I’ve already covered a lot of important ground.
Modernism arrived in the United States in the 1910s in Chicago and New York City. The Armory Show of 1913 introduced America to Modern art. It began with the establishment of small bohemian enclaves of avant-garde artists and poets in Chicago and New York City which flowered into the “Chicago Renaissance” and the “Village Renaissance.” Most of the Chicago group moved to New York City and joined the Eastern group in Greenwich Village which became the American counterpart of Montmartre in Paris. The Young Intellectuals lived in Greenwich Village where they absorbed its aesthetic values, bohemian lifestyle and radical politics and forged the cultural liberalism of the modern Left.
The Victorian era in culture ended in 1914 in Britain with the beginning of World War I. Woodrow Wilson and the Victorian establishment plunged America into the conflict in 1917. The war ended a little over a year later in November 1918 when the Spanish Flu was raging across America. World War I was a cultural turning point in American history that badly discredited the Victorian establishment. The old mainstream was already under siege by H.L. Mencken in The Smart Set and the Young Intellectuals in The Masses. A generation of young American men fought in France which brought Americans into close contact with French culture where Modernism had been ascendant for decades.
The young Americans who rebelled against traditional Victorian values in the 1920s and who embraced the new culture of expressive individualism and cultural liberation became known as the “Moderns.” The “New Man” and the “New Woman” and the “New Negro” came out of the 1920s.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Free-wheeling young Americans – the “moderns” – sloughed off Victorian prudery in literature, psychology, drama, and art. “Realism” was an agent of social protest. New magazines, from the Socialist Masses to the arty Dial, mixed politics and literature. Literary clubs, little theaters, and experimental schools were organized all over the country. Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” gallery on the top floor of a Fifth Avenue brownstone and the Armory Show of 1913 introduced Americans to the latest art forms from Europe and the United States and signaled the decline of traditional painting and sculpture. People came to “291” to see “the craziest painters in America” and Stieglitz hectored them into becoming believers in modern art. He exhibited the work of John Marin, Abraham Walkowitz, Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, among others. Without subsidies from Stieglitz and his friends, most of these artists would have starved.
Young people from all over the country flocked to a colorful bohemia that flourished in the neighborhood below Washington Square known as Greenwich Village, where they were free “to be themselves.” Back alley stables became studios and decayed mansions with surrealistic plumbing provided rookeries for artists, writers, and radicals. A furnished hall-bedroom could be rented for $2 or $3 a week. Long-haired men and short-haired women pursued free love, free speech, Socialism, and politically engaged art, while joyfully assaulting the bedrock values of bourgeois culture.
Looking homeward from Europe, Idaho-born Ezra Pound foresaw an American cultural upheaval that would “make the Italian Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot.” Isadora Duncan was revolutionizing dance. Georgia O’Keeffe made an impression not only as a painter but as a model for Stieglitz’s photographs and later became his wife. The American theater was infused with fresh energy when the Provincetown Playhouse presented the early one-act plays of Eugene O’Neill in an old stable in MacDougal Street. Pretty, redheaded Edna St. Vincent Millay came down from Vassar to flount convention in her life and poetry and to burn her candle at both ends. Bohemian women slept with men they had no intention of marrying – and with other women, too. Margaret Sanger, fresh from prison where she had been jailed for propagandizing for birth control, extolled the joys of the flesh and ridiculed the traditional sense of sin. Gay men and lesbians were prominent in Village culture although male homosexuals were still largely closeted. Sigmund Freud’s studies of dreams and the unconscious were endlessly discussed – if not completely understood. The idea of free love was so prevalent that one bohemian couple was too embarrassed to tell friends they were married.
The Village attracted the aspiring, the ambitious, the angry, the exhibitionist, the curious, and those along for the ride. Ideas and ambitions clashed at the tables in Polly Holliday’s restaurant and in saloons like the Working Girls’ Home and at the salon of Mabel Dodge, a pretty, plump heiress from Buffalo who originated “radical chic.” Both the Armory Show and a giant pageant held in Madison Square Garden to dramatize a strike in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, were incubated in Ms. Dodge’s drawing room at 23 Fifth Avenue.”
In the 19th century, Boston had been the cultural capital of the United States – the headquarters of the Genteel tradition of the Victorian era. America was dominated by Eastern culture after the Civil War.
In the 20th century, New York became the cultural capital of the United States and the values of the New York avant-garde, which can be traced back to its formative years in Greenwich Village in the 1910s, dominated the American mainstream. New York was the place to be in the 1920s and became even more culturally dominant in the 1930s and 1940s. After the invention and spread of television in the 1950s, New York values set the tone of American culture and defined the mainstream.
“No cultural symbol of the 1920s is more recognizable than the flapper. A young woman with a short “bob” hairstyle, cigarette dangling from her painted lips, dancing to a live jazz band. Flappers romped through the Roaring Twenties, enjoying the new freedoms ushered in by the end of the First World War and the dawn of a new era of prosperity, urbanism and consumerism. …
While the exact origin of the term “flapper” is unknown, it is assumed to have originated in Britain before World War I, when it was used to describe gawky young teenage girls. After the war, the word would become synonymous with the new breed of 1920s women who bobbed their hair above their ears, wore skirts that skimmed their knees, smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol while dancing in jazz clubs, always surrounded by admiring male suitors. …”
Commercial advertising in the 1920s grew out of the lessons of World War I propaganda. The Modernist “New Woman” was taught how to dress by Vanity Fair which was founded in 1913. The tobacco industry’s “Torches of Freedom” marketing campaign mainstreamed female smoking.
“Cigarette companies began selectively advertising to women in the late 1920s. In 1928 George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, realized the potential market that could be found in women and said, “It will be like opening a gold mine right in our front yard.” Yet some women who were already smoking were seen as smoking incorrectly. In 1919 a hotel manager said that women “don’t really know what to do with the smoke. Neither do they know how to hold their cigarettes properly. Actually they make a mess of the whole performance.”[ Tobacco companies had to make sure that women would not be ridiculed for using cigarettes in public and Philip Morris even sponsored a lecture series that taught women the art of smoking.[
To expand the number of women smokers Hill decided to hire Edward Bernays, who today is known as the father of public relations, to help him recruit women smokers. Bernays decided to attempt to eliminate the social taboo against women smoking in public. He gained advice from psychoanalyst A. A. Brill, who stated that it was normal for women to smoke because of oral fixation and said, “Today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.” In 1929 Bernays decided to pay women to smoke their “torches of freedom” as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. This was a shock because until that time, women were only permitted to smoke in certain places such as in the privacy of their own homes. He was very careful when picking women to march because “while they should be good looking, they should not look too model-y” and he hired his own photographers to make sure that good pictures were taken and then published around the world. Feminist Ruth Hale also called for women to join in the march saying, “Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” [ Once the footage was released, the campaign was being talked about everywhere, the women’s walk was seen as a protest for equality and sparked discussion throughout the nation and is still known today. The targeting of women in tobacco advertising led to higher rates of smoking among women. In 1923 women only purchased 5% of cigarettes sold, in 1929 that percentage increased to 12%, in 1935 to 18.1%, peaking in 1965 at 33.3%, and remaining at this level until 1977.”
“Another important element in the company’s campaign to change the image of smoking was to challenge the social taboo against women smoking in public. In 1929 there was the much publicised event in the Easter Sunday parade in New York where Great American Tobacco hired several young women to smoke their “torches of freedom” (Lucky Strikes) as they marched down Fifth Avenue protesting against women’s inequality. This event generated widespread newspaper coverage and provoked a national debate. As Bernays reflected later, “Age old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of the media”. Tobacco companies also needed to ensure that women felt confident about smoking in public and not run the risk of being ridiculed, as in 1919 when a hotel manager told a New York Times reporter that women “don’t really know what to do with the smoke. Neither do they know how to hold their cigarettes properly. Actually they make a mess of the whole performance”. While to some extent tobacco companies tackled this by using images of women smoking in cigarette advertisements, they also ensured that Hollywood stars were well supplied with cigarettes and often paid them to give endorsements in advertisements. Philip Morris even went so far as to organise a lecture tour in the US giving women lessons in cigarette smoking (fig 3). Within 20 years of starting to target women, over half the young women (16–35 years) in Britain, for example, had become smokers. …
Since starting to target women in North America and northern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s the tobacco industry has become more sophisticated in its marketing strategies, developing a diverse range of messages, products, and brands to appeal to different segments of the female market. As Lorraine Greaves has argued, such marketing messages, and the way that they have been reflected in and reinforced by the mass media, has led to the cultural meaning of women’s smoking in these countries shifting from being a symbol of being bought by men (prostitute), to being like men (lesbian/mannish), to being able to attract men (glamorous/heterosexual). To this could also be added its symbolic value of being equal to men (feminism) and being your own woman (emancipation). However, despite this proliferation in messages and meanings it is striking how tobacco companies have continued to use imagery around emancipation, the cigarette as a “torch for freedom”, as they attempt to develop new markets among women around the world. …”
Future historians will look back at COVID-19 and the George Floyd riots as the beginning of the end of New York’s cultural dominance over America.