It being 2020, this is the year to celebrate the decade that began to radically alter western societies toward the modern, highly secularized nations rich in personal liberties that we—despite constant challenges from the patriarchal, paternalistic religious Right—enjoy today: the 1920s.
Think about it. In 1910, the religious Right pretty much owned this nation and the rest of the West. Ninety-five percent of Americans were at least nominally Christian, the great majority of them Protestants. Social mores were draconically conservative. Most women were the de facto property of men with minimal personal, sexual, and political rights—including, in most U.S. states and many nations, the inability to vote. Pop entertainment was vanilla because the notorious Comstock Laws severely suppressed discourse on matters sexual, including contraceptives. LGBTQ folks were deep into their closets. Minorities ethnic, racial, and nonreligious too were second class citizens at best; often they were terrorized via public-spectacle murders and white-on-black riots.
There were signs of change. Science had long been undermining the speculations regarding the existence of a creator in general, and by the turn of the century, it had thoroughly wrecked the biblical creation myth. The 1800s going into the 1900s sported free thinkers, including in matters of lifestyle and sexuality. There were village atheists; urban nontheists formed a small but influential clique with major impact in science, arts, literature, and intellectual discourse. The Victorian prudery that had reached its height in the late 1800s was beginning to ease up a little—the heavy dress that had ensconced women began to lighten up in the 1890s partly in response to one of the wonders of the decade—the advent of the safety bicycle, which drove female riders to adopt less bulky clothing. In the United States, the appearance of mass-produced automobiles in the form of anti-Semite Henry Ford’s Model T gave youth a freedom of mobility and the privacy of back-seats that perturbed the sociosexual prudes of the day.
It was the Great War that did more than anything else to torpedo traditional culture. That the Christian world waged a horrendous war within itself grievously undermined the very premise of the faith, helping accelerate the secularization of Europe. Women suddenly found themselves working in factories in great numbers, exposing the ancient lie that a woman’s place was by her core nature in the home. That women got the vote in Britain and America was in part a direct reward for their essential service in war production. Also of import was that so many women had to get up early and dress quickly to swiftly commute to industrial work that demanded practical attire, so they completely dumped the old burdensome clothing in favor of simpler and sleeker apparel—and never looked back.
Then, in the United States, a strange amalgam of progressives, feminists, theocons, and white supremacists did something very stupid that would do grave damage to traditional mores. They banned alcohol. That closed down the legitimate bars and saloons that had excluded women—those mixed-sex scenes in the westerns are Hollywood plot convenience. The mob-operated speakeasies did not care who came in, setting up the alcohol-fueled dating scene we still enjoy. The underground venues also promoted the radical new “sex music”—jazz—introducing the first wave of hip music that displaced the tame tunes that had been the dominant auditory fare.
A key feature of the 1920s was the appearance of Flapper Culture, in which millions of young middle- and upper-class women chucked overboard, to an astonishing degree and with astonishing rapidity, centuries of western feminine propriety. It was the first sexual revolution of the West. Consider how if a woman walks down the street these days dressed circa 1910, it will be presumed she is in a period play. If the same woman dresses 1920s-style, she is making a retro fashion statement. Young women attired in formfitting bathing suits that exposed entire arms and legs graced the beaches. Suddenly not being a virgin did not ruin a female’s reputation and marriage prospects.
A famed survey of students and graduates found that belief in God tended to decline with years in college as the pupils were exposed to modern science and intellectual discourse. This enraged the religious Right, including Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan, who called for banning Darwinian science in public schools. This, too, backfired: the resulting Scopes Monkey Trial proved such an embarrassment to Bryan and fellow creationists that the latter semi-retreated into a sideline parallel evangelical culture that, although powerful, has proven unable to regain majority status. Gleefully covering the events was the most popular pundit of the age, the flaming anti-religious atheist H. L. Mencken.
Although it was based in part on an enormous speculative bubble, the unprecedented prosperity of the Roaring Twenties ushered in the twentieth century’s advertising-driven mass consumer prosperity and with it a materialism that has proven toxic to popular piety. All prosperous democracies would see dramatic declines in religiosity, sooner (in the case of Western Europe) or later (in the case of the United States).
The hot twenties came to a dramatic end with the shock of the economic crash, and the traditionalists mounted a counterattack. The Comstock laws remained in force, while the theoconservative Hayes Code increasingly ruled the silver screen. But the counterrevolution was nowhere close to being fully effective. Classic Victoranism was passé. Women hit the beaches in even skimpier suits, and men were allowed to go topless; street dress would never go back to the old styles. Jazz remained popular. Swing and the Big Band sound were sexier than prewar tunes. The Second World War saw the highly sexualized Pin-Up Culture, including even erotic nose art on military aircraft. Church attendance may have hit an American peak in the buttoned-down fifties, but even then the first wave of the seriously sexual rock-and-roll became the rage, as Hugh Hefner’s Playboy—my older brother and cousins found our Mormon grandfather’s copies in his workshop—helped break down the Comstock Laws, as the Hayes Code faded. The sixties brought a second wave of rock, a second sexual revolution, baby boomer counterculture, and the divorce boom of the World War II generation. These permanently wrecked traditionalism as a majority lifestyle. At first American theism and creationism edged downward. But the descent accelerated toward the end of the twentieth century, and now they’re simply nosediving.
It all started circa 1920. So, give a toast to the first decade of mass modernity that is the nemesis of popular piety: the twenties.