Social Attitudes

Village Mores in Transition[1]

J. F. Steiner
Professor of Sociology, Tulane University

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PRIOR to the opening of the present century, the typical small town in America was a center of conservatism where scant welcome was given to new methods and new ideas. The rapid urban development which had been going on during the closing decades of last century seemed to accentuate the backwardness of the village community and make more hopeless its isolated position. The prestige it had enjoyed during pioneer days faded away when confronted on all sides with the achievements of an increasing number of progressive cities. Its more ambitious young people escaped, if possible, from its deadening environment, thus decreasing still further its opportunity of keeping pace with changes in the wider world. If community studies had been in vogue at that time, an analysis of the village community would doubtless have furnished ample ground for discouragement concerning its future.

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But just when the problem of the small community seemed most acute, the whole situation was profoundly modified by remarkable improvements in methods of communication and transportation. Such innovations as telephones, improved mail service, cheap newspaper rates, parcel post, mail order houses, higher educational standards, automobiles, paved highways, and moving pictures, overcame to a large degree the old isolation of the village and opened the door to new ideas which hitherto had largely been confined to the more populous urban centers. Within the limits of one generation thousands of small towns and villages have been exposed in an unprecedented manner to currents of thought from the outside world. Since their participation in war activities made more widespread and gave increasing momentum to these new influences, the period of the World War may be taken as the dividing line between the old and the new régime in village communities.

It is only in a general way, however, that any definite date may be set for the beginning of this new era in small town life. The escape of any community from isolation is dependent upon many factors which may vary from place to place. The community with poor economic resources will be slow in building improved highways, purchasing automobiles, and maintaining high standards of education. The policy of a State toward roads and schools exerts a profound influence upon community isolation. In many communities lack of able leadership has retarded all efforts to overcome the narrow provincialism of the past. In other places the whole situation seems to favor the adoption of progressive ideas. This variation in the rate of change in different communities seems inevitable under existing conditions and constitutes in itself a situation of great interest to students of social change. Without going far afield, it is possible to observe small communities in various stages of this conflict between the old and the new. This same process of adjustment can be observed in large cities in a much more dramatic manner, but there it proceeds so rapidly and the interplay of forces is so- complex that it becomes exceedingly difficult to comprehend its full meaning or predict its further development. At this time when the traditions of the small town are being shaken by the impact of outside influences, this more simple social structure presents a

( 168) peculiarly appropriate field for the study of changing social attitudes.

In this emergence of the small town from its old isolation, nothing is more revealing than the efforts of the young people to escape from the thralldom of old traditions. The young people are naturally the storm center where the struggle between group practice and individual variation is being constantly waged. All local institutions and other means of control bring their influence to bear upon the rising generation, for unless the latter conform, the old continuity cannot be maintained. As long as access to the outside world remains difficult, the issue of this struggle is rarely in doubt. Here and there in the more benighted places, an exceptional individual may escape, but the rank and file of the young people fall ready victims to the social pressure to which they are subjected. It is true that today there is a decreasing number of communities sufficiently isolated to maintain absolute control. -A generation ago, however, many hundreds of small towns were so situated that their traditional sway was seldom successfully challenged. The first inroads upon their power frequently came about in a seemingly accidental manner without any general recognition of the significance of the new innovations. Sometimes the disturbing leaven was a broad-minded teacher or minister, the moving in of a progressive family, the coming of a railway, the building of good roads, the construction of a factory, the discovery of new sources of wealth, such as oil or coal, the use of automobiles, or some other factor that gave knowledge of the outside world or facilitated wider social contacts. Without such aid the first steps toward the emancipation of the young people would hardly have been possible. And this emancipation, it must be remembered, has gone forward very slowly except under the most favorable circumstances and rarely even today includes all areas of community life. Just how this process of change was actually initiated in several American communities is indicated in the examples that follow.

(1) The midwest, agricultural village of Milneberg with its surrounding farm territory afforded meager opportunities for satisfactory employment forty years ago. Its more intellectually in-

(169) -clined young men, after completing the village school, frequently drifted into teaching, either in the town itself or in one of the adjoining rural districts. The salary was too inadequate for the support of a family, but the position of teacher carried with it considerable prestige, and besides paid better than did manual labor. So restricted was the outlook of these young teachers that it apparently did not occur to them to go to the city high school and prepare themselves for better positions. The few who got married supplemented their teacher's salary by summer work of one kind or another and managed thereby to eke out a modest living. About 1890 one of the most energetic of these teachers happened to run across a notice of a civil service examination for the position of railway mail clerk, which paid about three times what he was able to earn as a school teacher. Although filled with grave misgivings as to the advisability of venturing on such an unknown path, he took the examination, passed it successfully, and in a short time received his appointment in the railway mail service. The news of his appointment startled the entire community. Nothing like it had ever taken place in the village before and many doubted the wisdom of embarking on such a hazardous employment. It was recalled that a young man from a good family in the village had a few years previously drifted off to Chicago where he was reputed to have secured a good job but he failed to return home for a visit and his parents seemed troubled about him. According to local gossip he had fallen victim to the wicked allurements of the city and was ashamed to return and face his former companions.

Upon the young people, however, the misgivings of their elders had no deterrent effect. The young men qualified to become railway mail clerks lost no time in taking the required examination and within two years every male teacher in Milneberg and its adjacent territory had entered this new type of work. So strong was the hold of the community upon them that all continued to reside at their old homes, although this meant a drive of five miles to the railway and a fifty-mile rail-journey to the city where they had to report for duty at the beginning of each trip. This radical venture into employment in the outside world was the first step in the emancipation of the young people in that community. A few years later traditions were still further broken when a young man in the village went away to a college preparatory school. Others followed his example and soon it became the proper thing to send the more ambitious boys to college. All this occurred before the

(170) automobile had become widely enough used in the community to be a factor in extending the social contacts of the people.[2]

(2) The school in Eno Mills gave no vision beyond the horizon of the small town, no appreciation of the bigness of the world, no vocational direction. Boys and girls stayed in the village. That was exactly what their parents wished them to do. Furthermore, the church people were suspicious of "higher learning" because the preachers were always warning them of its evils. Instead of breaking down provincialism, the school contributed to an immobility that was almost pathological.

About 1912 there was a decided change in the attitude of the churches toward education. They compromised with the dreaded "higher learning" by endorsing Christian education. The Baptist pastor at this time was the president of a Baptist school in a near-by town. In his sermons he talked about education, and soon convinced most of his flock that it was a sin to withhold the advantages of Christian education from their children-especially the kind of Christian training that his school gave. About the same time the Methodists completed a new school of similar rank [junior college] in a neighboring city, and they also began to look for recruits from the surrounding country. Five or six of the high school graduates in 1915 went to these two schools. When they finished junior college two years later they were the first from Eno Mills' younger generation to have such distinction. More surprising still, one or two of the junior college graduates went on to the university. Each succeeding class in high school had more boys and girls who were eager to follow their example. Rapidly the tide of public opinion swung around in favor of college training, and it became the fashionable thing in Eno Mills to give their children all the education the parents could afford. In a few years educational tastes had grown so that the church schools were not the only ones doing business in the town. The young people, who cared little for the earlier religious prejudices, insisted on going to the state schools for technical and professional training.[3]

(3) Twenty-five years ago Belvidere was merely an area of mountain land. The few people who lived in that section of the country had little contact with the outside world. To get out in

(171) one direction they had to cross Bull Mountain; in another direction they could struggle over the hard rough roads leading across Grandfather Mountain into Virginia. In the latter case they found themselves in what have been called the lost counties of Virginiaequally as mountainous and remote as the place from which they started. Because of its isolation, the little that was known of Belvidere until recent years was gained from tourists who passed by on their way to Grandfather Mountain.

Soon after 1900 the community was startled by the arrival of a lumber company from New York. Huge tracts of timber were bought. Building operations began. Houses sprang up almost over night. The saw mill outfit arrived, was hauled across Bull Mountain in wagons, and preparations were made to cut over the surrounding forests. Work was plentiful, the mill was a novelty, wages were paid promptly. Almost immediately all the men for miles around were tramping to Belvidere to work. At first they labored intermittently. Hunting and fishing lured them away from the mill and do yet at times, for above all the mountain man is independent. But eventually the men learned that it was to their advantage to have steady employment, and so settled down to the daily routine.

During the early days of this new development the establishment of the mill was bitterly resented by many of the mountain people because they felt it was an unwarranted invasion of their private domain. They clung to their old customs and traditions and were utterly unable to rebuild their social institutions. In order to meet this situation the officials of the lumber company took upon themselves full responsibility for community welfare and established a paternalistic system of control of community activities. Provision was made for religious services, a school was equipped, and educational standards were raised. A doctor was brought into the community and public health measures were enforced. A good road was built across the Bull's back and a railroad spur now connects Belvidere with the outside world. Strangers can come in; the people can get out. Automobiles have appeared in the village. Young people have gone away to college. Within less than a generation the people in this mountain community, who had been living in a seventeenth century civilization, found themselves in the modern world of business and industry. The more ambitious and able of the young people, for the first time in the history of the community, have gained a vision of the outside world and while still bound somewhat by the old traditions, are becoming eager to

(172) take advantage of wider opportunities in business and professional life.[4]

While many factors have been involved in this long drawn out effort of the young people to escape from the bondage of community traditions, the chief center of conflict in many instances has developed in connection with the effort of the community to enforce its social and moral code. The old Puritanical attitudes toward amusement and recreation have found favorable soil in the small communities and tend to persist there long after they have been forced into the background in the more progressive cities. In general, the church has taken the leading part in guarding the morals of the community, and in the days when its control was seldom challenged, only the boldest spirits dared to disregard its injunctions. At the present time, the sway of the church in the small town has been greatly weakened,[5] and as a result the conventional attitudes toward the so-called questionable amusements are being more and more openly disregarded by the younger generation.

This gradual breakdown in community control has been facilitated not merely by declining interest in religious doctrines, but by the growing disagreement in religious circles concerning the sinfulness of modern amusements. Where the Methodists, Baptists, and Lutherans dominate the situation, the recreational life of the young people is likely to be strictly censored. The Episcopalians and Catholics, on the other hand, permit a great deal of latitude in the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. While the church has always failed to a greater or less degree to present a united front in dealing with this problem, this lack of agreement has become much more noticeable in recent years. This state of affairs has made it possible for more liberal attitudes to develop and gain the support of a more respectable constituency. Frequently this change in attitude in the small community proceeds very inconsistently, an advance in one direction being compensated for by ultra-conservatism in another. Where dancing and card playing are permitted, the Sunday blue laws may be strictly enforced. Pool rooms may be taboo, but gambling goes on unnoticed and the community

(173) is not shocked by violation of the liquor laws. This confusion in moral standards is peculiarly characteristic of small towns today and is indicative of the growing strength of the emancipated group. To a much greater extent than ever before these communities are divided against themselves upon matters that formerly had not been seriously questioned. Nevertheless, social change under village conditions is a slow process and the old traditions in many places maintain a surprising vigor. The small town in spite of its increased mobility and better educational facilities still clings to the old order. The illustrations that follow present a varying picture of the conflicts, misunderstandings, and inconsistencies that seem to be an inevitable accompaniment of recent efforts to enforce the old moral code in village communities.

(4) The Methodist church, live, aggressive, and Puritanical, has been a disturbing factor in the town of L------ for years. The Methodists on the school board believed that the social activities of the teachers should be curbed and succeeded in having a rule passed forbidding teachers employed by the board to attend dances. A few years ago, a new school principal interested in recreation for young people organized several basketball teams, one of which was for girls. Suits were ordered and when the girls appeared in their very full bloomers and middy blouses, the church leaders were shocked. The team was disbanded and the uniforms returned. Needless to say, this school principal was not reappointed the following year. Baseball met a similar fate because the community would not permit Sunday games. To many this seemed unjust in view of the fact that the team was made up of working people who had leisure to play only on Sunday afternoons.

Later some of the young men built an open air dance floor where a dance was held every Saturday night. Long before dark the parents of the young people and others would park their cars around the elevated platform and spend the evening watching the dancers and listening to the music. Again the church leaders entered a protest to the town authorities and demanded that an ordinance be passed forbidding public dancing. When the town officials declined to act, the church members resorted to other tactics. Every Saturday night a group of church people loaded a piano on a truck, drove to the place where the dance was being held, played and sang church music, and made fiery speeches against dancing and all people connected with it. These methods

(174) aroused a great deal of indignation, but in the end public opinion sided in favor of the old traditions and dancing was prohibited. Now the young people drive to a neighboring city where they attend dances not supervised by their parents and neighbors.

(5) In the town of B------ a serious effort is made to enforce the liquor laws but liquor can be procured by those determined to have it, and some of the young men carry their hip flask when they attend dances. If a woman dares to drink or even smoke a cigarette in a public place, she loses prestige and is likely to become the subject of much unpleasant gossip. Teachers in the public schools are required to sign a statement when they make application for a teaching position that they do not smoke. Dancing is approved by the vast majority of the people and the young people are encouraged to use this form of recreation at their social functions.

On Sundays, the pool room and the drug stores remain open but the movie theater is closed. At different times attempts have been made to have Sunday movies but public opinion is against it, although no serious protests have been made about the pool room. The community is very tolerant about gambling. Playing for stakes is common at private card parties and in one of the clubs prominent citizens gamble without provoking any criticism. If Negroes, however, are caught in a crap game, they are arrested and taken to jail.

(6) Pool rooms in R------ have been taboo for many years. From the point of view of the majority of the influential people, a pool room is a disgrace to any town. They look upon it as a hangout for the worst types of men and boys and apparently have never thought that under the right auspices the game of pool might be a wholesome form of amusement for decent people.

Street carnivals have also been subjected to a great deal of criticism on the ground that they bring with them undesirable shows as well as people of low morals. The business men also claim that these carnivals take too much money out of the community and, therefore, injure local trade. The carnival, however, has entrenched itself in the community and all attempts to get local legislation against it have thus far proved futile.

During church hours on Sunday all places of business are closed. Filling stations and drug stores are permitted to be open a short time Sunday afternoons but with this exception the blue laws are strictly enforced. The public is not much concerned with the enforcement of the liquor laws. If reasonable efforts are made to

( 175) keep the sale of liquor under cover, the bootleggers are not interfered with. It is well known that prominent families keep liquor on hand and serve it to their guests. Public opinion merely demands that the town should present the appearance of being a lawabiding place.

(7) In the rural village of M------ the members of Mt. Bethel church have always been required to live a moral and upright life as dictated by the deacons. The records of the church show that the owner of the leading store was excluded because he refused to close his store on Saturday and go to church. On one occasion two prominent people were deprived of their church membership because in a quarrel one cursed the other and received a blow in return. The man who provoked the fight was after a short time forgiven the use of vile language and restored to his place in church; the other man remained an outcast until after the death of the person with whom he had fought.

As time passed and an increasing number of young people went away to college, the old rules of behavior could not be so strictly enforced. Baseball, dancing, and card playing, which had been considered the most depraved types of amusement, gained in popularity in spite of the church deacons. Children who had been forbidden even to look at a baseball game found upon being sent to college that athletics and the so-called questionable amusements were freely participated in by people of good standing in church. Upon their return home during vacations, they insisted upon indulging in the social pastimes that had been permitted them while in college. In spite of the protests of the older people in the village, new standards of social conduct were set up which became more securely entrenched as contacts with the outside world became more frequent.

(8) The population of the southern county seat of P------ numbers about 6,000 and includes the following nationalities in addition to the native whites and Negroes: Italians, Greeks, Germans, Canadians, Swedes, and Jews. Each national group has its own traditions and customs and attitudes toward moral questions and law enforcement. The town is almost equally divided between Protestants and Catholics, and these religious differences contribute still further to the complex social situation. The Catholic approve social gatherings on Sunday, dancing, and card playing. The Baptists and the Methodists, on the other hand, are opposed to such amusements and in addition disapprove Sunday movies and the custom of both sexes using the swimming pool at the same

(176) time. They have many misgivings about the godlessness of their neighbors and endeavor to set a good example by taking small part in any social life except picnics. With the exception of a small minority, each group regulates its own conduct and does not attempt to interfere with others provided there is no serious violation of the law. The Jews and the Episcopalians have their bridge clubs and play for prizes without interference. The Greeks and the Italians live in their section of the community and celebrate their national holidays with song and wine, unmolested. Thus far no one group has succeeded in gaining control and as a consequence the town tolerates divergent views and customs to a much greater extent than is common in this section of the South.

(9) The Presbyterians, who constitute the only white congregation in the small college town of W------, worship in the college chapel. Very few of the towns-people attend church. It is unusual to see anyone at church who is not in some capacity connected with the college. Under these circumstances it is perhaps inevitable that the two groups should hold different views concerning moral conduct.

The college is under the sway of conservative traditions. The students are not permitted to dance, smoke, play cards, or leave the campus without permission of one of the deans. The townspeople make no effort to assist the college in enforcing its strict regulations. On the contrary, they seem to take delight in aiding the students when they endeavor to enjoy more freedom than the college authorities think advisable. The gulf between the two groups is widened by the fact that the young people of the village attend card parties and dances and frequently go to the city to enjoy its recreational facilities. The Faculty Dames own a motion picture projector and put on every fortnight in the college chapel the only movie available in the town. The Woman's Association, to which both town and college women belong, has a community house where suppers and entertainments are given. There is always a feeling on the part of the college women that if a member of the town group is on the entertainment committee, there will be some stunt that will be questionable or embarrassing to those upholding the college traditions.

The moral standards of the community cannot be said to be high. The college group protects itself fairly adequately and especially those who willingly conform to the college traditions. The students who are inclined to follow their own inclinations find many opportunities to form undesirable associations. Gossip of

(177) sex irregularities among some of the more prominent townspeople is not an uncommon thing. Bootlegging is a regular industry, but no one takes it upon himself to investigate and the town marshal is not inclined to interfere. The local paper some time ago made the statement that the dense shrubbery on the outskirts of the town could be made to yield some interesting secrets if an investigation were made.

To all outward appearance W------ is a very attractive college town where life goes along smoothly for those so fortunate as to live there. But when one looks beneath the surface, there is clearly apparent the bitter conflict between the smug Puritanism of the college group and the more lax moral standards of the towns-people. With the recent completion of a paved highway leading to a neighboring city, it seems that the college community will find it increasingly difficult to maintain its traditional control over the lives of the students.

Although the small town church seems to play the leading rôle in this effort to protect the moral standards of the community, local customs and traditions rather than religious doctrines determine the attitude of the church toward recreational activities. The more emancipated city church, teaching a similar religious creed, is likely to promote rather than discourage those forms of recreation that are taboo in the small community. The church like any other institution is a product of its environment, and one of its important functions is to give divine sanction to folkways and conventions that are felt to be essential for community welfare. It is quite apparent that the church cannot perform this function satisfactorily in a community where there is a great amount of religious indifference or utter disagreement among the people concerning the social code to be enforced. As a matter of fact the growing number of outside contacts and the rising standards of education in the small town are producing a situation in which arbitrary religious control is being maintained with greater difficulty than ever before. The small community cannot utilize the church as effectively in the enforcement of its traditions as it did a generation ago. This is certainly true in those places where the infiltration of modern ideas has proceeded far enough to broaden the mental outlook of the people.

This changing situation in small communities must not, how-

(178) -ever, be over-emphasized. Even in those places where church support has greatly declined, the deeply imbedded religious traditions and forms of the past do not readily disappear. The religious attitudes in the small community, where fear and superstition have found such a ready entrance, have tended to persist in spite of great strides in intellectual emancipation. The apparent decline in moral standards does not necessarily indicate a corresponding lack of interest in religious belief. On the contrary, zeal in religious enterprises seems sometimes to be a form of compensation for moral lapses. At any rate, religion still continues to be a powerful force in many places where low standards of conduct are widely prevalent. The following examples furnish evidence of the continuing influence of religious traditions in village communities in spite of all the sweeping changes that are tending to destroy their old authority.

(10) In the southern town of R------ no meeting, no organization, no undertaking of any kind can be a success unless it has the approval of the pastors of the Baptist and Methodist churches. Every meeting, whatever its nature, requires the presence of the preacher to deliver the opening remarks or to begin the meeting with prayer. It is commonly understood that if the Baptist preacher is on the program, the Methodist preacher must be there also. The preachers seem to be the only fully accepted and unchallenged leaders of the community. Their statements are never questioned. Practically all the business and professional men belong to church. In fact, no one could have any standing or business success unless he belonged to church, contributed to its support, and participated in its services. This, of course, does not mean that this town is noted for its high moral standards. On the contrary, sharp business practices are not uncommon, the private life of some of the leading church people would not bear close inspection, and the churches are hard put to it each winter to win back to the fold the usual number of backsliders.

(11) Revivals are still a prominent feature of the life of the southwestern college town of W------. Each summer the Methodist pastor with the help of a visiting evangelist holds a revival service which stirs up much interest among the people. When these revivals reach their height, the evangelist uses all sorts of dramatic devices to make clear his points of theology. A favorite method is to hold up before the audience a bottle of clear liquid,

( 179) the contents of which become dark and then clear as they are poured into different glasses. "This," he says impressively, "illustrates how sin is forgiven," and his audience feel that they have mastered a great spiritual truth.

The Baptists hold a two weeks' revival in October, just after the opening of their college. During the whole time all classes are suspended. No teacher would be so bold as to attempt to meet his classes while the revival is going on. Religious services begin each morning at eight o'clock. At ten the students assemble in the college chapel where the visiting evangelist denounces their sins and warns them in no uncertain terms of the eternal punishment in the hereafter. After his sermon workers go out in the audience and plead with the sinners. Immediately after this service the students assemble at the church. They remain there until about one o'clock listening to another sermon followed by testimonials. During the afternoon all are supposed to sleep and rest for the night service. At seven the students are in their study hall for prayer. A half hour later they are in their pews at the church where they remain until ten. This program is kept up without intermission for two weeks. If at the end of that time there are any who have not joined the church, they are considered hopeless.

All business houses are closed during the hours of morning service. All social activities are suspended and pressure is brought to bear upon the principal of the high school to compel him to excuse his students so that they can attend the morning meetings. Soon after the close of the revival the town drops back into its accustomed ways and many who were thought to have been saved return to their former worldly habits.

(12) During a revival in a small town in eastern North Carolina a few years ago, the traveling evangelist denounced the Jews and charged that a nationally-known Jewish philanthropist was a notorious leader of a vice ring in Chicago, who had grown rich through his corrupt practices. The editor of the local paper immediately got in touch with prominent citizens of Chicago and secured from them a large number of testimonials vouching for the good character of the man under attack. These were printed in the next issue of his paper and the editor took occasion to state in caustic terms what he thought of a religious leader who handled the truth so carelessly. Although ample proof was given of the deliberate misstatement of the evangelist, the latter weathered the storm of newspaper criticism without loss of prestige or influence. By simply telling the people that the editor was not at-

(180) -tacking him but Jesus Christ, the evangelist caused the newspaper story to be discredited as the work of the devil, and large numbers of the people, including some of the local ministers, stopped their subscriptions to the paper.

This incident was given wide publicity in all the papers in the State, but it interfered in no way with the evangelist's later career. In one of the towns to which he had been invited there was some discussion concerning the propriety of going ahead with the revival as had been planned. The majority decided to urge him to come, and in the revival that followed, his popularity seemed to have been enhanced by the unfavorable publicity he had received.

While, of course, it is easily possible to cite many urban instances of blind allegiance to the traditional and less sophisticated aspects of religious activities, religious fundamentalism must be regarded as an anomaly in a city environment. Aimee Semple McPherson's crowded temple in Los Angeles secures a large measure of its support from the rural and small town migrants to that city who are still dominated by the traditions and beliefs of the conservative places from which they came. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago not merely renders a similar service for the village-minded of that city, but gains prestige as the great training center for ministers of small-town churches. The urban constituency of the more conservative Catholic churches as well as of the Orthodox Jewish synagogues is largely recruited from recent immigrants and from those portions of the city population who have not as yet reconciled their village heritages to urban surroundings.

But however strongly entrenched may be conservative urban institutions of this kind, from the point of view of community control they are far less significant in the city than in the village community. In the large city these conservative forces operate within specific groups and ordinarily are so divergent both in their methods and their constituency that they cannot influence in any vital way the broader interests of the people. In the small town, on the other hand, this intolerant, sectarian type of religious institution has as its foal the domination of community life and possesses sufficient unity to enable it to go far toward accomplishing its purpose. To a far greater extent than is often realized, the small-town church influences the appointment of public school teachers, censors their social life,

(181) and makes their position untenable if they do not actively participate in religious activities. Business and professional men frequently find that at least formal church support is necessary if they are to remain in good standing in such a community. And whatever advance has been made in the development of recreational programs in the small community has usually been accomplished in spite of the opposition of the church.

The full significance of this persistent struggle for religious domination becomes apparent only when viewed as a desperate effort on the part of the village community to maintain its traditional sway over its people. With the widening of social contacts, the more informal means of control lose their power and the young people set up new standards of conduct which threaten to displace those established by their elders. In the effort to resist these disrupting forces, the small town church has assumed the place of leadership. It has, therefore, become a center of conflict characterized by sharply divergent attitudes. A growing minority would favor rebuilding the church so that it might keep pace with the changing times. But the rank and file of the church leaders feel that everything hinges on the successful maintenance of the old traditions. However weakened the small-town church may be by the various disintegrating influences it faces, it still maintains its place as an important factor in community control.

The blighting effect of this struggle in the moral realm has spread over all areas of community life. While the proverbial deadness of the small town cannot, of course, be traced to any single cause, there can be no doubt of the wide reaching influence of conservative religious forces. In the struggle for domination in this field, the issues are not clear-cut and definite, but extend out in various directions and tend to be linked up with past experience and traditions long accepted by the community as vital to its welfare. This conflict is concerned with far more than the domination of the church or the preservation of a traditional moral code. It is fundamentally a struggle between the old and the new, a determined effort to preserve the status quo threatened by the onset of new ideas from the outside world.

While the contrast between village and urban rates of change is less striking than a generation ago, continued evidence of

(182) the essentially static condition of small town life confronts us on every hand. Much of the trend toward urbanization in village communities is more the result of economic necessity than of fundamental dissatisfaction with their traditional patterns. In so far as it is possible the village tends to cling to its old folkways and traditions even though this backwardness in certain areas of its life is inconsistent with its progress in other lines. The prevailing attitudes of the small community are still conservative and tend to remain so because they are a natural outgrowth of the situation in which they exist. The following brief pictures of small-town life supplement those already given and furnish additional evidence of the cultural inertia that is still characteristic of many towns and villages throughout the country.

(13) There has never been a library in S------ and no effort is being made to secure one. Few of the people are in the habit of reading books. Not many families subscribe for first class magazines and those offered for sale in the drug store are of the cheaper and more sensational sort. The Star Telegram and the Dallas News, daily papers from the neighboring city, furnish the more wide-awake people with their news of the outside world. The latter paper, however, was almost entirely boycotted for a while last year because it made a vigorous attack upon the Ku Klux Klan. The Baptists take the Baptist Standard, the Christians take the Advocate, and the Methodists feel that they must not be without their denominational journal. The opinions of the influential leaders in the town concerning social and moral problems are largely secured from these religious sources. The wide stream of current literature, whether contained in books or periodicals of the better class, finds entrance in only a very small number of homes.

(14) With the coming of the modern era, the old New England town of D------ reveals many striking changes. The old homogeneity of population which had facilitated unity of action in town meeting and church has given way to a mixture of nationalities with different languages and customs. Family ties are becoming less binding. The parents as well as the children feel free to seek their amusement outside the home. Town scandals connecting the names of married folk of the town in very unpleasant stories are becoming more common. The children do not know how to manage their new freedom from family restrictions. The boys loaf

(183) about the cove, playing at craps in the barbershop, exchanging rough jokes about the girls who pass, or planning a wild party for the night. The girls are as anxious for gay times as the boys. The once popular "kissing game" parties are now considered tame and uninteresting.

This apparent breakdown of the moral standards of the community has been accompanied by growing indifference of the people toward affairs of public interest. There is little concern about beautifying the streets or improving the school. "What was good enough for us, is good enough for our children" is an attitude that is frequently expressed.

Thus far the coming of outsiders has done little to overcome the provincialism of the people. In spite of their wider social contacts made possible by automobiles, the old residents of the town are still suspicious of strangers. The first Jewish family to come to town was looked upon as a bunch of thieves and undesirables. A newcomer in church and school must first go through a probationary period before he can exert any influence upon town affairs. If he offers suggestions looking toward town improvement before he is an accepted member of the community, he is frowned upon as officious and loses prestige immediately. Under such conditions the process of adjustment to new conditions goes on very slowly and the institutions of the community show increasing signs of decay.

(15) Every two years the keenest interest and rivalry are aroused in the election of county officials. The two banks in the small county seat are affiliated with rival political parties and are the recognized leaders in the bitter struggle to win the election. The political campaign is not based on important political issues but is in reality an effort of each bank to get control of the local government. One of the devices used by the banks to win votes is to put up candidates whose crippled condition would arouse the sympathy of the people. If one should drive by the court house in the cool of the morning while the officials are sitting in the shade of the building, he might easily take the place to be a home for cripples. The clerk of the court uses crutches when he walks. His assistant has not had the use of his legs for years. The registrar of deeds is paralyzed and matt he carried to his office. The treasurer is a very old man and was elected oil the plea that he was too old to do any other kind of work. When the political campaign is on, little is said about the need of securing capable officials but much about electing men who need to be provided for. Since

(184) the government has long remained in such incompetent hands, no progressive measures can even hope to secure a favorable hearing.

(16) There is one thing apparently upon which the people of L------ agree and that is all are Democrats. It would not occur to anyone to justify his political faith by studying the tenets of his party. "Our fathers before us were Democrats and we vote no other way." "The party of Jefferson, Jackson, and Wilson is good enough for me." With statements such as these they defend their allegiance to the Democratic stronghold. One who should dare to vote the Republican ticket would lose caste. Such epithets as "blue-bellied Yankee," "damn Yankee," and "black Republican" are enough to scare the most venturesome back into the security of the party that dominates the situation.

(17) Until four years ago the college town of Y------ was almost isolated from the city nine miles away. With the construction of a concrete highway and the removal of the toll from the bridge that must be crossed before entering the city, this quiet isolated town has had forced upon it almost overnight the status of a residential suburb. Hourly bus service has brought it well within the commuter's zone. Already a few people have moved into the town for the educational advantages for their children while they maintain their business connections with the city. This transition, however, has been too sudden for the town to adjust itself satisfactorily to the new conditions. It still retains its provincial attitudes, its petty and personal grudges, and declines to make those improvements in public health and sanitation that would add to its attractiveness as a residential college community for the neighboring city.

This cultural inertia in small town life tends to persist in spite of recent progress in overcoming isolation. The building of good roads, the wide use of automobiles, and more frequent contacts with the outside world, are not magic wands with power to transform suddenly a provincial village into a progressive community. Limitations apparently inherent in the small community such as few opportunities for large achievement, dearth of social contacts, and inadequately equipped institutions minimize the liberalizing effects of improved transportation and communication. Even in those village communities that seem to be most advantageously located, conservative attitudes still tend to dominate the situation.


The village dweller regards himself as the custodian of long accepted values that are being cast aside in an unwarranted manner. While this is a rôle to which the small community has long been accustomed, the new element in the situation is its inability to face these issues with a united front. As a result of the freedom of movement that has made more or less headway in all types of communities in recent years, critical attitudes toward existing traditions find a more congenial soil in which to develop. No longer can social pressure bring the non-conformist easily into line for his hands are strengthened by the support of a growing group of like-minded people. The small community at the present time is torn by the conflict between its sentimental attachment to old values and its urgent desire to follow urban patterns. The key to an understanding of the apparent contradictions so evident in present-day village communities must be sought in the varying stages of this struggle of the individual to achieve a larger amount of freedom from the traditions and customs that are not in harmony with existing conditions.

Many diverse elements enter into this process of adjustment to urban patterns and it follows no uniform course of procedure. As has been indicated in previous illustrations, the most bitter skirmish usually takes place in connection with the effort of the community to enforce the moral code. No area of community life, however, is free from this struggle. While it is only in the more backward communities that serious effort is still made to absorb the individual completely, this traditional function of the community is not easily abandoned. In the long history of the small town the need of conformity to local customs has become deeply entrenched. Religion has given its divine sanction to that which has come down from the past and has powerfully strengthened the emotional attachment to well-established institutions and traditions. Under such conditions fear of change becomes a dominant factor. The individual's desire for security extends beyond his personal and family relationships to his wider community interests. Conservatism, resistance to change, reverence for the old, have been natural products of small town life and still play a large part in its present development.

Without doubt this hostility to changes going on in the outer

( 186) world owes considerable of its animus, especially during recent years, to the natural feeling of inferiority resulting from the failure of the small community to keep pace with urban standards. The remarkable strides that cities have made in material improvements during the past 50 years have widened the gulf between urban and small town life. The community that does not have sewage disposal and water systems, hospital, library, paved streets, recreational opportunities, and other similar facilities that form a part of modern civilization loses prestige and is given a low rating. In providing these modern requirements for communal living, the small town faces serious handicaps because of economic limitations. An important factor in the large migration from town to city is the widespread desire to live in a place where there is an opportunity to enjoy urban improvements. The increasing urban trend is forcing the small town into a position of less importance where it is having difficulty in maintaining its former status. Under these conditions it is almost inevitable that a determined effort would be made to preserve its old values. In explaining the conservatism of small-town life, it must be kept in mind that a great deal of the resistance to change is simply a defense reaction on the part of those engaged in a losing struggle with forces beyond their control.

The outcome of this struggle between the new and the old régime in village communities cannot easily be predicted. There can be no doubt that urban patterns are making strong inroads on the customs of even the most conservative villages and towns. At the present time this is much more evident in material improvements than in modifications of the social code, although the former is slowed up by lack of economic resources. While the trend is undoubtedly in the direction of more emancipated communities, liberal attitudes have always thrived better in an atmosphere of anonymity than in places characterized by intimate personal relationships.

In the typical small town where the majority of the interests of the people must center in local activities, universal acquaintance and intimate association follow as a matter of course. Gossip still plays an important part and only the most independent in mind and spirit can live unaffected by it. In such a situation anonymity and the freedom that goes along with it

(187) become impracticable of attainment. It is at this point that the small community encounters one of its most serious obstacles in its effort to build up urban patterns. Inherent in its very structure are attitudes that tend to change only when the village succeeds in growing into a city. As long as this is true, the small community will remain more conservative than the urban center and will be an uncongenial environment for those who revolt against the old traditions.


Brunner, E. deS., Village Communities, New York, 1927.

Douglass, H. P., The Little Town, New York, 1919.

Fry, C. Luther, American Villagers, New York, 1926.

Lynd, R. S., and Lynd, H. M., Middletown, New York, 1929.

Ogburn, W. F., Social Change, New York, 1922.

Rhyne, J. J., Some Southern Cotton Mill Workers and Their Villages, Chapel Hill, 1930.

Sorokin, P., and Zimmerman, C. C., Rural-Urban Sociology, New York, 1929.

Steiner, J. F., The American Community in Action, New York, 1928.

Sumner, W. G., Folkways, Boston, 1906.

Thomas, W. I., and Znaniecki, F., The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (2nd edition), 2 vols., New York 1927.

Williams, J. M., Our Rural Heritage, New York, 1925.

Williams, J. M., The Expansion of Rural Life, New York, 1926.


  1. In spite of the wealth of material on rural and village life in general, there is a scarcity of studies dealing with the changing social process in small communities. The pattern set by Thomas and Znaniecki in their analysis of Polish peasant communities has apparently exerted greater influence upon urban sociologists than upon those concerned with rural and village life. Searching analyses of the interplay of social forces in small towns and villages comparable to what has been done for the city in such books as Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum, Wirth, The Ghetto, Thrasher, The Gang, and Lynd, Middletown, have not yet been written. Perhaps the nearest approach to studies of tis kind in the rural field is found in Williams, Our Rural Heritage and The Expansion of Rural Life, and in Groves, The Rural Mind and Social Welfare, although these writers made little use of the documentary method. Studies dealing primarily with the village such as Douglass, The Little Town, and Brunner, Village Communities, set forth interesting facts concerning the structure and function of small communities, but throw little light on the problem of social change. The first volume of case studies in which emphasis was placed upon changing social attitudes and customs in village communities was Steiner, The American Community in Action. In this chapter an attempt is made to present concrete materials illustrative of the changes that take place in village mores when subjected to the strain of outside influences.
  2. All illustrative materials in this chapter, except when otherwise noted, have been taken from unpublished studies.
  3. Adapted from Steiner, The American Community in Action, 1928, pp. 42-64.
  4. Ibid., pp. I53-91.
  5. See Brunner, E. deS., Village Communities, Chap. VI.

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