If you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you may remember I often do a series in the summer. Look back and you’ll see my series on musicals in 2020 and children’s books in 2021. This summer, I’d like to take a trip through the decades. As an historical fiction writer, I love doing research. In fact, sometimes research distracts me from writing. There have been many days I’ve gotten stuck in a rabbit hole from some tiny detail and before I know it, I’ve used up all my writing time. So, I guess I’d like to dedicate my summer to those fun rabbit holes -weird facts, things we should remember from history class, and even some recipes from the past. If you’re not interested in history, I’ll see you back in early August, but I hope you’ll stay with me.
This week, I’d like to talk about a decade often called The New Era, The Jazz Age, and, of course, The Roaring 20’s. This was a decade that started with women getting the right to vote (1920) and ended with the Stock Market Crash (1929). The middle class grew in power and wealth. Mass production made it possible for regular people to own things they never had before like kitchen appliances, radios, and cars. The production and sale of alcohol was illegal for all but 16 days of this decade. Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 and wasn’t abolished until December of 1933. And although the 20’s conjure up images of flappers, speakeasies, and gangters, there was so much more to this time of prosperity and hope. As I looked at all the interesting things about this decade, I found that some things were meant to stay hidden, some things were shocking, and many things were new.
Things that were hidden:
Here’s something people didn’t know. Most of the executive decisions made in the white house in 1920 weren’t made by President Woodrow Wilson. He’d suffered a debilitating stroke which the government felt was in the country’s best interest to keep quiet. It was actually Edith Wilson (the first lady) who was calling the shots. In fact, the public didn’t learn about the stroke for months and Edith was effectively running the country for the reminder of his term of office.
Speakeasies weren’t new in the 20’s, but prohibition certainly made them more popular. Establishments that sold alcohol without a liquor license, called speakeasies, had been around since the 1880’s. They were also called “blind pigs” or “blind tigers” and during prohibition were often marked by a green door.
Another thing that was kept hidden (until the 20’s that is) were women’s underarms. The introduction of sleeveless dresses made it important for women to remove “objectionable hair.” Prior to this revolution in ladies’ clothing, even the word underarm was considered shocking.
Speaking of women’s clothing and things that were hidden, compared to earlier fashion, flappers hid very little. They wore scooped necklines, shorter skirts, and sleeveless dresses. Depicted in advertisements, movies, and fiction, they were more a symbol of the times than a description of American women as a whole. They were a fringe group like hippies of the 60’s or punk rockers in the 80’s. They’re what we use for costumes of the era, but they weren’t the norm.
Things that shocked:
I can’t talk about the 20’s without mentioning the “Sacco and Vanzetti” murders. It’s weird because murder wasn’t uncommon in the 20’s, (In fact, the murder rate in 1920 was more than 5 times what it was in 1900) but this one stood out. Because of yellow journalism and racism, two Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death based on circumstantial evidence and the public ate it up. The person responsible for payment at a shoe company and his guard were murdered and the murderer(s) took off with $15,000. Being dubbed the “Sacco and Vanzetti” murders instead of naming them after the victims is a pretty good indication they were considered guilty before ever going to trial. The popularity of the case (ending in 1927) would be remembered by journalists going into the 30’s where crime rose and became even more sensational in the papers and on the airwaves.
Something that’s actually sensational but was forgotten was a terrorist attack on US soil. On September 16, 1920, a bomb from a horse-drawn carriage exploded in front of the Wall Street offices of J.P. Morgan & Co., killing 38 and injuring hundreds. Those responsible for the bombing were never identified mainly because the damage was cleaned up too quickly for investigators to have a chance to look at the evidence.
I was shocked a few years ago when I learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre for the first time. On May 31, 1921 mobs of white residents, some of whom had been deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents and destroyed homes and businesses of the Greenwood District (Also called Black Wallstreet because it was a unique area of black owned businesses and homes). The attackers burned 35 blocks of homes, churches, schools, and businesses and killed somewhere between 75-300 people. Clearly, record keeping wasn’t a top priority in this case but I’m glad to see more and more people becoming aware of this atrocity because covering things like this up is also a crime.
On a lighter note (but still shocking) 1920 saw the end of an era. No more mailing children. Yes, you read that right. Parents, eager to send kids to see grandparents or other relatives, priced train tickets against the parcel post rate from the USPS and, turns out mailing was cheaper. But in June of 1920, the post office ruled that children were not classified as “animals for transport.” If you’ve ever had a day when you felt like a bad parent, keep this in mind. You probably haven’t bought a stamp for your kid and sent them away. Small victories.
Things that were new:
In addition to voting for women, the 20’s brought lots of new things. The precursor to the United Nations, the League of Nations was founded in January 1920 to mediate international disputes before they became wars. And although President Wilson was instrumental in creating the league, the U.S. Senate voted against joining it.
Another new thing in 1920 was the American Professional Football Association (which later became the NFL). This American sport was a mix of rugby and soccer and by the 1910’s proved to be a popular spectator sport.
The Olympic flag made its debut in 1920. The interlocking circles we all love to see every 2 years symbolized unity after World War I. (It was called the war to end all wars, but more on that in a couple of weeks.)
Possibly the biggest new thing of the 20’s was radio. In 1920, the first commercial radio station in the United Stages (Pittsburgh’s KDKA) hit the airwaves. By the end of the decade more than 12 million households had a radio. This technology put news, entertainment, and the voice of the president in people’s homes for the very first time.
Familiar brands became a household name: brands like Baby Ruth, Kool-Aid, Welch’s Grape Jelly, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Wheaties, Hostess Cakes, and Wonder Bread. Speaking of bread, in 1928 a Missouri baker used Otto Frederick Rowhwedder’s new invention to sell pre-sliced bread. It wasn’t a huge hit at first because consumers thought it looked sloppy. But it must have gained popularity since today we use it as a measuring stick for all innovation.
Speaking of innovation, Penicillin was invented (sort of by mistake) in the 20’s. So were bandaids, televisions, lie detectors, sun glasses, insulin, and cheeseburgers. One of the more influential “inventions” was the 40 hour work week. Ford motors divided work into five eight hour days and saw productivity rise. Before that, laborers worked many more hours resulting in a loss of productivity and more accidents. After Ford changed their model other companies followed suit.
The mass production of kitchen gadgets as well as the rising popularity of women's magazines led to an increased number of popular recipes. My husband's favorite cake, pineapple upside-down cake, is from the 20's. As is Waldorf Salad, Chicken Salad, and Icebox Cake. It seems we made some strides with refrigeration in the 20's. A recipe I'd like to try from the 20's is Parsnip and Celery Root Bisque. Not sure it'll be a hit with the kids, but it looks delicious. Similar to something I ate in Germany called “white breads” are these open-faced sandwiches. In the 20’s they were called “Derby Hot Browns” because they were on the menu at the Brown Hotel. Lastly, I’d like to try making this apple cinnamon jelly. (Maybe as a treat for the kids after making them eat the bisque) Sometimes vintage recipes are forgotten on purpose -like anything made in a jello mold. But some are lost by accident and I’d like to try a few.
It’s dangerous to look at the past as “the good old days” because there were plenty of things about it that weren’t good. But the 20’s were a time of hope and innovation. People felt invincible and rich. But all that was about to change. Join me next week for the 1930’s (my favorite decade).