Swimming Against the Stream

Sacred Cows #4: The Roar of Fun in the 1920s


Elephant Charleston

An Elephant dances the Charleston as America invents the new idea of Fun

To understand why World War 1 is such a demarcation in the development of this new notion of fun with a capital ‘F’ we have to ask ourselves what happened to begin the change immediately before the war. And I find that turn-of-the-century era to be filled with many mysterious aspects. One of the most mysterious, and this will come back to haunt America in the Sixties, is why men began to shave their beards and to be clean shaven. This might sound like mere fashion, but no fashion is actually ‘mere’. All fashion reflects changes in thinking

William Sherman

Bearded General – General William Tecumseh Sherman

Frederick Douglass

Bearded Statesman – Frederick Douglass

Look at the Victorian Era. Beards were everywhere. Presidents had beards. Generals had beards. Writers had beards. Workers had beards. Not that every man had a beard mind you. Their were scraped jaws aplenty, sometimes accompanied by a bewildering variety of mustaches and sideburns. One of the ways in which this era of folks were freer than later supposedly less repressed generations was that there was no one style for men’s facial hair that reigned supreme.

Suddenly beards disappear.

Bicycle Built For Two

The new people of the 20th Century on a Bicycle Built For Two

But by the turn of the 20th Century something happened in the American mentality that indicated a seismic shift. The emphasis was now put on a youthful energetic appearance. A bicycle built for two. A similar shift can be seen in relationship to women; dress styles change radically from 1900 to World War 1. But in the case of women it becomes a bit more transparent. There is the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the new dances like the Cakewalk and the Castlewalk, and it was indeed under the influence of dance instructors Vernon and Irene Castle that women began to shed their corsets, leading to the new fashions of 20th Century.

1912 The New People

Hipsters ca. 1912… Beardless, Corsetless Moderne.

But whence cometh this new emphasis on youthfulness, a fixation that has only intensified to nightmarish degrees in the 21st Century? Was it related to multiplicity of the new inventions? The automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, the radio, the motion picture, the telephone, the light bulb and on and on. Was it connected with the fact that America largely was unaffected by the Symbolist and Decadent Movement of Europe? Or maybe au contraire that it was in subliminal ways affected by some aspects of the new Decadence? Was it connected to economic prosperity? I’m sure there’s a serious reason, but at the moment it’s really hard to pinpoint why? (Serious historians of the times, do you have any clues?)

But nonetheless beards were slaughtered at the altar of youth and would remain so until the even more extreme youth movements of the late Sixties would make beards trendy again.

F Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald

Definitely no hint of the olden days: F Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald

And so America in it’s optimistic prewar glory began to feel the hypodermic injection of energy and this new conception called Fun just as it found itself strangely involved in a war that killed thousands and left many more men both physically and emotionally crippled although the American soil was scarcely touched. The men returned home to a country that had no notion of what modern warfare had done to the troops. But it wanted to celebrate (or was it erase the immediate past) with a new burst of enthusiasm. While simultaneously shutting down the bars and distilleries and giving more independent women the right to vote. And thus Fun arrived in an explosion of contradictions in the Roaring Twenties.

F. Scott Fitzgerald looked back at the era with a mixture of nostalgia and regret in 1931 in an essay entitled “Echoes of the Jazz Age”. He wrote,

“Scarcely had the staider citizens of the republic caught their breaths when the wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight. This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste. May one offer in exhibit the year 1922! That was the peak of the younger generation, for though the Jazz Age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth.”

Louise Brooks with Cute Cuddly Dogs

20s Icon Louise Brooks looking suspiciously Modern with a couple of too Cute Doggies

And then he points out how even the older generations were tainted by the insanity.

“The sequel was like a children’s party taken over by the elders, leaving the children puzzled and rather neglected and rather taken aback. By 1923 their elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began. The younger generation was starred no longer. A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure. “

If this sounds familiar it’s because this was but a rehearsal for the much larger funhouse called the Sixties. But back in the Twenties the considerable rural portions of the land weren’t quite as deeply affected by the new teleology of Fun as the urban zones had been. And this sexual revolution was suddenly halted in its place by the Great Depression, which, while not setting the clock back to before the war, had seriously curtailed the proceedings.

Fitzgerald continues, “But it was not to be. Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.

“It ended two years ago, because the utter confidence, which was its essential prop, received an enormous jolt and it didn’t take long for the flimsy structure to settle earthward. And after two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.”

Soup Kitchen during the Great Depression

The Party Ends at a Soup Kitchen in the Great Depression

The Depression Era and World War 2 were not exactly hot houses for Fun, but the happy-go-lucky beast would make a dramatic return once and for all after the Second World War.

(To be continued…)

Byrne Power

Haines. Alaska


3 responses

  1. Lis

    A few random thoughts, that seem related, if you don’t mind.

    Since you mention dancing, I remember in the 80s dancing in public (clubs) were totally free form. Long ago dance was about beautiful, fluid movements that breathed life into the music. Dance represented a true artistic endeavor that required the tedium of repeated practices and lessons from a professional. It was social and depended on interacting with other dancers. Now young people can go to a club and make up their own movements, separate from one another, even if they are in close proximity. There is no need to learn steps or rehearse for dancing on the club floor. There are, however, still places like Country and Western Bars or Salsa clubs where dancing does require effort, preparation.

    When the men came home from WWI they were sometimes said to have “shellshock.” For some reason this term is so much more personal and human than the coldly clinical “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Modern diagnosis of psychiatric disorders relies on these impersonal alien or robotic sounding names. Shellshock brings to mind images of a real living, breathing human experiencing some horror and struggling to come to terms with it. Bipolar disorder is another. Manic Depression just sounds more human to me for some reason. I just find it easier to imaging the person behind the symptoms as opposed to some words with a check box to tick off on a form.

    These essays are fascinating and well written I hope that a historian answers a call.

    November 12, 2013 at 7:53 AM

  2. Patt

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading all four sections of Sacred Cow in one setting. It led to a very stimulating conversation with myself that also included intertwining tangents in a number of other directions. All in all, a very satisfying way to spend an afternoon and I appreciated the graphics. One quick note – in order to keep my train of thought, I didn’t use quotation marks. Easy enough to check the original.

    It appears to me that the idea you are exploring with Fun is that of a paradigm shift in social culture that had its beginnings post WWI and has now evolved into a foundational reason for living. Closely aligned to this paradigm shift are a number of other social values now the norm including emphasis on a youthful, energetic appearance, need for constant positive affirmation, lack of pursuit in anything that might be perceived as boring or not Fun, and a devaluing of traditions.

    I agree with you that this describes a segment of the population quite well. I would even go a step farther and add to it another new social norm called Entitlement. It’s a belief I personally feel is even more devastating as I think it’s far more encompassing and entrenched in our society than life should always be Fun. There’s the rub. You seem to be implying that, Fun, as the reason for living, is a widespread belief that most people ascribe to. You have yet to convince me with your evidence.
    In response, I would like to offer a few sacred cows of my own. (I was thinking about this today as I wandered through the mall.)


    Attributing motives to others with scant evidence is a serious fallacy. Blank souls? Really? You seem to blithely assign motives to others apparently based on the sole fact they are not like you. Unless you have developed some advanced telepathic talent that allows you to read the minds of others this is just simply presumptuous. Your perception doesn’t make it so.

    The few might believe in Fun. They could be the ones who have more than their share of resources. The very rich have always defined life in different ways. History bears that out even in Aristotle’s time. Now, today, the few have become a few more. Standard of living has indeed increased and, with that increase, more people have the basic essentials covered. The population explosion alone would account for the growth of this mindset. Still, it represents a relatively small sample of the whole.

    Most people, while acknowledging they want to have fun, do recognize it as a temporal diversion and/or a genuine pleasure that adds to one’s life. They are quite aware that daily life is about the ordinary that may or may not bring about a sense of purpose or wellbeing. We all experience the good, the bad, the success and the failure that occurs from the simple fact of being alive. Yes, that includes raising children, taking care of elderly parents, suffering illness and hardship, being a good friend, working at a difficult job, and all the other parts that encompass life.

    Your point about the fight against boredom and the choice of a no risk, low level, esoteric experience is well taken. I can see its impact on work, education, the arts, even sports…. endeavors that all take time, patience, commitment, and devotion to excellence. (Of course, as a teacher in one of our public schools, I must daily mourn the murder of most things intellectual and creative.)

    Then again, maybe it’s not about boredom or lack of commitment or even the pursuit of Fun. Maybe it’s about an abundance of options, their availability, and yes, even personal choice. Maybe it’s a by product of an increasingly mobile society where families and friends no longer stay in one place so there’s an overreliance on social media. Maybe it’s a protection mechanism that eases the monotony of life.. Maybe we all just choose pleasure over pain and the difference is simply in one’s own preference of activities over another’s.

    Perception is a tricky thing. Neuroscience provides ample evidence that we all interpret our reality through the lens of past experience, thoughts about those experiences, and current experiences that trigger past reactions. We also see what we choose to see. It’s a matter of focusing our attention. To truly observe phenomena, one must put great effort into letting go of preconceived ideas and personal biases. While a bias is necessary to know where to focus your attention, it pays to look at many intersecting points rather than a cause and effect. It’s wise to attempt to prove oneself wrong before assuming one is right for much of the time we are mistaken.


    Contemporary existence has deluded us that all of the traditions are invalid…Wow! I hardly know where to start with this one. It’s so general of a statement. I would venture to say there is nothing inheritably valuable about traditions. Many started as useful purposes that are no longer necessary today. Many were perpetrated to justify course of actions. Many existed to help people make sense out of their lives and provide meaning for their existence. Which ones are you talking about? (I am assuming you are not referring to settee)

    I would venture to say that what we find so important about tradition is its stability and its means of transcending present time. It connects us to a past and assures us of a future. But here’s the thing. Society changes. Time moves on. Science provides deeper understanding and often debunks previous truths. What we are so sure we know today, may be disproven in the future or clarified in such a way that our previous understanding is incomplete and thus misleading.

    You talk about the lack of honest criticism. I would agree that the need for constant personal affirmation of the positive sort over serious discussion is annoying. However, as Sara pointed out to me recently, getting along with others has always taken priority over discourse. It’s a well-honed tradition. Be nice.

    We live in a world where changes are rapid and information is flowing at speeds too fast for us to absorb appropriately or accurately. Our needs change and traditions will evolve to serve those needs.


    Researchers have pinpointed a peculiar aspect of American culture. When asked to rate ourselves in comparison with our peers, almost all of us believe that we (and the groups we belong to) are superior. It would seem that we are all above average in intelligence, talent, ability, and appearance. So, Byrne, when you imply that puppetry is one of the highest fields of learning, when you talk about the value of being serious I have to wonder. I share a lot of photos of myself expressing joy, love, connection, and gratitude. I can’t imagine posing for a photo so that I can express my seriousness. What would be the point?

    Our brains are pretty lazy. We would much rather accept the truth we already know than the one that is counterintuitive, challenges our previous viewpoint, or that takes work to fully understand. I personally derive enormous satisfaction from reading. I find serious discourse invigorating. I indulge in self-reflection and daily contemplation. I like how these pastimes enrich my life and force me to reconsider my beliefs. At the same time, I accept the fact that these are a matter of preference and that it’s not prudent to expect others to have or appreciate these same preferences.

    There is nothing superior about me. In the scheme of things, I am just not that important. I don’t feel a particular need to justify my existence and I don’t feel a particular need to identify a purpose for my life. What motivates me is the pleasure (perhaps even fun) that comes from participating in the activities I find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying. I suspect this is true for everyone who has the opportunity to choose as well as the freedom to act upon those choices.

    December 3, 2013 at 6:13 PM

    • Patt, thanks for reading through the Sacred Cows series up to this point. And thanks for raising some issues by way of challenging my assumptions, or at least what you might assume are my assumptions.

      First concerning perception, you are certainly right, we all look through our own tinted glasses. And each person perceives the world according to one’s own history, memory and prejudices. This is inevitable. This is always the human condition. And you are right to say that we need to make an effort to acknowledge that defect and yet, somehow, to try to work against it to see more clearly, to find the faults in our own arguments. So far we are on the same page.

      I think where I disagree with you is where you attribute ideas and thoughts and motives to me that you really have no way of knowing, (which is pretty much what you suggest I am doing). I may not know what’s in the deep recesses of many folks but I have a fairly clear idea of what I was writing. So at no point do I ever “imply that puppetry is one of the highest fields of learning”. Yes. I have emphasized puppetry as a potential antidote for a certain kind of alienation in this period of time. But higher than music, poetry, architecture, film, and other arts? Or as a ‘field of learning’ higher than history, mathematics, science, languages, etc? And why even mention it when the subject wasn’t mentioned in the Sacred Cows discussion?

      Likewise ‘blank souls’? Yes that was a poetic way of describing what I was actually painfully observing amongst Poles in a vast imitation American mall. I would describe it as a temporary condition, since actually I consider the Poles a bit superior to the Americans at this moment in history. Why didn’t I say so then? Why should I? As a preacher once told me, If you’re preaching on Genesis you really don’t need to discuss Job, the Gospel of Matthew or Revelation.

      Did I ever imply that tradition was beyond reproach? Hardly. It’s just that we in America aren’t really bothered by tradition much anymore. A blanket statement? Unsubstantiated? Well if this was a doctoral thesis I could provide the footnotes, a lots of them. But if I wrote in such a way to defend every observation I couldn’t get this written. The form is an essay, I have to keep that in mind.

      So I haven’t proved my point about Fun yet. I can only say three things regarding that. First ,this is a discussion, not a thesis paper. Feel free to disagree. And bring your own counter proofs to the table. Secondly, I do indeed have proofs of my own. I’ve been researching popular American (this is being written primarily for Americans) culture seriously since about 1977, which may have been the last time we had a serious conversation. I could bring literally thousands of proofs to the table. The realms of music, film, education, spectator sports, extreme sports, computer games, pornography, tourism, television, Bible camps, holiday shopping, magazines, toys, ad nauseum are all choking with examples of this new idea of Fun. But again I’m writing essays here. You either find you can trust the writer of not. I can’t clog up the page with examples. And thirdly, simply, I’m also not done yet. So a little patience with me will be appreciated.

      Am I as an American superior? What a ridiculous notion. To whom? Anyone. But does that mean I can’t express a criticism of a few things I see seriously troubling in our times. I would suggest this as far as Fun goes: The younger the demographic the more infected by the new spirit of the age. (Although having worked with tourists quite a bit in the last nine years I would say that this Fun reason to live is certainly prevalent among far beyond 20 and 30 something demographics.) But if you are suggesting that a cultural critique in itself betrays a sense of improper superiority in and of itself? I respectfully say we have radically different philosophical views.

      In that spirit we disagree when you remark that “Society changes. Time moves on. Science provides deeper understanding and often debunks previous truths.” These seem to be rather clichéd statements. Yes society changes…but so what. Do we have to go along with all of its changes. Consider Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. Time moves on. Yes of course. And so? Have human beings evolved since Aristotle of Shakespeare? Not if you compare their words to our words. And remember the lower classes came to watch Shakespeare plays. Science tells ‘what’…. It never gives a ‘why’? Science doesn’t provide or debunk anything. All of the neuroscience in the world doesn’t explain why certain brain cells are triggered during sexual excitement or while listening to music. They just tell us that they are. But are the neural pathways the cause of certain interactions in the world outside the brain? Not really. But people spend far too much time with the half digested versions of popularized science that our media spits out with great regularity. So in my book that leaves lots of room for caring about the shape of the world around us and raising questions about possible solutions to our problems. Science will never answer those questions. And truth can still be discussed. (For the deeper scientific basis for this remark I suggest plowing through chemist and scientific philosopher Michael Polanyi’s dense 500 page book called Personal Knowledge.)

      I do want to thank you for pointing out one thing though: There is a sense of entitlement about having Fun these days. I believe that I am failing to provide it.

      Thanks for thinking with me Patt. We may disagree. But that’s never a problem. Feel free to respond in kind.

      Okay I should probably write the next installment already.

      December 4, 2013 at 10:48 AM

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