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The 1920s

Gilman Ostrander takes the position that the 1920s were an era of social and cultural rebellion. Ostrander argues that in the 1920s there was an urbanization of American morals which stemmed from changes in women’s behavior and fashion as well as a new American consumer class. The idea of living beyond one’s means was also introduced, which is in direct conflict with the traditional American value of thriftiness. Ostrander cited the changes in the behavior and clothing as a big factor behind the value shift of the 1920s. Women could now vote, wore skirts that went to their knees, and also smoked and went to speakeasies. Ostrander also cited the invention of the automobile as a turning point for the way people were courted. The automobile allowed many couples to have a degree of privacy that had never been seen before. Also, the idea of a payment plan system meant that people were able to afford items well beyond their means. The rise of payment plans meant that people were becoming less thrifty.

David Shannon takes the position that the 1920s were not an era of social and cultural rebellion. Shannon argues that the changes in the 1920s were due to the expansion of the economy that created a mass consumer culture and not the superficial elements that were mentioned by Ostrander. Shannon cites the fact that people simply had more money to spend as real income has increased by 32% since 1914. The changes in people’s income level allowed them to buy more goods such as automobiles, radios, and appliances which in turn led to the attitude changes of the 1920s. The difference between rural and urban residents also dramatically decreased. With the spread of the radio, people in small towns were able to listen to the same news and sports programs as people from large cities. Also, the invention of the automobile allowed for the development of buses which caused many more rural students to attend high school which meant that the experience for urban and rural youth became more similar.

When looking at both author’s arguments, I would have to say that they are both correct. Shannon diagnosed the cause, while Ostrander listed the symptoms. Even if economic prosperity is what caused the changes in skirt length and crumbling of Victorian values, this does not discount the fact that these changes happened. While I would not call the 1920s an era of social and cultural rebellion, I would say that there were significant social and cultural changes during the 1920s. Women had greater freedom and power than ever before, people looked to spend rather than save, and leisure time was increasing for all Americans. I do think that Shannon makes a great point. It is important that we also remember the 1920s as a time of great economic prosperity. Rather than pigeonholing the 1920s as an era of social and cultural change, it should be looked at as a time with social, cultural, and economic changes.