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Thread: Myths of the Golden Era -- Exploded!

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    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    Myths of the Golden Era -- Exploded!

    As the Era recedes further into the past, and first-hand knowledge becomes less and less accessible, it might be a good idea to have a thread where we can post -- and debunk -- some of the more pervasive falsehoods that have grown up around the period.

    To start things off, if you've ever taken any kind of course or read any modern work on the history of 20th Century women in the workplace, you'll have encountered this claim:

    "In the 1930s, twenty-six states passed laws prohibiting the employment of married women!"

    This "factoid" has been floating around since the 1980s, and has commonly been used as a "look how far we've come" talking point in women's-studies texts -- but one thing is usually missing when you run across it in a textbook, in an article, in a class, or on the Internet -- any citation of the source, unless it's another textbook, speech, or article which doesn't cite *its* source. And the fact is, there is no source, because this isn't a fact at all. Only *one* state passed such a law, Louisiana -- in 1940 -- and it was almost immediately repealed.

    The truth is more complex. During the Depression, there was much controversy about how many jobs ought to be permitted per household -- if two people in one household worked, that could mean that a job was not available to a household where nobody could find employment. This reasoning did lead to Civil Service regulations prohibiting the simultaneous employment of a husband and wife from the same family, and at the height of the Depression, in twenty six states legislation was *proposed* to restrict the employment of married women. But proposal is not enactment -- and a very strong movement developed in opposition to such bills, across a broad coalition of women's rights groups spearheaded by the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs leading to the defeat of these bills in all but one state. In an article published in the July 13, 1940 Christian Science Monitor, the Director of Research of that organization, Dr. Ruth Shallcroft, pointed out that over the course of the 1930s, the employment of married women in the United States jumped from one out of eight in 1930 to an estimated one out of five or six in 1940.

    Shallcroft noted that opposition to the employment of married women remained strong in many areas, but stressed that no laws were on the books in any state restricting such employment -- and that "in all discussion on married women's employment the all-important factor is that human beings cannot be forced into any mold in their relationships and still be creative. Legislation such as that proposed against married women which would force a particular working arrangement among family members upon all families is certain to be a failure. If family stability is to be promoted, the family must be allowed the free choice of determining whether or not it is to the advantage of its members to have the wife gainfully employed."

    The war years, and the years since, proved Shallcroft correct. Since 1940, no state has had any law prohibiting the employment of married women, and since 1930 only one state has had such a law -- which didn't remain law for very long.

    Myth exploded.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

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    While this discrimination was not "de jure" is was definitely "de facto". Many women found their employment terminated when they wed or when the war ended. I have spoken to many women about these years and it was true. In addition, there was a strong social impetuos that married men automatically needed a hire salary than their unmarried female counterparts - regardless of education, experience, etc. In fact, this sentiment exists today, in my personal experience. The law might say one thing, but real life is another thing.

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    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    I don't disagree -- Shallcroft discusses this in her article, and observes that these attitudes are being eroded, which gives all the more credit to the women who did work -- but to claim, as many authors have done, that "twenty six states had a law in place to prohibit employment of married women" is, simply, not true.

    To create a myth out of whole cloth because injustices existed accomplishes nothing toward overcoming them. Why not teach, instead, that the strength of the organized women's movement in the 1930s was such that bills to restrict the employment of married women were defeated in twenty-five states, and in the one state where such a law did pass, pressure quickly led to its repeal? Is it necessary to modern culture that the past be made to appear far more backward than it actually was?
    Last edited by LizzieMaine; 03-04-2012 at 11:51 AM.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

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    One of the Regulars FountainPenGirl's Avatar
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    The title of this thread caught my eye. In talking with people I've found myself dispelling numerous myths and misconceptions of what really was. It's amazing how much there is in the expression "How soon we forget.". I am amazed at how little some people know about even recent history. I not only mean the larger issues of the day but the many forgotten realities of everyday life that people don't understand. It'll be interesting to see what comes up.

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    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    Myth: "Orson Welles panicked the entire nation with his 1938 'War of the Worlds' Broadcast."

    The Facts:

    The best source of information on the post-broadcast reaction remains Professor Hadley Cantril's landmark study "The Invasion From Mars," published in 1940, and reissued in 1966. Cantril's estimates of the program's audience and of the numbers of listeners who reacted to the broadcast are the most accurate available, and form the basis for most of what's been written about the program over the decades. It's a book that's constantly quoted -- but rarely seems to have actually been read by those who are doing the quoting.

    So what, exactly, does Cantril say?

    Professor Cantril estimates, first of all, that no more than six million listeners heard the broadcast. This figure is derived from a scientific poll taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion six weeks after the broadcast, as well as from the C. E. Hooper Inc. Hooperrating survey actually taken on the night of October 30th - Cantril's figure splits the difference between the two surveys to come up with the 6 million figure. Of these, Cantril estimates, based again on the AIPO survey, that about 1.7 million accepted the program as a news bulletin and 1.2 million were sufficiently distressed to do something about it. In other words, nearly a third of those who heard the program believed it -- and nearly a quarter of those who heard it were, in Cantril's words, excited by it.

    Impressive -- and, the source of the "Night That Panicked America" legend. But was "America" truly panicked?

    Consider this. The population of the United States according the the 1940 census (the closet available figure to 1938) was approximately 150.6 million. If 1.2 million people were "excited" by WOTW, that amounts to less than one per cent of the total population -- and by no stretch of the imagination can that be considered a nationwide panic. Cantril's estimate includes everyone who "reacted" to the broadcast, whether they picked up the phone to call a neighbor or ran screaming into the street -- so the number of people who took the latter extreme would be substantially less than one percent of the total population.

    So -- why has the legend persisted? Why do we have these images of frightened families surging into the streets, fleeing some unspeakable fate?

    Press coverage has a lot to do with it - and again, timing is everything. The newspapers were still smarting from the beating they'd taken from radio during the European Crisis -- and WOTW gave the print media a chance to wag the Finger Of Alarm at the irresponsibility of this Upstart Medium. The story was played up big in the New York papers -- where the tabloid Daily News and Daily Mirror, especially, gave the story gigantic headlines and pages of inside coverage. Even the staid New York Times gave the story banner placement. The excesses of the New York press can be excused, perhaps, by the fact that a lot of the "panic" was centered in New Jersey, where the alleged invasion took place -- but looking back on the newspaper coverage today, one has to wonder just how carefully researched it actually was.

    In any case, the legends took root -- and have entered into our national folklore. All the statistics one could ever want to quote will never dispel the myth that all the nation fled in panic on that Halloween Eve 1938. It's a good story, and it's an unfortunate truth that that a good story beats out straight history every time.

    Myth exploded.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

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    Bartender Feraud's Avatar
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    Golden Era myth busting..I love this thread!
    Workwear is the new Black.
    I'm not a bearded logger but play one on the internets

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    One Too Many Mr Vim's Avatar
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    I often would go to my history professor and ask him if a certain myth was true or a movie was historically accurate... he always said no... but would then smile and say "but it's a good story isn't it?"

    I often think that's why these myths pervade throughout history.

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    I'll Lock Up Shangas's Avatar
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    "What on earth are you dressed up as?"
    "What, you don't like my suit and hat? Today, Jamie, we're busting myths from the Golden Era, from the 1900s up to the postwar period in the 1950s..."
    "Interesting, so, where do we start?"

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    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    Myth: "During the 1930s and 1940s, everybody smoked."

    The Facts: If you believe movies and advertisements, the Golden Era existed in a constant haze of tobacco smoke -- and a cigarette was the universal badge of adulthood. Housewives and businessmen, laborers and executives, big-time athetes and poolroom loafers, the overwhelming majority of adults, men and women alike, regularly puffed away -- that's the common belief. But the reality is more complicated.

    The origin of the "everybody smoked" myth has a lot to do with World War 2. According to a detailed government study of "Cigarette Smoking Behavior In The United States" around 80 percent of American men who were of the right age to serve during the war became habitual smokers for at least part of their lives. For American men born between 1900 and 1925, "everybody smoked" is a pretty reasonable assessment. But for women, who make up half the population, the story is quite different.

    Smoking became popular for women in the 1920s, the story goes, as a symbol of freedom -- that's how they marketed it, anyway. But according to the statistics, the campaigns were quite a bit less successful than the myths would have us believe. During the flapper era, the percentage of women who smoked never surpassed 20 percent. Smoking among women increased somewhat during the thirties, but at no time during that decade did more than 35 percent of women smoke. Among all American women born between 1900 and 1924 the percentage who became smokers never exceeded 50 percent -- and the percentage didn't reach that level until the 1970's! During the Era itself, the majority of American women didn't smoke.

    A lot of people did smoke, and smoke was a pervasive ingredient of the atmosphere of the time, there's no denying that. But "a lot" isn't "everybody" -- and for women, it wasn't even "most."

    Myth exploded.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

  10. #10
    I'll Lock Up Shangas's Avatar
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    I didn't read through all that, but my research in the past told me that smoking in the Golden Era was more prevalent amongst men, than women. And that a greater percentage of men than women smoked. But it certainly wasn't "everyone". Granted, a sizable chunk of the population did, but as you say, that's not the same thing. There were people who just didn't smoke.

    Related to this, I think there's another myth here, possibly. That everyone in 1920s U.S.A. was dying of dehydration from Prohibition. Was there such a huge drinking population in the U.S. as we're generally led to believe? I mean I guess there must've been, granted that speakeasys, booze-cruises and so-forth, were doing so wel, but did THAT many people drink THAT often, as we're generally led to believe from history & gangster-movies?

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