Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Roaring 20s and Its Dark Side

Students seem to love it when you get to the 1920s. It seems so glamorous to them.  But there is more doom and gloom, I think, in the twenties than they realize. I usually begin my unit on the twenties (which I combine with the Depression of the thirties) with the quotation below from Woodrow Wilson. It is eerily prophetic in light of the Red Scare and race riots of 1919:

Once lead this people into war and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of the ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street. Conformity would be the only virtue, and every man who refused to conform would have to pay the penalty.

Mary Simkhovitch, the founder of the New York settlement house, Greenwich House, had a similar observation, but after the fact (the quotation is from her memoir published in 1938):

There were two great evils facing us in 1917. One was to go into war, and the other was to stay out. Whatever the outcome, war was bound to bring in its train not only loss of life and the destruction of property, but also new social alignments, a re-evaluating of customs, habits and outlooks, a redistributing of wealth and power.

Of course, both of these quotations address the year or so just after the war, which is technically before 1920. But the problems perceived continue into the twenties. So one way to begin is to set up this dichotomy of the 1920s:



Or this note I found in my files is also useful:



So then (after a day on the Red Scare) I spend a day or two on "Fords, Flappers & Fanatics."  And the fourth "F," films. This involves a collection of brief readings, a bit of lecture and some video clips (see below) about different aspects of the 1920s. See here for a worksheet you could use to do this. For the sources the students need, see below.

To find your own, check out the Digital History website has a good starting place for all kinds of resources about the 1920s (and every other topic in U.S. history, if you haven't seen this resource before). And another teacher, John D. Clare, maintains a website rich in overviews, including this one of the 1920s.

The sources I use:

  • For the "Ford" box, I have usually given a brief lecture (5-10 min.) about Henry Ford and the Model T. I don't have it in a handy, shareable form, but it came from notes I took from an article by Roderick Nash, "Henry Ford: Symbol of an Age" which you can find here. The article points out the irony that a man who was as nostalgic and committed to "traditional American values" as Ford was also responsible for popularizing the automobile which so profoundly changed society. He was also profoundly antisemitic. He owned a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which published a series of
    articles called, "The International Jew," and later, the infamous (and fake) "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." (You can read more about this in the Jewish Virtual Library.) Both works blamed the world's problems on Jews, and echoed many of the ideas later espoused by Adolf Hitler. In fact, Ford received the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle from Hitler on the occasion of Ford's 75th birthday.  This was in 1938, when Hitler's views were widely known. Hitler greatly admired Ford. Check out this photo of Ford receiving the honor. Read the info there, too. I didn't realize this, but it mentions that Ford is mentioned in Hitler's, Mein Kampf, and a portrait of Ford hung in Hitler's office. 
  • The political cartoon to the right comments on how the cheap price of the Model T and creating new models regularly led to Ford's success and the auto's proliferation.

For the "Flapper" box, check out these sources:
  •  "Me and My Flapper Daughters" - wonderful reading about a man describing his daughter. Use your best judgement because the reading talks about smoking cigarettes and alludes to what goes on in cars when men and women date. It may or may not be appropriate for less mature students. But it can lead to some great discussions about life today. I can imagine a father writing a very similar thing today. I have included a few discussion questions at the end. This would work great as a read aloud, or for students to read on their own.
  • Here is another reading on flappers I found you may prefer. It includes an excerpt from the above.
  • And here is a really good powerpoint I found online comparing the "Gibson Girl" to the flapper. This could easily be its own lesson, along with this resource from Firstladies.org.

For the "film" box:
  •  I use this speech from U.S. Senator about concerns about the movie industry - I have included 3 versions here: the first is probably longer than necessary, but at least you've got the whole thing. The second version (p. 3) is edited to be shorter. And p. 4 is even shorter. I cut parts and included some vocabulary, making it workable for middle schoolers and/or weaker readers. Or if you just want something shorter.

You might also want to actually show some 1920s film clips and incorporate some music. (How can we teach the Jazz Age without playing any jazz?!) The youtube videos below are somewhat repetitive of each other but do a good job of depicting the "roaring" part of the 20s.

  • To Live in the 1920s - this one is a nice overview with music. (5:57 min.)  
  • Flappers in the 20s - this one is good for giving students a sense of the style, music, fashion, dancing and the changing role of women. Keep in mind this is for the white and the wealthy. (6:24 min)
  • 1920s Dancing (2:13 min)
  • This one is kind of silly: lots of crazy 1920s inventions (4:43 min)
For "Fanatics," I focus on the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in new areas of the country.

  • Here is a decent site to read more about that. 
  • Check out this chart to see how the KKK grew dramatically in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois and declined in the South. If you use it in comparison it to the growing cities of that region, students will be able make the connection that to the KKK expanding from an anti-black organization to an anti-immigrant one (remind students that that many of the "new" immigrants of the 1880s-1920s were Catholic and Jewish). 
  • More info on the Klan of the 1920s here and here and here.
  • And check out this recent blogpost from Slate's history blog about the 1920s membership application. This would be a great primary source to examine with students.
  • You can also use this quotation with students, from a speech attributed to Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans:
"Our unity is threatened by hordes of immigrants . . . who bring foreign ideas and ideals into our land. Two things must be done: first, we must stop influx of foreigners; second, we must through education, bring all people to common program of acting and thinking."


I also usually like to spend part of a period discussing what I suspect is not as widely taught as it should be: the 1924 Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act. Check out the chart here that depicts the quotas. And read here for more background. I often teach this as a conclusion to my late 19th century/early 20th lesson on immigration and nativism. But even when I do, I bring it back up in the 1920s. It's also useful as a reminder when you get to the Holocaust and need to explain why the U.S. didn't do more to help the Jews of Europe.


To conclude this lesson, help students connect the dots between the items below:

  • rising urban population
  • increase of automobile, movie industry
  • increased immigrant population
  • prohibition (I bet there's a good clip in Ken Burn's series on Prohibition)
  • increase of crime
  • revival of KKK, esp. in North/Central U.S. where the immigrant population is
  • changing fashion, music, styles, social mores
  • changing role of women

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