The Scale of Social Changes in America in the 1920s

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During the 1920’s there were a series of social changes, such as: prohibition which was heavily debated as having a large impact on society as it made the majority of people in the cities “lawbreakers,” the culture war between rural and urban America along with racial tensions in terms of the KKK and the Scopes Trial, the changes in Women’s role in society and fashion, and the rise of a common consumer culture all across America due to things like mass media and target markets. The variety of changes had different levels of impact all over America that affected different socio-economic backgrounds differently as well as people from different demographics. Moreover, the extensivity of the social changes in America and their impact was not always as intended by the government i.e.: considering prohibition and the changes it had on America’s society. Overall, besides consumer culture, the rest of the social changes were relatively minor, only impacted the lives of a small majority or did not have the intended effect in terms of prohibition laws.

Prohibition caused many people in American society, mainly in urban cities, to adopt a more blasé idea to lawbreaking. Moreover, the criminalisation of the alcohol industry had detrimental effects on the lives and health of many as it led to an underground industry, which was not widely affected by the increase of law enforcement. Firstly, increased law enforcement efforts did not appear to reduce drinking: arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased by 41 %, and arrests of drunken drivers increased 81%. Among crimes with victims, thefts and burglaries increased 9%, while homicides and incidents of assault and battery increased 13 %. In urban areas such as Chicago, the home of Al Capone’s operations, prohibition had a negative effect on the constituents. Moreover, by 1925, there were over 100,000 illegal bars in New York. This can be seen as the main social change of the “Roaring 20’s” as it led to an increase in illegal activity that was in part fuelled by the masses. In America between 1927 and 1930 more than 500 gangland murders took place. The most infamous incident was the St Valentine's Day massacre in 1929 when Capone's men killed seven members of his rival Moran's gang while Capone lay innocently on a beach in Florida. In addition, drinking became synonymous with what rural Americans despised about the urban city and was equated with the working class and immigrants. The increase in violence was not the only harmful effect of prohibition as safe and regulated Industrial alcohol was replaced with self-manufactured “moonshine” which disproportionately affected lower class I who could not afford to import alcohol from other countries, resulting in a multitude of health problems for them. The principal social effect of prohibition was to encourage normally law-abiding citizens to openly flout the law. The extent of law-breaking in America’s cities was striking - Chicago and New York being particular examples. Furthermore, there was a growth in organised crime in cities that impacted many - helped by media coverage that sensationalized. In rural America, the states already had laws against drinking that were heavily enforced. In rural America, prohibition was more strongly enforced. The intended impact of prohibition, to reduce drinking, was not seen by the end of the decade. The social change in America was extensive however, it had a negative impact. For example, Hoover the current president during the era of prohibition threw parties that involved copious amounts of drinking. Furthermore, An ex-bootlegger estimated that about 80 % of congressman drank whilst prohibition laws were in place, conveying the deep-set corruption and signifying that the laws were ignored on a governmental level that prohibition brought about in American society. This was illustrated as it turned most of the population into lawbreakers. This had a knock-on effect as it led to a spike in crime rates.

In addition, aspects of the culture war had a large impact and instigated a plethora of social changes like an increase in racial tension as well as increasing the separation between rural and urban America, Darwinists like Scopes and the Creationists. KKK membership during the 1920s rose to between 3 million and 8 million, with Ohio’s membership rising to 300,000. The Klu Klux Klan lynched 200 people over the 1920s and had 500,000 female members. However, the KKK was not that powerful “to argue that it initiated and controlled all or most racial violence during the period is merely to believe Klan propaganda” (Modern History Review magazine archive). Whilst membership tot the Klan was mainly confined to rural areas, it was widespread none the less. However, belief in some of the Klan’s ideology was not that new and pre-existed before the 1920’s and dated back to slavery and was prevalent during the civil war. Klan membership only peaked due to racial tensions and the influx of liberal views being explored by some people in America. The almost confinement to rural area’s shows that whilst it was extensive had a lesser impact on the urban cities, however, the impact still existed.

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In addition, The Scopes Trial had a major impact on America’s culture war. It was watched by the whole world and was the first trial to be broadcasted on the radio. The Evangelical’s claimed it was an “attack on the bible” and Ministers such as Billy Sunday reached audiences of thousands and Aimee Semple McPherson of California preached her fundamentalist message over loudspeakers to arena-sized crowds. She used unconventional methods to convey her message to the general population like using scoreboards to show “the triumph of good over evil.” This had an almost unprecedented effect as it is still used by some televangelists who use similar methods. This trial ignited the Culture War as many people disagreed with the outcome and this was prevalent as the Supreme Court Ruling in favour of Scopes set a precedent that was used to overturn laws in 22 states about the teaching of evolution in the future. This was extensive as the impact of the trials initial verdict was perceived as a win from many conservative people, mostly situated in rural America, and as shock to more liberalistic Americans, mainly situated in urban areas. This highlighted the divide in both culture and mindset between urban and rural America.

In addition, there were several strides in the rights and liberties of women. The emergence of “flapper culture” was seen as a “symbol for sexual liberation”. “Flappers” were mainly young women who rejected conservative, old school values and rules. In 1923 Margret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. However, not all American’s were happy with the changes they were described as “lost” by the more conservative members of society. This was reflected by a few restrictive legislative laws were created. Utah attempted to pass legislation on the length of women’s skirts; they were not allowed to go into public with “skirts higher than three inches of the knee”. This emphasised the deep-rooted misogyny and hatred for the newfound liberation and the emergence of a new culture. Virginia tried to ban any dress that revealed too much of a woman’s body, meaning women were escorted off beaches if they were in bathing suits as they were not allowed to wear “shirtwaists or evening gowns which displayed more than three inches of her throat”. Ohio tried to ban form-fitting outfits and forbid the sale of “garment which unduly displays or accentuates the lines of the female figure”. Whilst the flapper girl culture was a drastic change it was only isolated to small urban areas like New York. One area of change that affected the lives of almost all women in America was the ability to become more independent. Factors such as the rise in the ability to invest in the stock market meant that women could grow their finances, and therefore had a higher level of disposable income that they could spend. The increase in manufacturing meant that women had a lot more free time and less housework due to innovation of washing machines and hoovers. This was extensive as it affected most women in America. The liberation and modern style of living of some women was reflected in the growth of the cosmetics industry. Previously makeup had been associated with prostitutes. The industry’s earnings increased during the decade from $17 million to $200 million. The 19th amendment June 4th, 1919 allowed women the right to vote. As the turnout in 1920 was 49.2% compared to election of 1916 which was 58.9%. This could be seen as not that extensive as in the 1920 election the turnout rate was lower, but federal census data shows that in Chicago women made up 2/3 of voters.

Lastly, consumerism paired with the decreasing prices of luxury goods helped create a common culture and bridge the gap between the growing urban and rural divide. This was the most significant and impactful social change as it affected most of America. Companies like Ford made headway in streamlining manufacturing. Ford’s new assembly line meant that by 1925 one car was constructed in 93 minutes compared to 14 hours in 1921. New car models, colours and the invention of pyroxylin finishes meant that cars were more desirable to the average American. This combined with the cheaper labour costs of the manufacturing process due to Ford’s Assembly Line, meant that cars were more affordable, and by 1929 23,121,000 cars were owned by Americans compared to 6,771,000 in 1919. This was very important as cars helped create a more interconnected America, as it created a need for diners, motels and service stations. Moreover, it also brought about a common culture across America due to the creation of things like drive-in theatres. Likewise, the 1920’s saw a boom in the purchases of radios and by the late 1920’s 1 in 3 homes were equipped with a radio compared to none in the early 1920’s. Furthermore, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory (management theory) improved efficiency and increased productivity. Higher wages meant that everyday Americans had a high disposable income and therefore, the manufacturing boom improved their lives by making luxury goods like cigarettes, fridges and makeup more accessible. The boom in manufacturing ensued that many people bought consumer goods and ignored mounting debt due to their belief in the stock market, therefore people spent even more of their disposable income, that they could not necessarily afford. This is arguably the most extensive social change as it was ubiquitous creating a common culture across many of the states. Buying on margin and the Laissez Faire stance toward the stock market made expensive and luxury goods available to even poor Americans as many people bought up to 70% of the price using money borrowed from banks. This was by far the most extensive change as it affected the majority of American’s including women in rural areas and people of colour.

In conclusion, social change during the 1920’s was undeniably large in terms of the stray from orthodoxy in terms of women and the increase in crimes. However, the intended effect of prohibition was not achieved and the extent of social change in a positive way was almost non-existent as the only areas that truly kept to prohibition was the rural areas mainly isolated to the South already had prohibition like laws. The positive effects of the culture was arguably nonexistent, one cannot deny that the KKK was isolated to the rural states and whilst their membership peaked it also suffered a severe decline by the end of the 1920’s showing that the social change was not massive. Moreover, membership to the Klan was based on long-existing stigmas and views held by the American society, conveying it was not a social change but a transparency in views. Whilst the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, the decline in turnout shows that the change was not that extensive. The flapper girl culture was secluded to the upper-class American women in urban cities. The only truly extensive social change in terms of women was the newfound free time due to the lack of housework. This allowed many women to take up new jobs and hobbies such as smoking. On the other hand, the rise of the consumerist culture in America was an extensive change as it affected almost all of America. This was very widespread as the rise in radio and advertising meant that mot of America bought the same things. In conclusion, despite a uniform consumerist culture the rest of social change was not extensive.

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