The Final "No!" appeared in Good Housekeeping, May 1927. It illustrated an advertisement for S.O.S. soap pads which took the form of a short story by "Mary Dale Anthony." [Click image to see full advertisement.]
With a toss of her head, she declared her independence in utter finalityand forsook woman's most sacred obligations because of her dread of household drudgery. Almost every day, I meet these girls who are deliberately avoiding marriages.
The head-tossing young woman rejects her devoted swain on one-knee, arms outstretched in vain appeal in the name of freedom. Marriage, she declares, is a form of slavery. "Mary Dale Anthony" knows better. These "girls" are "so foolish." They need not dread household drudgery, not with all of the modern, time-saving products like S.O.S.
So simple a solution, yet at stake was the ultimate safety of society. The modern woman all too often, the ad copy warned, "forsook" her "most sacred obligations." This echoed much of the eugenics literature of the day which warned that members of the "great race," the descendants of northern Europeans, were failing to reproduce at an adequate pace. They were soon to be engulfed by the "Rising Tide of Color," as the title of Lathrop Stoddard's best-seller phrased the menace of "race suicide." [Both Stoddard's and Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race are available online, courtesy of white supremacy organizations. There is a discussion of eugenics in the culture wars of the 1920s on this site.]
Eugenics was one strand in a fabric of fear occasioned by the emergence of the "modern woman" during and after World War I. Everything about her her clothes, her haircut, her insistence upon independence emphasized her determination to break free of long-standing cultural constraints. Clergymen thundered against her willingness to smoke, drink alcohol, and pet. Suffrage leaders like Charlotte Perkins Gilman lamented that they had not sacrificed so much in the struggle in order that the next generation of women could wear short skirts or dance the Shimmy. Hundreds of city councils passed ordinances prohibiting the one-piece bathing suit as an affront to decency. [For an extended discussion, in the context of the "commodification of fantasy," see "Revues and Other Vanities" on this site.]
Where did this "modern woman" come from? What was it about her demands for "freedom" which proved so alarming to so many? Why did so many young women choose to be "modern"? What, that is, was the allure? One place to begin to look into these questions is with the collapse of the Victorian cultural consensus in the years surrounding World War I.1 . Victorian beliefs emphasized the primacy of restraint, often defined in terms of "character." Thrift, temperance, industry, reliability were the keys to worldly success and to eternal happiness. Any pleasure, if gratified immoderately, was sinful. The seven deadly sins were all examples. In some matters, such as the use of alcohol, there were no safe ways to indulge. In other matters, such as sex, only very specific and limited forms of indulgence were permissible. [Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (1991) provides a useful discussion of "Victorian character."]
Victorian values, like all social mores, were learned, first at one's mother's knee and then in church and school. Newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and the opinion of friends and neighbors reinforced the message. The signs that this process of socialization had broken down were everywhere by the early 1920s. You could see it in the fashions, hear it in the music, read about it in the periodicals, listen to sermons about it, attend plays and movies in which it was the theme. Instead of continuity, there was a sharp break. Why had the Victorian message, particularly as it applied to women, failed to take hold with the generation coming of age around World War I? Why did counter-messages sound ever more clearly and insistently? In attempting to answer these questions we will examine three major prewar voices advocating Victorian moral values: the evangelical revivalist Billy Sunday, the "New Woman" social reformer of the Progressive Era, and the Catholic Church. We will also listen carefully to an unusually articulate "working girl" of the early twentieth century.
Victorian propriety rested to a considerable degree upon an evangelical Protestantism which was losing credibility from the 1870s on. "The Declension of American Revivalism" from the end of the Second Great Awakening to the revival campaigns of Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday is an especially important sign of this. Sunday was every bit as popular in the 1910s as Charles Grandison Finney had been in the 1830s, and at least as many sinners found salvation through his sermons. But Finney was a major figure in the shaping of American Culture. The revival, during the Second Great Awakening, was a, perhaps the, way Americans sought to define the meaning of their lives. Finney's converts set forth to create a "Redeemed Nation," launched numerous reform movements and flocked into the new Republican party which expressed their eagerness to build a new social order. [For an extended discussion, see "A Frame For Understanding the 1850s."] Sunday was a cheerful, self-identified reactionary. "To Hell with the twentieth century!" he proclaimed.
I'm against sin. I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot, and I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist. I'll butt it as long as I've got a head. I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth. And when I'm old and fistless and footless and toothless, I'll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition!
Sunday, a former professional baseball player, would illustrate his sermons with emphatic gestures. When he said he would kick sin, he would give a kick. When he said he would fight it, he would ball his fist and throw a punch. He would, he would say, pull no punches. "I believe that a long step toward public morality will have been taken when sins are called by their right names." Hence his much repeated "Booze" sermon. "Whiskey is all right in its place," went one famous line, "but its place is hell." Prohibition was the only reform he supported. For the rest he professed indifference. "You can't raise the standard of women's morals by raising their pay envelope. It lies deeper than that" was a typically dismissive remark. Not social reform but personal salvation was his message. Dancing was a graver threat than low wages to a woman's morals.
Sure it is harmful, especially for girls. Young men can drink and gamble and frequent houses of ill fame, but the only way a girl can get recreation is in a narrow gauge buggy ride on a moonlight night or at a dance.
If you can't see any harm in this kind of thing, why I guess the Lord will let you out as an idiot.
. . . . The dance is simply a hugging match set to music. The dance is a sexual love feast.
. . . . Where do you find the accomplished dancers? In the brothels. Why? They were taught in dancing schools. Listen to me, girls. I have never yet, and never will, flatly contradict the man or the woman who tells me that he or she dances and never knew of premature incitement of passion. I say that I will never contradict them, but I will say then: "Thank God; and get out of it right now, for next time you may."
Listen. I want you to hear what I've got to say. They tried the municipal dance hall out in Cleveland and it was so rotten that the sheriff finally insisted that it be closed. Don't talk that municipal dance hall to me. There were more girls ruined around that lot and turned into public prostitutes than you can count. The public dance hail, whether run by a municipality or private enterprise, is the favorite ground for the panderer, and from it three-fourths of all the girls who enter the life of shame are recruited. Oh, the dance is rotten all the way through. Seven million girls go wrong in a century in this country, and three-fourths of them are ruined by the dance. The chief of police of New York says three-fourths of the abandoned creatures there fell through the dance.
Sunday rarely interests present-day scholars, even those who study the rise of Fundamentalism. But his was the most important evangelical voice of the 1900s and 1910s. Millions attended his revivals. Newspapers devoted special "Sunday" supplements to them, filled with accounts of his previous successes. They provided detailed accounts of each sermon. Despite the vast numbers who found salvation in what Sunday called "Old Time Religion," his message increasingly fell upon deaf ears. No one was more eager to point this out than Sunday himself. A premillenialist, he saw the sinfulness around him as a sign of the approaching Second Coming when believers would meet Jesus in the air in the "Rapture." He saw himself and his converts in the same light his predecessor Dwight L. Moody had. They were "of the world but not in it." Sunday believed that his task was to advance the Second Coming by converting individuals. Once enough accepted Jesus, He would return.
As revivalism lost revelance to social issues and changes, Victorian proprieties faced other challenges. One of the most important was the "working girl." She was often an immigrant, usually working for very small wages, but exercising an unprecedented measure of independence. At left is John Sloan's "The Return from Toil." Sloan later turned the drawing into an etching. He described the scene as showing "a bevy of boisterous girls with plenty of energy left after a hard day's work." [John Sloan, New York Etchings (1978)] One such was Sadie Frowne whose autobiography appeared as "The Story of a Sweatshop Girl" in The Independent for September 25, 1902. Almost seventeen, Sadie described her childhood in Poland, her father's death when she was ten, her mother's decision to emigrate when Sadie was thirteen. Both she and her mother worked and earned about fifteen dollars a week between them, enough to afford a decent tenement apartment. But then her mother contracted tuberculosis and died, "I had saved a little money," Sadie wrote, "but mother's sickness and funeral swept it all away and now I had to begin all over again." She and a friend roomed together, paid $1.50 a week rent and spent $3.92 per week on food.
It cost me $2 a week to live [actually, $2.71], and I had a dollar a week to spend on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar.
. . . .
Some of the women blame me very much because I spend so much money on clothes. They say that instead of a dollar a week I ought not to spend more than twenty-five cents a week on clothes and that I should save the rest. But a girl must have clothes if she is to go into high society at Ulmer Park or Coney Island or the theater. Those who blame me are the old country people who have old-fashioned notions, but the pople who have been here a long time know better. A girl who does not dress well is stuck in a corner, even if she is pretty, and Aunt Fanny says that I do just right to put on plenty of style.
However exploited on the job, "working girls" frequently made their own choices about "pleasure." Sadie worked long hours, went to night school several evenings a week, and did her own cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
. . . . at the end of the day one feels so weak that there is a great temptation to lie right down and sleep. But you must go out and get some air, and have some pleasure. So instead of lying down I go out, generally with Henry [her boyfriend]. Sometimes we go to Coney Island, where there are good dancing places, and sometimes we go to Ulmer Park to picnics. I am very fond of dancing, and, in fact, of all sorts of pleasure. I go to the theater quite often, and like those plays that make you cry a good deal. "The Two Orphans" is good. Last time I saw it I cried all night because of the hard times that the children had in the play. I am going to see it again when it comes here.
Sadie had a steady beau who took her to dances and other amusements. Many young women did not. Since they also did not have much money and since, like Sadie, they believed that "you must go out and get some air, and have some pleasure," they and their male counterparts and entrepreneurs seeking working-class customers collectively developed the system of "treating." Writing in 1902, Sadie Frowne did go to nickelodeons with Henry. Within a few years, however, going to the "motion pictures" would become a frequently indulged "pleasure." At right is “The line at the ticket office” drawn by Wladyslaw T. Benda for Outlook, June 24, 1911. According to the accompanying article, there were some four hundred moving picture theaters in New York City. Young women would wait on line for a young man to offer to "treat" them to the show. Or, in the case of dance halls, as Kathy Peiss documented in Cheap Amusements, owners would let women in for free or for a smaller charge than the men. At the dance hall, the "treat" often was a drink from the bar. If you came early, for a small fee, instructors would show you the latest steps.
Most of what we know of "treating" comes not from accounts like Sadie Frowne's but from Progressive Era reformers, settlement house workers, and officials of societies for the suppression of vice. Leslie's Weekly for July 27, 1911 carried a typical story, "DIVERTING A PASTIME: How Are We To Protect the City's Youth and Yet Provide for the Natural Demand for Entertainment?" by Belle Lindner Israels, a former settlement worker at the Educational Alliance and a regular contributor to The Survey, a leading reform weekly. [The article is available online at the American Social History website.] Israels told the story, supposedly typical, of a young immigrant named Frieda:
When Frieda went out to do errands she noticed that there were streets with places other than stores. There were brightly lighted halls, from whose open windows strains of music floated and across which forms flitted in rhythmic motion. One evening she drifted in. She found that she did not need to know English to be welcome. At once she found the things that she missed at homelife, joy, laughter and young people. It was easy here. She was pretty, and as girls are always in demand at dances she soon was being shown the dance by a youth whose evident business it was to give her some return for the twenty-five cents she had paid for a "lesson." Quickly she learned the value of knowing how to danceand still more quickly did her popularity grow with the boys who came to the hall. From that hall she learned to go to othersothers where she was taught that to be really popular it was also essential to learn to drink “stylish drinks" and that dancing without drinking was “slow.” Then, one night, when her head was whirling from excitement and dazed with drink, the man who had been playing with her for weeks in order to gain that end took her not home, but to a place where she offered on the altar of her “good time” the sacred gift of her girlhoodall she had to lose. She never turned again from the path that began in the kitchen of the tenement, longing for the birthright of her youth. She followed it through the mazes of wretched slavery to men and walked to its end five years later in a reformatory to which she had been committed and where her nameless baby was born. It was the price paid.
Billy Sunday could easily have adapted Frieda's story to his sermon against dancing. But "working girls" were unlikely to go to hear it. They were often immigrants or the children of immigrants from Catholic or Jewish or Orthodox backgrounds. Even those Protestant congregations which made serious efforts to reach them failed. Sunday did not even try. So the Sadies and Friedas did not listen to him. If they had, they would have heard a call to abstain from seeking "pleasure."
Working girls were only somewhat more likely to hear the message of the "New Woman" reformer. As the subtitle of Israels' story indicates, they sought to find "healthful" and "safe" outlets for the "natural" desire for fun. Jane Addams' The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909) is deservedly considered the classic statement of this point of view. [It is available online at Jim Zwick's Campaign to End Child Labor site.] Reform literature contains many stories like Israels' account of Freida. And no doubt the stories were true. Working girls who went to dance halls learned that the young men who "treated" expected some sexual favor in return. If they did not oblige, they could expect no "treat" the next time. But, most did not wind up following "the mazes of wretched slavery to men," even if more than a few "offered on the altar of her 'good time' the sacred gift of girlhood.'" There were Sadie Frownes as well as Friedas among the "working girls."
Below is John Sloan's 1907 painting, "Movies, five cents." In it he captured the mixed nature of the audience and the titilating nature of the entertainment. Sadie Frowne loved melodramas, especially sad ones that made you cry. Many early silent films catered to her tastes. Others, like the one Sloan pictured, emphasized romance and featured what was, at the time, daring behavior, at least on stage. Anyone with five cents could go to "the pictures" and forget the troubles of the day. As the Outlook illustration reproduced above showed, one could also go to meet a potential romantic interest. Young men and women looked each other over "on line" and decided if they would go in together. Once in the darkened theatre, they would negotiate the degree to which they would emulate the couple on the screen. Such behavior was new. And it would percolate up from the working classes to the rest of the society until, by the 1920s, it would become normative.
Working-class women could not "receive" suitors in their parlors. They lived in crowded tenements with no space for "entertaining." [At right is a 1903 photograph of Hester Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan from the collections of the National Archives. Click on the image for a larger version.] Often, as with Sadie Frowne, there was no family member to act as chaperone. If, like Sadie, they met someone they liked, in her case on the job, they would go out on what would come to be called "dates." Sadie and Henry, although the expression was not yet in use, were "going steady." Other young men and women frequented the dance halls, the nickelodeons, and the amusement parks looking to meet someone.
Sadie and her friends, with the active cooperation of local entrepreneurs, not only created a new system of behavior, they also developed a new ethos. For Sadie, the "temptation" to be resisted was the impulse to stay at home. The duty, what she "must" do, was to "have some pleasure." It was as necessary as getting "some air." Life was hard. Sadie worked sixty or more hours a week during the busy seasons. She did not earn much money. Of that little she not only supported herself, she also had put more than $200 in the bank. She intended to save more before deciding whether or not to marry Henry who was only nineteen himself. She was a loyal member of her union. She continued going to night school.
Plenty of my friends go there. Some of the women in my class are more than forty years of age. Like me, they did not have a chance to learn anything in the old country. It is good to have an education; it makes you feel higher. Ignorant people are all low. People say now that I am clever and fine in conversation.
Sadie was resilent and resourcefu. She and her friends wanted to make something of themselves, to feel "higher." Sadie liked being in "high society" at Ulmer Park and Coney Island. She enjoyed putting on "plenty of style" and liked "all sorts of pleasure." She knew she would have to continue to work long and hard to achieve her goals, but she was determined to resist the "temptation" to just sit in her room. While Sunday condemned the quest for pleasure as sinful, Israels, Addams, and other "New Women" who came of age at the end of the nineteenth century, accepted the "natural" desire for entertainment among the working poor. Yet their view of the sorts of pleasure the poor found differed little from Sunday's. Addams wrote:
As these overworked girls stream along the street, the rest of us see only the self-conscious walk, the giggling speech, the preposterous clothing. And yet through the huge hat, with its wilderness of bedraggled feathers, the girl announces to the world that she is here. She demands attention to the fact of her existence, she states that she is ready to live, to take her place in the world.
Unfortunately, there were no wholesome outlets for the working girl's desire for "pleasure":
In every city arise so-called "places" "gin-palaces," they are called in fiction; in Chicago we euphemistically say merely "places," in which alcohol is dispensed, not to allay thirst, but, ostensibly to stimulate gaiety, it is sold really in order to empty pockets. Huge dance halls are opened to which hundreds of young people are attracted, many of whom stand wistfully outside a roped circle, for it requires five cents to procure within it for five minutes the sense of allurement and intoxication which is sold in lieu of innocent pleasure. These coarse and illicit merrymakings remind one of the unrestrained jollities of Restoration London, and they are indeed their direct descendants, properly commercialized, still confusing joy with lust, and gaiety with debauchery. Since the soldiers of Cromwell shut up the people's playhouses and destroyed their pleasure fields, the Anglo-Saxon city has turned over the provision for public recreation to the most evil-minded and the most unscrupulous members of the community. We see thousands of girls walking up and down the streets on a pleasant evening with no chance to catch a sight of pleasure even through a lighted window, save as these lurid places provide it. Apparently the modern city sees in these girls only two possibilities, both of them commercial: first, a chance to utilize by day their new and tender labor power in its factories and shops, and then another chance in the evening to extract from them their petty wages by pandering to their love of pleasure.
Sadie saw matters very differently. She went to dance halls that catered to "high society." She loved to dance, a "pleasure" she would never have described as "coarse" or "illicit." She would certainly have resented having her taste in clothes dismissed as "preposterous." She cultivated "style." This cultural chasm guaranteed that, despite the best will in the world, the "New Woman" would have no influence on the "working girl" in her quest for amusement. The latter went her own way. And her amusements became, to a considerable extent, those of society generally by the 1920s.
In part, this was owning to those "most evil-minded" and "most unscrupulous" providers of commercialized pleasure. Nickelodeons provide a case in point. They became "palaces." In the downtown of every sizeable community in the 1920s arose a movie theatre of immense size, complete with fantastic decor and ushers in smart uniforms, where ordinary folk, middle as well as working class, could live out fantasies. [For an extended discussion on this site, see "Revues and Other Vanities: The Commodification of Fantasy."] Despite Prohibition, the dance hall continued to thrive. The nightclub became an urban landmark. Some clubs appealed to a wealthy clientele. Others courted those with just a few dollars to spend. Amusement parks sprang up in many cities. As with Coney Island, they appealed to middle-class as well as working-class pleasure seekers. Some of the pleasures Addams and Israels might have judged innocent enough. You could have yourself photographed as a mermaid or King Neptune by sticking your head through a cardboard cutout. Others openly appealed to "coarse" instincts. Such was the "Tickler" which, along with many other rides, is described in detail on Jeffrey Stanton's website on Luna Park. He writes:
Both the Tickler and Elmer Riehl's Virginia Reel were similar rides where passengers rode in rotating saucer shaped cars down an incline plane. However the Tickler's cars mounted on coaster wheels caromed down to the bottom through a maze of posts and rails, while the Virginia Reel's cars rode on tracks past protruding posts that caused them to randomly spin as they serpentined downward into its final whirlpool. The Tickler invented by William Mangels needed large rubber bumping rings to cushion the collisions as its passengers were jostled, jolted and even bounced about in their seats. At the end of the ride passengers were often so hopelessly entangled that attendants had to help them from their seats. When Mangels applied for a concession for his ride in 1906, Thompson [co-owner of Luna Park] looked at his drawings and then in his brusque manner said, "You'll need barrels to take away your money. Come in tomorrow morning for your contract." Luna's standard contract specified that 20% of the gross receipts went to the park. Thompson was right about the Tickler's popularity; 421,000 ten cent admissions were sold in 1907 alone.
Commercialization will explain only so much. Consider the popularity of dances that struck Addams and her colleagues, as well as Billy Sunday, as "coarse" and "illicit." As the lyric of one novelty dance tune put it: "Everybody's doin' it./Doin' what?/Turkey trot." The Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, and the other dance crazes swept the nation because people enjoyed doing them, not because "evil-minded" entrepreneurs enticed them into "lurid places" where they would confuse "joy with lust" or "gaiety with debauchery." In addition to the cakewalk click here for the Clarence Williams' Blues Five's 1925 recording of "Cakewalking Babies From Home" featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet and Sidney Bechet on clarinet at the Red Hot Jazz Archive and the two step, there were the so-called "animal dances." Besides the Turkey Trot and the Bunny Hug were the Chicken Scratch, the Grizzly Bear, the Snake, the Crab Step, and the Fox Trot. Later came the One Step and the Texas Tommy. [Click here to hear James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra's 1913 recording of "Too Much Mustard" at the Red Hot Jazz Archive.] Europe's orchestra accompanied Irene and Vernon Castle, whose dance act topped the bill at the Palace and other vaudeville theatres and who popularized many of the dances. Most were African-American in origin. The Castles, pictured at left, insisted on Reese's Society Orchestra because they argued that only black musicians could play the music properly. It was every working girl's dream to dance like Irene Castle. And many a working boy wished he were Vernon Castle.
White musicians, like the Original Dixieland Jass Band, quickly began to play versions of the new music. In 1917 they recorded "Darktown Strutters Ball" for Victor. It was one of the most popular songs of the day. The sheet music displayed black couples, viciously stereotyped, in formal dress, doing the latest dance. [Click on the image to hear the Original Dixieland Jass Band recording at the Red Hot Jazz Archive.
Dating too became the norm. By the early 1920s, young men no longer "called" upon a young woman, they "asked her out." Chaperones disappeared from college dances. "Petting" became an expected part of dating. [Click here for the 1926 recording of "Gimme A Little Kiss" by Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra at the Red Hot Jazz Archive.] In all of these ways, the "working girl" of the prewar years proved a social pioneer.
Most importantly, Sadie Frowne's sense of entitlement to pleasure and to a sense of self-esteem also became normative. This is a crucial difference between the "modern woman" of the 1920s and the "New Woman" of the 1880s and 1890s. The "New Woman" was the first to attend college. She longed, as Addams put it in Twenty Years at Hull House, for an "outlet" for her "active faculties." Addams herself burned to find something to do, some way of playing an active part in the life around her. She tried medicine, rejected Christian missionary work, and then discovered the settlement house while on a grand tour of Europe. Back in Illinois she and a college friend opened Hull House. Addams, Florence Kelley who founded the National Consumers' League, Julia Abbott, and hundreds of others discovered a host of ways of inserting themselves into the life about them. These "New Women" justified their new roles in terms of the ideal of service to others. They could be, and were, as aggressive and ambitious as the men they dealt with. But their aggression and ambition was not for themselves. Addams memorably expressed the notion in "The Subjective Necessity for the Social Settlement." Based upon an address given eighteen years earlier, the chapter was
. . . an attempt to analyze the motives which underlie a movement based, not only upon conviction, but upon genuine emotion, wherever educated young people are seeking an outlet for that sentiment for universal brotherhood, which the best spirit of our times is forcing from an emotion into a motive. These young people accomplish little toward the solution of this social problem, and bear the brunt of being cultivated into unnourished, oversensitive lives. They have been shut off from the common labor by which they live which is a great source of moral and physical health. They feel a fatal want of harmony between their theory and their lives, a lack of coördination between thought and action. I think it is hard for us to realize how seriously many of them are taking to the notion of human brotherhood, how eagerly they long to give tangible expression to the democratic ideal. These young men and women, longing to socialize their democracy, are animated by certain hopes which may be thus loosely formulated; that if in a democratic country nothing can be permanently achieved save through the masses of the people, it will be impossible to establish a higher political life than the people themselves crave; that it is difficult to see how the notion of a higher civic life can be fostered save through common intercourse; that the blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation can be made universal and must be made universal if they are to be permanent; that the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. It is easier to state these hopes than to formulate the line of motives, which I believe to constitute the trend of the subjective pressure toward the Settlement. There is something primordial about these motives, but I am perhaps overbold in designating them as a great desire to share the race life. We all bear traces of the starvation struggle which for so long made up the life of the race. Our very organism holds memories and glimpses of that long life of our ancestors, which still goes on among so many of our contemporaries. Nothing so deadens the sympathies and shrivels the power of enjoyment as the persistent keeping away from the great opportunities for helpfulness and a continual ignoring of the starvation struggle which makes up the life of at least half the race. To shut one's self away from that half of the race life is to shut one's self away from the most vital part of it; it is to live out but half the humanity to which we have been born heir and to use but half our faculties. We have all had longings for a fuller life which should include the use of these faculties. These longings are the physical complement of the "Intimations of Immortality," on which no ode has yet been written. To portray these would be the work of a poet, and it is hazardous for any but a poet to attempt it.
Thousands of young women followed Addams' example, shown at right in an 1878 photograph at age eighteen. Frances Perkins, for example, went from investigative work with the National Consumers' League to heading the investigations undertaken in the wake of the Triangle Fire, to working for Al Smith when he was governor of New York in the twenties, to becoming Secretary of Labor during the New Deal. Sisters Mary and Margaret Drier used some of their considerable inheritance to launch the Women's Trade Union League which played a key role in enabling the Ladies Garment Union to stage the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand" in 1909, the first successful strike by women workers. As Ellen Condliffe Lageman explored in A Generation of Women: Education in the Lives of Progressive Reformers (1979), the Dreier sisters and many other women of their generation justified their demand for a larger role for themselves in the name of service to others. As the example of Frances Perkins suggests, this impulse did not wither in the 1920s or 1930s. Yet, the "modern woman" would differ from these "New Women" precisely in her willingness to assert her own interests. In this, as in her taste in music and her willingness to be more sexually adventurous, she resembled the "working girl."
The "New Woman" had no more success reaching the "working girl" than Billy Sunday had. Many joined settlement house clubs or trade unions the Women's Trade Union League sponsored. But this had no effect on their pursuit of "pleasure." Condemnations of dance halls or amusement rides like the "Tickler" did not avail. The immigrant churches, particularly the Catholic Church, were more effective advocates of Victorian values among the working classes.
Their relative success is not easy to document. As historian David O'Brien has pointed out in Public Catholicism (1989), the Catholic Church did not act on a national basis until World War I. Instead each diocese and, in many cases, each parish, operated with a good deal of autonomy. In some instances there are relatively full records of their programs. In others there are not. This makes generalizations hazardous. We will turn to two well-documented cases, Worcester's Irish Catholics and Chicago's Polish Catholics, as studied in Timothy J. Meagher's recent Inventing Irish America: generation, class, and ethnic identity in a New England city, 1880-1928 (2001) and the classic The Polish peasant in Europe and America by W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (2nd ed., 1927).
Both Worcester's Irish and Chicago's Poles created dense institutional networks with local parishes as the centers of community life. Worcester's Irish were reluctant to build parochial schools, but that was due to their success in gaining the lion's share of the teaching positions in the public schools by the end of the nineteenth century. This difference aside, their parishes and those of Chicago's Poles are strikingly similar. In both there were organizations for all kinds of social activities. There were choirs, bands, drama societies, athletic teams. Parishes sponsored plays and dances and concerts. They published newsletters. In each a small professional class of doctors, lawyers, undertakers joined with a small entrepreneurial class of saloonkeepers and contractors to provide leadership. They and their wives often led societies which visited the sick of the parish or distributed alms to the needy. One can find comparably dense communities among Swedish Lutherans, Orthodox Jews, and other ethnic and religious groups.
Density of community life meant that canons of respectable behavior were reinforced at every point. School children wore uniforms. Dances did not feature the new jazz or the latest steps. And there were chaperones. Drama societies put on "wholesome" plays. Further, the examples of the Irish school teacher or the Polish physician or lawyer modelled proper behavior. This is how a "proper" lady or gentleman acts was the message. And community members genuinely looked up to those teachers and doctors and lawyers.
Not everyone agreed upon Victorian values. Meagher documents the split inside Worcester's Irish community over temperance. The upwardly mobile, and those who wished to be, espoused temperance and belonged to the Father Matthew Society. Working-class Irish joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians and were defiantly "wet." Each year a council of Irish societies would debate the issue in the context of the upcoming St. Patrick's Day holiday. The Father Matthew members routinely voted against holding the annual parade. Their argument was that the drinking associated with it harmed the overall image of the community. The Hibernians voted in favor. They argued that the Yankee community would think the worst of the Irish no matter what they did or did not do.
Victorian proprieties served numerous functions in these communities. One is that they expressed deeply held moral beliefs, especially regarding sexuality. Another is that they provided a measure of respectability to people who could not expect any respect from the larger society. Thomas and Znaniecki argue very persuasively that the woman who became president of the Ladies Soladity or the man who chaired the youth baseball council attained a real measure of status. Their neighbors looked up to them. And, given the very large number of parish organizations and the very large number of offices in each, this sort of respectability was within the reach of anyone willing to take the time and trouble to gain it.
By the 1920s, as Catholics began to form national organizations, it becomes easier to trace their commitment to Victorian proprieties. Frank Walsh has documented the role the church played in movie censorship in Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (1996). Protestant and Jewish groups protested the amount of sexuality, violence, and lawlessness in movies at least as outspokenly as did Catholics. But it was the Catholic Church which could muster millions of members, organized in the Legion of Decency, and committed to boycotting any film which the Legion declared "objectionable." The new Motion Picture Production Code of 1934, a compendium of Victorian do's and don'ts, reflected Catholic pressure.
Density of parish life made the ethnic churches and synagogues uniquely powerful socializing agencies. Sadie Frowne and many of her friends, in contrast, were on their own. They took jobs, joined unions, decided to attend night classes at the local public school in the same way they selected boy friends, went to plays and movies, and learned the newest dance steps. Those who belonged to highly articulated parish communities made fewer such decisions. They found their friends inside the community, socialized at parish-sponsored events, played in church-sponsored leagues.
Sadie and her friends were much less integrated into the social networks of their ethnic communities. Sadie was a Jew but did not mention any connection to any Jewish organization. In this she had any number of nominally Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant counterparts. Every American city had its population of young people living on their own. At work they rubbed elbows with fellow workers who did belong to family, church, and ethnic communities. The unattached had a certain glamor, "plenty of style," as Sadie would put it. They often had nicer clothes because they did not turn their pay envelopes over to their mothers. They went to exciting places. They had boy friends or girl friends they could see whenever they wanted. They knew the newest dance steps. As a result, although the immigrant churches had far more success in reaching the "working girl" than either the evangelical Protestant churches or the "New Woman" enjoyed, the new ethos Sadie Frowne expressed so naively continued to gain ground.
Why and how did this ethos come to dominate American culture by the 1920s? There is no law of social development which requires change to begin at the bottom and percolate upward. Why, in this case, did Sadie Frowne and her friends set the tone for the rest? One clue comes from the "New Woman's" determined hostility to "commercialized" amusement.
As the middle classes ventured to Luna Park or Dreamland, they encountered a fantastic world of spectacles such as the "The Fall of Port Arthur" at Luna Park in 1905. They encountered as well a set of rides designed to appeal to working-class young men and women. One was the Helter Skelter. It was a ride for couples. You took an escalator to the top of a huge chute. There were two separate paths to the bottom. The couple slid down through various curves, initially side-by-side, then separated, and then together again, and landed on a mattress in front of an onlooking crowd. Most riders started as onlookers. Part of the thrill was seeing the clothing of the female riders in disarray as they slid down. The "Tickler" afforded the same pleasure since it too included space for onlookers to watch as riders attempted to disentangle themselves and straighten out their clothes.
If a middle-class couple left Luna Park or Dreamland for one of the dance halls frequented by Sadie and Henry, they heard raucous ragtime music, perhaps for the first time, and saw people doing the new "animal dances" and other species of "rough dancing." They might, if they so desired, declare their disapproval and leave. Many did not. They stayed, learned the steps, and found themselves enjoying themselves. Those entrepreneurs who catered to the "working girl" and her boy friend had studied their customers. They were in the business of retailing pleasure. Jeffrey Stanton writes of the owners of Luna Park that they got rid of any attraction that did not make money. If a particular attraction proved popular, they added news ones like it.
The dance halls and amusement parks the "New Woman" reformer so loathed were early signs of a profound shift in the workings of the American economy. By 1920, for the first time in human history, consumer demand would provide the principal impetus to economic growth. An avalanche of new products toasters, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, radios promised to make life easier and more enjoyable. [At left is a 1924 ad. Click on the image for a larger version. For a taste of what the "blues from Memphis" may have sounded like, listen to Richard M. Jones' Three Jazz Wizards playing "New Orleans Shag" (1925) at the Red Hot Jazz Archive.] People not only bought new consumer goods, often on the installment plan, they bought familiar goods in far greater numbers. Shoes provide an example. Most people owned only two or perhaps three pair prior to the war. In the 1920s, however, shoes became accessories to dresses. No longer could one wear the same black shoes with everything and be in style. [For an informative and entertaining exploration, visit Solemates: The Century in Shoes.]
Roland Marchand in Advertising the American dream : making way for modernity, 1920-1940 (1985) traced the successful efforts of soap manufacturers to sell men on the idea of shaving every day and men and women both on the idea of changing their clothes every day. Prior to the war, closets typically were less than a foot deep and had two hooks, one for everyday clothes and one for one's "Sunday best." People took a bath on Saturday night. Washing every day, changing one's clothes every day, shaving every day, meant more than using a lot more soap. It meant owning a dozen chemises and blouses and skirts instead of two or three.
"New Era" capitalism promoted an ethos of consumption. In doing so advertisers built upon the work of the department store merchants. William Leach's Land of desire : merchants, power, and the rise of a new American culture (1993) is the classic work. Department stores, to use Jane Addams' word, were "palaces" of consumption. Their display windows tempted passersby with visions of luxury and glamor. The term "window-shopping" described the common practice of strolling up and down a downtown commercial street just to see what was new. The message the displays sent was the one Sadie Frowne articulated so emphatically: If a girl wanted to be popular, she needed to "put on plenty of style." The message had innumerable variants.
John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia and New York department store pioneer, was a devout Presbyterian. But his store preached the gospel of consumption. Restraint, abstinence, deferred gratification, those cornerstones of Victorian propriety, had no place in the successful marketing of the thousands of different products Wanamaker's sold. Where he led, others followed. Leach focuses on the great stores, Wanamaker's, Macy's, and the like. There were, however, many more modest enterprises where consumers like Sadie Frowne, who could not afford the goods at Wanamaker's, shopped. Artist Harry Grant Dart made fun of the proliferation of stores and their slogans and signs in "Picturesque America" (1909). [Click on the image for a larger version.] Dart exaggerated, but only a little.
The ethos of consumption strikingly reinforced the views expressed by Sadie and her friends. More was better. Pleasure was good. Life was hard so you should enjoy yourself when you could. This meant clothes, dancing, and plenty of style. This was not a matter of coincidence. Advertisers directly attacked Victorian values. [See "Don't Fuss, Mother. This Isn't So Fast" on this site.] "Working girls" grew up relatively untouched by the principle voices supporting those values, unless they belonged to a highly articulated ethnic parish where those values continued to define upward mobility. If they were more or less on their own, as many were, they developed their own codes of behavior based upon their economic situations, the judgments of their peers, and inducements provided by the mushrooming amusement industry.