By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Culture and Consumption
Progressives and the Culture of the Twenties
I. A Distracted Nation
"Too much prosperity, too many moving-picture shows, too much gaudy fiction have colored the taste and manners of so many Nebraskans of the future." -- Willa Cather2
"The right use of leisure is the gravest social problem in the United States." -- Leon Whipple, The Survey, 1922.3
"The right to play is the final clause in the charter of democracy. The people are king -- et le roi s'amuse." -- Edward Duffus, The Independent, 1924.4
"It is a stiff job that democracy lays upon the brains of her citizens." -- The Survey, 1923"5
"Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime,
Nevertheless, we're for it." -- Frankin P. Adams"6
"I hate reformers. They raise my blood pressure." -- Dorothy Parker, 1922"7
With the tide of prosperity lifting so many boats, with shortened work days and electricity opening up more hours for play, with the war and post-war experiences disenchanting so many with progressive calls to morality and idealism, and with new transportation and communications networks spreading information, music, and fads more quickly than ever before, the Twenties saw a new culture of leisure, consumption, and libertinism flourish. On one hand progressives looked warily at these developments, especially as the acids of modernity began to eat away at the long-cherished tenets of their faith. On the other hand, they were just as uncomfortable in many ways with the fundamentalist response to these emerging cultural mores. Caught in a pincer movement between New and Old, despairing progressives labored to salvage what they could of their earlier programs and principles of reform.
"Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." This was the once-ubiquitous catch-phrase of Emile Coue, the French psychologist and promoter of autosuggestion who became a national sensation in America in the early 1920's. A believer in the Placebo Effect, Coue encouraged men and women to say this phrase to themselves every day and every night, and it would bring forth happier times. Progressives may have winced at the idea of Harding Normalcy and Coolidge Prosperity being thought of as better times, but plenty of Americans of the period felt there was reason for optimism. As the nation's businessmen applauded the virtues of efficiency and service, and the Coolidge administration steered the ship of state ever more definitively into business-friendly waters, "America," in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history."8
The most important facilitator for this burgeoning culture of consumption was the general sense of prosperity that came over the nation after 1923. While the American population increased only by nine percent in the Twenties, the ranks of the unemployed dropped from 4.3 million in 1921 to two million in 1927. Meanwhile, individual income grew by 21%, and soon forty percent of American families were making over $2000 a year -- enough to partake of the many new consumer goods available. As a result, recreational spending jumped by 300% over the Twenties.9
Even those who did not have money on hand could now purchase desired goods through the installment plan. According to historian Nancy Cott, 1925 saw American consumers purchase over 66% of furniture and gas stoves, and 75% of "cars, pianos, washing machines, sewing machines, mechanical refrigerators, phonographs, vacuum cleaners, and radios" using credit. Conservative-minded creditors worried that "[s]elling goods at the expense of safe credit tends to cheapen it, to make serious losses, and to disturb business morals…Making it easy for people to buy beyond their needs or to buy before they have saved enough to gratify their wishes tends to encourage a condition that hurts the human morale and supports a form of transaction for which credit is not primarily intended." But these were whispers in the wind. Over the course of the decade, 75% of the nation's radios and 60% of its cars and furniture were purchased in this manner.10
As a result, there were twenty times more cars in America in 1931 as there were in 1913. Put another way, the ratio of automobiles to Americans -- 1 to 265 in 1910 -- had dropped to 1 to 6 by 1928, with over twenty percent of families now enjoying their own vehicle. Having a car opened up the possibility of commuting to work from the suburbs. As such, 750,000 houses were built a year between 1922 and 1929, with the regions around large cities seeing the largest boom -- the New York City area grew faster than 28 other states combined.11
This new aristocratic privilege of mobility was intoxicating. "I had started something that I could not stop gracefully or consistently," one small-town banker told The Atlantic Monthly in his 1925 "Confessions of an Automobilist." "My thrift habits were steadily giving way to spendthrift habits….The result upon the individual is to break down his sense of values. Whether he will or no, he must spend money at every turn. Having succumbed to the lure of the car, he is quite helpless thereafter." This, the author argued, portended a troubling national problem. True, "the automobile stands unique as the most extravagant piece of machinery ever devised for the pleasure of man." But "[m]any families are living on the brink of danger all the time. They are car-poor. Savings is impossible. The joy of security in the future is sacrificed for the pleasure of the moment. And with the pleasure of the moment is mingled the constant anxiety entailed by living beyond one's means…The thoughts in the minds of many workers is not how much they can save, but how long it will be before they can have a motor."12
Automobiles not only conferred mobility, but privacy from parents, chaperones, and other prying eyes. The number of cars with a top jumped from 10% in 1919 to 83% in 1927, offering -- much to the consternation of some reformers -- myriad new opportunities for would-be lotharios of any age. (Compounding this troubling trend toward debauched virtue were the hemlines of the decade, which were rising in part to facilitate driving.)13
With 17 million homes wired for electricity by 1929, the decade also saw the sale of five million washing machines (to 25% of households), close to seven million vacuum cleaners (to 37% of households), and over fifteen million electric irons (80% of families). The sales of radio sets went from $60 million in 1922 to $852 million in 1929 - an increase of 1400%, reaching 40% of all families by the end of the decade. Americans also took more interest in the movies, with weekly attendance at films doubling over the Twenties to between 100 and 115 million at 20,500 theaters across the country. Chain stores too witnessed phenomenal growth in the decade, as did the canned or pre-packaged foods and ready-to-wear clothes they offered. Already by 1923, F.W. Woolsworth had 1500 stores across America, with Rexall drug stores and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company also increasing in number. Between 1918 and 1929, the number of chain stores in America grew from 29,000 to 160,000. From 1917 to 1927, sales at drug stores increased 124%, at chain grocery stores by 287%, and at clothing stores by 425%.14
Along with new technologies and economies of scale, also driving consumption patterns in the decade were a seemingly newfound susceptibility to fads. "It is difficult to assign an exact date for the beginning of the Age of Play," argued an author in The Independent in 1924 -- but it was clear that Age had dawned in America. "One of the striking characteristics of the era of Coolidge Prosperity," recalled Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, his popular 1931 retrospective of the decade just passed, "was the unparalleled rapidity and unanimity with which millions of men and women turned their attention, their talk, and their emotional interest upon a series of tremendous trifles -- a heavyweight boxing-match, a murder trial, a new automobile model, a transatlantic flight."15
A nationwide Mah Jongg craze that began in 1922, for example, resulted in more Mah Jongg sets sold in 1923 than even radios. "From fifty thousand tables strewn with green Bamboos and fallen Dragons comes a nightly chorus, Pung!" wrote Charles Merz in The New Republic of this sudden boom. The game had conquered America in only a few months, he argued, because "it is a novelty -- in a land where novelty ranks next to Godliness…Mah Jongg was just The Newest Thing on Broadway." By the end of the year, Merz predicted, America would "forget we ever saw a Six Bamboo…Some new pastime from the Argentine [will be] all the rage." Merz was almost right. "This year those who do not want to play Mah Jong no longer have to play to keep up Mah Jong appearances," the Grey Lady reported in August 1924. "Instead, it is now the thing one does, if one wants to do it…It has definitely passed beyond its bijou period." Instead, the next big thing was crossword puzzles, which, although they had been around since 1913, took the country by storm beginning that year. Two young publishers, Richard L. Simon and Max Lincoln Schuster, came upon the idea of putting a book of puzzles together for Simon's young cousin. "No one concerned," reported a writer a year later, "had the faintest suspicion that they were launching something over which the country would go mad." In the next six years, Simon & Schuster would sell two million copies of their crossword puzzle book around the world, including 750,000 in the United States. Later in the decade, marathon dancing and flagpole sitting would take the pole position among America's strange new pastimes.16
To sate the public's increasing desire to be entertained, tabloid newspapers, or "jazz journalism," also enjoyed considerable growth over the period. Beginning with the New York Daily News (founded 1919), the Twenties saw an explosion of lurid, photo-heavy periodicals, such as William Randolph Hearst's Daily Mirror and Bernarr Macfadden's Evening Graphic, that emphasized sex, violence, and scandal to a degree unfathomable to earlier generations. Looking at circulation numbers in 1927, TNR estimated that the three main tabloid journals had picked up close to 1.6 million readers since 1921, even as other upstanding New York newspapers -- the Mail, the Globe, the Commercial -- had gone under or, as in the case of the New York Herald-Tribune, been bought up and consolidated with rivals. (This consolidation was a national trend. Daily papers dropped from 2580 to 2001 between 1914 and 1926, and by 1927, as Frederick Lewis Allen notes, "fifty-five chains controlled 230 daily papers with a combined circulation of over 13,000,000.")17
Over the course of the decade, these tabloid journals -- and their more staid competitors, eager to keep up -- would bring all manner of sensation and scandal into American homes. 1920 saw the divorce of America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and her subsequent remarriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as well as the collapse of the financial schemes -- documented in detail in the Boston Post -- of Boston-based entrepreneur Charles Ponzi. The following year brought the trial of Hollywood comedian Fatty Arbuckle, who was charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, a woman found dead at a party at his house. It was claimed by the media that Arbuckle, among other sordid acts, had crushed Rappe to death under his massive bulk. After two mistrials, Arbuckle was acquitted in his third trial in April 1922 -- there was no evidence connecting him to her murder, and it seems likely she died of some combination of prior health problems and bad bootleg alcohol. But he lost badly in the court of public opinion, and his career in Hollywood was effectively destroyed. Meanwhile, Hearst bragged that Arbuckle's trials "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania."18
Two years later, the next "trial of the century" involved Nathan Leopold, 19, and Richard Loeb, 18, two scions of wealthy Chicago families that were indicted for the "thrill killing" murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks. As the nation watched in rapt attention, Clarence Darrow -- the best counsel money could buy -- successfully got Leopold & Loeb's sentence reduced to life imprisonment in 1924, mainly by arguing the two amoral youths were stunted products of their environment. In 1926, the next scandal du jour was the trial of Frances Noel Stevens Hall, who was indicted (and eventually acquitted) for the 1922 murder of her husband, Reverend Edward Wheeler Hall, and his alleged mistress, Mrs. Eleanor Mills of the church choir. Among the correspondents continually reporting in on the sordid Hall-Mills affair were evangelist Billy Sunday and New York-based preacher John Roach Straton, a.k.a. the "Fundamentalist Pope." Similarly, in 1928 Queens housewife Ruth Snyder and her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray, were tried, convicted, and executed for the premeditated murder of her husband Albert. Both the Hall-Mills and Snyder trials received voluminous play in the tabloids and regular newspapers.19
If there was no prurient trial available to garner readers, there was always another sensational story out there somewhere. In 1922, news of the discovery by Howard Carter and Lord Earl Carnarvon of King Tutankhamun's tomb grabbed the world's attention, prompting a flood of Egyptian themed fashions and advertisements in 1923. In 1925, newspapers flocked to cover a different sort of underground burial. Floyd Collins, a Kentucky man, got stuck 125 feet deep in Mammoth Cave after a cave-in dropped a large rock on his foot. Even as authorities labored to get him out, a local writer from the Louisville Courier-Journal crawled through the cave to interview the trapped man. Collins' eventual death in February 1925 -- eighteen days after being trapped and before he could be saved -- even received front-page attention from The New York Times. As Charles Merz later pointed out in TNR, a North Carolina cave-in the following month, which killed 53 miners, got nowhere near the same amount of ink.20
That same year, the Evening Graphic devoted considerable copy to the marriage and divorce of New York society figure Kip Rhinelander and his laundress, Alice Jones -- the aghast Rhinelander family had forced the break when they discovered Jones' father was black. To aid in their coverage and sales, the Evening Graphic developed "composographs" -- composite photographs -- of Jones (in reality a model, tinted to appear mulatto) stripping topless before the court. Sales shot through the roof. In 1926, radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared from a California beach, only to show up a month later in Mexico. She claimed to have been kidnapped, although evidence suggests she instead had run off with her radio engineer -- the same one provided by Herbert Hoover to keep her on one wavelength. Either way, the nation eagerly devoured the story, as they did the brief, sordid marriage and separation in 1926 of high school student Frances Heenan "Peaches" Browning, age 15, and her "Daddy," real-estate mogul Edward Browning, 58. Here again, "composographs," the photoshops of their day, were used to titillating effect.21
In 1927, the tabloids not only tuned into the Sacco and Vanzetti trial but the illness and death of another young Italian taken before his time -- Rudolph Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, a.k.a. Rudolph Valentino, arguably the first film celebrity to receive the hero's treatment upon his death. Composographs were once again employed to show the smoldering star of The Sheik, mostly naked, resting in bed and dying with peritonitis. Indeed, the Evening Graphic even reported Valentino's death before his time. When the end did finally come for Valentino, at the young age of 31, the story was national news. Some observers grumbled that the death of the former president of Harvard, Charles William Eliot, around the same time resulted in very little comparable press coverage. But, then again, Eliot's death had not resulted in thousands of grief-stricken fans around the world, including more than one suicide. And Charles William Eliot didn't look anything like Rudolf Valentino.22
While one film star passed on in 1927, another fell from grace, as America also turned its attention to the divorce of Charlie Chaplin from his second wife, Lita Grey. Almost two decades younger than her husband, Lilita -- her original name, and one of many details to suggest author Vladimir Nabokov had had the Chaplin story in mind for his later classic -- had become pregnant with Chaplin's child out of wedlock at the age of sixteen. Grey's 52-page divorce filing went into lurid detail about the married couple's woes, noting that Chaplin had not only offered to pay for an abortion, but that the "defendant has solicited, urged, and demanded that plaintiff submit to, perform, and commit such acts and things for the gratification of defendant's said abnormal, unnatural, perverted, and degenerate sexual desires, as to be too revolting, indecent, and immoral to set forth in detail in this complaint." (At the time, fellatio was illegal under California's criminal sodomy law.) Within three days of being filed at the court, The Complaint of Lita was being sold on street corners and, of course, covered in the papers.23
In every case, the American public seemed to delight in, if not wallow in, these tabloid tales of bad behavior or unfortunate happenstance -- which aggravated some progressives to no end. "The combination between the courts and the tabloids has produced a situation for which there is really no precedence," exclaimed Walter Lippmann in disgust. "If you take the succession of cases -- Arbuckle, Rhinelander, Hall-Mills, Browning, and Chaplin -- and consider how they are worked up by officers of the law, by lawyers and journalists…how they are exploited for profit, it is evident that what we have here is a series of national spectacles put on for the amusement of the crowd…The whole atmosphere of them is fraudulent. They are produced by swindlers for suckers." Arguing the same in sardonic fashion, Charles Merz reminded TNR readers that "the Roman Coliseum was a national institution. If we are to have a circus of our own, let us develop it with the high purpose and creative effort worthy of a most resourceful nation. Let us have the biggest, noisiest, bloodiest murder trials the human imagination can conceive."24
To Lippmann especially, the salacious appetites of the American public was yet another indicator that public opinion, informed or otherwise, was not perhaps the best compass to steer reform by. As such he suggested that some amount of censorship should be applied for the sake of the common good. This Lippmann applied to the arts as well. When New York police closed down Vanities, the popular showgirl revue orchestrated by Earl Carroll on Broadway, Lippmann thought it appropriate punishment for a show that "aimed to provide the maximum erotic excitement the law will permit." The closing would help to "discourage the too-rapid advance of competitive smut," Lippmann suggested. "These modern spectacles are not ribald. They are not gay. They are not searching. They are not profound. They are a lazy and solitary and safe indulgence in the vices of others."25
Often, Lippmann's problem with the public appetite was less about salaciousness than poor taste -- If a classic work of art or literature proved titillating, so be it. In defense of a performance of Love for Love, a play by Restoration playwright William Congreve, for example, Lippmann argued to one correspondent that "I should oppose the suppression of Love for Love as I should oppose the suppression of nude statuary at the Museum, of Boccaccio, or of the Arabian Nights, or Rabelais." In short, he argued, if "somebody with taste and intelligence and a sense of the value of a free and searching theatre" didn't decide what was worthy of censorship and what wasn't, "the line will most certainly sooner or later drawn by fools and philistines."26
But even as Lippmann manned the ramparts of high culture, some of his contemporaries were finding worth in the new spectacles of the Twenties -- among them critic Edmund Wilson and writer Joseph Wood Krutch, both of whom were known to attend and enjoy Earl Carroll's Vanities, the Ziegfeld Follies, and similar works. Along the same lines, in 1924 Harvard-educated journalist and arts critic Gilbert Seldes, the man who had panned Bruce Barton's The Man Nobody Knows, published The 7 Lively Arts, an appreciation of "Slapstick Moving Pictures, Comic Strips, Revues, Musical Comedy…Slang Humor, Popular Songs, [and] Vaudeville." The "lively arts as they exist in America today" Seldes maintained, "are entertaining, interesting, and important," and his book aimed to pay homage to some of their most talented exemplars, among them Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Krazy Kat, and Florenz Ziegfeld.27
Unfortunately, Seldes argued, "there exists a 'genteel tradition' about the arts which has prevented any just appreciation of the popular arts, and that these have therefore missed the corrective criticism given to the serious arts, receiving only abuse…[T]herefore the pretentious intellectual is as much responsible as anyone for what is actually absurd and vulgar in the lively arts." In effect, Seldes was arguing, contra Lippmann, that the often ribald spectacles of the period had their own inherent worth, and that the real threat to art of any period was the spiritually deadening tsk-tsking of genteel society. Speaking of the Keystone Kops, Seldes noted that "simple and sophisticated people have looked directly at the slap-stick screen and loved it for itself alone; in between are the people who can see nothing without the lorgnettes of prejudice provided by fashion and gentility." Slapstick, he argued, "is one of the few places where the genteel tradition does not operate, where fantasy is liberated, where imagination is still riotous and healthy." In this defense of what were commonly considered low art forms, Seldes anticipated the cultural criticism of later generations, who took popular culture much more seriously, and who cared less about the provenance of art and more about its impact.28
Like Lippmann and Seldes, progressives were of different minds on the question of censorship. As the worldwide fame of Rudolf Valentino attests, Hollywood embraced the allure of the sensual in the 1920s, and created stars out of the likes of Valentino, Theda Bara, and "It Girl" Clara Bow mainly by virtue of their sex appeal. As historian Nancy Cott notes, the film line-up in back-to-back-weeks in the middle of the decade consisted of titles like The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women who Give, The Price She Paid, Name the Man, Rouged Lips, and The Queen of Sin. One film of the time, Flaming Youth, was billed as an orgy of "neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters [and] sensation-craving mothers." Another promised "brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp." In The New Republic, Lloyd Lewis told of how "an American woman may spend her afternoon alone" at the movie theater: "Romantic music, usually played with a high degree of mechanical excellence, gives her a pleasant sensation of tingling. Her husband is busy elsewhere; and on this music, as on a mildly erotic bridge, she can let her fancies slip through the darkened atmosphere to the screen, where they can drift in romantic amours with handsome stars…the blue dusk of the 'de luxe' house has dissolved the Puritan strictures she had absorbed as a child."29
This, coupled with the opprobrium accompanying the Fairbanks/Pickford, Arbuckle, and Chaplin scandals, prompted some reformers and church groups to push for government oversight over the motion picture industry, most notably the Federal Motion Picture Council, organized in 1925 under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church. By 1921, over 100 bills to regulate movies had been introduced in 37 state legislatures, and over the decade as a whole six proposals to regulate films were introduced into Congress, none of which managed to take hold.30
In most cases, these efforts were deflected by the ascendance of former Republican Chairman and Harding Postmaster General Will Hays to the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in March 1922. In 1930, to forestall governmental interference, and taking a page from both the example of baseball, over which commissioner and former Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis now presided after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, and then-President Hoover's theory of voluntary association, the industry adopted the Hays Code, a set of self-policing guidelines to keep the content of films on the up and up. It would remain in place until 1968.31
One of the most vociferous voices in the public sphere against movie censorship was Congressman Fiorello La Guardia. If such a bill ever passed, he argued, it would very quickly turn into a tool against reform. "Why…do you suppose the men behind this censorship law care how long a kiss lasts or whether the villain uses a gun or an axe?" he queried in 1921. "What they do care about is that the motion picture is the most marvelous educator in the world today. And if films are shown that will teach people the truth about government, about war, about civics, about prisons, and factories and tenements and every phase of life that touches their rights and their happiness, there will be trouble." "Censorship has always been the handmaid of oppression," La Guardia argued similarly to the New York Evening Journal in 1922. "Censorship is an agency for the prevention of thought:
Think of a film illustrating to the millions of American people the quantity of food produced in this country, and how it is monopolized by a few and kept in storage so as to keep prices high; how prices are artificially fixed; how much good food is permitted to rot, while many cannot afford the mere necessities of life. Think of a picture giving the history of a lump of coal. Showing how it is mined and transported, what part of it goes to pay for labor and what big majority goes to the coupons cut by persons thousands of miles away who have taken no risks and contributed no thought, no labor, no effort towards its production. Think of a picture showing how public officials are selected by a hand-picked convention controlled by those who profit in the exploitation of the masses.32La Guardia's grand vision of a reform-minded cinema was one shared by many other progressives. In 1916, Mary Gray Peck had told the General Federation of Women's Clubs that movies could be a "grand social worker" -- "Motion pictures are going to save our civilization from the destruction which has successively overwhelmed every civilization of the past." "I have wondered, Hays," Senator Borah wrote the former Postmaster General in 1926, "if a great work could not be done for the downtrodden and despoiled of the earth through the movies. If it could be shown what has been going on and is going in in Syria, if it could be revealed what is going on in India…if the exploitation of children in Asia by foreign powers could be made known, would not these things work up such public opinion that the brutal practices would have to cease?"33
The dean of progressives agreed. Yes, Jane Addams wrote in 1930, "it is…said that a certain sort of young man tests a girl's resistance by what she will stand for in a movie, and that he boasts it is possible, by a continuous selection of movies, to undermine a girl's standards, a new type of seduction as it were." But whatever the misuses of the medium, Addams argued, "[i]t is no small achievement that millions of men, women, and children with no hope for opportunity for travel, are still easily familiar with ships on wide seas, with a moon shining on snow-capped mountains, with the rice fields of China, and the temples in India and Egypt…From my own experience I should say that one of the most beneficent features of the movie is the recreation and release it offers to old people. I recall an old Scotchwoman whose declining years were quite made over by the movies….Her old eyes would shine with the light of youth as she told us of yet another wonderful experience in this world of ours which she never had a chance to explore until she was about to leave it."34
In sum, Addams argued at another point, the promise of cinema for education was "too splendid at rock bottom to allow the little evil to control and destroy it." Similar arguments could be heard in progressive circles about radio. "The day of universal culture has dawned at last," effused Joseph Hart in The Survey of the new medium in 1922. "No longer can Gopher Prairie say 'Nothing ever happens in this town.' As much happens there these days, as on any central Broadway in the universe, if one but has the necessary individual head-set. Right truthfully does the poet sing: 'We live in the day of marvels!'" Radio, Hart declared, delivered the "promise of culture for all…If any one remains uncultured, today, it will be against the combined efforts of the world." In short, here, in "a means of instantaneous communication to all the peoples of the earth," was the greatest tool for leveraging public opinion toward "universal understanding, sympathy, and peace" ever created. "The welfare of mankind demands that its mechanisms shall be employed in the service of those great social ideals and knowledges which truly release the peoples of the earth from their ancient exclusions."35
Film, radio, the automobile, electricity, the telephone -- These inventions worked to transform both Americans' daily existence and their conception of the world in profound ways, and, if harnessed properly, suggested even greater potential changes on the horizon. "To an intellectual class that watched their native religion turn to fundamentalism, patriotism to chauvinism, and politics to reaction," wrote historian Dorothy Ross of the decade, "science appeared to be the one pure and sustaining discipline in the modern world." In his 1927 book The Rise of American Civilization, noted historian Charles Beard put science and technology at the very center of the American story. "[W]hat is called Western or modern civilization by way of contrast with the civilization of the Orient or Mediaeval times," he wrote, "is at bottom a civilization that rests upon machinery and science as distinguished from one founded on agriculture or handcraft commerce. It is in reality a technological civilization" that "threatens to overcome and transform the whole globe."36
Reflecting both this new centrality of science and technology in American life and the prospects they engendered for continued social transformation, Amazing Stories, the first magazine dedicated solely to science fiction -- or "scientifiction," as its founder, writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback, deemed it -- launched in March 1926. "By scientifiction," Gernsback told his readers in the opening issue, "I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story - a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision…Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading - they are also very instructive. They supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain - and they supply it in a very palatable form." Unfortunately for Gernsback's vision, he soon discovered that science fantasy stories -- along the lines of Edgar Rice Burrough's already-established A Princess of Mars series -- still sold better than science fiction, and that his sales dropped precipitously whenever he tried to forego the lurid covers painted by illustrator Frank R. Paul.37
The following year, on May 21, 1927, science fiction seemed to become reality as airmail aviator Charles Lindbergh -- answering a $25,000 challenge put up by Frenchman Raymond Orteig in 1919 -- piloted The Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 33 ½ hours, achieving the first solo transatlantic crossing in history. Faced with an actual, honest-to-goodness world-historical moment after years of breathless Ballyhoo, newspapers reached new heights of effusive praise to commemorate the moment. Lindbergh "has performed the greatest feat of a solitary man in the records of the human race!" declared the New York Evening World. "He has exalted the race of men!" proclaimed The Baltimore Sun. The New York Times deemed Lindbergh's flight among the greatest stories of all time, along with "Adam eating the apple" and "the discovery of Moses in the bulrushes…Lindbergh's fight, the suspense of it, the daring of it, the triumph and the glory of it…these are the stuff that makes immortal news." To another author, it proved that morality and the old American virtues weren't dead, "that we are not rotten at the core, but morally sound and sweet and good!"38
In a 33 ½ hour span that would change both his life and the world, the Lone Eagle had seemingly collapsed space and time forever. "Nature can't bully us indefinitely with wind and wave and perils of vast oceans," exulted Heywood Broun after Lindbergh's flight. "One of our boys has put the angry sea in her place. The big pond, hey? Why, after this it is a puddle and we may step across as neatly as Elizabeth upon the cloak of Walter Raleigh." But even as Lindbergh's daring feat, and the new technologies that had accompanied him, augured fantastic new possibilities for human progress, scientific breakthroughs also seemed to be unraveling the basic tenets of progressivism as a public philosophy, including the very notion of reason itself.
Continue to Chapter 10, Pt. 2: The Descent of Man.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Paulson, 224.
3. Leon Whipple, "Freedom of Books," The Survey, November 1922, 189.
4. Robert L. Duffus, "The Age of Play," The Independent, December 20th, 1924, 539, in Mowry, ed., 44-46.
5. "The Struggle for Facts," The Survey, January 15, 1923.
6. Eliot Asinof, 1919: America's Loss of Innocence (New York: Donald I Fine, 1990), 225.
7. Dorothy Parker, "Reformers - A Hymn of Hate," in Heywood Broun, et al., Nonsenseorship (New York: GP Putnam & Sons, 1922).
8. Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (New York: Three Rivers, 2006), 56. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 145.
9. Soule, Prosperity Decade, 317. Zinn, The Twentieth Century, 106. Dumenil, 77.
10. Cott, 146. Hawthorne Daniel, The Worlds Work, January 1926, 329, in Mowry, ed, 32-33. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, 197.
11. Dumenil, 77. Cott, 145. Goldberg, Discontented America, 89.
12. William Ashdown, "Confessions of an Automobilist," Atlantic Monthly, June, 1925, 786, in Mowry, ed., 47-51.
13. Ibid. Barry, Rising Tide, 137. Amos St. Germain, "The Flowering of Mass Society," in Lawrence R. Broer and John D. Walther, ed. Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1990), 28.
14. Brown, Setting a Course, 7-8. 106-107. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 196. Cott, 146-147. St. Germain, 30.
15. Robert L. Duffus, "The Age of Play," The Independent, December 20th, 1924, 539, in Mowry, ed., 44-46. Lewis, Only Yesterday, 161.
16. Allen, Only Yesterday, 164-166, 194. Barry, Rising Tide, 136. Charles Merz, "Mah Jongg," The New Republic, August 1st, 1923 (Vol. 35, No. 452), 255-256. "The Rise and Present Peril of Mah Jong," The New York Times, August 10th, 1924, in Mowry, ed. 70. Allan Harding, "Why We Have Gone Mad Over Crossword Puzzles," The American Magazine, March 1925, 28.
17. Ralph Giordano, Satan in the Dance Hall: Rev. John Roach Straton, Social Dancing, and Morality in 1920's New York City (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 116. Kathleen Morgan Drowne and Robert Huber, American Popular Culture Through History: The 1920s (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004), 25. "Who Reads the Tabloids?" The New Republic, May 25th, 1927 (Vol. 51, No. 651), 6-7. Allen, Only Yesterday, 163.
18. Drowne and Huber, 25. Giordano, 117. Kristofer Allerfeldt, Crime and the Rise of Modern America: A History from 1865-1941 (New York: Routledge, 2011), 17. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, annotations to H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy (New York: Dissident Books, 2009), 194.
19. Ibid. Allen, Only Yesterday, 123-127. Stanley Walker, "The Fundamentalist Pope," The American Mercury, July 26 (Vol. 8, No. 31), 257-265.
20. Ibid. Mary Rekas, "Old World, New World: America Meets Tutankhamen," University of Virginia, May 2000 (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/rekas/tut/main.htm). Allen, Only Yesterday, 168-169.
21. Daniel Mark Epstein: Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993). 296-317. Allen, 189. Mark Adams, Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr McFadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 140-141.
22. Allen, Only Yesterday, 184. Emily Leider, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolf Valentino (New York: Faber and Faber, 2003), 282-288.
23. Joyce Milton, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 270-279.
24. Steel, 208. Allerfeldt, 17.
25. Steel, 209.
27. "Revues and Other Vanities: The Commodification of Fantasy in the 1920s," available at http://www1.assumption.edu/ahc/vanities/default.html. Gilbert Seldes, The 7 Lively Arts (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924), xvii-xix.
28. Seldes, xvii-xix, 21-24.
29. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 169. Cott, 150. Dumenil, 134. Lloyd Lewis, "The Deluxe Picture Palce," The New Republic, March 27th, 1929, 175, in Mowry, ed., 56-59.
30. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 169. Cott, 150. Mark Fackler. "Moral Guardians of the Movies and the Social Responsibility of the Press," in Covert and Stephens, 183-184.
32. Zinn, La Guardia in Congress, 51-52, 98.
33. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent, 271. Borah to Will Hays, February 19th, 1925. WJB Box 211: Movie Legislation.
34. Addams, Second Twenty Years, 376-377.
35. McGerr. Joseph Hart, "Radiating Culture," The Survey, March 18, 1922, 948.
36. Fink, 37. Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York: MacMillan Company, 1929), 218.
37. Michelle Herwald, "Anticipating the Unexpected: Amazing Stories in the Interwar Years," in Covert and Stevens, ed., 39-40. Mike Ashley, Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 48-56.
38. Leinwand, 243-247. Mary B. Mullett, "The Biggest Thing That Lindbergh Has Done," The American Magazine, October 1927, 106, in Mowry ,ed., 82-83.
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