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