HIS. 393: Seminar on the Culture Wars of the 1920s
Description: In 1920 Warren G. Harding successfully campaigned on the slogan, "Normalcy, not nostrums." In part this was a repudiation of Wilsonian internationalism, in part a promise to end the economic and political turmoil of the war and immediate postwar years. 1919 had seen a wave of strikes including one, the Steel Strike, led by a member of the new Communist Party. It had seen terrorist bombings, associated with the political left, and the "Great Red Scare," a crackdown on left-wing political groups, labor unions, magazines and newspapers. The "Scare" culminated in the "Palmer Raids" of 1919-20. Federal officials rounded up thousands of immigrants accused of left-wing political sympathies. Hundreds were deported, many to the newly founded Soviet Union. 1919 had witnessed the great "Spanish Flu" pandemic which claimed over 21 million lives wordwide (more than twice as many as WWI) and 450,000+ in the U.S. 1919-20 had also seen a sharp economic turndown, precipitated by the Wilson administration's decisions to terminate all war orders immediately and to demobilize millions of soldiers at the earliest possible moment.
"Normalcy" did not, however, mean a simple return to prewar America. Harding pledged to uphold the newly adopted Prohibition amendment on the sale and use of alcohol. He also supported the campaign to restrict immigration. Restriction had two goals: one was to limit the increase in the workforce, a goal with widespread support even among immigrants; the other was to consolidate the supremacy in the American mix of those whose ancestors came from northern and western Europe. This was an explicitly racist goal. Anglo-Saxons, Teutons, Scandinavians (but not Celts) were members of the "Great Race" whose very survival was threatened by the influx of inferior peoples from southern and eastern Europe. (Click here for Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, one of the most influential books of the time; be careful, however, since the site in question in a present-day white supremacy site). Harding also supported the outcome of the great strikes of 1919-20, all of which had ended in failure. His would be a solidly pro-business administration, unlike those of his progressive predecessors, both Republican and Democratic, who sought to limit the power of great economic interests.Normalcy included political suffrage for women who voted in large numbers for Harding.
Defining women's roles was a major preoccupation of the 1920s. At right is Mary Pickford, the biggest star of the silent film era, "America's Sweetheart." The picture, taken by Alfred Chaney Johnson, nicely captures her appeal. Note the golden ringlets, the ethereal expression, the exquisite daintiness of dress and pose. Note too the high heels and short skirt. Pickford became famous playing the "good" girl. She was always loyal, always pure, but also very fun-loving. Parents hoped their daughters would grow up to be like her. The alternative was to grow up to be like Louise Brooks, a "flapper." Brooks was not nearly so big a star but did exert an extraordinary cultural influence. Her haircut, the "Bob," became all the rage. She too played "good" girls but she also played girls who dressed up as boys. And she played chorus girls, girls who swung across nightclub stages on trapezes wearing costumes made of feathers. Towards the end of the silent film era, Brooks went to Germany and starred in G.W. Pabst's "Pandora's Box," in which she played a prostitute. The film was not released in the U.S. until 1983.
Flappers were part of something quite new in American culture, a self-conscious generation who had their own styles of dress, their own dances and music, their own slang. Never before had American parents had to deal with "Flaming Youth."
Never before had Americans generally had to deal with the influence of mass media. Not only were there movies -- double features + a serial that changed weekly -- there were dozens of movie magazines such as PhotoPlay in which fans could learn all about the lives and loves (almost entirely fictitious) of the stars. Stars led lives of unimaginable glamour. Witness Brooks' fur thrown so casually across her shoulders. They went to nightclubs, danced to jazz orchestras, drove luxurious automobiles. Ordinary Americans, in ever increasing numbers, did likewise. Nightclubs, often illegal speakeasies, sprouted up in every mid-sized city. Dance bands, already common, proliferated. Middle America developed a taste for "sophistication," a development which alarmed self-appointed protectors of the nation's morals. They were horrified as young women started smoking cigarettes, society matrons started wearing dresses that showed their knees, college students started holding "petting parties." Especially they were alarmed by the widespread defiance of the Volstead Act, the measure adopted to enforce Prohibition.
Prohibition targeted immigrants. It was their use of alcohol and the neighborhood saloon which advocates of the "Great Experiment" wished to control. Unsurprisingly, a new Ku Klux Klan combined the concerns with public morality with fears of an "alien menace" to draw in millions of members. The Klan of the 1920s was not based in the rural South. One of its centers of support was Worcester, Massachusetts. It was even stronger in Indiana and Washington State. It maintained the tradition of hostility to African Americans but focused more upon Catholics and, to a lesser extent, Jews. Klan spokespeople pledged to remove the Catholic influence over public schools, to enforce Prohibition, and to strengthen the moral fabric of the nation.
Another threat to the nation's moral fabric, according to Protestant Fundamentalists, was the teaching of evolution in the schools. In Tennessee they succeeded in banning it. The upshot was Tennessee vs. Scopes, a trial which brought to the surface many of the cultural tensions of the era.
"Normalcy" also came to mean prosperity. Not only did the economy boom, but so did consumption. The 1920s is when the American Standard of Living took on its modern meaning. It included an automobile, a telephone, a fashionable wardrobe, a refrigerator, a radio (a brand new marvel), and enough discretionary income to go to the movies every week. Most Americans did NOT enjoy such a standard of living. But movies and magazines bombarded them with images of affluence. Advertising became a profession as well as a major industry. Its practitioners taught Americans to bathe every day (rather than on Saturday evening), to wear clean underwear each day (instead of wearing the same underwear all week). It taught men they needed to shave daily in order to be "clean cut." It taught all that they needed whiter teeth, fresher breath, a bigger car, and a toaster. It told them what cigarettes the stars smoked, what watch they wore -- the wrist watch was a WWI invention. You could vicariously share in the lives of the stars by using the same products they used. How did Colleen Moore get that wonderful complexion? What perfume did Greta Garbo wear?
Prequisites: Students must take, or have taken, HIS 261: Twentieth-Century U.S., or its equivalent. This is in keeping with the department's new requirement that students taking a seminar must also take a content-area course dealing with the period dealt with in the seminar. Student may, therefore, take HIS 261 simultaneously with the seminar OR they can consult with the instructor to determine if other courses they have taken satisfy the intent of the requirement.
Format: Students will lead seminar sessions by means of reports which they will give upon the readings and other materials. About two-thirds of the way into the semester, these reports will become progress reports upon their final projects.
Requirements: The purpose of the seminar is to acquaint students with the satisfactions and frustrations of historical research. The principle requirement, as a consequence, is the prepartion of a report which examines a significant question using primary materials and which situates that question in the historical literature. This report will normally be the equivalent of a scholarly article in a journal in terms of scope, length, and format. Students may design web-based projects.
Materials: We will draw heavily upon the materials collected and placed online in the "American History and Culture on the Web" site. We will also run a film series in tandem with the seminar. Films will include "Birth of a Nation," "The Jazz Singer," "Pandora's Box," and several Chaplin and Keaton comedies. We will also draw upon the sound files at The Red Hot Jazz Archive, the advertisements collected at Ad*Access at the Duke University Library, and the legal materials at Famous Trials at the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law.
Class Schedule »