For a research project at work I got to read through three months of my hometown newspaper from the year 1924. It was fascinating.
I’ve read through many reels of microfilmed papers. In a way the ’24 papers were fairly typical… Plenty of wedding announcements and social briefs, funerals and births. But many headlines read “Pioneer of the city dies.” Citizens who had come to the town as young people in the 1850’s and 1860’s were dying in the 20’s and a new era was fast taking over. Unlike earlier papers that documented farm accidents and the latest “cure-all” from the drugstore, the 1924 papers were riddled with graphically documented suicides, crimes of theft and murder, and the few advertisements were for touring cars ($295 for the basic model).
There were political addresses, certainly, but more so than any era I’ve perused, the opinions and articles were mostly focused on social turmoil. More than four articles in the three months I read were long, pseudo-philosophical rants about how stupid the young people were.
One city official decried the state of women being ruined by independence, fox trotting, and frivolous dress while the young men were ignorant and superficial. He complained that upper education, universities and colleges, were not producing great minds, but creating a culture of the shallow “know-it-all,” who was not prepared for any real work or trade. Young women were unfit to be wives but men were not looking to marry good women. He ended with a mourning of morality and feared the world would never see a day of wholesome living like the way he was raised.
Another rather ironic piece entitled “Such Thoughtlessness!” was about how a patron of a movie theater was appalled by the behavior of a young woman in the theater. The theater was crowded and the girl joked she should yell “fire!” to clear the space and get a good seat. The writer of the article wanted to slap the woman across the face for making such a “thoughtless and dangerous” comment. The writer said this was a perfect example of how young people don’t think anymore and youth was overrun with “rampant thoughtlessness.” For the young woman should have known how panicked people can become, and yelling “fire” could have incited a stampede in which people might have been killed. I just find it funny that the young woman making the joke was labeled as thoughtless but a panicked stampeding crowd is somehow not thoughtless.
Another opinion piece I found amusing was a story about how a youth asked his father to tell him everything he knew. When the father was finished the youth replied, “Why, you are nearly 50 and don’t know anything at all!” The writer then comments that this is why parents are having such a hard time from their kids. Because the kids think they know everything and “want it all” without hard work or waiting.
There were numerous mentions of an “epidemic”—the high number of women cutting their hair short. One apologetic article pointed out that there were women in the 1600’s known to cut their hair short and the piece told people not to panic over the fad, it too would pass.
In my experience researching various eras, certain papers have a strange kind of energy, and the 20’s papers are very intriguing in this regard. This was a time when people started getting real. Yeah, it was the roaring 20’s with fox trotting women and shallow men, drinking and cars, which might seem selfish and “thoughtless.” But at the same time, excuses of the past that held social mores into place were crumbling and there were less ways to delude people into behaving.
Women who showed their legs and cut their hair found the world didn’t explode, and youth wanting to take time and enjoy things were now able to in many ways the pioneers had not been.
Perhaps the youth of the time was lazy and thoughtless and the tug of war between the youth and elders of the age was merely emotional rebellion. But I don’t think that was entirely true for everyone. The pace of life was speeding up and the youth was coming to age in an era of new technology and enlightened ideas. They were no longer satisfied with simple living and snake-oil cures. They were going somewhere, making changes, enjoying life. They were ridiculed for being selfish when in fact they were probably quite witty and bold enough to call out the failings of the generations before them.
In many ways I want to be like the youth that was revealed to me in the 1924 papers, even at the risk of being called independent, dangerous, or “thoughtless.”
I might even learn to fox trot.