Moral Values During the Roaring Twenties

Written by derek m. kwait
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Moral Values During the Roaring Twenties
"Flappers" are enigmatic of the moral upheaval of the Roaring Twenties. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

The Roaring Twenties, falling between World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, are seen as the amoral interlude between two of history's greatest tragedies. The horror of World War I, Sigmund Freud's ideas of the subconscious, jazz culture and many other social changes forever altered the way people viewed all aspects of existence. American morality would never be the same.

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Prohibition

January 16, 1920, at midnight, the manufacture and sale of alcohol became illegal in America under the 18th Amendment. Alcohol use had long been associated with violence, poverty, crime and other immoralities, and since at least the 1840s, there had been movements, mostly led by women, to ban it. Their efforts eventually resulted in Prohibition.

While Prohibition did significantly decrease alcohol consumption, the law proved impossible to enforce. Bootleg alcohol flowed freely in big city speakeasies, and respect for authority of the law in America took a permanent hit.

Women's Movements

Men fighting in World War I left a void in the workplace that had to be filled by women. When the war ended, men's discontentment charged newly liberated young women. Young middle-class women called "Flappers" smoked, drank, danced, cut their hair and took wild risks like never before. Now that they had the right to vote, women fought for liberation in all spheres, including, with Freud's ideas about the libido, sexually. Traditionalists saw this as the erosion of society.

Jazz

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote during the '20s, "The parties were bigger...the pace was faster...and the morals were looser." He was referring to the atmosphere at jazz clubs, where rich whites would gather to drink illegal booze, dance with flappers and hear blacks play an exotic new style of music.

Many blamed jazz for all of the generation's moral backsliding. According to "The New York American," "Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras."

"The Lost Generation"

The "Lost Generation" are the literary spokespeople for the Roaring Twenties such as Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos. They saw the moral certainties of the Victorian Era -- that good was rewarded with good and evil punished -- crumble when the generation's best and brightest young men were massively and brutally killed during World War I. The Lost Generation's works reflect the sense of wandering moral rootlessness that resulted.

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