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.

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.