Happy Go Lucky

view of case in "happy Go Lucky" area of exhibit

The revolutions underway in business, literature, and movies during this decade were symptoms of a larger revolt as society stripped away its Victorian standards of morals and manners. For the first time in American history the country’s youth led the charge against cultural mores, their drive fueled by anger toward that “rotten war.” But soon they were joined by people of every age stimulated by innovations in technology, communications, philosophy, and more.

World War I, that “rotten war”, had been one of those innovators, however. Invigorated by the freedom they found replacing the men who left the workforce for the trenches of Europe, many women were reluctant to step aside when the doughboys returned. With their newfound voice they gained the right to vote, and as business boomed they gained employment. There were fully 10 million women in the workforce by decade’s end. This wave of liberation gave birth to the “flapper,” a woman whose cosmetic case included “kiss-proof” lipstick and who smoked and drank in public. With her bobbed hair and raised hemline, she waived her gender’s old role as guardian of morality and embraced sex. Long a topic discussed behind closed doors, sex danced onto the public stage in step with its stylish partner, contraception. This mix produced a sexual revolution. Less tolerant of their traditional roles, the girls wanted to be more like the guys. And neither, it seemed, in an age of promiscuity, wanted to stay married. “Anyone with $10 can get a divorce in ten minutes…,” noted one resident of Middletown. And they did in record numbers, doubling America’s divorce rate to the highest in the world.

Changes in attitudes spilled over to other areas of society. Isolationism and the repulsion of things foreign permeated society. Our nation, founded on immigration, drastically scaled back the number of people it would accept from eastern and southern Europe, and virtually banned all Japanese and Chinese from settling in the United States. Racism swelled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, who targeted not only African Americans but also Catholics, Jews, and the foreign born.We saw nothing good in joining the League of Nations, and frowned upon anyone not born in this country. The Red Scare targeted suspected social radicals, and at the murder trial of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, the prosecutor built his case around the defendants’ radical political beliefs.

And modernism came under attack by fundamentalists, who wanted to reverse sixty years of scientific findings and theory, climaxing in a Tennessee courtroom where attorney Clarence Darrow defended a biology teacher who violated that state’s ban against teaching the theory of evolution. Pitted against the mythical orator and three-time Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, Darrow lost the case that gained fame as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” But a single legal victory could not stem the tide the fundamentalists struggled against. The earth’s fossil record could not be flushed down a drain as easily as a bottle of booze.

KKK hood