For some who think about HBD and public policy, it's become an idée fixe that the 1950s is a line in the sand before which things went well, and after which things went to hell.
For others, our slow slide towards atomized, post-religious hedonism was inevitable: It had to follow the Industrial Revolution, like night follows day.
So who's right? One way to know is to go back and see what folks were saying and doing as the second Industrial Revolution reached its end. Was this the beginning of what we've become? Did it have to be this way? Hop in the touring car and take a brief spin with us through post-WWI America:
The notion that before the 1960s all or even most women were full-time homemakers is of course ahistorical; most women in history have been farmers' or artisans' wives, with all the labor that entails. Only women of the leisure class have ever been spared hard work. And after WWI, industry blew up that leisure class to proportions never before seen. Just how old is 'the new woman'?
Hard to imagine the shift from Gibson Girl to Flapper without seeing it first-hand. Cutting one's hair short, wearing lipstick, showing the knees, smoking, drinking: What in the hell was going on? The following article, "Flapping Not Repented Of," The New York Times, July 16, 1922, gives a taste:
As an ex-flapper I'd like to say a word in her behalf. I who have tasted of the fruits of flappery and found them good—even nourishing—can look back and smile. The game was worth it....
She will never make you a hatband or knit you a necktie, but she'll drive you from the station hot Summer nights in her own little sport car. She'll don knickers and go skiing with you; or, if it happens to be Summer time, swimming; she'll dive as well as you, perhaps better; she'll dance as long as you care to, and she'll take everything you say the way you mean it, not getting "sore" as her older sister did when that "pious" older sister rested back seductively in the pretty green canoe with a pink parasol to keep off the healthy tan of the sun... (1)
The explosion of young women on college campuses was creating a co-ed culture far from parental supervision, and all that goes with it. These extracts are from Eleanor Rowland Wembridge's "Petting and the Campus," Survey, July 1, 1925:
... Last summer I was at a student conference of young women comprised of about eight hundred college girls from the middle western states. The subject of petting was very much on their minds, both as to what attitude they should take toward it with the younger girls, (being upperclassmen themselves) and also how much renunciation of this pleasurable pastime was required of them.
Just what does petting consist in? What ages take it most seriously? Is it a factor in every party? Do "nice" girls do it, as well as those who are not so "nice"?
One fact is evident, that whether or not they pet, they hesitate to have anyone believe that they do not. It is distinctly the mores of the time to be considered as ardently sought after, and as not too priggish to respond. As one girl said—"I don't particularly care to be kissed by some of the fellows I know, but I'd let them do it any time rather than think I wouldn't dare."
That petting should lead to actual illicit relations between the petters was not advised nor countenanced among the girls with whom I discussed it. They drew the line quite sharply.
I sat with one pleasant college Amazon, a total stranger, beside a fountain in the park, while she asked if I saw any harm in her kissing a young man whom she liked, but whom she did not want to marry. "It's terribly exciting. We get such a thrill. I think it is natural to want nice men to kiss you, so why not do what is natural?" There was no embarrassment in her manner. Her eyes and her conscience were equally untroubled.
Wembridge takes the interesting tack that all this heavy petting is, in fact, a class issue:
Her [the petting girl's] mother's habit of blind and deaf supervision indicate that she too does not want to know any more than she has to. The college student is no longer preeminently from a selected class. One has only to look at the names and family status in the college registers to see that. If petting is felt to be poor taste in some families, there are many more families of poor taste than there used to be, whose children go to college.
If anyone charges the daughters with being vulgar, the chances are that the mothers, though more shy, are essentially just as vulgar. The sex manners of the large majority of uncultivated and uncritical people have become the manners for all, because they have prospered, they are getting educated, and there are so many of them. (1)
Two questions here leap to mind: Had the birth control pill been cheap and accessible in 1925, would this article have looked any different? And, is promiscuity still a class issue today?
Banal as it's become, women smoking was once taboo. This snippet from "Women Smokers" (New York Times, February 1920) gives a taste of the new masculinity of the modern woman. Being interviewed is a Manhattan tobacco shop owner:
... "How many women would you say came in for cigarettes during a day? Would you say there were as many as—twelve? Or maybe— twenty?" The man at the counter began looking interested."You're not stringing me, are you? Twelve or twenty? Seventy-five or a hundred is more like it.... They come in just the way the men do. And they buy the same kind of cigarettes the men do."There's one thing funny about them. You get to know the people that come in to buy stuff. The men change the brand of cigarettes they use. They try out a new smoke occasionally. The women never. They stick to one kind right through. If you happen to be out of stock, they'll leave the store without buying anything.
"Do you know," he said, "it's really very funny. The men who come into the shop to buy cigarettes for their lady friends buy perfumed ones. And when the ladies come in themselves they buy the strong ones. They insist upon getting the same kind as the men.... They want a man's smoke every time." (1)
The post-WWI stock market frenzy is mostly remembered for the massive crash to which it led. But in its salad days, women were in on the party too. The excerpt below is from "Ladies of the Ticker," by Eunice Fuller Barnard (North American Review, April 1929):
Five years ago the average brokerage house still frowned on the woman customer. Some even now do so officially. But they are King Canutes forbidding the rising tide. Around them already is the surge of women investors—stenographers, heiresses, business women, housewives. The financial expert of a metropolitan newspaper recently estimated that in the last decade the woman non-professional speculator in stocks has grown "from less than a two per cent to a thirty-five per cent factor of the huge army that daily gambles in the stock market." ...
To the same woman broker a scrub-woman in a well known club handed over $15,000 in cash which she had made on the stock market, for reinvestment. Indeed, in many instances waitresses and telephone girls, cooks and washerwomen who, so to speak, stood in with the boss, are said to have invested their mites on a wealthy employer's advice and cleaned up modest fortunes.
One thing necessary to woman's participation in the market was of course money of her own to invest. And that, in these last expansive years, she has undoubtedly achieved as never before. Last year some 95,000 women as heads of families made income tax returns on $400,000,000. Others paid taxes on $1,500,000,000.
One woman broker, for example, who personally handles 300 accounts, has mainly business women as clients—buyers for department stores, small shop owners, advertising writers. Some of them are earning $15,000 a year, living on half, and investing the rest. ...
Barnard finishes with a frank view of her sex which seems to have gone extinct:
She has yet to show that she can hibernate with the bears when the heyday of quick profits is over, as it already seems to be. She has pragmatically to learn the painful lesson that buying stocks may mean sudden and devastating loss, as well as gain. And if, after the holocaust, she has any money left, she has in many cases to discover for herself the gulf fixed between rational investing and stock gambling as it has been going on the last two years. (1)
We've become used to Times puff pieces on 'unconventional' families and the 'richness' they bring us. Turns out they have a long pedigree. George Mowry explains:
'A leading woman novelist, Fanny Hurst, publicly announced that she and her husband were establishing separate living accommodations as much to further both their careers as to express their own individual tastes and interests. Miss Hurst's discussion of the arrangement with a reporter from The New York Times, December 9, 1923, was reprinted all over the country and called forth an amazing amount of both pro and con comment.' Miss Hurst speaks:
"Take the marriage structure as it now stands. It's old fashioned, it's drafty, it's leaky, the roof sags, the timbers shake, there's no modern plumbing, no hardwood floors, no steam heat. We don't feel comfortable in it. We've outgrown the edifice, but we don't dare get out of it....
"For some strange reason, social custom is the laggard of civilization....
"You speak about trial marriage. Trial marriage is a logical solution for the problem for some people, but it's a waste of time to discuss it. People take it about as seriously as 'Yes, we have no bananas.' They refuse to consider it. You can't make any headway. It's important, but as long as people are ridiculed and shamed out of it, that won't be a solution to anything....
"There is everything to fear from the old-fashioned good-wife-and-mother relationship. It is contrary to the biological instincts of the human race. Its observation is based on the least admirable of human traits—fear of living! ... If a woman can sell insurance or run a paying beauty parlor or write a book, the chances are ten to one that she can hire vastly more efficient service to train her children than she could give them. Because I can paint a picture, let us say, does not mean that I can bring up a child.... (1)
We may think of conspicuous consumption as a current ill. But the term itself was coined in 1899. Here is William Ashdown, small-town banker, giving his "Confessions of an Automobilist" (Atlantic Monthly, June 1925):
Dangerous rivalries among friends and in families are created by the motor. If one member of a family makes a bit of money he must advertise it to the rest of the family and to the world by the purchase of a car. Or, if his social scale seems a bit below that of the rest of the family, he seeks to lift himself higher through the medium of a car. The result is a costly rivalry that brings the whole group into debt.
I had occasion not long ago to check up a number of automobiles on the time-payment plan with a New York company. We found that the owners were carpenters, masons, bricklayers, and so on, living in inaccessible suburban places, who used their cars—all new ones—to go to and from their work. Perhaps their investment is justified by the high wages they now earn, but time was when the humble bicycle or the trolley-car was good enough for them. Walking today is a lost art. Even my laundress comes to work in a taxi and goes home by the same route. ...
The avalanche of automobile-owners is not a good omen. It signifies that the people are living either up to their means or beyond them; that the old margin of safety no longer obtains; that the expense account must constantly increase. The race to outdo the other fellow is a mad race indeed. The ease with which a car can be purchased on the time-payment plan is all too easy a road to ruin. The habit of thrift can never be acquired through so wasteful a medium as an automobile. (1)
Mary B. Mullett's 1927 piece on Charles Lindbergh, "The Biggest Thing That Lindbergh Has Done," (American Magazine), gives a glimpse into that era's perceptions of its own moral decay:
... Ever since the War there has been an outcry against "modern" character, ideals, and morals; especially against those of the younger generation. Most of us have contributed our share to this chorus of denunciation. All of us have had to listen to it.
You hear it in every stratum of society. The high-brows talk of the "moral degeneration of the age." The low-brows say: "Ain't it perfectly awful!" The old folks raise their eyebrows in horror—and the young folks defiantly raise Cain! The professional reformers bewail the passing of "the good old days." The professional cynics shrug their shoulders and reply: "Autres temps, autres mœurs." Or, if they don't speak French, they say: "Get it into your bean that times have changed, old thing!"
And this is the big thing Lindbergh has done: He has shown us that this talk was nothing but talk! He has shown us that we are not rotten at the core, but morally sound and sweet and good! (1)
The Race Question
Journalist Carl Sandburg, reporting in Chicago in 1919 on 'the Negro question,' interviewed Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald. The philanthropist who financed hundreds of rural Negro schools in the South gives the young reporter arguments that may have a familiar ring to us today. (While we usually avoid color commentary, please forgive, as this millionaire's mendacity overrode our instincts):
"If we say the negro must stay in slums and shall not invade white residence districts, then we shall have to make more stringent health laws to protect us from the evils that go with slums," said Mr. Rosenwald. "If we say the negro must continue to live in slums, we must prepare for a brighter crime rate."
No one at the time, of course, argued that Negros should live in slums, only that they should live separated from Whites.
"They came here because we asked them to come, because they were needed for industrial service. There is no solution for the problem apparent now."
Not repatriating them to Africa, not repatriating them to the South, not segregated housing...
"With immigration restricted, it will be necessary for business to seek another source of labor supply."
Or to pay a higher wage, which would attract all the labor you need in a country of one hundred million people...and which is exactly what happened after the 1921 Immigration Quota Act (against which men like Rosenwald fought bitterly) was passed.
"I know from experience that the negroes are not anxious to invade white residence districts any more than white people are willing that they should come."
Patently untrue; Blacks--especially Mulattoes--horning into white neighborhoods was a constant complaint at the time, and has continued to be so unceasingly up to today.
"The negro is the equal of the white man in brains," said Mr. Rosenwald. "I have talked with men who said they started with a theory that the negro is inferior, but when the facts were arrived at, there was no other conclusion to be derived from those facts than that the colored man is the equal in intelligence of the white man."
Conversations That Never Took Place, Volume XIV, Book III.
Exceptions presented as the rule:
"I heard Columbus K. Simango tell 'The South African's Story.' Here he was, straight from the jungles of Africa, a full blooded negro who came direct from Melsetter, South Rhodesia, to Hampton institute. His speech, his markings in classes, his general behavior showed intelligence and competency.... He arrived in America a grown young man, unable to read or write. And now he is able to pass any college examinations in America.
"Another speaker was a Fisk university man, Isaac Fisher. He has taken thirty-two prizes offered by newspapers and magazines in competitions open to all without regard to color. ... Everybody's Magazine had a contest with 3,000 competitors, and the award of $1,000 was made to Isaac Fisher, a type of the pure negro, a little thin fellow who is all intelligence." (2)
In seven short years we can celebrate the centenary of this interview, and marvel at the many ways in which it still feels so current.
S.D. Porteus, in his 1926 classic 'Race and Temperament,' tells us of the influential ideas of a then-prominent scientist:
[Franz] Boas is one writer who combats very vigorously the notion that the present attainments of a race are in proportion to its intelligence. He is not ready to believe that the less highly civilized peoples owe their lowly position to any inherent inferiority but considers that it is because they have not had the opportunity of rising higher. [...] His summing up is that "historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilization than their faculty and it follows that achievements of race do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than another." (3)
The virtually uncontrolled immigration of the late 19th c. had left its mark. In 1919, Sandburg interviewed the head of one of Chicago's many meat-packing plants, who gave these numbers, a sort of immigrant labor snapshot:
The following figures represent the distribution of nationalities and race among the employes of Armour & Co.: 2,052 Poles, 2,000 negroes, 1,372 Lithuanians, 5,167 Americans, 141 Bohemians, 118 Jews, 669 Irish, 41 Greeks, 300 Germans, 150 Slovaks, 56 Mexicans, 205 Russians, 23 Scots, 55 Italians.
The employes of the other plants are said to be divided in about the same proportions. (2)
Of the 1927 Chicago mayoral election, GeorgebMowry says that it 'was a contest between the old America with its cultural and religious ties to Britain and North Europe and the new urban America with its Catholic attachments to Central and Southern Europe as well as to Ireland.' The winner, William Hale Thompson, gave us a glimpse at the perils of multiculturalism in this 1928 Current History piece, "Shall We Shatter the Nation's Idols in School Histories?":
Some critics scoff and say: "What's the School Board fight all about?" They know, but they do not want to admit they know. The people of Chicago know and understand. The Poles have held a great mass meeting, at which they indignantly protested against the dropping of the names of Kosciuszko and Pulaski from the school histories. Citizens of German and Irish extraction in mass meetings in Chicago and elsewhere have protested against the wrongs done heroes of those nationalities. Chicago citizens of Dutch descent have met and passed resolutions tendering me support and protesting because there has been eliminated from the school histories credit due to Holland in the cause of democracy and freedom and credit due to Dutch pioneers in America. Chicago citizens of Italian extraction have passed resolutions protesting against the teaching that "the spirit and institutions of our country are English"; declaring that the proposed English-speaking Union would "crowd to the background American citizens of other nationality origins"; pointing out that, because of the suspicion in Central and South America that we are tying up with England, our country has lost much of the friendship and confidence the Latin people of those countries formerly entertained for us. Other nationality groups have passed, or are now preparing to pass, similar resolutions. The Italians and others in their resolutions enthusiastically concur in the statement I made in my first letter last Fall to the Library Board:
In truth, our national greatness was achieved, not by one but by many nationalities, and the present surpassing position of our country is due to the fact that here in America we have brought to the national surface the best in ideas and ideals of all nationalities, and the mingling of many strains has produced the highest type of civilization and the highest level of attainments in the world's history. (1)
Hiram Wesley Evans, the "Imperial Wizard" or boss of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote a piece entitled "The Klan's Fight for Americanism" in The North American Review, March 1926. Despite the diabolic reputation attached to this group, it must be admitted the article is well-reasoned. Here is just one excerpt, on the subject of 'Nordic Americans' (defined by Evans as 'English, Dutch, German, Hugenot, Irish and Scotch'):
Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed. [...]
Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.
Along with this went economic distress. The assurance for the future of our children dwindled. We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us. Shortly they came to dominate our government. The bloc system by which this was done is now familiar to all. Every kind of inhabitant except the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians. Thus it came about that the interests of Americans were always the last to be considered by either national or city governments, and that the native [Euro-]Americans were constantly discriminated against, in business, in legislation, and in administrative government.
So the Nordic American today is a stranger in large parts of the land his fathers gave him. Moreover, he is a most unwelcome stranger, one much spit upon, and one to whom even the right to have his own opinions and to work for his own interests is now denied with jeers and revilings. "We must Americanize the Americans," a distinguished immigrant said recently. Can anything more clearly show the state to which the real American has fallen in this country which was once his own? (1)
* * *
Hearing the echos of today's complaints ring out one hundred years back can be jolting. Whatever it is we've become seems to have been a long time in the making. We present the above texts in a spirit of reflection on our past in order to better orient ourselves towards the future. Tracing the causal lines in such complex things as human societies seems an almost impossible task; perhaps wiser minds than us can give counsel on the places we've gone wrong--and why. Thank you for reading.
(1) Mowry, George E., The Twenties: Fords, Flappers, & Fanatics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
(2) Sandburg, Carl, The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1919.
(3) Porteus, S.D. and Babcock, Marjorie E., Temperament and Race. Boston: R.G. Badger, 1926.