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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/2/11

How the Youth Culture of the 1920s Reinvigorated America

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            Following the destruction caused by World War I, it became obvious that the United States needed to rebuild itself. Many long-held pre-war values and customs seemed irrelevant now, perhaps more so than ever before. Because of this, the youth of America began rebelling against many of the norms of their parents' generation as they strove to create something uniquely their own. Eventually, this new youth culture of the 1920s became the focus of a national obsession. Even adults played a part, with some attempting to imitate the new trends while others found themselves repulsed by them. But whatever adults of the time felt, they could not deny that the new world created by their country's youth was having a drastic effect on the American population as a whole. Though the defining characteristics of the movement may appear now to be fairly simple to pin down, the youth culture of the 1920s had synthesized new ideas of the post-war era with America's older traditions in such a way that a complex movement was created, reinvigorating the overall American population.

            The ever-shifting trends of the new youth culture had defined it at its most basic level, but looking a bit deeper, it is clear that 1920s youth still wanted to retain some general values. The personas of the flapper and sheik for example personified the "flamboyant, reckless spirit" (Drowne and Huber 29) conjured up by common perceptions of this culture. Flappers and sheiks were the major trendsetters of the time, taking cues from films and other mediums of popular culture, believing their parents' generation to be "infinitely old-fashioned" (Drowne and Huber 30). They often would escape their houses in their cars to meet up with their peers, their equals. Though a cultural stereotype, such activity was often imitated not only by the youth but by adults as well who perceived the youth movement to be "fascinating" (Murray). What defined the youth culture in fact was constantly changing as trends shifted quite often. Popular culture was becoming a major force in American culture, and its youth now had new standards to keep up with in regards to popular music, fashion, dance crazes, and their appearance. Newspapers reported for example on which styles would take center stage in "the cycle of feminine fashions" ("Old-Time Shawls to Be Worn"). Keeping up to date with so many fads required both time and money for the youths. Though the flapper and sheik represented the cultural ideal, very few youths embodied all characteristics of such personas despite constantly striving to assume such roles.

            Though the stereotype of this period seems fairly simple to understand, the reality of the culture itself is much more complex. While it wanted to take on the characteristics of the sheiks and flappers, America's youth also attempted to balance these new waves of trends with older pre-war values and traditions. Literary portrayals of women for instance often struggled to achieve such a balance.   Though they found themselves "alienat[ed] from Victorian conceptions of home life" (Honey 27) and wanted to remain independent and break free from stereotypical, pre-war gender roles, this desire often took them "far away from the people-centered virtues of the family hearth" (Honey 32). Though the youth could date in their 20s, many still expected to settle down and marry when they grew older. Thus the definition of the youth culture exhibited much duplicity -- the youth "appear[ing] to live on the cutting edge of social fashions while [they] privately maintain[ed] personal values that were far more traditional" (Drowne and Huber 47).

            Even though the term "youth culture" suggests that the movement was purely youth-oriented, its influence percolated into older generations using college students as a starting point. The youth culture gained particular momentum through advertising, with those living in cities most greatly affected by its influence since they were the ones exposed to billboards and newspaper ads daily. Typically, trends from movies would be extended by college students who then spread them to high school students who "slavishly imitated" (Drowne and Huber 34) them. Those participating in college culture came to be regarded as the "chief arbiters of fashion and taste" (Drowne and Huber 35) a major component of what exactly the youth culture was. Additionally, adults would often attempt to imitate the new fads and "retain and preserve their youthful appearance" (Drowne and Huber 40), in a possible attempt to reconnect with elements of their past that they themselves missed. On the opposite side of the spectrum, other adults found themselves disgusted and repulsed by these new trends of the youth, "reproach[ing] them for their unconventional standards and inappropriate conduct" (Drowne and Huber 40). One New York Times journalist remarked frankly that "surely no one"would maintain that our "flappers' are the worthy successors of the enchantresses of the past!" (Phillips). Both perspectives fueled the population's obsession with the youth movement, contributing to its overbearing influence on the social culture of the country.

            Without new developments and inventions of the time, however, it is arguable that the youth movement could not have occurred in the first place. The automobile in particular revolutionized the way that American youth socialized, bestowing upon youth both "mobility and privacy" (Bailey 19) in a form that had never been available before. It became easier than ever for people to get around, abandoning their seemingly out-of-touch parents, as they sped around town to visit and socialize with their friends. Additionally, the car provided privacy in the sense that the youth were no longer under the constant watchful eye of their parents like youth had been during the age-old traditional system of dating referred to as "calling." As a result, dating became   a more popular activity than ever before, the car helping with "accelerating and extending" (Bailey 19) this practice. The youth now had true independence thanks to the car, something teenagers constantly strove to attain as they matured but never attain the past so successfully.

            Popular culture set the major standards for the youth to live up to, providing a method to advertise new trends and ideas. Movies, radio, advertising, and magazines popularized the idea of the flapper and the sheik, and also influenced the social conduct of the youth. From movies, people would learn what clothes were in fashion, a critical "benchmark by which American youth evaluated one another" (Drowne and Huber 43). Slang terms were also coined by movies -- the movie The Sheik from 1921 introduced the defining word "sheik" to the population. In literature, feminism began to gain momentum as an actual movement. Motivated by the independent spirit of literary heroines, young women began to embrace this newfound sense of freedom and ambition. Though some disapproved, it became palpable that "the modern girl demands more freedom than her mother and grandmother did and, except in a few cases, she does not use that freedom unwisely" ("Modern Girl More Spirited"). The vast majority of the leading trends of the youth movement were established by popular culture.

            The fads and interests of college students manifested the defining characteristics of the youth culture, propelling college students into the driver's seat of the movement. Sometimes the college culture would spread trends that they saw in movies and magazines, yet very often the way college students behaved would give popular culture itself new material. For example, many movies were based on university life, such as The Freshman and Brown of Harvard. As well, the magazine College Humor began to circulate, focusing "exclusively on the leisure activities of university students" (Drowne and Huber 34). People began to follow college sports teams, especially football, and students often went to watch football games every week or two as a result of the additional leisure time allowed by their schools. The social side of   football games proved an immensely important component of the youth movement giving rise to the clichà d teenage obsession with popularity around this time. As college students began to use a rating-and-dating system, that is, a system of standards that evaluated people based on their social standings, it became clear that "success was popularity" (Bailey 27). Since college did not last forever, the youth could also take part in such superficial pastimes "without significant long-term risk" (Bailey 27). Despite this, the image of the college student became more and more significant in the formation of the American youth identity.

            For a movement that held so much influence over the American population at the time, it is no surprise that many long-term effects were left behind in its wake, leaving drastic changes to American culture. It successfully reinvigorated for example not only the youth of the country, but the entire population, a necessary step to take following World War I's destruction because in this way, the youth movement created a method for cultural evolution -- people now had the freedom to change the way life had previously been conducted in irrelevant war times. The youth now had more freedom and independence to socialize, allowing them to form a collective identity with their peers that captivated the nation. Additionally, gender roles were beginning to be re-defined, which paved the way for feminism to gain momentum. In this regard, it grew increasingly clear that many women possessed an "unwillingness to occupy the position assigned to [them]" (Honey 26). The idea that women were "seeking empowerment and declaring their right to express who they were as individuals" (Honey 39) was finally becoming more common. The 1920s youth movement thus presented the country with a quantity of new ideas that reshaped the standard American lifestyle.

            Though this cultural reformation pushed America in the direction of the future, it also brought forth more complex issues for its participants to deal with. The country's "generation gap" widened as its youth "consciously"forg[ed] their own set of behavioral and moral codes" (Drowne and Huber 40) in order to separate themselves from their parents' generation. Yet these very same adults idolized them "in an effort to recapture the elusive qualities of youth" (Drowne and Huber 40), a phenomenon likely perpetuated by US advertising and media that "touted youthfulness as a commercial product that one could actually purchase" (Drowne and Huber 40). However, this purchasable youthfulness was the watered-down version of the youth movement, the stereotype of the flapper and the sheik that actually found close to no root in reality.   Even though America's youth mainly strove for a clear break with the old-fashioned ideas of their parents' generations, they nonetheless attempted to retain traditional values in their lives. Women in particular found themselves faced with "two contradictory impulses"the desire to assimilate into the modern world and to flee from it, the rejection of a separate sphere for women and the fear of losing human connections" (Honey 26). Though they wanted to remain independent, many women still longed to settle down and start a family. Despite the fact that dating was becoming increasingly popular, "marriage allowed them to combine a sense of independence with a sense of security"in this system, though the competition might be fierce, one could win" (Bailey 47). Though far more traditional than anything the flapper represents, the marriage system made it impossible to pigeonhole the youth culture as purely breaking ties from the pre-war era, their struggle to balance tradition with their new lifestyle adding yet another layer to the movement's complexity.

            The American youth movement of the 1920s set a new precedent for future generations. Members of the youth movement could embrace their independence and rebelliousness, but still eventually come to understand that they needed to hold on to at least some traditional values.   The new shock waves of youthful fresh trends helped Americans push past the rubble left in World War I's shadow and look to the country's future. Though the youth movement may seem quite dated in the context of the modern world, today's world of 2010 may very well seem just as dated to future youth cultures, alienated as they may be from today's trendy habits and customs but still finding something in common with today's more sturdy traditions.


Chloe Lizotte is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School, Concord Massachusetts, class of 2012, where she serves as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper The Voice as well as music director of the school radio station WIQH. She writes a column on "historical eccentrics" for her hometown newspaper The Concord Journal.  


Works Cited

Bailey, Beth L. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. n.p.: John Hopkins University Press, 1989. Print.

Drowne, Kathleen, and Patrick Huber. The 1920s. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

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Chloe Lizotte is a member of the Concord-Carlisle High School class of 2012 in Concord, Massachusetts.
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