American society today is one which is accustomed to the abundance of resources and opportunities that are made available to the public. For the most part, people take these bountiful resources and opportunities for granted because they have no recollection of life before their time. Until the 1920s, American society was conservative with traditional values. It was a quiet and conservative culture, however this tradition began to change significantly change during the 20th century and even more specifically during the 1920s. The United States was quickly changing with the adoption of new cultural and social values and increased prosperity, and though not all people were content with the changing culture and times, their resistance to modernity and materialism were flattened. America was changing for the better and for the future. From the revolution which defined the 1920s, dubbed as the “Modern Temper” by historians, emerged a changing culture in the United States. Among many transformations, new dominant cultural and social values surfaced, there was great economic growth characterized by a new sense of materialism and consumerism, and there was major progress in the social and cultural identity of women. The “Modern Temper” ushered in a more secular, materialistic, individualistic, leisure-oriented, cosmopolitan, and pluralistic society; one which has flourished to new heights even till this day.
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Before the “Modern Temper” emerged, American society was a much more culturally and socially traditional. In essence, the road leading up to the 1920s was a clash of two completely different cultures. Just before the decade, America was apparently under the attack of alcohol. In fact, the apparent effect of alcoholism on the country was so bad that drinking too much alcohol was referred to as being just as useful as a slave. It was estimated that there were 5,000,000 drunks in the United States and this issue has to be halted (Kerr). While the experience with prohibition was dismissed only 13 years after the amendment was passed, the battle over alcohol provided an arena for the mounting conflicts between the modern and traditional, urban and rural, immigrant and native, and even Catholics and Protestants (Pennock). An even more prolific event that provided evidence of the changing culture in the United States was the John scopes trial. The trial of 1925 reflected the vast cultures that were clashing all across the nation (Childs). More than just a trial simply deciding between religious fundamentalism and traditionalism and scientific and modern teachings, it was a keen indication that Americans had begun in a more forceful manner than ever before to debate the basic values of their society and culture (Childs). What can be seen from the Scopes trial and Prohibition is that the process of change in America had been going on for many years and that when the 1920s came along, the country finally felt the great effects.
The new cultural and social values that culminated towards the beginning of the 20th century formed a decisive turning point in American history. From the culture clashes of the 1920s emerged the formation of a modern mass culture (Mintz). Many of the defining features of modern American culture such as the radio, jazz, films, and spectator sports emerged during the 1920s (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). Mass entertainment was a new concept to Americans and probably has one of the greatest cultural effects overall. Probably the most revolutionary of all was the impact of the invention of the radio. Between 1922 and 1929, radio sales soared from $60 million to $426 million. The radio brought the nation together and imposed similar tastes and lifestyles through the same news, entertainment, and advertisements, and was doing so to 10 million Americans by 1929 (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). The radio was such a growing phenomenon that by 1922, 600 radio stations were broadcasting across the United States (Radio in the 1920s). Along with the radio, of course, came the most popular music of the 1920s; jazz.
The roaring twenties saw the formation of new forms of music known as jazz and blues. By the mid-1920s, jazz was being played in dance halls, roadhouses and speakeasies all over the country. This however was not met as gift to all Americans, but rather as a threat (Roaring Twenties: History in the Key of Jazz). Jazz was the music of the African Americans, putting more emphasis on the innovations of supremely gifted individuals and giving blacks a voice in an overwhelmingly white society. Such innovation could be seen by the popularization of “scat” by Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson’s big band jazz (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). To millions of people though, jazz was seen as one more cause of loosening morals. It wasn’t considered music but rather just bad noise that inspired dancing with a dreadful impact on the national character. (Roaring Twenties: History in the Key of Jazz). These feelings were of course felt by white Americans who were threatened by the music. They were motivated by racial concerns and not actually by musical concerns. Critics expressed consistent political and social dislikes of the black population more so than the music itself in reports (Anderson). Clearly, jazz was not only a step forward for African Americans but it was also another clash between different cultures during the 20s. Regardless of the fact, young black men were willing to take on laws and customs that forbid them to compete on anything like an equal basis with whites to create a brand new world created by black Americans who were admired (Roaring Twenties: History in the Key of Jazz).
In addition to jazz and the radio, the United States also saw the rise of spectator sports. Sports provided heroes to the vast audiences that were attracted to them during the 1920s. Many sports, including football and baseball, drew huge crowds to watch and support their favourite teams. Sports became even more competitive, especially as seen with Babe Ruth and his transformation of the game of baseball. Even more popular were individual sports, like boxing, with athletes whose talents or personalities made them appear larger than life (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). Spectator sports became so popular because people had so much more leisure time on their hands. With new technologies and increased productivity from the second industrial revolution, society needed more entertainment during their longer vacation and leisure times (Mintz, The Consumer Economy and Mass Entertainment ). While spectator sports did provide some food for this appetite, it was movies which filled the void that Americans had.
As it can be seen, American culture was significantly affected by the radio, jazz, and spectator sports, but no new instrument of mass entertainment was as significant as the movies (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). By 1929, 90 million Americans were going to the movies each week; this was an increase of 40 million just 9 years earlier. Movies became such a collective activity for all Americans that one estimate shows that Americans spent 83 cents of every entertainment dollar going to the movies (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). While movies did provide a new form of entertainment and social demeanour, they also provoked cultural warfare. The movies presented progressively more open displays of sexuality and with ever more daring language. (Kulturkampfen (“Wars for Civilization”) of the 1920s). Films increasingly featured glamour, sophistication, and sex appeal, imposing on teenagers and young adults the fashions, fads and conduct that were a part of a new generation. Essentially, movies created a new popular culture with common speech, dress, behaviour, and heroes (Mintz, The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture ). Like the radio, the movies became a mechanism of the new found consumerism and materialism that shaped the emerging culture of the “Modern Temper”. Young men and women were becoming new people, drifting away completely from the cultural and social values their parents lived by (Kulturkampfen (“Wars for Civilization”) of the 1920s). Both men and women felt changes in their identities, however, they were nothing as profound as the changes that women felt during the “Modern Temper”.
For many years, women had struggled to find equality and likeness with men in society. In 1920, finally began travelling on the road to relative liberation by winning the right to vote (Mintz, The New Woman). The changes in women’s identity and role actually began during World War I. With men off to war, women’s role changed in order to fill their place in the workforce. In fact, the socio-economic changes that occurred for women during the four year war and that were accepted could not have been achieved through any better means (Thomas).
The emergence of the modern woman during and after World War I emphasized her determination to break free of long-standing cultural constraints (The Decline of the Victorian Cultural Consensus). This want for an individual identity started to take shape with in the late 19th century with emergence of the “new woman”. The “new woman” was an icon of changing norms, a woman who was less constrained by Victorian mores and domesticity than previous generations. She had greater freedom to pursue public roles and even flaunt her “sex appeal,” another term which emerged alongside the new woman (Freeman). The “new woman” was the step before the “modern women” emerged in the 1920s. They were the first to attend college and justified their new roles in terms of the ideal of service to others. These “new women” were as aggressive and ambitious as the men they dealt with (The Decline of the Victorian Cultural Consensus). What was so new about women in the early 20th century was their presence in the public arena. Women began venturing into jobs, politics, and culture outside the domestic realms and home life that most 19th century women tended to revolve around. Still met with resistance by conservatives, such as the church and Ku Klux Klan, and on a subordinate level to men economically and politically, the “new women” was a symbol of revolutionary change for women across the United States (Freeman).
While the “new women” was a major stage in solidifying a new identity for women, nothing defined the “modern temper” more accurately than the flapper. “The flapper” was completely parallel to what women were supposed to be; women’s identity became alternate to what had previously existed. Flappers were more thin and flat, and exposed more flesh. They challenged old norms by wearing new fashions, donning boyish looks and haircuts, drinking more alcohol and even smoking (Freeman, Image and Lifestyle). The “Modern Temper” brought new fashions along with “the flapper” that identified people as individuals. “The flapper” wore short skirts, used make-up in public, which was considered to be the badge of prostitutes, and wore baggy clothes which exposed the arms and legs (The Jazz Age: Flapper Culture & Style). She was a symbol not only of a revolution in fashion and mores, but an expression of their emancipation. They expressed their individuality and sexuality through their clothes, their behaviour, and the activities they partook in (The Jazz Age: Flapper Culture & Style). The female identity was completely altered by the “new woman” and “flapper”, producing a new woman of the “modern temper”.
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A conservative barrier was broken with the new identity of women in the 1920s. Sexual flaunting was a revolution that came along with the new woman. Unmarried women began expressing their sexual desire, likely unapproved by their parents, as well as courts and Progressive reformers. They were stepping outside of their traditional gender role, entering the workforce in record numbers and taking part in jobs and activities that were once associated only with men (Freeman, Sexuality). Even further changes occurred with the relations between young men and women. Though the aspect of marriage remained constant between the new and old generation of women, there was an emergence of a new ritual in the form of dating. Young women could now flirt with boys and have sexual interactions with men unlike anything their parents had experienced (Freeman, Sexuality). The new woman, more specifically “the flapper”, epitomized the individualistic, materialistic, and leisure-oriented society that the “modern temper” created during the 1920s. The new cultural and social values associated with the emergence of the “modern temper” can be credited a great deal towards the new woman, however, nothing changed American culture more so than the creation of a consumer based society.
As the 1920s rolled along, major transformations occurred in the workplace and the economy flourished. The standard of living for a large number of Americans improved drastically as wages increased and working hours decreased. This change was symbolized by Henry Ford, whose assembly line and $5 a day pay scheme decreased the time it took to make a car, increased wages, decreased working hours, and essentially, transformed the American industry (Mintz, The Consumer Economy and Mass Entertainment ). As a result, Americans had more money in their pockets and more time on their hands. Material goods started to become more important to people as more stress was put on consumer goods and advertising. The emergence of new marketing and increased focus on consumer goods led to consumerism and materialism in American culture.
Consumerism changed the cultural and social values of American society during the 1920s. Material goods that were once only available to the wealthy or no one at all were suddenly available to the mass public at a low cost. The consumer society changed Americans values in way that made them believe that all material goods available to them were a must-own product. The ultimate symbol of the new consumer society was the car. In a 10 year span from 1919 to 1929, Americans went from owning 6.7 million cars to owning 27 million-nearly one car for every American household (Mintz, The Consumer Economy and Mass Entertainment ). All this could be explained by the advertising which slowly changed Americans towards being more materialistic as consumer goods were being associated with human values, emotions, and social status. If you didn’t own a car, a radio, or any other major appliance or item that emerged during the early 1900s, consumerism and advertising made you feel like you just weren’t being fulfilled. Eventually, advertising expanded to stimulate sales and increase profits, and the public was even being offered instalment credit. Mortgages were first being offered in the 1920s, and estimates were that 60% of all furniture and 75% of all radios were purchased on instalment plans (Mintz, The Consumer Economy and Mass Entertainment ). Consumerism transformed America into a buying and borrowing country; later on America would be a country of debtors rather than buyers as a result.
Consumerism’s greatest impact on society was on the cultural identity of women in the 1920s. Of course the “new woman” and “the flapper” were major symbols of the “modern temper”, however, they would not have made such a large impact let alone have emerged if it had not been for the focus of advertising and marketing on women (The Jazz Age: Flapper Culture & Style). Advertisements for fashions like Coco Chanel had a dramatic effect on women of the early 20th century (Thomas). Sexual expression was imposed onto women through advertising campaigns as simple Coca-Cola and new technologies were focused at women in the household. Electricity and the invention of the washing machine, vacuum, and other household appliances were focused at housewives who wanted to make home cleaning much easier and more efficient. Consumerism changed the life of an urban housewife inside and outside the house.
Entertainment and leisure also were changed for the women of the 1920s by consumerism. Smoking for women even became somewhat of a fad, being popularized by marches in the streets of New York imitating the suffrage marches in the 1910s (Mintz, The New Woman). Other fads such as the Miss America pageant marathons imposed new social values into young women; telling them that individualism is not just about beauty, but also about fashions, housekeeping, and appealing to the other sex. Women, and all Americans for that matter, were interested in being entertained. More fads emerged to feed Americans appetite for leisure, including Mah-jong and crossword puzzles, contract bridge, photography, golf, tennis, and bowling (Mintz, Low Brow and Middle Brow Culture). Americans, women specifically, were also exposed to new values through the movies. Sexual interactions, social interactions like smoking, and new language and slang were all expressed through movies, projecting a life beyond the ordinary which their parents lived and which they had been living. Furthermore, magazines and books expressed new social values for women which they had never experienced. “Confession magazines” filled the void in women by sharing stories of romance, divorce, success and failure (Mintz, Low Brow and Middle Brow Culture). Through movies, advertising, entertainment and leisure, consumerism changed the way woman lived and experienced society in the 20th century, and more specifically, produced the epitome of the “modern temper” through the “new woman” and “the flapper”.
With the rise of consumerism and materialism in the 1920s, the “modern temper” created a sophisticated and pluralistic society in the United States. The new society challenged and defeated traditional Victorian mores and yielded a new generation of Americans that had new social and cultural values, and created a powerful economy that built on new businesses, chain companies, quick and efficient manufacturing, and higher incomes (Mintz, The Consumer Economy and Mass Entertainment ). The “modern temper” instilled a sense of individualism in Americans and challenged Americans to do and get anything they want. Simply put, the “modern temper” created an affluent, more secular America with more liberated and modern social and cultural values which to this day has continued to grow through industry, consumerism, and most notably, individualism.
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