How They Had Fun: Culture and Context in the United States, 1900-1960

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Part of the School of History.


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If the thought of history has ever been daunting to you before, or if you've ever looked at history as a series of names and dates, it is time to review your preconceptions. This course aims to be informative, intriguing, and most of all - accessible.

Be prepared to have your preconceptions of the past blown away! In this course (currently under development) we'll dive into the popular culture of the first half of the 20th century and have a look at how they did it up back in the day. We'll merge modern with old. No Model Ts for us - we'll use the internet as the main vehicle to transport us from the dawn of the 20th century to the conclusion of the 1950s. Along the way we'll pick up information on the films, music, and fashion that captured the hearts of the masses in each decade. We'll also see how these popular ideas and items were created and produced within the context of their times.

Think the Roaring Twenties were all Charleston dancing and wild parties? Believe the 1950s were overflowing with conformity and repression? These stereotypes have origins in reality, but be prepared to see the years through an entirely different lens. It's all a part of the time travel journey.

Syllabus, Or: How to climb the mountain of knowledge

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It is up to you how much you wish to delve into the decades. Attack all the topics in a straight shot, or sample the decades as appetizers to be savored – it’s up to you. Tackling a decade a week would be a good strategy. If you plan on going the distance and time traveling from 1900 to 1960 I would recommend going in order. History is a progression with interconnected events. It makes much more sense when taken in the order it originally occurred in. At the end there are some questions for reflection on themes in the course. You’ve gotten through a lot by that point – take the time to look back over the empire of knowledge you’ve built, and admire it for a moment. Those last questions are meant to help you do just that.

The first section is intended as a compliment to the course to help you get the most out of it. For those who have taken a history course in the past it may be familiar - feel free to skip ahead (although the second part on culture may still be useful). For those who are new to history as a field of study, or need a quick refresher, it is here for your reference:

  • What you should know about history
    • What are primary and secondary sources
    • How to give credit where it is due (citing sources)
    • If plagiarism were alcohol, we'd be teetotalers: Don't be a criminal - the world wants to be witness to the birth of your prose, not to your copy and paste skills.
  • What you should know about culture
    • Some theories in culture
    • Culture as a relatively new topic in history

Breaking it down by decade, the course's meat and potatoes:

  • General reading (and how to acquire it all)
  • 1900: Progress and Teddy Bears
  • 1910: Out of Isolation and onto the Dance Floor
  • 1920: Consumption and Conservatism
  • 1930: Depression and Cultural Riches
  • 1940:
  • 1950:

Course themes and some questions to ponder:

  • will follow the addition of the course's details

Note: The details are currently being hammered out and a more thorough outline to give a better idea of the course is just around the corner. If you have an interest in the past and information to contribute, join the ride and show us how they had fun and why it matters!