Dreams, Lies, and Flapper Girls: The Myth of the 1920’s.

Barbara Stanwyck, worked as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer in 1924, but the public identified her as a flapper girl. She later became a major Hollywood film star of the 1930’s and 40’s.

Some Americans think of the “Roaring Twenties” as an irritatingly loud party that lasted nearly a decade, and when the party finally ended, it fell, music and all, off a cliff, and into an abyss called the Great Depression. Others consider the 1920’s as a period where Americans began to develop a sense of confidence about the future, even a “swagger.” The main tenets of modern America — its new technologies, along with higher employment and better education, were being integrated into its society. With the rise in confidence, it is not surprising then, that some individuals, and groups, would begin to challenge some long-held beliefs and traditions. The division was clear between the modernists and the traditionalists in the nation. Mainstream America even began to develop a distorted impression of what success and happiness was supposed to resemble. The 1920’s was a time of many changes, both culturally and economically, but it was especially an age that was full of contradictions, as well as lies.

Alcoholism had long been associated with domestic violence, as well as workplace accidents, and political corruption. Historically, religious groups had worked for decades to keep this problem in the public conversation, through lectures, editorials, and group protests. Led by pietistic Protestants, and most particularly the grass roots efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the sale and consumption of alcohol in the nation was constitutionally shut down in 1919. A moral, but hollow,victory, Prohibition laws were widely ignored, even laughed at by much of society. In most cities organized crime took control of the beer and liquor supplies, and in many private clubs, liquor inventories had been stockpiled for decades. America was changing in many ways, but not in the consumption of alcohol. By 1933, Prohibition ended, and became a lost cause of the past.

Songs by the great Louis Armstrong:
“When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Hello Dolly.”

There were those flapper girls, smoking, drinking, and wearing short skirts, while shimmying on the dance floor to such ragtime greats as “Jelly Roll” Morton (“Black Bottom Stomp”), Duke Ellington (“Sophisticated Lady”), and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (“When the Saints Go Marching In”). Their carefree and fun-loving behavior was a stunning, and distinct role change from how women had previously been expected to behave. During the 1920’s more women entered college, and, in general, became better educated than previous generations of women. Considering, however, the behavior of the flapper girls and the advancement of women in education; by the end of the decade, most women had decided that staying at home and maintaining traditional roles was a better option for them.

The intellectuals pushed forward the modernist movement and faced off with the fundamental traditionalists in the Scopes Trial (1925). One of the core beliefs of the modernists was Darwin’s theory of evolution which suggested that science, not God, held the answers to the universe, and that human life evolved from apes, and not Adam and Eve. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, intentionally taught the theory of evolution (which was illegal at the time in Tennessee) knowing that his actions would amount to a court case. The case had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Scopes; newsreels and journalists worldwide used the occasion to put the credibility of Christianity on trial. In the end, the majority of Americans did not buy into the evolution argument, and the evangelist, appropriately named Billy Sunday, said, “If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar.” For many, attacking long-held religious beliefs was sacrilegious, and was met with an emotional response. By the end of the decade, most Americans had rejected, some vehemently, the notion of science over God, and church attendance, instead of declining, increased throughout the nation.

This California family was clearly living the dream. Well dressed and owning a new car, they represented the myth of eternal prosperity.

“Why on earth do you need to study what’s changing this country? I can tell you what’s happening in just four letters: A-U-T-O.” A resident of Muncie, Indiana, responding to questions from sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd for their book Middletown (1929).

“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Herbert Hoover’s campaign promise of 1928. Hoover won the election, but his promise of prosperity forever was shattered when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the nation was plunged into the Great Depression for a decade.

It was the economic notion that the decade was built on – – the lie that all was well, and that everyone was a winner. Even the Republican Party’s campaign platform painted a rosy picture, “a chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage.” It was true, however, that the 1920’s was viewed by many as a period of prosperity and a growing affluence in the American society. It seemed for some that the good times had finally arrived, and the ride was going to last forever. The imagined bliss was far from the real truth. In fact, obtaining success and prosperity wasn’t true for many Americans– immigrants, farmers, and generally most non-whites, especially African-Americans, were simply excluded from the party.

The irony of the period is expressed in this historic picture.

As for those who did enjoy the roller coaster ride of success, it was short-lived. “Life is short, so live for today,” and “grab life now,” were phrases used by the younger generation. America was desperate for good times.

Not only was the economy expanding, the attitudes and ideas of Americans were also evolving, and in many directions. A type of tug-of-war developed over numerous societal changes, some new, like the artistic creativity found in African-American Harlem Renaissance, while others, especially the Ku Klux Klan, expanded their long held nativists beliefs of hate. In the 1920’s, Harlem (a borough of New York City) became the center of both artistic and literary growth of African American artists. The “renaissance” of that period was referred to as the “New Negro Movement”, and led to many minorities, not just African American artists, being able to be published and accepted in mainstream cultural and literary networks. Of more significance, the movement led to a rise in ethnic and racial pride, and was later credited with being instrumental in the development of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

Ku Klux Klan marching in a parade near the nation’s capitol. 1925.

On the other side of the cultural spectrum white supremacy was also on the rise. A Klanswoman from Indiana, saying “Store owners, teachers, farmers, the good people, all belonged to the Klan. They were going to clean up the government, and they were going to improve the school books that were loaded with Catholicism.” Beneath the surface of smiles and good times, hate, and hate crimes, continued to grow and fester. The Ku Klux Klan grew and gained in strength, and the secret, sometimes not secret, lynchings of African Americans sent fear throughout the nation that Modern America was indeed evolving, and despite the cultural contributions of a long oppressed race, and those of immigrants, hate and prejudice continued to be deeply rooted in the core of America.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The real poster child of the era was the legendary writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, This Side of Paradise) and his wife Zelda. Zelda, saying about women, “I think a woman gets more happiness out of being gay, light-hearted, unconventional, mistress of her own fate…. I want [my daughter] to be a flapper, because flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.” Young, attractive, and famous, the Fitzgeralds oozed the perfect image of success, and certainly happiness. The irony, however, was that F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved only limited success during his lifetime, and died a hopeless alcoholic a decade later, while Zelda tragically spent much of her later life as a ward in an insane asylum.

With the end of the Great War (World War I – 1914 to 1919) Americans were tired of war, and many were tired of their long fight for social changes. The progressive platforms of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson corrected a number of those wrongs, including the 19th Amendment (Women’s right to vote), improved safety standards in many factories, instituted worker’s compensation, made major reforms for public education, amongst others. It was felt by many that it was time to be less serious about life, and enjoy the benefits of living in a modern nation, and so they did. Americans bought everything in sight including radios, sewing machines,furniture, automobiles, and homes – and most of the expenditures were on easy credit. Americans quickly became addicted to consuming, a mother of nine saying “We’d rather do without clothes than give up the car.” Easy credit was the killer of dreams, and many families fell victim to their own over-indulgent passions, and those of unscrupulous bankers.

For some the fantasy was real, but for others, grasping true prosperity was only a dream. The dream became entangled with the reality of time payments; even 80% of radios purchased were acquired on time payments. During the decade, income grew only slightly, but individual debt more than doubled. Home ownership exploded,and mortgages increased by 8 times from 1920 to 1929. Living the dream was also about living beyond one’s means.

With the crash of the stock market in 1929, and the widespread loss of jobs, the ensuing depression caused real estate values to plummet an average of 25%, and in some locations much more. In many situations homes were worth less than the mortgages held by the consumers. By the early 1930’s half all mortgage borrowers were behind on their payments. That was understandable, since nearly 40% of Americans had no regular income at all.

By the end of 1929, and throughout the following decade, the Great Depression erased much of the nations’ wealth, and many of the issues that had previously divided the country no longer seemed important. Bread lines were not reserved for any one class, race, gender, believers or non-believers, intellectuals, artists, or nativists. Any notion of perpetual prosperity seemed unattainable. As quickly as the nation had both over-consumed and over-borrowed against its own future, even faster, bankruptcies, foreclosures, business closures, and for some – homelessness, and starvation, became the new life narratives.

A bread and soup line in New York City in 1929.

By the early 1930’s the promise of the previous decade was exposed as a lie. With the collapse of the economy, President Herbert Hoover and the Republican party “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” were easily routed in the 1932 Presidential election by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Flapper girls, and the good times that they represented, were also gone. Women in the 1920’s were better educated, but despite education and opportunities, most women chose to stay at home. Despite the efforts of Darwinists, and others, church attendance continued to grow, and there was an increase in church building throughout the nation.

A farm worker and her children.

The second rising of the Ku Klux Klan was also short-lived – – people were more concerned with eating than hating. The many social divisions that had surfaced in the 1920’s were still there, but were hidden beneath the surface of human despair. In time, the music of life and good times would return, and those divisions, both good and bad, would reappear again.

Allen Cornwell

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