own rules of behavior. They were the first to turn, not to parents or preachers, but to peers to develop moral standards. The "flapper" of the early twenties proved more disruptive than her male counterpart. Her short skirts, her willingness to experiment with cigarettes and alcohol, her fondness for "hot" music and "wild" dance steps, her use of cosmetics, all made her a nightmare for those who perforce became the "older generation."
In short, despite the seeming triumph of what many would call righteousness during the War and the immediate postwar years, the decade really belonged to the devil. Or so it seemed to millions.
We approach the twenties and its wars for civilization from several directions.
- The Ku Klux Klan "Though men and women drop from the ranks they remain with us in purpose, and can be depended on fully in any crisis. Also, there are millions who have never joined, but who think and feel and when called on fight with us. This is our real strength, and no one who ignores it can hope to understand America today." Hiram Wesley Evans, "The Klan's Fight for Americanism," The North American Review (March-April-May 1926) Was Evans correct? Can we understand America in the 1920s if we ignore the enormous appeal of the KKK?
- Passing from Light into Dark This is a companion to a discussion of The KKK in the 1920s, soon to be published in revised form in the Journal for MultiMedia History. Both deal with race, ethnicity, and nationality as foci of the "culture wars" of the 1920s. "The KKK in the 1920s" looks at politics, broadly defined. "Passing" looks at culture, defined equally broadly. Both argue that pre-emptive attempts to define who was or was not a real American, so characteristic of the years immediately surrounding World War I, failed, despite such significant initial successes as Prohibition, immigration restriction, and the Red Scare. At the same time, racial boundaries held firm. The failure to limit "real" Americans to those of "Nordic" stock was of a piece with the success in excluding people of color.
- The Demotic Impulse in the Arts — The arts in the 1920s have inspired an enormous range of scholarship, most of it organized around the triumph of the "modern." Yet the modern was more than Modernism. There was also the "demotic," what Gilbert Seldes called the Seven Lively Arts in 1923. These included comic strips, Irving Berlin songs, Charlie Chaplin comedies, jazz, even Ziegfeld's Follies. This page seeks to provide a survey of "demotic" art, art of, by, and for the masses, and to distinguish it from Modernism. There is also an annotated guide to online resources.
- What Sadie Knew: The Immigrant "Working Girl" and the Rise of Demotic Culture — The "modern young woman" emerged in the 1920s. This page examines the role played by immigrant working women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in creating a new set of behaviors and a new cultural ethos we associate with the "modern young woman."
- Eugenics in the Culture Wars of the 1920s Eugenicists contemplated and to large extent achieved a state far more powerful and intrusive than that created by the Founders. Consider just a brief list of the movement's successes in the 1920s:
- State after state adopted variants of Virginia's Racial Purity law, which outlawed interracial marriage, and/or a model sterilization law drafted by Eugenics Records Office assistant director Harry Laughlin which provided for the involuntary sterilization of criminals, "defectives," and "degenerates."
- The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which established U.S. immigration quotas until 1965, closely followed the recommendations of Laughlin's testimony.
- Public school systems across the country began "tracking" students, based upon I.Q. tests developed in accord with eugenics principles.
- Race, Racism, and Renaissance If the Sacco-Vanzetti Case was "the never-ending wrong," as writer Katherine Anne Porter put it, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in which hundreds were killed and an entire section of the city burned to the ground was seldom even remembered until recently. We use it as a jumping-off place to study the explosion of racial violence in the years surrounding World War I. That violence included lynchings, other race riots, the growth of a second KKK, and the Sweet Murder Trials, also now largely forgotten, but one of the most important cases of the decade. Related to this virulence was the rise in popular anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. These same years also witnessed the emergence of Harlem as the "Mecca of the New Negro," as a special issue of Survey Graphic put it, and to the Harlem Renaissance.
- The Crisis of Evangelical Protestantism Evangelicalism provided one of the basic cultural frames through which millions of Americans, white and black, made sense of their experience. Its division among Fundamentalists, liberals, and modernists, its loss of intellectual coherence as symbolized by Clarence Darrow's questioning of William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes Trial, its growing preoccupation with chiliastic visions of the final days and the Second Coming, its white followers' support for the KKK, all suggest a profound crisis in the ways millions of Americans thought, felt, and acted. How had evangelicalism fallen into such disarray in the short between its high point in the 1850s and the twenties? We seek to answer this question from several perspectives.
- One looks at "The Scopes Trial, Fundamentalism, and the 'Acids of Modernity.'" The focus here is upon the quarrels within the Presbyterian and Baptist churches over the "Fundamentals," on the one hand, and the collapse of intellectual coherence among evangelicals as epitomized by the Scopes Trial on the other.
- Evangelicalism achieved its great influence in American culture through, in Perry Miller's phrase, the "steady burning of the Revival." Miller followed the revival through the end of the Civil War. What happened thereafter? One can describe the process as "The Declension of American Revivalism." Charles Grandison Finney was the great figure of the Second Great Awakening. Dwight L. Moody became the most famous and influential revival preacher in the 1870s and remained so until the end of the 1890s. His successor was Billy Sunday. His greatest prominence began as Moody cut back on his preaching in the 1890s and continued through the 1920s. "Declension" is a term of art in revivalism. It refers to the "backsliding" of sinners from the pinnacle of holiness of the conversion experience to the sloughs of day-to-day concerns with work and other mundane matters.
- Our treatment of the KKK is also relevant. In "The Klan's Fight for Americanism." published in The North American Review (March-April-May 1926), Grand Wizard Hiram Evans described the worldview of KKK members and, in the process, described how closely it paralleled that of disgruntled evangelicals:
There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing. Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.
Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.
- Another approach to the twenties examines the "commodification of fantasy" in the 1920s and its import for the shifting moral beliefs of Americans. Beginning with the popularity of musical revues, such as the Ziegfeld Follies, the rise of beauty pageants, the ongoing battles over beach censorship and the one-piece bathing suit, this analysis seeks to document a popular turningn away from evangelical moral values. As the term commodification suggests, this approach stresses the importance of the new ethos of consumption, particularly as reflected in movies and advertising. Its initial focus is upon the Broadway revues, such as Ziegfeld's "Follies" and Earl Carroll's "Vanities." Eight major revues, each with more than one hundred "chorus girls," opened in New York each year. So important were they Time made Florenz Ziegfeld its "Man of the Year" in 1928.
. . . for a not excessive price, men, women, and adolescents can go into a lovely New York theatre on Broadway and see naked bodies, generally of women, under full lights with nothing on save what antique writers call a "zone" [belt or girdle]. The rest of the body is completely and absolutely nude, with scarce alleviation of a coat powder. The bodies are exposed as statues, figurines, and symbolic persons, with recurrent veilings and for brief flashes. The showmanship is deft and even discreet though the shadowy lighting of yesteryear has given way to the full flood. The exposure of the body lasts probably not five minutes out of the three hours, though there is a constant and cloying stream of lesser bareness Ñ legs, backs, torsos, and anatomical odds and ends. To these latter we have already been acclimated for the unveiling has been going on in New York for several years, almost by fractions of inches as the producers tried out the public taste. Indeed, the student might find a thesis in social science in the scrutiny of this process of breaking down a convention by annual innovation. Ñ "Not Art and Not Model," Survey, March 1, 1926
- A crucial key to making sense of the era is the emergence of the "modern woman," first in the guise of the "flapper." Here too we take several approaches.
- One is "The Decline of the Victorian Cultural Consensus," which looks at the rise of the "working girl," the urban, working-class shirtwaist worker or department store clerk in the context of a rapidly growing amusement industry. It examines attempts by evangelical ministers and by Progressive Era reformers, aka "New Women," to influence the "working girl's" choice of "pleasure."
- A related approach looks at the "New Ethos of Consumption." Its focus is upon advertising, the vast bulk of which was aimed at women.
- The "commodification of fantasy" examines movies and advertising. It also looks at the controversy surrounding bathing beauty pageants and the attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, of hundreds of communities to censor bathing costumes.
In addition, we have put together materials on several other topics. One is on the murder, in early 1922, of film director William Desmond Taylor. The case involved several major stars of the day, rumors of opium use and orgiastic parties, love letters written in code, and completely ineffectual police work. Throughout the twenties and into the thirties the case continued to make headlines as one Los Angeles District Attorney after another claimed to have "cracked" the case. None ever did.
A related project looks at Sister Carrie and three real-life stories that parallel Dreiser's novel, Sister Carrie/Carrie's Sisters. One of these stories is of Evelyn Nesbit, the "girl on the red velvet swing," whose husband murdered architect Stanford White. A second is of Olive Thomas, a former Ziegfeld Frolics performer who became a movie star in the late 1910s and who died under very mysterious circumstances in 1921. The third is the William Desmond Taylor murder case, the leading figure of which was Mary Miles Minter, another movie star.
The most celebrated legal case of the period involved the trial for murden of two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti. We have assembled links to resources here.
We've also made several additional forays into popular culture. One looks at the Betty Boop cartoons and their use of Jazz music and musicians. Another looks very briefly at the Charlie Chan movies.