What Can the 2020s Learn from the 1920s?

Anti-Prohibition Parade, NYC, 1920s

A lot, according to CUNY historian Ted Widmer.

Here is a taste of his piece at The New York Times:

It has been a long time since the winter of 1920, but the old fault lines are still visible, not only in the United States but around the world. In Turkey, neo-Ottoman ambitions are emerging as the country seeks to enlarge its influence in Libya and everywhere else the sultans once held sway. In Russia, a new czar is all too happy to undermine the West’s quaint belief in Wilsonian self-determination.

Should the United States try to solve these and all of the other vexing problems out there? It has become fashionable to denounce Wilson’s idealism in the century since his crack-up. Obviously, he tried too much, too fast and destroyed himself in the process. But to inhabit a world with no ideals of any kind seems like an invitation to a different kind of crack-up and a return to the earlier history that we were delighted to escape from in 1919.

In the long century since, Americans faced a dizzying array of problems, new and old. When they worked together, they generally solved them. When they retreated into ideological extremes, they generally did not. In “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald diagnosed the problem, then offered a formula. If enough readers could “see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise,” then there was always a chance for a new decade to live up to its glittering potential.

Read the entire piece here.

3 Myths About Prohibition



Detroit police during prohibition (Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the era of Prohibition.  Over at Philly.com, Villanova political scientist Mark Lawrence Schrad, an expert on this short-lived era in American history, points to three commonly held myths about the 18th Amendment.

  1. “Temperance crusaders were mostly backward cultural conservatives”
  2.  “Prohibition was a uniquely American utopian fever.”
  3.  “Prohibitionists were trying to legislate individual morality.”

Read how he unpacks these points here.

The York County, Pennsylvania Pow-Wow Murders

long-lost-friend-pow-wows-bookApparently this is Pennsylvania history day at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Check out Holly Genovese‘s post on the 1929 York County Pow-Wow murders.

A taste:

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funds “Spirited: Prohibition in America”


Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

The NEH on the Road program shares American historians through traveling exhibits.  One of these exhibits is Spirited: A History of Prohibition.

Here is a summary:

Spirited: Prohibition in America brings visitors back to this period of flappers and suffragists, bootleggers and temperance lobbyists, and real-life legends, such as Al Capone and Carry Nation.

Adapted from the National Constitution Center’s flagship exhibition, Spirited explores the history of Prohibition, from the dawn of the temperance movement to the unprecedented repeal of a constitutional amendment in 1933. What made the country go “dry” and how did America change during this period in history? Visitors to Spirited will learn about the amendment process, the role of liquor in American culture, the cultural revolution of the roaring ’20s, and how liquor laws vary from state to state today.

The morality and illegalization of liquor split American opinion and created a subculture of rampant criminality. Organized crime grew from localized enterprises to a national network for manufacturing, distribution, and sales of alcohol. The issue catalyzed a number of federal regulations and the passing of the Volstead Act, but little resources were provided for enforcement. Spirited draws on histories told from both sides of the law. Through strong visual and interactive elements, the exhibition demonstrates how America went from a nation drowning in liquor in the 1800s, to campaigns of temperance, and the upswing and downfall of outlawing prohibition.

The exhibition surveys the inventive and ingenious ways lawmakers and the American public responded to Prohibition. Legal provisions for sacramental wine, medicinal alcohol, and the preservation of fruit and the efforts of breweries to stay in business led to popularization of products such as “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine,” “near beer,” and Coca-Cola. Visitors will learn how transportation networks and clever disguises were used to run liquor from state to state, how speakeasies gave way to the popularization of jazz, and the Charleston dance craze.

Spirited features semi-immersive environments that encompass the sights, sounds, and experiences of this fascinating period in American history. Hosting venues will receive educational and public programming materials that outline ideas for interactive workshops on “speakeasy slang,” ’20s-themed socials, speaker suggestions for topics, such as the women’s suffrage movement, and lesson plans on today’s battle with drugs and alcohol.

Learn more here.

Here is a short video about Spirited at the Tampa Bay History Center:

For other posts in this series click here.


Why Did the KKK Hate J.C. Penney’s?


They Also Did Not Like Woolworths

Cara Giaimo explains at Slate:

In 1930, E.D. Rivers—state senator, gubernatorial candidate, and Great Titan of the Ku Klux Klan—stood up in front of his constituents in Clarke County, Georgia, and made an impassioned speech. “For the first time in the history of our country,” he said, the nation faced a particular mortal threat. There was an “invasion” of an “alien” that would “take away the freedom of government from the masses.”

Unlike the Klan’s best-known targets, though, this threat was not a group of people. It wasn’t a religious affiliation, a behavior, or a particular political measure. It was chain stores: J.C. Penney, A&P Grocery, Woolworth’s, and other large-scale retail outlets that were changing the face of national commerce.

The 1920s were a boom time for the Klan. William Joseph Simmons had recently restarted the group, named himself Imperial Wizard, and broadened the enemy list to include Catholics, Jews, foreigners, intellectual elites, bootleggers, private schools, and movies. People joined up by the millions, and the Klan became a force in local politics nationwide. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of World War I, chain groceries, apothecaries, and department stores were also experiencing unprecedented growth, adding new branches and spreading quickly across the country.

As Nancy MacLean reports in Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, many high-up Klansmen spoke chillingly of these well-stocked newcomers. One expressed concern that “young men of the country … will become ‘automatons,’ with no choice but to work for such monopolies.” Another, during a public lecture, warned that chain stores were “RUINING and CRUSHING DOWN ON THE ENTIRE POPULATION of the world.” They were commonly lumped in with other sources of Klanxiety: Great Titan Rivers spoke of the ills of “atheism, communism, chain stores and companionate marriage” all in the same breath. Meeting minutes from one Oregon chapter describe the banishment of members associated with “the local [J.C.] Penney store.”

Read the rest here.

Mapping the Rise of the KKK

Check out this digital map produced by the Mapping the Ku Klux Klan (1915-1940) project at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I think it is fair to say that the Klan spread very quickly in these years.

Here is an article from the Virginia Commonwealth website:

A joint project between a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor and VCU Libraries shows for the first time how the Ku Klux Klan spread across the United States between 1915 and 1940, establishing chapters in all 50 states with an estimated membership of between 2 million and 8 million.

The project, “Mapping the Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1940,” is an animated, online map that illustrates the rise of the second Klan, which was founded in Atlanta in 1915 and spread rapidly across the country to total more than 2,000 local units, known as Klaverns.
“The project is using technology to demonstrate, and make available for people to contemplate, the nationwide spread of the Ku Klux Klan,” said John Kneebone, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “This map shows that you can’t just say ‘Oh, it was those crazy people in the South.’ The [KKK] was in the mainstream.”
The map, he said, invites the viewer to learn about the Klan in their own area, and to reflect on how the Klan’s vile message of racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism appealed to so many millions of Americans.
Read the rest here.

Warren Harding: Baptist

Warren Harding was the first Baptist to serve as President of the United States.  Over at First Things, Timothy George, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, examines the man who many consider to be one of our worst presidents.

Here is a taste:

Harding was reputed to be a womanizer, a facet of his character long denied by some of his defenders for lack of evidence. That defense can no longer be made. His siring of an illegitimate daughter by one of his paramours, Nan Britton, has recently been confirmed by DNA testing. Harding is said to have had trysts with Britton in the Senate Office Building before he became president and then in the White House itself—Hillary and Jackie had nothing on First Lady Florence, the dour and long-suffering wife of Harding whom he called, not so endearingly, “Duchess.”

More salacious still is the correspondence recently released by the Library of Congress between Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, an off-and-on dalliance which lasted some fifteen years. Harding was forced to pay hush money to Phillips following his election to the presidency. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood makes a movie about Harding’s affair with Carrie. “I love you more than all the world and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter,” he wrote to her in 1910, “so precious as that in your dear arms, in your thrilling lips, in your matchless breasts, in your incomparable embrace.” It gets better . . . or worse.

And this:

At a time when “modernism” was becoming fashionable among Baptists and other Protestants in the North, Harding resisted any form of Christianity that was too dogmatic. Francis Russell summarized Harding’s spiritual development this way: “After his first college encounter with the doctrine of evolution, he imagined himself a free thinker, even an atheist, although he would soon relapse into a mild Baptist conformity untouched by his mother’s zeal.”

Harding certainly knew the language of Zion and could declare it with fervor. “I pledge fidelity to our country and to God,” he told the Republicans who nominated him for the presidency. At his inauguration he declared his belief in the “God-given destiny of our Republic” and took the solemn oath of office with his hand on the Old Testament text: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Mic. 6:8). Woodrow Wilson, Harding’s pious predecessor, had grown up in a Presbyterian manse, where traditional Calvinist theology was respected. Harding’s Christianity, on the other hand, was less catechetical, less intellectual, and less demanding. Instead of a world “made safe for democracy,” he offered the country “a return to normalcy” (Harding’s own phrase), and this meant a spirituality less intense, less straight-laced. The decade of the twenties has been called “a dance between two flames.” Harding was the first president to welcome jazz musicians in the White House and the first to entertain Hollywood stars there.

"Get Yourself a Broom and Sweep Your Troubles Away," 1924

  • Recording Title

    Get yourself a broom and sweep your troubles away
  • Composer

  • Piano

  • Ukulele

  • Lyricist

  • Tenor vocal

  • Genre(s)

    Ragtime, jazz, and more, Humorous songs
  • Category

  • Description

    Male vocal solo, with ukulele piano
  • Language

  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 19549
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

  • Recording Date

  • Place of Recording

    New York, New York
  • Size

  • Duration


Massive Open ON-AIR Courses

Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez remind us that before MOOCs there were college courses broadcasted over the radio.

In 1937, as she lay ill in bed, Annie Oakes Huntington, a writer living in Maine, thought of ways to spend her time. She confided in a letter: “The radio has been a source of unfailing diversion this winter. I expect to enter all the courses at Harvard to be broadcasted.” Huntington was joining in an educational experiment sweeping the country in the 1920s and 30s: massive open on-air courses. 

As educators contemplate the MOOCs of our day—massive open online courses—they would do well to consider how earlier generations dealt with technology-enhanced education. 

We are not the first generation to believe that technology can transcend distance and erode ignorance. Nearly a century ago, educators were convinced that radio held that same potential. The number of radios in the United States increased from six or seven thousand to 10 million between 1921 and 1928. Many universities explored the possibility of broadcasting courses across the country and allowing anyone to enroll. Some onlookers believed those courses would transform higher education and eliminate lecture halls and seminar rooms. One observer noted, “The nation has become the new campus,” while another celebrated the “‘University of the Air,’ whose campus is the ether of the earth, whose audience waits for learning, learning, learning.” 

By 1922, New York University had established a radio station, through which “virtually all the subjects of the university [would] be sent out.” Eventually a multitude of universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Kansas State, Ohio State, NYU, Purdue, Tufts,  and the Universities of Akron, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Utah, offered radio courses. Subjects ranged from Browning’s poems to engineering, agriculture to fashion. 

While each institution ran its courses differently, there were commonalities. Often, students registered by mail and received a syllabus by return mail. Some then mailed in assignments to the faculty. Several universities offered credit. 

Hopes ran high that these courses might spread knowledge more democratically—that they would, in the words of one commentator, make the “’backwoods,’ and all that the word connotes … dwindle if … not entirely disappear as an element in our civilization.” By offering education to people from all walks of life, radio would reduce rural populations’ isolation and mitigate class differences.

Read the rest here and learn how the criticisms of these radio courses sound similar to the criticisms of MOOCs today.

History Wars: 1920s Style

The Story of Our American People

Move aside David Barton.  As Adam Laats, a historian of education at SUNY-Binghamton informs us, Mr. Barton was not the first author to write a strongly patriotic history of the United States that caused controversy.  In his post “Get In Line, David Barton,” Laats tells the story of Charles F. Horne, the author of a 1926 book called The Story of Our American People.  Here is a taste:

In the research for my current book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I came across an eerily similar story from the 1920s.  In that decade, the American Legion resolved to sponsor a two-volume school history.  Too many of the books on the market, the Legion concluded in 1922, “contain misrepresentation of American history.”  Legion leaders contacted Charles F. Horne, a professor of English at City College of New York.  Horne agreed to author the books, to be called The Story of Our American People.

This textbook, the Legion’s special committee in charge of the textbook project declared in 1925, would build “character.”  Too often, the Legion leaders lamented, young people “grow up ignorant or anarchistic or otherwise ‘destructive.’”  There was no chance, the Legion wrote, that such youth, taught that their government deserved nothing but contempt, could mature into healthy, productive citizens.  Most commercial history textbooks only tore down young people’s confidence in their society and government.  A good history textbook could fix this.  The proper teaching of history, the Legion argued, must teach, despite “occasional mistakes,” that American history has been “so glorious that its proper study must inspire any child to patriotism.”

When a preliminary draft emerged in 1925, it earned some instant praise from conservatives who had long fretted about the deplorable state of most history textbooks.  Walter M. Pierce, for example, in 1926 the Klan-backed governor of Oregon, dashed off a letter to Professor Horne.  The new volumes, Governor Pierce gushed, represented “the finest history of early America that we have ever had.”

But other early readers took a different view.  Writing in the pages of Harper’s Magazine, historian Harold Underwood Faulkner blasted Horne’s books as “perverted American history.”  No professional historian, Faulkner sniffed, would have produced such drivel.  The books represented nothing more than a “bombastic eulogy of all things American.” (Harold Underwood Faulkner, “Perverted American History, Harper’s, Feb. 1926, pp. 337-346. [Subscription only.]) They could not even be criticized on historical grounds, Faulkner claimed, since the books did not really constitute a history.  Worse, the books were intended to “produce a bigoted and stereotyped nationalism . . . a deplorable subservience to the rule of ignorance.”

Such criticism from snobby historians might not have doomed Horne’s books.  But an internal committee of the American Legion itself also found the books “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements.”  Instead of inspiring American youth to embrace a patriotic vision of America’s past, the Legion investigators concluded, such shoddy history could only mislead youth and heap ridicule on the American Legion.
The Legion abrogated its contract with Horne.  They agreed not to receive any revenue from the book project and withdrew their endorsement.

Paul Lukas: Report Cards Saved My Life

In 1996 Paul Lukas “stumbled upon” nearly 400 report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls.  Most of them were from the 1920s.

If I found these report cards I would probably think of some way to analyze them and turn them into a book or an article.  Lukas has decided to devote his time and energy to tracking down the family members of these former students and returning the cards.  (I do hope that these cards are copied and placed in an archive somewhere).  Most of the girls who attended the Manhattan Trade School were born to immigrant parents–Italians and Jews mostly.

Lukas tells his story in a fascinating article at Slate.  Here is a taste:

I discovered the cards in 1996 (more on that in a minute). I found them fascinating, but I didn’t have a good sense of what to do with them, so for a long time I just kept them as curios and occasionally showed them to friends. Eventually, though, I decided to track down some of the students’ families (including Marie’s). Even after doing it numerous times, I still find it a bit surreal to call a stranger on the phone and hear myself saying, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I have your mother’s report card from 1929. Would you like to see it?”

While a few people have responded to that opening line with suspicion or caution, most have been gracious, and curious. They’ve opened their homes to me and shared their family archives. And they’ve been captivated by the report cards, often learning new things about their loved ones and filling in gaps in their family histories. Most of them knew very little about this vocational school their ancestors had attended.

That school, the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, turns out to have been a very interesting place. And a well-documented one, too. Within a decade of its 1902 founding, a book about it had been written and a 16-minute film about it had been shot. All of which comes in rather handy if you happen to be researching a bunch of the school’s students.

Culture Wars–1920s Style

We may think the so-called “culture wars” are a late 20th century phenomenon that has spilled into the 21st century, but as Randall Stephens notes in his review of Barry Hankins’ new book Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars, cultural conflict has been around for a long time. Stephens writes:

The era from the 1930s to the 1980s, an era of relative religious stability, Hankins suggests, may have been the aberration. The pitched battles over immigration, alcohol, Darwinian evolution, obscenity laws, and public morality that riled Americans in the 20s “were a prologue to our own age,” says Hankins. Like our era that period was “a time when religion was culturally central, participating fully in politics, media, stardom, social life, and scandal.” Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Daddy Grace, and Father Divine elbowed Charlie Chaplin, Al Joslon, and Clara Bow for newspaper headline space.