Conclusion: Cultural Change in the Interwar Period

Conclusion: Cultural Change in the Interwar Period

The interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s saw a number of significant changes in American culture, largely fueled by Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Learning Objectives

Understand how American culture changed in the interwar years due to a number of factors, most notably Prohibition and the Great Depression

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ratified by the Eighteenth  Amendment in 1920, Prohibition  sparked debate between those who argued that the sale of alcohol was both immoral and unhealthy, and those who saw the ban as an intrusion on mainstream, everyday life. Prohibition led to the rise of criminal organizations behind the illegal import and sale of alcohol, most notably the American Mafia.
  • The popularity of jazz  grew rapidly during Prohibition as a result of the popularity of the music in speakeasies. Radio broadcasts were a source of free entertainment for the American public and included shows, newscasts, soap operas, and religious sermons. Films of the interwar period introduced America to Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Walt Disney.
  • Women gained a greater voice and experience in middle-class society through enrollment in colleges and universities, although they largely remained in gendered roles.
  • The Great Depression of the 1930s increased the number of homeless people and concentrated them in “Hooverville” settlements, where terrible living conditions caused widespread illness. The Dust Bowl, a large area across the South and the Great Plains, experienced windstorms and droughts that led to widespread destruction of farmlands and forced Midwestern farm families into cities, compounding urban poverty.

Key Terms

  • Harlem Renaissance: An African-American cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s and laid the cultural groundwork for the civil rights movement.
  • Hoovervilles: The slang term for shantytowns that were contemptuously named after President Herbert Hoover, whose policies were considered to blame for the Depression.
  • Dust Bowl: In 1930, a confluence of bad weather and poor agricultural practices compounded the Depression’s effects on farmers in areas that included 1 million acres in the South and Midwest Great Plains, which became known as the “Dust Bowl.”
  • Herbert Hoover: (1874–1964) The 31st president of the United States (1929–1933). He served as director of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I and then as U.S. secretary of commerce under President Calvin Coolidge. Hoover’s policies were largely blamed for the onset and growth of the Great Depression.
  • Jazz Age: A period of high spirits in the 1920s highlighted by the jazz music that became immensely popular at the time. The illegal drinking establishments known as “speakeasies” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, have become synonymous with the Jazz Age.
  • Lost Generation: A term used to refer to the group of young Americans who came of age during World War I, as well as a group of writers who produced some of the most memorable literature of the twentieth century.
  • Prohibition: Amendment XVIII to the United States Constitution that prohibited commercial alcohol sales and consumption beginning in 1920s.
  • Great Depression: A major economic collapse in the United States beginning in 1929 that caused widespread poverty, homelessness, and migration in the 1930s.

The years between the end of World War I in 1918 and the beginning of World War II in 1939, known as the “interwar period,” was a time of great change in the overall culture of the United States. Significant developments occurred in music, film, and literature, while everyday life experienced changes in areas as widespread as gender roles and racism. The period was both fast changing and exciting, but also at times barely tolerable and even dangerous depending on one’s place in life.

Prohibition and Great Depression

Prohibition and the Great Depression, arguably the two most significant events in the interwar years, also are classified as periods in themselves. Each had major, definable impacts on numerous aspects of American society and would result in developments that defined the nation.

Prohibition

One of America’s most significant cultural changes, for better and worse, Prohibition was a national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that lasted from 1920 to 1933 and had ramifications for every aspect of everyday life, from law and economics to religion and entertainment. Prohibition was a hotly contested issue: the “Dries” who supported Prohibition proclaimed it to be a victory for public morals and health, while “Wets” criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural, Protestant ideals upon a central facet of urban, immigrant, and Catholic life, as well as a loss of large amounts of tax revenue.

On October 28, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning alcohol was implemented through the Volstead Act, which went into effect on January 17, 1920. Effective enforcement of the ban proved to be difficult, however, and led to widespread flouting of the law, as well as a massive escalation of organized crime. A total of 1,520 Prohibition agents from three separate federal agencies were tasked with enforcing the new law, but they lacked centralized authority. Meanwhile, the matter of geography—valleys, mountains, lakes, and swamps, as well as extensive seaways, ports, and massive borders running along Canada and Mexico—made it exceedingly difficult to stop bootleggers intent on avoiding detection.

The rift between the Dries and the Wets over alcohol consumption and sales largely hinged on the long running, historical debate over whether drinking was morally acceptable in light of the antisocial behavior that overindulgence could cause. Ironically, this dispute over ethics during the “Roaring Twenties” led to a sudden groundswell of criminal activity, with those who opposed legal alcohol sales unintentionally enabling the growth of vast criminal organizations that controlled the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol and a number of related activities including gambling and prostitution. Chicago, the largest city in Illinois and of one America’s true metropolises along with New York and Los Angeles, became a haven for Prohibition dodgers. Many of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales.

Photograph of Al Capone

Al Capone, 1930: One of the most notorious gangsters of the Prohibition era, Al “Scarface” Capone made millions running bootlegging and other illegal activities in Chicago.

The Great Depression

The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the severe financial collapse that followed began a general economic and social slump not known in the United States before or after and whose name, the Great Depression, is insufficient to describe the widespread suffering endured by its citizens. The crash marked the beginning of a decade of high unemployment, poverty, low profits, deflation, plunging farm incomes, and lost opportunities for economic growth and personal advancement.

A speculative boom took hold in the late 1920s, which led hundreds of thousands of Americans to invest heavily in the stock market. Many investors bought shares “on margin,” meaning they purchased them on credit while at the same time taking out loans to pay for those shares. By August 1929, brokers were routinely lending small investors more than two-thirds of the face value of the stocks they were buying. The loans exceeded $8.5 billion, more than the entire amount of currency circulating in the United States at the time. Investors stood to lose large sums of money if the market turned down. When that finally happened, panic selling started at the New York Stock Exchange. On October 24, 1929, known  as “Black Thursday,” the value of common stock and shares in the U.S. market dropped by 40 percent, precipitating a massive economic collapse.

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Stock market crash, 1929: A crowd gathers on Wall Street outside the New York Stock Exchange after the market crash of October 29, 1929.

Stock prices plummeted by more than 80 percent, which had a major impact on the U.S. and world economy. Both material and psychological effects reverberated across the nation. More than 85,000 businesses declared bankruptcy, and some 4,000 banks and other lenders ultimately failed.  In 1933, unemployment rose to 25 percent, with more than 11 million people seeking work. As the Depression deepened, vast numbers of families were unable to pay rent and were evicted from their homes; they went to stay in “Hoovervilles,” the slang term for shantytowns that were contemptuously named after President Herbert Hoover, whose policies were considered to blame for the Depression.

In 1930, a confluence of bad weather and poor agricultural practices compounded the Depression’s effects on farmers in areas that included 1 million acres in the South and Midwest Great Plains that came to be known as the ” Dust Bowl.” Drought and massive windstorms that threw up giant clouds of dust continued throughout the 1930s, leading to the period being called the “Dirty Thirties.” The sustained drought and storms damaged the land so badly that overall farm revenue fell by 50 percent in the Dust Bowl region. Some residents of the Plains, especially in Kansas and Oklahoma, became ill and died of dust pneumonia or malnutrition. While there is no official death toll due to insufficient record keeping, it is believed that up to 7,000 deaths occurred as a result of conditions in the Dust Bowl. Already suffering from depressed prices and declining incomes, many farmers were forced to abandon their operations and move to the cities or to agricultural areas in other states in order to survive. The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states, including 200,000 who moved to California, leading to the massive growth of migrant labor.

Society

The 1920s in the United States, often referred to as the “ Jazz Age,” was representative of the freewheeling attitude that gripped much of the nation following the harrowing, painful years of World War I, while societal norms began to open up in significant ways. Women enjoyed new freedoms such as gaining the right to vote and experiencing less cultural repression in their dress and courting habits, although in other areas such as race relations, the bigotry of older times remained firmly entrenched within specific geographic regions and aspects of class culture.

Gender and Sexual Relations

The women’s rights movement made great strides in the 1920s, both in the areas of gender discrimination and women’s health. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) spoke for middle-class women, while its agenda was generally opposed by working-class women and labor unions representing working-class men. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted women suffrage, or the right to vote in all local, state, and national elections. After 1920, the NWP authored more than 600 pieces of legislation for women’s equality, half of which passed.

The 1920s saw the emergence of the co-ed, short for “co-educational,” meaning women who began bucking gender stereotypes by attending large state colleges and universities alongside men. But while these women entered into the mainstream middle-class experience, including institutions of higher education, they largely remained in gendered roles within society. Fueled by ideas of sexual liberation, however, dating underwent major changes on college campuses. With the advent of the automobile, courtship occurred in much more private settings than it had among previous generations. “Petting,” or sexual relations without intercourse, became the social norm for college students.

The explosion of jazz and other new musical and dance forms in the 1920s was personified by flappers, women whose fashion styles represented their free spirits and new social openness. This style largely emerged as a result of French fashions, especially those pioneered by the French designer “Coco” Chanel. Although the appearance typically associated with flappers—straight waists, short hair, and hemlines above the knee—did not fully emerge until about 1926, there was an early association in the public mind between unconventional appearance, outrageous behavior, and the word “flapper.”

Photograph of Coco Chanel

“Coco” Chanel: French designer “Coco” Chanel helped develop the fashions for women that became widely popular during the flapper period.

The 1920s was also a period of more visibility, and somewhat more acceptance, for homosexuals. New York, London, Paris, and Berlin were important centers of the new ethic, and humor was used to assist its acceptability. One popular American song, “Masculine Women, Feminine Men,” was released in 1926 and recorded by numerous artists of the day, reflecting a relative liberalism toward homosexuality. Profound hostility to homosexuality continued to exist, however, especially in more remote areas. With the return of a conservative mood in the 1930s, the public once again grew intolerant of homosexuality.

 Race Relations

Another significant change in the overall behavior of American society began in urban areas, where minorities were treated with more equality in the 1920s than they had been accustomed to previously. In movies and on the stage, black and white players appeared together for the first time, while it became common in nightclubs to see whites and blacks dancing and dining together. The Depression of the 1930s, however, was an extremely difficult time for African Americans, as the hard economic conditions once again forced virulent racism and discrimination into the open in American society. In the South in 1930, an organization called the “Black Shirts” recruited approximately 40,000 people to its racist agenda, which primarily stated that no African American would be given a job before a white person. Unemployment among black workers grew to almost 50 percent by 1932.

In the Southwest, the claim that Hispanic workers were “stealing jobs” from whites became prevalent. The U.S. Department of Labor deported 82,000 Mexicans between 1929 and 1935, while almost half a million people returned to Mexico either voluntarily or after being tricked or threatened into believing they had no other choice. Many of these people had immigrated legally, but lacked the proper documentation to prove their status. Government officials also ignored the legislation automatically designating children born in the country as legal U.S. citizens.

Discrimination against women also saw a renewal during the Depression, with many believing sexist claims that women were stealing available jobs from men. In a survey conducted in 1930 and 1931, 77 percent of schools refused to hire married women as teachers, while 63 percent of schools fired females already working as teachers who chose to marry.

Economics

The 1920s can be viewed as a period of great industry in America. The production of automobiles, petroleum, steel, and chemicals skyrocketed during this period. This was largely due to the adoption by industry of the technique of mass production, the system under which identical products were churned out quickly and inexpensively using assembly lines. The changeover to mass production drove down prices for objects that were previously made in much more individual, time-consuming methods and subsequently enabled an increase in new, affordable technology. A middle class of Americans emerged in the postwar period with surplus money and a desire to spend more, spurring the demand for consumer goods, especially the car.

Throughout the 1920s, the automobile industry became one of chief importance as car manufacturing in the United States experienced extraordinary growth. Before the war, cars were a luxury, but in the 1920s, mass-produced vehicles became common throughout the country. Using the manufacturing assembly-line system, in which individual parts or sets of pieces are added to a product at stations on a conveyor belt or other moveable line, entrepreneurs such as automobile tycoon Henry Ford were able to greatly increase productivity. This innovation significantly reduced the cost of automobiles and thereby increased consumer demand.

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Ford in Time: Automobile magnate Henry Ford on the cover of Time magazine, January 1935.

Charles Lindbergh rose to instant fame in 1927 with the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France. The global attention garnered by the achievement of 25-year-old “Lucky Lindy” spawned advances that led to commercial aviation in the next decade. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lindbergh used his fame to promote the development of both commercial aviation and Air Mail services in the United States and the Americas.

Electrification progressed greatly in the 1920s as more of the United States was added to the electrical grid. Most industries switched from coal power to electricity, and new power plants were constructed. Telephone lines were strung across the continent, and indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many regions. These infrastructure programs were mostly left to local governments, many of which went deeply into debt under the assumption that an investment in infrastructure would pay off in the future, a theory that caused major problems during the Great Depression.

Music, Arts, and Film

The spirit of the “Roaring Twenties” was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with “modernity” and a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technologies, especially with automobiles, movies, and radio programs spreading modernity throughout society. Formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality in both daily life and architecture. At the same time, jazz and dancing rose in popularity, and stood in stark contrast to the horrors of World War I. As such, the period is also often referred to as the “Jazz Age.” This period of high spirits came to a loud climax with the Wall Street crash, and while the Depression of the 1930s marked a low point for America in many ways, it still managed to produce some positive cultural changes.

Music and Radio

In 1925, electrical recording, one of the greatest advances in sound recording, became available for commercially issued phonograph records, spreading music to the masses along with recorded speeches and other forms of audio diversion.

Prohibition had a large effect on music in the United States, specifically on jazz. Speakeasies became far more popular during the Prohibition era, partially influencing the mass migration of jazz musicians from New Orleans to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York. This movement led to a wider dispersal of jazz, as different styles developed in different cities. Because of its popularity in speakeasies and its advancement due to the emergence of more advanced recording devices, jazz became very popular in a short amount of time.

Jazz was also at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts of the time, as it united mostly black musicians with mostly white crowds. The Harlem neighborhood of New York City played a key role in the development of dance styles by serving as the location of several popular entertainment venues where people from all walks of life, races, and classes came together. The Cotton Club featured black performers and catered to a white clientele, while the Savoy Ballroom catered to a mostly black clientele.

As a direct result of the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Depression, the 1930s involved a widespread culture of escapism in which Americans attempted to find innovative and inexpensive forms of entertainment that diverted attention from the hardships of everyday life. Local and national radio became a source of free entertainment and news programming for millions, and radio stations had a little bit of everything for listeners of all ages. American adults frequently listened to newscasts, radio theater, soap operas, religious sermons, and entertainment programs.

From broadcasts of big band concerts to the enduring popularity of The Grand Ole Opry, the radio was the main source of dissemination and discovery for a wide swath of the populace. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reached out to the nation with his “fireside chats” on national radio throughout his presidency beginning in 1933, while a little orphan named Annie became one of the most beloved children’s characters in the nation thanks to radio broadcasts of her adventures. Names as varied as Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Dick Tracy, and Duke Ellington all owed their fame to varying degrees to radio.

Film

A steady stream of films built upon the explosion of theaters and movie technology that began in the 1920s. Hollywood boomed during this time, producing a new form of entertainment that shut down the old vaudeville theaters: the silent film. In the years that followed, the advent of “talkies,” or pictures with synchronized sound, made musicals all the rage. Hollywood film studios flooded the box office with extravagant and lavish musical films, many of which were filmed in early Technicolor, a process that created color motion pictures rather than the starker black-and-white films.

Some of the great names of cinema emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Walt Disney, Joan Crawford, Mae West, Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable were only a few of the film legends of the time, while some of the films of the period became instant classics, from escapist works such as King Kong (1933) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) to romances and dramas including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Gone with the Wind (1939).

Literature and Art

The 1920s was a notable period of artistic creativity, especially in literature, with works by several distinguished authors appearing during this time. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is often described as the epitome of the Jazz Age in American literature. Celebrated modernists also included Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and William Faulkner.

The creative literary outburst was personified by the “Lost Generation,” a term popularized by American author Ernest Hemingway that came to identify the group of writers and artists, many of them expatriates, who created some of the most significant works of the period. In addition to including Hemingway and Fitzgerald, this movement of writers and artists also loosely includes John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Henry Miller, and T.S. Eliot.

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway writing

Ernest Hemingway, 1939: Ernest Hemingway, considered one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, helped coin the term, “Lost Generation.”

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. It sprang up as part of the “New Negro Movement,” a political program founded in 1917 that insisted on self-definition, self expression, self-determination, and “spiritual emancipation.” The Harlem Renaissance participants who emerged from this new idealism, regardless of their generational or ideological orientation in aesthetics or politics, shared a sense of possibility. The many debates enriched perspectives on issues of art, culture, politics, and ideology that have emerged in African-American culture.

Notable Harlem Renaissance figures included Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. The Harlem Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement, it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—that helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II phase of the civil rights movement.

The interwar period was also a remarkable time of artistic creativity that brought forth new, bold movements that changed the way the world looked at itself, both externally and internally. In design and architecture, Art Deco originated in Europe and spread throughout the continent before its influence moved across the Atlantic to North America. In art, the movements known as expressionism, Dada, and surrealism all played major roles in reconfiguring focus and perception.

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Republican Automatons: An example of the Dada school of art, Republican Automatons was a 1920 watercolor painting by George Grosz.