The Cultural Revolution Of The 1920s Sociology Essay

Morals and Manners are two sides of a coin; complementary, not conflicting. Moral beliefs encompass obligation, duty, responsibility and dignity of the individual, while manners include communal harmony, cultural understanding, tolerance, coexistence and respect of the individual. Ethics and etiquette comprise of a set of imperatives dictating social behavior. (Martin, P1)

A social statute for individual behavior and a yardstick to measure the doctrines of social virtue, rules and rituals of civilized society, etiquette was established well before the invention of law. As a development tool it precedes the teaching of moral precepts to children (Martin, P1)

America as an equal society has always understood and perpetuated the cause of the greater good and equality for all, where justice, truth and freedom prevail. (Coben, P5) A core of the American social foundation, these principals have remained intact through the centuries. (Fitzgerald, P5) However, with time, although these basic concepts have remained unaltered, a greater transparency has emerged in their lifestyles; their beliefs, attitudes, conduct, manners and morals.

The economic boom of the 1920s (or the Roaring 20s) established America as a prosperous country. (Himmelfarb, P3) While a wave of industrialization took the country and its people to an all time high peak, it also dented the well coiffed Victorianesque moral fabric of the society. (Fitzgerald, P8). There is a historical trajectory to indicate that with the cultural and social revolution manners and morals also slipped from the age of innocence to decadence.

This paper aims to explain that though the American peoples’ basic concept of morals from the 1920s have remained unchanged, society has accepted and is tolerant of a far liberal way of life. It also examines how the present American way of life is more transparent and unpretentious ‘true to self ‘, rather than masked behind hypocrisy, as in the past.

The Cultural Revolution of the 1920s

A watershed decade, the ‘roaring 20s’ was characterized by unparalleled growth of industrialization, the rise of a consumer-oriented economy and mass entertainment on one hand (Himmelfarb P3), and rebellion and reform on the other, thereby eclipsing the hitherto conservative way of life and thinking.

The old world of the Victorian order was defined by a dependable, self-controlled, conscientious and punctual character, respectful of others, pious and religious with strong family orientations (Coben, P10). The ensuing cultural and social and revolution of the 1920s led to inevitable conflict with the development of intelligentsia and the dissenting voices of blacks, feminists, sexual morality, urban ethics, the Ku Klux Klan and various economic and political groups(Coben, P15). The mass black exodus from the south, the introduction of Negro music – Jazz, and the path breaking novels of Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis aided the new cultural awakening (Coben, P15). The decade launched a revolution in morals and manners that is still evolving today. (Fitzgerald, P10).

The growing independence of women in this scenario is considered as the most important contribution to the acceleration of revolution (Himmelfarb, P5). Their growing independence from housework, made light by modern amenities from vacuum cleaners to washing machines and canned food, was slowly emancipating her from a shackled routine. They went a step further, bypassing socially suited jobs to opt for careers in male established bastions like advertising, real estate, management. Another conspicuous sign was the immense change in appearance. No longer shackled by corsets, they slowly established their own identity. The earlier established Victorian and puritan images were beating a reluctant retreat (Himmelfarb, P6). Economic independence, led to growing of self confidence and the ability to lead her ‘own life’. On the downside, marriages and family life began to bear the brunt of this growing independence. (Himmelfarb, P6). This new independence was viewed as outrageously immoral as women were considered the guardians of morality and were expected to act accordingly, (Caldwell, P12). (Himmelfarb, P12). It was the start of a revolution that in the following decades was to see women hold equal status to men.

A change in women’s status sparked a shift in the perspective on family life and parenting styles. The family, as a vessel through which morals and values are passed down, was slowly being dethroned (Himmelfarb, P15). As women spent more time outside the home, children were left to their own resources, with television and technology replacing parents as role models, causing confusion and inconsistency of behavior (Caldwell, P13).This evolution modified the tone of children’s relations with adults. (Caldwell, P14). In fact in the1920s, youth were being given an equal footing as adults, able to voice their opinions. This also changed the equation in sexes. Children were allowed to mix freely, albeit with chaperons.

Perceived as idyllic the pre-`1920s was far from so. (Caldwell, P6) It was in fact riddled with social and class prejudices. The rebellion naturally shook the moral spine of this conservative but hypocritical society. (Fitzgerald, 10) The earlier generation had built up habits of conformity, but soon after the war in 1919, disillusion was soon to follow, even with the middle generation, who began to question everything that was established as true and worthy of respect.

Present times and the moral decline

It seems that the very reasons and contradictions that triggered the 1920s rebellion have come to haunt them again (Coben, P18). From rigid conservatism to an over-indulgent society America has come full circle. It has apparently adopted a philosophy of ‘anything goes as long as it is honest’ (Essling, P2). Reviewing the history of etiquette in the USA, Mark Caldwell observes that America is troubled by its brash, rude and uncivil state of manners and yet people question whether good manners and moral behavior can be held supreme above such matters as war, murder, abortion and euthanasia.

Mark Caldwell in his book affirms

”Americans have undergone periodic anxiety attacks over their manners since the dawn of the Republic. Some Americans have believed that other Americans were rude, even when most of us were trying to be polite. There’s no reason to think that present-day manners are any worse than manners used to be”.

Most scholars agree that the changing body language of American culture is far from civil, (Fitzgerald, 10) but it is definitely unpretentious, unlike the Victorian era which shielded its wrongdoings behind a civil façade.

Criticizing the moral mores of children and youth today Mark Caldwell points to the fact that most grow up with no respect for authority, for family, others or even themselves. Living an immoral life is considered normal. What has resulted, Caldwell feels, is a whole generation of morally unstable youth involved in crime, violence, drug abuse, unwanted pregnancies and a feeling of emptiness. (Campbell P1)Their freedom actually translates into slavery to an amoral lifestyle.

While Americans are amongst the most patriotic, philanthropic, populist and litigious, (Hanson, P1) they also hold the highest ratings for crime, divorce, poverty rate, unequal income, the longest working hours amongst other issues.

There is an aura of disillusionment with the new found freedom. If they are ill-mannered, they are also discontented. (Fitzgerald, 12) The old order did indeed have a set of values which gave life its meaning and substance. With this morality dethroned, the void is hard to fill. (Caldwell, 10) A new revolution is indeed happening; one in which they want to rid themselves of obsessions with sex, money and self-centeredness to be able to live gracefully by fusing a harmonious combination of the old and the new.

Is it really a death of moral character?

American moral poverty is real, as scores of scholars, journalists, politicians and others have observed and documented through the decades (Hunter, 12). Hunter argues that perhaps it is not the absence of morality, but the fact that morality in modern America has been reduced to a mere platitude devoid of meaning. Disassociated from its essential social, historical and cultural moorings, it becomes void, negating its essence.

However, (Baker, P1) explains that contrary to popular notions of an impoverished American morality, it should be understood in the context that

“Americans are unusual in that they cherish traditional values as well as high degree of self-expression”.

The nation’s cultural heritage is well entrenched in its tradition, offsetting any effects of overriding economic progress. Most Americans hold sacred the traditional values of the country established 200 years ago; religion, family values, moral authority and patriotism (Baker, 2) Americans have always been moral absolutists, a stance that has grown through the years. Environmental concerns, demand for equality, search for the meaning and purpose of life, beyond the mundane constitute some of their self expression values.


The Roaring 20s was a watershed decade, upsetting the established Victorian order and setting a new one (Coben, P10). Rapid industrialization, consumer-oriented society, mass entertainment along with growing intelligentsia, feminist movement, immigration, race, alcohol, various economic and political groups were to trigger the famous 20s cultural rebellion (Caldwell, P8) This offset a revolution in manners and morals of the country, eclipsing the genteel, though hypocritical behavior of the Victorian era.

The most significantly change was on the feminist front ( Himmelfarb, P3). In the changing scenario, women were able to break free of their shackles and live life on their terms. This new found freedom caused a shift and perhaps a rift in the family perspective. (Essling, P2) The fallout in family life, marriages and children was a direct impact of this new found independence. Children were also hauled from the shadows to participate more actively in their upbringing. (Campbell, P1) In the absence of parental guidance and often left to their own resources, there was a shift in the role models and behavior patterns as viewed on the TV and other media and the emergence of a new, self-centered and amoral generation (Campbell, P1).

Although the American morals of liberty justice for all freedom, with an emphasis on religion, family, moral authority and patriotism have remained intact from the 1920s, (Caldwell, 10) America has experienced a growing moral decadence since then. Today’s America is a free-wheeling liberal country where morals and manners have taken a back seat, but perhaps unlike the 1920s, it is unpretentious and true to self.

Works Cited

Baker, W. E, “America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception”, Princeton University Press; illustrated edition. 2004.

Caldwell, M, A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America, Picador USA; 1st edition, 1999.

Campbell, J. C., “Manners and Morals of today’s Children and Teens”, Helium society & Lifestyle, morals, values and norms, 2010.

Coben, S., Rebellion against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Essling, M., Values and morals in American society: The 1950s versus Today Helium Society & Lifestyle -morals, values and norms, 2009.

Fitzgerald, F.S., The Great Gatsby, Scribner; Reissue edition, 1999.

Fitzgerald, F.S., This Side of Paradise, Scribner; annotated edition, 1998.

Hanson, R., Why is the USA different, 2010,, 23, Sep 2010.

Himmelfarb, G., The De-moralization of Society: from Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed, 1996.

Hunter, J. D., The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America’s Children, New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Martin, J., First Things, The World’s Oldest Virtue, 1993, pp, 22-25,, 23 Sep, 2010.

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