The year was 1920, and for the first time in United States history more people lived in cities than the country. Urban and rural life had many differences. The cities were more diverse with a growing immigrant community. It also was more developed, enjoying electricity and mass transit systems. Rural life was more traditional and agricultural. Prohibition and the Scopes Trial are two events that help us see the contrasts between urban and rural life in the 1920s.
1920: A Turning Point
The United States population today is primarily found in urban (cities) areas. Census data tells us that in each area of the country over 75% of the population lives in cities.
The turning point when more people lived in urban areas than rural areas (“the country”) is 1920. 75% of the people in the Northeast already lived in cities.
Slightly more than 50% lived in cities in the Midwest and West. Less than 30% of the people in the South lived in cities.
This makes the 1920s an interesting time to compare urban and rural life. The United States was on the cusp of the modern era. The Great Depression and World World II were still years away. The urban and rural population was nationwide almost evenly split. And, there were many clear differences between the two populations, even if they were all Americans.
The Scopes Trial Highlights Polarization in America in the 1920s
A symbolic clash of 1920s urban and rural values is the Scopes Trial, which was later dramatized in the play (and motion picture) Inherit the Wind.
This was a court battle receiving national attention arising in a small town in Tennessee to test a state law that banned the teaching of evolution. Evolution was seen by some as anti-biblical and threatening traditional values in favor of unwholesome science.
The teacher involved, John Scopes, eventually won on a technicality, allowing the ban to stand.
Urban life was seen as the center of modernity and science. This was seen as a threat to traditional values, including religious values. Liberal religious beliefs clashed with more fundamentalist beliefs that saw evolution as a violation of literal biblical language.
The play highlights the “invasions” of outside forces to small-town rural life and the stresses of changing times. The media (including a big city reporter who looks down upon “rubes”) and the new technology of radio “invades” the sanctity of Dayton, Tennessee.
Some in Dayton accept the new ways including teaching evolution, and the town uses the trial as a scheme to attract business to the town. This suggests that rural and urban values are not completely different. There is some overlap.
Further Reading: Summer of the Gods by Edward J. Larson is a Pultizer Prize winning book, which discusses the Scopes Trial and its wider historical influence.
The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919, starting Prohibition, which lasted until the early 1930s. Support for Prohibition was particularly found in the South (over 70% rural) and the rural Midwest. This provides another case study of the clash of urban and rural life.
Alcohol was seen as immoral, a threat to traditional religious values that were most strongly held by rural populations.
Immigrants (especially the Irish and Germans) were also seen as most likely to abuse alcohol, particularly in urban saloons.
After Prohibition started, urban areas were the location of illegal speakeasies, dangerous locations of crime and immorality. Rural areas were seen as more safe, family-friendly communities, focused on farm life. Others saw rural areas as backward, undeveloped, and poor.
Prohibition therefore was partially a battle against both immigrants and urban life.
Immigrants migrated in large numbers into cities. They were newcomers and not as settled or adapted to American culture. This was also the time of the first Great Migration, during which many African Americans after World War I went from the rural South to Northern cities.
Many saw this as threatening. Multiple anti-immigrant policies were passed.
Others saw urban life as a center of culture (including the Harlem Renaissance and bohemian women called “flappers”) and the potential for financial success.
Urban life was more anonymous, impersonal, and unsettled. Or, was it exciting, up and coming, and still filled with pockets of traditional immigrant communities? Maybe, it was both?
The complexities of urban life can be seen in fiction. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for instance, tells a tale about a girl growing up in early 20th Century New York City.
Perhaps, the most famous account of a girl growing up in a rural environment around this time is To Kill a Mockingbird. The two books have various similarities. But, even when dealing with two girls growing up, city and rural life was very different in many ways.
Urban Life in the 1920s
Urban life in the 1920s had many of the things people today take for granted. Electric lights were invented in the late 19th Century. Electricity also brought such modern conveniences as washing machines.
Urban areas had sewage systems and running water. Paved streets. And, cars and mass transit systems. The New York City Subway system was founded in 1904.
The growing population of cities in the 1920s also reflected the economic boom after World World I. There was a growth of industry and a reduction in prices that helped people to afford consumer goods. Urban governments grew in size and often leaned Democratic.
Farm Life in the 1920s
Farm life was in various ways quite different. There was often no electricity or running water. Bathrooms might be an outhouse. Traditional tasks that were done for centuries such as milking cows, harnessing horses, gathering eggs, and raising crops continued to be the focus of people’s days.
There was also a mixture of conservative and progressive political views.
In the South, sharecropping was common. Sharecropping is a system where the landlord/planter allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop.
The leading crops were cotton, tobacco, and rice. It was a hard life for the sharecroppers.
About two-thirds of the sharecroppers were white, one third were black. The mix of economic hardship and racism in the Jim Crow South helped to motivate the Great Migration.
Rural life, however, was not totally isolated from the rest of the country. Rural free delivery provided mail service. People listened to the radio, watched movies (with sound by the end of the decade) had access to newspapers, and benefited from the post-war boom.
It was no longer possible, if it ever truly was, for rural and urban life to be totally isolated from each other.
There were many differences between urban and rural lives in the 1920s. This led to various cultural conflicts. There was also some overlap, both were still part of the same country, undergoing the great changes of the early 20th Century. One theme of American history, especially over time, is that we are on some basic level one nation even with all of our divisions.