Only Yesterday: -The Social Conditioning of America?

From observation, I have come to believe that the generally accepted laws of Darwinian evolution have an important social implication: Namely, if "survival of the fittest" means the propagation of those most fitted to the environment -then the most efficient way to modify behaviour is through "environmental programming" -or modifying the environment, so that a person (or organism) needs to modify their behaviour in order to survive in that environment.

Perhaps the best documented example of such a transition is "Only Yesterday" An Informal History of the 1920s, a 1931 book by Frederick Lewis Allen.

Surprisingly, I found an on-line edition <>. Allen has documented the
changes in America which took place -presumably as a result of the rise of modern consumerism -based on industrial over-production. A situation that appears to have been replayed globally, since WWII.


Only Yesterday

An Informal History of the 1920s,
1931 book by Frederick Lewis Allen.

"I. PRELUDE: MAY, 1919

IF TIME WERE SUDDENLY TO TURN back to the earliest days of the Post- war
Decade, and you were to look about you, what would seem strange to you? since
1919 the circumstances of American life have been transformed-yes, but exactly
how? " <>


The social crevolution seems obvious.....

A FIRST-CLASS REVOLT AGAINST THE accepted American order was certainly taking
place during those early years of the Post-war Decade, but it was one with
which Nikolai Lenin had nothing whatever to do. The shock troops of the
rebellion were not alien agitators, but the sons and daughters of well-to-do
American families, who knew little about Bolshevism and cared distinctly less,
and their defiance was expressed not in obscure radical publications or in
soap-box speeches, but right across the family breakfast table into the
horrified ears of conservative fathers and mothers. Men and women were still
shivering at the Red Menace when they awoke to the no less alarming Problem of
the Younger Generation, and realized that if the constitution were not in
danger, the moral code of the country certainly was............ And what were
these "own lives" of theirs to be like? Well, for one thing, they could take
jobs. Up to this time girls of the middle classes who had wanted to "do
something" had been largely restricted to school- teaching, social-service
work, nursing, stenography, and clerical work in business houses. But now they
poured out of the schools and colleges into all manner of new occupations. They
besieged the offices of publishers and advertisers; they went into tea-room
management until there threatened to be more purveyors than consumers of
chicken patties and cinnamon toast; they sold antiques, sold real estate,
opened smart little shops, and finally invaded the department stores. In 1920
the department store was in the mind of the average college girl a rather
bourgeois institution which employed "poor shop girls"; by the end of the
decade college girls were standing in line for openings in the misses' sports-
wear department and even selling behind the counter in the hope that some day
fortune might smile upon them and make them buyers or stylists......... The
principal remaining forces which accelerated the revolution in manners and
morals were all 100 per cent American. They were prohibition, the automobile,
the confession and sex magazines, and the movies................. For another
industry, however, the decade brought new and enormous profits. The
manufacturers of cosmetics and the proprietors of beauty shops had less than
nothing to complain of. The vogue of rouge and lipstick, which in 1920 had so
alarmed the parents of the younger generation, spread swiftly to the remotest
village. Women who in 1920 would have thought the use of paint immoral were
soon applying it regularly as a matter of course and making no effort to
disguise the fact; beauty shops had sprung up on every street to give
"facials," to apply pomade and astringents, to make war against the wrinkles
and sagging chins of age, to pluck and trim and color the eyebrows, and
otherwise to enhance and restore the bloom of youth; and a strange new form of
surgery, "face-lifting," took its place among the applied sciences of the day.
Back in 1917, according to Frances Fisher Dubuc, only two persons in the beauty
culture business had paid an income tax; by 1927 there were 18,000 firms and
individuals in this field listed as income- tax payers. The "beautician" had
arrived." <>

The role of the intellectual elite also seems clear:

"Few of the American intellectuals of the nineteen-twenties, let it be
repeated, subscribed to all the propositions in this credo; but he or she who
accepted none of them was suspect among the enlightened. He was not truly
civilized, he was not modern. The prosperity band-wagon rolled on, but by the
wayside stood the highbrows with voices upraised in derision and dismay.......
As enemies of standardization and repression, the intellectuals believed in
freedom-but freedom for what? Uncomfortable as it was to be harassed by
prohibition agents and dictated to by chambers of commerce, it was hardly less
comfortable in the long run to have their freedom and not know what to do with
it. In all the nineteen-twenties there was no more dismal sight than that
described by Richmond Barrett in an article in Harper's entitled "Babes in the
Bois" -the sight of young Americans dashing to Paris to be free to do what
Buffalo or Iowa City would not permit, and after being excessively rude to
everybody they met and tasting a few short and tasteless love-affairs and
soaking themselves in gin, finally passing out undecoratively under a table in
the Cafe du Dom. " <>


American Studies: Hypertexts -University of Virginia <>

America in the 30's: <>

David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman


Project Home Farm

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2013