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The Twenties Modernism Vs Traditionalism


This decade (1920-1929) is also known as the 'Roaring Twenties ' and sometimes as the 'Jazz age'. This is a period with a huge number of developments in the United States, first of all, there was the economic boom, and this was a post war effect of the First World War. The decade was graced with a spell of economic prosperity. In the early years of this decade, America realized that they have huge urbanized settings than rural. This was also the time when there was prohibition in the United States causing rise of criminals and criminal families such as Al Capone and the Chicago outfit. During this decade, baseball was the major sport and this was when the immigration act was passed. This is also when women were allowed to vote in the nation and work so there was a rather large number of women in work areas.1

Modernism versus Traditionalism

During that decade the generation of youth began behaving differently than was previously seen as the norm. Youths lived in the urban areas and mostly led brush (fast-paced) lives. This new trait that was developing altogether is what is being referred to as modernism now and the traits that were left in order to adopt this new life standard is known as traditionalism. Before modernism, the elders stayed in the rural areas and lead quiet and deliberate lives. In order for us to see both sides of the coin of this argument we should try to understand these two groups of individuals. We must consider this in the light of how they saw each other in what areas and what makes them different. These areas are Urban and Rural, Evolutionist and Creationist, Youthful and Aged, The Alcohol debate (prohibition), The radio and Car effects.

URBAN VS RURAL: during this time America was at the peak of urbanization trend that began around fifty2 years earlier and for the first time the nation was seen as more urban than rural. The modernists of this time preferred the fast-paced lifestyle. The time was characterized by a huge influx of population to the cities. The cities offered their thoughts to the traditionalists who were backward people at that time and were against development and that they lived their lives based on very thin margins of thinking and they were not open to change. The traditionalists at the time preferred the quiet life in the countryside and the farms. Generally the rural people had their own opinions about the modernists who lived in the cities; they considered them immoral due to their dressing styles and other character traits and since the modernists were more in the cities and business was prosperous they saw the modernists as people too much into money and materialistic values.

EVOLUTIONIST AND CREATIONISTS: The modernists at the time started drifting away from the norm and beliefs of religion. They no more accept the known doctrines that the world was created by a deity which was a strong belief of traditionalists; modernists started becoming more liberal and started accepting explanations that the world, as we know it, was evolved as stated by the biological concept of evolution.3 This concept says that any living creature is bound by time and develop with the passage of time; this means the creatures become better in their later generations. This also caused a major trial4 (the Scope’s trial) which happened in 1925 in the state of Tennessee in which a teacher, John Scope was accused of teaching the concept of evolution to his students. The teacher was found guilty but the trial ruling was overturned due to a problem in the prosecutions side. The traditionalists preferred to stick to religion and its doctrines at the time. They stay within the boundaries and teachings of bible and believed that the world was created by God and that evolution was a myth and that the opinion that humans came from monkeys (as dictated by the theory of evolution) is untrue and it should not be taught to students as it is misleading and would derail the generation away from their roots and culture as they literally are considered to be the gospel. Thus traditionalist were against it.

YOUTH AND ELDERS/ADULTS: In this period it was the youths that mainly look to the modernist lifestyle. At the time, the youth gave precedence to certain objects that the elders did not see as necessary. Youths loved cars and the fast lives. They court around not to find spouses but just to have fun. Youths also desired life that gave off an air of independence and this they can only find in the cities and urban areas where one had to be a bit unscrupulous in order to get along. The women youth of the time came to be known as flappers due to their dressing habits, they wore short dresses and dyed their hair; this was the fashion at the time. They also wore make up which was not the norm. The elderly at the time are the ones who had the traditionalist aspect in them. They preferred life that gave them a sense of community and security which was mainly found in the rural and farm areas. They saw the youth of the time as being careless and immoral; the traditionalists had a more conservative dressing style, a more modest living and even speaking style. Even in the art that the traditionalists preferred it was more modest and subtle.

THE ALCOHOL FACTOR: This also falls into the realm of prohibition5 also know as the 'noble experiment'. This was a period in which United States government had banned any activity that involved alcohol in its borders as in the transport, manufacture and sale of alcohol was banned within the United States borders.  Now even though this was the situation in the country, alcohol still did play a major role in the modernist vs. traditionalist agenda, after all, alcohol was still available mainly by means of crime lords and families such as that of Al Capone and the Chicago outfit. Modernists saw alcohol as an element that provided personal freedom. This was a complete paradox of what the traditionalists believed: they said that alcohol caused crimes and broke apart families and that where there was no alcohol people were generally happier and healthier. This period caused the aforementioned crime outfits to prosper even though alcohol was later legalized in 1933.

EFFECTS OF THE RADIO: In 1923, there was a frenzy about radio and by the end of that year there was close to six hundred radio stations and close to half a million households in the nation possessed radio sets; whereas in 1922, there was less than a hundred thousand sets. Thus, within a short while it seemed as though radio was all everyone was doing because almost all organizations that were worth mentioning had radio stations. This provided a sure quick fire resulted in easy access to information. Spreading ad and promotions becomes easier. In addition to information, radio also provided entertainment.

This changed lifestyle preferred by the modernists is what is totally different from the lifestyle followed by traditionalists. Traditionalist think modernist as leaving their norms behind, whereas young traditionalist thinks modernist’s lifestyle as attractive. Thus, it has been said that the Twenties were shaped by a clash of cultures--modernist versus traditional. This was an era shaped by two groups of people different in almost everything, whether it is their thoughts or their dressing style, their religion beliefs or their general lifestyle. Two cultures were coming face to face thus there were clashes plus acceptances. Thus people always give this argument that that time was a time of cultural clash.



1.      Paul Sann, The Lawless Decade(Dover Publication: New York 1970).

2.      “A GODLIKE PRENSENCE ”: the impact of radios in 1920s and 1930s

3.      Wayne Curtis, Bootleg Paradise (American heritage: may/April 2007).

4.      John Barth , The Friday Book(G. P. Putnam's Sons:1984).

5.      Carneiro Robert, Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology: A Critical History(Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2003).

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