The 1920’s

The Turbulent 20’s – Roaring or Snoring?

The 1920’s were an odd time. On one hand we called it the roaring
20’s. America experienced a time of great wealth and new modern
ideas. The role of women changed, sports and entertainment stars
were celebrated and modern technology changed America’s landscape.
On the other hand, however, America remained fiercely conservative
and religious. We feared public dissent and rural America attempted
to turn back the clock of progress. The reality is that America was
a divided nation.

While the US was at war with the Triple Alliance many citizens
opposed the war. The government felt that opposition to government
policies in time of war threatened our national security. Restrictive
laws such as the Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed in order to
silence opposition. Many outspoken people were jailed. It was a time
of great national crisis and the Constitution was thoroughly tested.

A. What were the Espionage and Sedition Acts? (1917)

1. Persons who commit the following acts may be fined
up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to 20 years:

a. willfully cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny
or refusal of duty in the military forces . (Espionage Act)

b. prohibited disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive remarks
about the form of government, flag or uniform of the United States.
It even prohibited the opposition to the purchase of war bonds. (not
investment advice!) (Sedition Act)

B. What was the result of the Espionage Acts during World War I?

1. Eugene V. Debs, arrested and convicted for opposing
the war, 10 years. Gained over a million votes in a run for President
while he was in prison.

2. Charles Schenck, member of the Socialist Party, sentenced to 15
years for publishing pamphlets urging citizens to refuse to
participate in the draft. He called the draft slavery, among other

C. How were the Espionage and Sedition Acts challenged?

(Schenck v The United States)

1. Charles Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage Act,
passed by Congress in 1914. The Espionage Act made it illegal to
defame the government or do anything that might retard the war
effort. Schenck, a member of the Socialist Party, opposed the war and
printed and distributed pamphlets urging citizens to oppose the draft
which he likened to slavery. Schenck claimed his first amendment
rights were violated.

2. The court ruled against Schenck saying that the Espionage Act
did not violate the first amendment and that in times of war the
government may place reasonable limitations on freedom of speech.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes outlined the courts opinion by
explaining that when a “clear and present danger” existed such as
shouting fire in a crowded theater, freedom of speech may be limited.

Even though things like the Espionage and Sedition Act occurred
the US still became a more modern, faster and wealthier nation.

The 1920’s were a time of great social change characterized by
apparent prosperity, new ideas, and personal freedom. Known as the
“roaring twenties” America was reacting to the depression of the
World War. It was like a giant party. New technology, new ideas and
great change. Yet under the surface the same conservative values
still flourished. The economic boom of the era was short-lived, but
most of the social changes were lasting.

 What were some of the manners and moral changes
that occurred?

1. America’s population generally shifted from rural areas to more
urban ones.

More than half of the nations population now lived in cities and

2. Urban communities life was now unquestionably lively and
stimulating. There were many things to see-museums, art exhibits,
plays, athletic events, trade expositions, and the like.

3. New ideas in science were examined and often accepted. Of
course this was the case in the cities more so than in the small
towns. In small town America most people remained relatively
conservative. (See Scopes Monkey Trial) People now tended to be
judged on their accomplishments rather than on their social

As life in the United States began to undergo changes, many felt
the gnawing insecurity associated with change. The heroic person who
could face the trials of competition or the dangers of the unknown
became larger than life. The hero had come up against the strongest
adversaries and won. For people living in uncertain times, the hero
was proof that a brave and strong-willed man or woman could win out
over fears of the unknown or the impossible.

What qualities seem to have been idolized in the

1. Writers Speak for the twenties

A. F. Scott Fitzgerald published
This Side Of Paradise and The Great Gatsby. He won instant
acclaim as the spokesman for the twenties generation. In these
novels and others, he described the confusion and tragedy caused by a
frantic search for material success.

B. Ernest Hemingway expressed disgust with prewar
codes of behavior and the glorification of war. He also developed a
clear, straightforward prose that set a new, tough, “hard-boiled”
literary style

2. Sport Heroes

A. Babe Ruth – Perhaps the greatest
baseball player who ever lived. He led the Yankees to seven world
series and his record for Home Runs (Total and in a season – 60)
stood for years. Ruth was a media icon and fan favorite.

B. Harold Edward “Red” Grange – College football
hero, this running back drew tens of thousands to watch him play and
helped popularize college football.

C. Jack Dempsey – One of the greatest heavyweight
boxers of all time. Lost a dramatic title match to Gene Tunney.

D. Bill Tilden and Helen Wills–Tennis champions
who epitomized grace and poise. These star athletes helped popularize
the sport of tennis.

E. Johnny Weismuller – Olympic gold medal winning swimmer who
later starred in Hollywood as Tarzan Lord of the Jungle.


3. Other important Heroes

A. Charles A. Lindbergh–He flew a nonstop
flight from New York to Paris in thirty-three and a half hours. He
was the man who epitomized heroism in the twenties. Lindbergh became
a world and national hero who characterized courage and doing the

B. Louis Armstrong–a trumpeter who played the first jazz
heard north of Mason-Dixon line.

C. W. E. B. Du Bois–founder of the NAACP and worked hard
to improve the lives of blacks in America.

How Did the Role of Women Change in the 1920’s?

During World War 1, women served their country in almost every
possible capacity. They took jobs in steel foundries, chemical
plants, and munitions factories. Many went overseas as nurses in the
newly created Army Corps of Nurses. Their experiences away from home
and traditional women’s work gave them a strong moral argument for
the right to vote. The many tactics of the women and the shameful way
they were treated finally forced Congress to deal with the issue.
President Wilson, finally declared himself in favor of woman suffrage
and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on August 26th

Many women’s styles changed as well. The popular hair style of the
time was for women’s hair to be cut short into a bob. These modern
women were known as “flappers.”

Between 1910 and 1930 the proportion of women in the labor force
remained at about 20 percent. However, there was a notable change in
the kinds of work that some women did. The number of female cooks,
dress makers, household servants, and farm hands dropped. The number
of women doctors, bankers, lawyers, police and probation officer,
social workers, and hairdressers rose.

For all the changes in status during the twenties, it was still
generally accepted-even by most women-that “woman’s place is in the
home.” Men should earn more than women, it was thought, because
usually they supported wives and children. Women workers generally
were single. In some states, women teachers who married lost their


he 1920’s was not all “roaring” as we shall see. There were many,
especially those in power who preached conservatism and moderation.
America turned towards the right, we were a religious god fearing
nation. This religious traditionalism brought about serious
constitutional questions, ones that have yet to fully answered.

The Scopes Monkey Trial – 1925 – In 1925 in Dayton
Tennessee a group of teachers decided to test a law called the Butler
Law. The Butler law made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution
and instead mandated the biblical interpretation of creationism. The
teachers felt that academic freedom and integrity as well as
separation of church and state was at stake. Twenty four year old
science teacher and football coach John T. Scopes would teach the
class. Knowing he would be arrested Scopes taught the class and set
into motion one of the most important trials in American history.

Scopes was arrested, as expected, for violating the Butler Law. At
the ensuing trial William Jennings Bryan (Yes, the Populist guy!)
acted as special prosecutor. World famous criminal defense lawyer
Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. The trial raged on for days. The
judge did not allow any of Darrow’s scientists to testify and public
sentiment in the Bible Belt was against Scopes. Bryan portrayed
Darrow as an agnostic and atheist. In desperation Darrow put Bryan
himself on the stand. Darrow brilliantly was able to get Bryan to
admit that the word of the bible is not literal, it was interpreted.
This seemed to destroy the whole case. Darrow asked for immediate
judgment and when the jury came back Darrow was shocked…he had
lost! The judge levied the minimum fine possible ($100) against
Scopes. Later that year the Scopes conviction was overturned on a

What did all this prove? Well for one it showed the religious and
conservative nature of America. It also displayed the vast
differences between the big cities and the small towns. The big city
newspapers covering the trial scoffed at the Butler Law as small
minded and archaic. In the cities Scopes was a hero but in Dayton
Tennessee he was a criminal.

America was left with many questions. Were we to be a modern
nation, the nation of Lindbergh and the roaring twenties or were we
to be the nation of religious right wing conservatives? Only time
would tell.