Characteristics of the Twenties Zeitgeist – Cultural Wars

The romanticism of prewar days had disappeared in the shock of aerial bombardment and mustard gas. Necessity and opportunity had combined to free women from claustrophobic styles and ankle-length hair, even while their husbands, sons and lovers returned from the war wounded, bitter, and dazed to take up lives that no longer looked or felt the same. Machinery clanged, automobiles roared, music pounded to a turbulent beat, and everything was moving faster than ever before. Some found the newness liberating and exciting, while other felt pummeled by it.

Mary S. McAuliffe, When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends

In many ways the 1920s was a set of contradictions. On the one hand, the decade was a quest for “normalcy” after WW I. Normalcy was a word coined by President Warren G. Harding in his inauguration address in March 1921. It was a rejection of Wilsonian idealism. It reflected the country’s desire to put the responsibilities and deprivations of the war behind them. Many people wanted to return  to the tried and true ways of the pre-war days. (This Fabulous Century, Vol. III, p. 23) On the other hand, instead of normalcy and responsibility, many Americans wanted fun, frivolity, and excitement, rebellion, escapism and hedonism. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” (TFC, p. 30) Thus, the Twenties was the first decade to have a nickname: “Roaring 20s” or “Jazz Age.”

The Jazz Age was, in part, a reaction to the cynicism that was left over from the first world war as expressed in the following quote: “But the war turned out differently from what Mr. Wilson had planned. The average soldier discovered that he was no hero, that war was ugly and confused and irrational. The peace turned out equally badly and evil persisted in the world just as before. War did not seem to have been erased by the war. And, the American tradition – which men had fought to preserve – seemed not to have been involved at all…. Morality based on duty bored the younger generation.” (Cantor, p. 108)

The Twenties was a decade of profound cultural conflict. For many Americans, the growth of cities, the rise of a consumer culture, the upsurge of mass entertainment, and the so-called “revolution in morals and manners” represented liberation from the restrictions of the country’s Victorian past. Sexual mores, gender roles, hair styles, and dress all changed profoundly during the 1920s. But for many others, the United States seemed to be changing in undesirable ways. The result was a thinly veiled “cultural civil war,” in which a pluralistic society clashed bitterly over such issues as foreign immigration, evolution, the Ku Klux Klan, prohibition, women’s roles, and race. (; (Allen, V, 1)