(The US to the CRASH of 1929 – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index

The US to the CRASH of 1929 (6 of 10)

previous | next

Sports, Entertainment and Morality

Affluence made possible the growth of a professional sports industry. People had money to buy tickets for an ancient entertainment: spectating, as at Rome's Colosseum. Boxing drew the biggest crowds. The World War had given boxing a boost with its development of "the manly arts." Local laws against boxing were rescinded. And on July 4, 1919, before a crowd of 19,650, a former saloon fighter named Jack Dempsey defeated an overweight Jess Willard, the heavyweight champion and the former Great White Hope who had defeated the black fighter Jack Johnson.

Dempsey had married a dance-hall prostitute and had divorced her, and she tried revenge, charging him with having been a draft dodger during the war. The American Legion and others spoke out against Dempsey, now making more money than were most veterans. But Dempsey was cleared of the charges in a US District Court in July, 1920, and the following year he fought a Frenchman, Georges Carpentier, before a crowd of 80,183 in Jersey City, New Jersey – the first million-dollar gate in history. And in 1923 Dempsey defended his title against an Argentinean, Firpo. But Dempsey refused to fight black fighters, specifically Harry Wills.

Boxing:Dempsey vs. Carpentier

Dempsey vs. Carp en tier, 1921 Photo enlarged, the 
Dempsey vs. Carpentier fightClick to enlarge.

Mae West

Mae West, born Mary Jane West. (A photo from 1933, when she was 40.)

In 1926, Dempsey was defeated by a decorated Marine veteran before a crowd of 120,757, with a 2.65 million-dollar gate. Dempsey got a rematch the following year, described as the battle of the century, which Gene Tunney also won.

This was also the decade also of Knut Rockne, the Lutheran coach at Notre Dame University. Interest in college football spread beyond the universities and their alumni. Football had been mainly rough tangles and challenges of physical strength at the scrimmage line – like rugby. Rockne brought to the game more speed, deception and brush blocking. The crowds were pleased by the more electrifying plays, including the box formation and passing, which previously had been considered unmanly.

One of Rockne's more famous players was George Gipp, a superb halfback who ran, passed, received and kicked. Gipp often broke training, missed practice and gambled openly. He played the game one day while ill, and a short time later he died of pneumonia, inspiring Rockne with the line that found its way into film: "win one for the Gipper."

Baseball was still the great American pastime, and Babe Ruth electrified baseball with his home runs. Golf was becoming popular, and new golf courses were being constructed across the nation. The biggest name in golf was Bobby Jones. The biggest name in Tennis was Big Bill Tilden. And two "Colored" baseball leagues were founded: the Negro National Baseball League in 1920 and the Eastern Colored League in 1923.

The horse called Man of War electrified horseracing. Jockeys had been black, but white jockeys took advantage of segregation and pushed black jockeys aside, black jockeys in the twenties disappearing from major tracks. And blacks were barred from other sports: from tennis, golf, basketball, football and the Olympic games.

Blacks were having an impact in other areas. Jazz had made its way north from the bordellos of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago. The blues singer Bessie Smith was a rising star but playing only to black audiences, while Louis Armstrong was playing also to white audiences. In 1925, Harlem began enjoying what was being called a renaissance. Harlem nightlife was attracting white audiences, and black culture was receiving serious attention from white intellectuals. The black poet Langston Hughes was winning recognition. And black musicians and singers were helping whites rebel against Victorian repression, while the white bandleader Paul Whiteman was playing smooth and tame music and was called the jazz king.

A vaudeville performer, Mae West, was attracting the attention of young men. She disliked cursing, vulgarity, and drunkenness, what she called "the foul and dismal habits that go with a so-called good time." And she disliked breathing smoke. She was a bright woman who truly loved her mother. But she was freethinking about sex before marriage, and private about it and her opinions. Her singing style was attractive to men. She lost a job because of her wiggles – her curves in motion. Visiting an Afro-American "dive" in Chicago she saw people dancing by moving their body without moving their feet – a dance called the shimmy. Mae West was the first white woman to perform the shimmy before a large audience, and in her words the audience "went for it." The shimmy became popular, and Mae West was denounced by so-called moralists.

Chaperones were no longer common at dances. The nation's vocabulary included the words necking and petting. And in 1923, an all Afro-American show called "Runnin' Wild" introduced the dance called the Charleston, which was seen by whites as cheerfully impudent. And the Black Bottom was also danced.

These were the so-called Roaring Twenties. There was prohibition, speakeasies and jazz. A new, brash and confident young woman called the flapper was attending the nightspots, these women described as "breezy, slangy and informal." Their eyebrows were trimmed by plucking. Their dresses were skintight, their cheeks carmeled and their shortened hair left them unencumbered. These and other women found smoking and drinking stylish. Women wore cocktail dresses to speakeasies and dresses to the knee, and many city women prided themselves on not being shocked.

It was not uncommon for a gentleman on the town to carry a flask of whiskey. With millions of Americans ignoring the law regarding alcohol, enforcement in many areas was impossible. In San Francisco, one could ask a policeman for directions to the nearest speakeasy. It was common for police to ignore consumers of alcohol and direct their attentions against the bootleggers.

Someone described Puritanism as the fear that somebody was having a good time. In the big cities, "sophisticated people" were less afraid of hell and less interested in heaven. Occasionally one heard the words "sex starvation." Divorce rates were rising. By 1929 they would be double what they had been in 1914. Psychoanalysis and Freud received attention from the sophisticated, and psychology was impacting conceptions of human nature, with environment given more credit as a source for human thought and action.

Radio was spreading urban culture into small towns and rural areas, where people had been viewing the big cities as inhabited by the decadent rich and a corrupted working class radicalized by labor unions. Many people in rural areas associated the popularity of spectator sports, especially boxing and horseracing, with ethnicity, unearned income and cheap commercialism. Rural Midwestern newspapers described Chicago and New York as congested, ridden with immigrant crime, as places of bootlegging and salacious entertainment run by political machines and as the birthplace of anarchy.

Crime figures gave rise for concern. In 1923 in Massachusetts, the homicide rate was eleven times that of Scotland's. In mid-decade the homicide rate in the United States was sixteen times what it was in England and Wales and thirty-six times what it was in Switzerland. Canada and Australia had frontier traditions like the United States and their crime rates were higher than those European nations just mentioned, but their homicide rates were about one-fifth of what it was in the United States.

Forty-six percent of the nation still lived on farms and in towns having fewer than 2,500 inhabitants, and rural attitudes toward the big city impacted legislation to limit immigration. Immigration had been rising since the end of the war, with poor people from southern and eastern Europe passing through Ellis Island to New York City. In 1921, Harding had signed the Emergency Immigration Act restricting immigration. In 1924, Congress considered the National Origins Act, a bill aimed at keeping the United States ethnically unchanged, a bill aimed at limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe and forbidding all immigration from Asia. In debating the bill, congressmen depicted big cities, including New York, as places with unassimilated minorities, as places with different flags and beer and Bolshevism. The bill passed in the Senate by 62 to 6.

Religious conservatives were striking back at what they saw as the rise of wickedness. Billy Sunday was frustrated at having been ignored by so many. He was preaching to a wider audience, in middle-sized towns and small cities, where he attacked jazz, bootlegging and evolution. He was still hoping to make a difference, to make the United States more moral. He became a millionaire. Then he was hurt by financial scandal. Billy Sunday's ghostwriters sued him for money they claimed he had failed to pay them. Sunday was criticized by some for living too lavishly. His wife looked too much like the class of women he had once attacked. And his son divorced and was seen in speakeasies.

Some other preachers in the twenties were putting a modern spin on Christianity, describing Jesus as pro-business. And some were taking advantage of radio. In 1923, "Sister" Aimee Semple McPherson began broadcasting from her temple in Los Angeles. She preached wearing glorious attire, and she used special effects such as thunder, lightning and music. A Roman theatricality of crowds was a large part of what had been the quiet of Christianity's spirituality. She drew crowds of over 5,000 to her evening services, while thousands more tuned in to her broadcasts. She broadcast from whatever frequency she pleased, inspiring the US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to create regulations for radio.

Traditionalists were talking of the virtues of duty, self-discipline, sacrifice and community cohesion. And conservatives were complaining that the American family was being weakened, that homes were becoming little more than service stations – places to stop to eat and sleep. In Atlanta, Georgia, a grand jury investigated the link between automobiles and moral degeneration. Elsewhere, people were expressing concern over unchaperoned young people in cars on secluded country roads.

In North Dakota, baseball was illegal on Sundays until the afternoon, and a law was passed in 1923 making dancing illegal on the Sabbath. Rural folks still saw smoking as sinful, as in the future song "cigarettes, whiskey and wild, wild women." Cigarette sales were forbidden in North Dakota until 1925, the year that this state passed a law against dancing that was "detrimental to public morals." Elsewhere rural towns were enforcing strict regulations on gambling. Across the nation attempts were made to pass laws against the movement of trains and interstate automobile traffic on Sunday, against Sunday amusements for profit and against the Sunday publication and circulation of newspapers.

Traditionalists were fighting back, including those in big cities. Conservatives were concerned about what people read. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway were not among the top authors of the twenties. The most widely read authors were Zane Grey, Harold Bell Wright and Gene Stratton-Porter. The most popular literature was penny novels. New York banned D. H. Lawrence's novels Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Boston banned Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, an unflattering novel about an evangelist preacher. Boston banned Scribner's magazine when it serialized Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. And federal customs agents confiscated copies of  Ulysses by the British author James Joyce.

People were complaining that children who regularly attended movies developed less respect for authority and that they became sexually precocious and disregarded the virtues of home life. The movie industry was threatened by censorship bills being considered in thirty-two state legislatures and by a bill being considered in the US Congress. The movie industry tried to regulate itself. In 1925, it hired a Presbyterian Elder and a former Postmaster General under Harding, Will Hays, to judge movies. The movie industry accepted Hays' guidelines. Movies were to have moral endings. Vulgar postures and gestures were forbidden. Vice was not to be portrayed as attractive. Adultery was not to be depicted as justified. There were to be no displays of childbirth, sexual hygienics or suggestions of  sexual relations between people of different races, or suggestions of  "sexual perversion." The word damn was not to be spoken. And public officials and religious beliefs were not to be ridiculed.

In the middle of the decade in the Bible Belt – in Tennessee – came the "Monkey trial" in which a high school biology instructor, John T. Scopes, was being prosecuted for teaching evolution. The major witness for the prosecution was the former presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan – a fundamentalist. Defending Scopes was the famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. Unlike the Hollywood version of the trial decades later, Bryan did not emerge from the trial downhearted and broken. He died shortly after the trial but he had been happy with the conviction and his performance.


Copyright © 2004-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.