I read Frederick Lewis Allen's book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s.
Lewis was one of the best historians of the last century, as much a storyteller as an archivist. His other two books -- The Big Change and Since Yesterday -- tell an amazing story of how America changed in the first half of the 20th century.
Here are six things I learned from Only Yesterday, which was originally published in 1931:
1. The end of World War I made Americans want to let loose in the 1920s:
The temper of the aftermath of war was at last giving way to the temper of peace. Like an overworked businessman beginning his vacation, the country had had to go through a period of restlessness and irritability, but was finally learning how to relax and amuse itself once more.
A sense of disillusionment remained; like the suddenly liberated vacationist, the country felt that it ought to be enjoying itself more than it was, and that life was futile and nothing mattered much. But in the meantime it might as well play-follow the crowd, take up the new toys that were amusing the crowd, go in for the new fads, savor the amusing scandals and trivialities of life. By 1921 the new toys and fads and scandals were forthcoming, and the country seized upon them feverishly.
2. A loosening of commercial publications set off a new culture of American values:
The tabloids, indeed, were booming -- and not without effect. There was more than coincidence in the fact that as they rose, radicalism fell. They presented American life not as a political and economic struggle, but as a three-ring circus of sport, crime, and sex, and in varying degrees the other papers followed their lead under the pressure of competition. Workmen forgot to be class-conscious as they gloated over pictures of Miss Scranton on the Boardwalk and followed the Stillman case and the Arbuckle case and studied the racing dope about Morvich.
3. Prohibition might have done more to boost the joy of alcohol than diminish it:
When the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibition seemed, as we have already noted, to have an almost united country behind it. Evasion of the law began immediately, however, and strenuous and sincere opposition to it -- especially in the large cities of the North and East -- quickly gathered force. The results were the bootlegger, the speakeasy, and a spirit of deliberate revolt which in many communities made drinking "the thing to do."
From these facts in turn flowed further results: the increased popularity of distilled as against fermented liquors, the use of the hip-flask, the cocktail party, and the general transformation of drinking from a masculine prerogative to one shared by both sexes together. The old-time saloon had been overwhelmingly masculine; the speakeasy usually catered to both men and women. As Elmer Davis put it, "The old days when father spent his evenings at Cassidy's bar with the rest of the boys are gone, and probably gone forever; Cassidy may still be in business at the old stand and father may still go down there of evenings, but since prohibition mother goes down with him." Under the new regime not only the drinks were mixed, but the company as well.
4. The automobile completely transformed the economy:
And as it came, it changed the face of America. Villages which had once prospered because they were "on the railroad" languished with economic anaemia; villages on Route 61 bloomed with garages, filling stations, hot-dog stands, chicken-dinner restaurants, tearooms, tourists' rests, camping sites, and affluence. The interurban trolley perished, or survived only as a pathetic anachronism. Railroad after railroad gave up its branch lines, or saw its revenues slowly dwindling under the competition of mammoth interurban busses and trucks snorting along six-lane concrete highways. The whole country was covered with a network of passenger bus-lines. In thousands of towns, at the beginning of the decade a single traffic officer at the junction of Main Street and Central Street had been sufficient for the control of traffic. By the end of the decade, what a difference!-red and green lights, blinkers, one-way streets, boulevard stops, stringent and yet more stringent parking ordinances-and still a shining flow of traffic that backed up for blocks along Main Street every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Slowly but surely the age of steam was yielding to the gasoline age.
5. The bursting of the stock bubble in 1929 did more than hurt wealth; it destroyed a way of life:
The Big Bull Market had been more than the climax of a business cycle; it had been the climax of a cycle in American mass thinking and mass emotion. There was hardly a man or woman in the country whose attitude toward life had not been affected by it in some degree and was not now affected by the sudden and brutal shattering of hope. With the Big Bull Market gone and prosperity going, Americans were soon to find themselves living in an altered world which called for new adjustments, new ideas, new habits of thought, and a new order of values. The psychological climate was changing; the ever-shifting currents of American life were turning into new channels.
The Post-war Decade had come to its close. An era had ended.
6. The Great Depression, which lasted until 1940, was originally written off as a blip:
When the year 1930 opened, Secretary Mellon predicted "a revival of activity in the spring." "There is nothing in the situation to be disturbed about," said Secretary of Commerce Lamont in February. ... "There are grounds for assuming that this is about a normal year." In March Mr. Lamont was more specific: he predicted that business would be normal in two months. A few days later the President himself set a definite date for the promised recovery: unemployment would be ended in sixty days. On March 16th the indefatigable cheer-leader of the Presidential optimists, Julius H. Barnes, the head of Mr. Hoover's new National Business Survey Conference, spoke as if trouble were already a thing of the past. "The spring of 1930," said he, "marks the end of a period of grave concern. ... American business is steadily coming back to a normal level of prosperity."
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