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The Jazz Age: The American 1920s
The 1920s - An Overview
In 1931, a journalist named Frederick Lewis Allen published a volume of informal history
that did more to shape the popular image of the 1920s than any book ever written by a
professional historian. The book, Only Yesterday, depicted the 1920s as a cynical, hedonistic
interlude between the Great War and the Great Depression--a decade of jazz bands,
raccoon coats, and bathtub gin. Allen argued that World War I shattered Americans' faith in
reform and moral crusades, leading the younger generation to rebel against traditional
taboos while their elders engaged in a flurry of consumption and speculation.
The popular image of the 1920s, as a decade of prosperity and riotous living and of
bootleggers and gangsters, flappers and hot jazz, flagpole sitters, and marathon dancers, is
indelibly etched in the American psyche. But this image is also profoundly misleading. The
1920s was a decade of deep cultural conflict. The pre-Civil War decades had fundamental
conflicts in American society that involved geographic regions. During the Gilded Age,
conflicts centered on ethnicity and social class. Conversely, the conflicts of the 1920s were
primarily cultural, pitting a more cosmopolitan, modernist, urban culture against a more
provincial, traditionalist, rural culture.
The decade witnessed a titanic struggle between an old and a new America. Immigration,
race, alcohol, evolution, gender politics, and sexual morality all became major cultural
battlefields during the 1920s. Wets battled drys, religious modernists battled religious
fundamentalists, and urban ethnics battled the Ku Klux Klan.
The 1920s was a decade of profound social changes. The most obvious signs of change
were the rise of a consumer-oriented economy and of mass entertainment, which helped to
bring about a "revolution in morals and manners." Sexual mores, gender roles, hair styles,
and dress all changed profoundly during the 1920s. Many Americans regarded these
changes as liberation from the country's Victorian past. But for others, morals seemed to be
decaying, and the United States seemed to be changing in undesirable ways. The result was
a thinly veiled "cultural civil war."