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Clash of Old and New: The 1920's

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The popular stereotype of this lively decade hides its greater cultural and historical significance.
Despite what seemed like a fun era, the 1910s and 1920s were really marked by a deep clash of
cultures. Despite Warren Harding's term return to "Normalcy" (This was the term for a return to
traditional American policy.) During the 1920s many things changed. The farmer, who had occupied a
favored place in American mythology since the time of Thomas Jefferson, rapidly gave way to the
industrialist, the capitalist, and the entrepreneur. The town, the cultural center of preindustrial
America, rapidly gave way to the city. More than half of the nation's population now lived in
cities and towns. Urban communities were now unquestionably lively and stimulating. There were many
things to see-museums, art exhibits, plays, athletic events, trade expositions, and the like. A
value system of restraint, hard work, and moral character that had dominated mainstream American
life in the 1800s gave way to the more relaxed morals of the twentieth century. In an increasingly
consumer-based society, leisure and pleasure were now prized over hard work and self-denial. With
the old giving way to the new, there were people who were afraid of all the changes. In America,
there was a general division between those who embraced the new changes and looked with hope to the
future and those who idealized the past and resisted cultural change.

One area of conflict centered on Prohibition -the effort to ban alcohol consumption. This effort
began in the 1800s, but it was not until 1920 that people succeeded in passing a constitutional
amendment that banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. This passage
of national Prohibition caused a major cultural clash in the 1920s between those who favored
Prohibition and those who wished to repeal it. Prohibition in the United States (from 1920 to 1933)
banned the sale of alcoholic drinks, resulting in illicit speakeasies becoming lively venues of the
"Jazz Age", an era when popular music included current dance songs, novelty songs, and show tunes.
Jazz was different because it broke the rules -- musical and social. It featured improvisation over
traditional structure, performer over composer, and black American experience over conventional
white sensibilities. Undercurrents of racism bore strongly upon the opposition to jazz, which was
seen as barbaric and immoral. Jazz started to get a reputation as being immoral and many members of
the older generations saw it as threatening the old values in culture and promoting the new decadent
values of the Roaring 20s. While the critics and the courts failed to silence jazz, the growing
demand for labor following World War I managed to expand its influence. Hundreds of thousands of
African Americans fled the South to find work in industrial cities to the north during the teens and
early twenties (foreshadowing of the race riots). Artists needed an audience, so musicians from New
Orleans and other Southern cities flocked north as well, bringing jazz with them. Chicago became the
new center of jazz with more than 100 clubs dotting the city's South Side. "Midnight was like day,"
wrote poet Langston Hughes, referring to the city's music-filled nightlife and also expressed in
Documents E, 'The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain' in which he described jazz as an
expression of african american life. Bootlegging (the illegal smuggling of alcohol) and speakeasies
('underground' drinking clubs) were popular attempts to elude the law. Many people made bathtub
gin and home brew. The most popular places to hide illegal liquor were heels of shoes, flasks
form-fitted to women's thighs, folds of coats, and perfume bottles. Organized crime existed even
before Prohibition took effect. Gangs and mobsters (the popular term for this kind of criminal) ran
gambling rings and sold drugs. But in the 1920s the big crime organizations realized that there were
huge profits to be made through making and selling alcoholic beverages to thirsty people willing to
break the law. As the various gangs competed with one another, the rate of violence increased.
Chicago, Illinois, gained a reputation as one of the toughest towns, with almost four hundred
gang-related deaths yearly toward the end of the decade. It was home to the most famous gangster of
them all, Al Capone (1899'1947), the man whose name would become permanently linked with
Prohibition and the darker side of the 1920s.

Another area of conflict was the changing role of women in American society. Women were finally
given the right to vote on August 26th 1920. Also, more women began to work outside the home. The
transformation from a farm-based economy to an industrial one created new work opportunities for
women, particularly single young women. Enjoying the freedom that came from having an independent
source of income, many women created a new life for themselves that centered on consumer culture and
mass entertainment. Many, however, considered the new woman to be a threat to social morality and
opposed the flapper, the icon of the new woman in the 1920s, and what she represented: partying,
drinking, and loose morals. The 1920s were also marked by a high degree of racial and ethnic
conflict. One of the least-remembered facts regarding the 1920s is that the second wave of the Ku
Klux Klan reached its peak, with roughly 5 million members. Documents D an excerpt published by the
North American Review shows how freely and openly the Klan protested their nativism, so open they
marched right in Washington D.C. with their faces showing. The group persecuted African Americans,
Jews, Catholics, women, immigrants, and Communists. Violence against African Americans was
especially prevalent in the South. In 1922, more than 50 African Americans had been lynched. The KKK
also focused much of its attention on the rising immigrant population of the cities. As suggested by
the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 which limited immigration from foreign countries to 3% of the
foreign born of each national group that lived in the United States in 1910 and the National Origins
Act of 1924 which made it 2% of the ethnicity that lived in the United States in 1890 (These
immigrants had come to work in America's factories.) the Klan had somewhat succeeded. Newspapers
and magazines paid close attention to the struggle over teaching evolution in public schools.
Fundamentalist religious groups pressured state lawmakers to ban the teaching of evolution to school
children, convinced that such teachings would weaken students' faith and contribute to what was
perceived as the generally weakening moral tone of the nation. The effort to ban the teaching of
evolution reached its climax in Tennessee, which became to first state to adopt this ban on
evolution. From July 10-21, the trial of high school teacher John Scopes took place in Dayton,
Tennessee. Scopes was accused of breaking the state's new law against the teaching of evolution.
Clarence Darrow, the nation's leading lawyer, defended him. Former secretary of state and three-time
presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution. Widely covered in newspapers and
by radio, the "Monkey Trial" attracted national attention and stated through document C this trial
was a blow to the concept of fundamentalism. The 1920s was the decade that the US became an urban
country. More people lived in cities than in rural, farm areas where the old values probably veered
Jennings Bryan's side in the Scopes Trial. Whether it be through advertising Bruce Barton, The Man
Nobody Knows, the Federal Highway Act (1921) (provided federal aid for state roads and showed that
the country was really turning to the automobile for transportation); Fords use of "systematized
shop management" to turn out cars faster and cheaper and made the Model T, the first car that was
affordable for the average family; Freud's theory of the psychoanalytical theory the rural ideals
were being ignored, hurt and contested against. Like the losing team, the rural areas harbored anger
towards the urban mindset that had spread across America. These small town communities didn't like
the values put forth by the people living in cities. Cities have always been the places where
cultural change begins. Museums, theaters, universities and other cultural institutions are the
breeding grounds for new and exciting ideas. However, new ideas aren't always accepted with ease.
For the rural comminutes, urban life wasn't a symbol of progress, but of lose morals '
alcoholism, immigrants and African Americans mingling with the white population (specifically at
jazz clubs), working women, lively partying, and divorce as shown by Document H of the divorce rates
which arose dramatically. In conclusion the 1920's were on the surface a decade of prosperity and
fun and a culture immersion. It was greatly highlighted by the clash of the old and new from the
height of nativism reached to the beginnings of a black culture claiming to be unique and come into
mainstream. Its surface was very deceptive but also like any other decade a building block to what
America represents. With the clash of old and new manifesting it showed the continuing growth and
tolerance America was bound to be headed for.

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This article has 4 comments. Post your own now!

Kayleigh said...
Sept. 30, 2015 at 2:07 pm
I agree with you and your comment has helped me soo much better than the actual article.
All S.A said...
Sept. 30, 2015 at 2:03 pm
This was all opinion based. There were not enough facts to support your opinion. This didn't help me understand the reasons why the bomb was dropped. I feel like you didn't answer the question.
Margie said...
Sept. 30, 2015 at 1:35 pm
So evocative and clear! Thank you for sharing your experience with others.
omgomg246dhm said...
Mar. 26, 2014 at 2:42 pm
  I learned something new today
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