We Love the 1920’s – Love is Blind

I’m not going to talk about an artifact today, I’m going to talk about an event, a future event. The Fenton History Center staff and volunteers are going to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Fenton Historical Society in 1963. We are calling the event a Gala. The theme is The Roaring 20’s. We can say the theme commemorates the 1920’s because that is the period in which the mansion was reoccupied under city ownership by veterans’ and patriotic organizations.

The theme will reflect what people in the 21st century want to pretend the 1920’s were like. This will include a lot of stereotypes and generalizations, a lot of inaccuracies and anachronisms, many of them previously amplified in Hollywood. Activists pompously rail against stereotypes and have attempted to forbid them for numerous groups they favor. But they are universal. Without them there could be no law, no public activity of any kind, no comedy, indeed no thought, and very few parties. There are usually large measures of truth in stereotypes. If there weren’t, they would never arise in the first place and never be sustained. The not truthful parts of stereotypes consist of opinion and exaggeration and motivated fabrications inserted at some point either by people in favor or against whatever is being stereotyped.

Just listing the features of the 1920’s that have been embraced as stereotypes would fill a page. All of them are historically relevant to understanding this decade of enormous change, both for good and for ill. Among the major factors shaping the decade was the loss of so many young men in one generation in World War I and the consequent devastating damage to the optimism and confidence of the previous age. The war was followed by the even more massively fatal influenza epidemic also targeting young people preferentially.

Enormous technological changes completely upset existing standards. The automobile became universally available. Radio was introduced. Motion pictures prospered and converted to “talkies.” Commercial aviation came on the scene. Electricity and telephone reached millions. The ghastly backfire of the utopians’ long cherished dream of alcohol prohibition, oddly enough, is perhaps the favorite stereotype of party goers. Woman suffrage, another long sought idealist victory, though not a failure like prohibition, still fell far short of the dream of an end to civic corruption and domestic violence. The discarding of Victorian/Edwardian inhibitions and formality was accompanied by the dominance of cigarettes and the popularity of women smoking. This we probably won’t celebrate at our party. French and German philosophers and psychoanalysts, largely forgotten today, were behind huge swaths of the change in not just public attitudes, manners and morals, but art and architecture as well.

Often neglected in discussions of the 20’s is the fact that a large minority of the American people still lived on farms and in rural small towns. Most farmers still used horses for field work. Roads were bad, electricity hadn’t reached most neighborhoods, and they had their own early depression alongside but contrasting with the general prosperity. Much of Chautauqua County was still rural and suffering from a long slide in income and population. Young people were flocking to Jamestown, Dunkirk and the outside world for jobs both blue collar and white.

Of special interest to me was the music of the 1920’s, as radically different from the past as any of the other cultural manifestations. It was transformed by the advent of two traditions, both from the south. At the turn of the 20th century, the most popular music had been brass band music and parlor songs sung from printed “sheet music.” Light or semi-classical music was also prominent. One of the new southern styles was Black jazz which led to Dixieland in the 20’s and Big Band swing later on. The other was white and led to country music. I suspect some Chautauqua County farm radios were tuned to the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago after 1924, but I have no evidence for that and no indication any of the early country phonograph records were even available here until much later. But jazz and Dixieland were probably as popular in Jamestown as in most parts of the country. Country music and the whole rural experience, much to my regret, seems to have received short shrift both from history and popular culture.

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