Lucy Moore is a British historian whose books include Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties.
The Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, les Années folles, the Goldene Zwanziger: The names say it all. Although it will probably take a few years until the forthcoming decade earns its own zingy sobriquets, the 1920s was a decade, like our recent past, when youth, wealth and celebrity were venerated, when new technologies seemed set to change almost everything about the way people behaved, and when a sense of living in an ultramodern world, a mood of heady possibility, set the atmosphere alight like a strain of ragtime piano in a speakeasy.
A moment of new openness and opportunity for some, it was also a time when cynical leaders peddled fear and lies about outsiders to enhance their prestige and line their pockets. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for us, looking back at the era from the distance of a century, it was a period book-ended by catastrophe: The First World War had threatened the developed world’s very existence and the Wall Street crash of 1929 demonstrated once and for all that unchecked economic growth had the potential to be as dangerous as it was deceptive.
Contemplating our own Twenties ahead, we have much to learn from a hundred years ago – and not just about the catastrophes. In 1920, cars were often still cranked by hand and a fuzzy radio signal was cutting edge, but patterns in economic and social change show surprising parallels.
Consumption and its handmaiden, credit, dominated life for ordinary people in the 1920s, especially in the United States, where the war had produced an economic boom without any punishing need for rebuilding or reparations. The fads of the Twenties, one of the hallmarks of the era, from gramophone players to crossword puzzles to nail varnish to cocktails to radio, all relied on more efficient manufacturing, higher disposable incomes and the invention, for the emerging middle class, of leisure time – vacations, weekends and neon-lit night-times.
Modern zero-hours contracts and permanent access to a virtual office can make it feel as if leisure time is being phased out today. But perhaps a more apt comparison is the way electricity permeated and transformed people’s lives with a thoroughness that can only be compared to the internet.
Cars are another example of how a new technology could spread its tentacles into every aspect of daily life and enrich an entire, brand-new industry, starting with just one pioneer. Henry Ford, the Jeff Bezos of his day, developed the Model T – which famously came in any colour “so long as it’s black” – to replace the middle American farmer’s horse-drawn cart. The first Model Ts were sold in 1909, the first with self-starting engines in 1912, and the first made on an assembly line in 1914. By the time the Ford plant produced its 10 millionth vehicle, nine out of every 10 cars on the road worldwide were Fords. Like telephone ownership 20 years before and air travel in the second half of the 20th century, owning a car became no longer an extravagance but a normal part of life. Most were paid for on installment, by newly developed systems of credit.
Policy and infrastructure developed around these new drivers: Asphalted highways and traffic lights and filling stations preoccupied town planners. Auto-related industries such as rubber, steel, glass and petroleum boomed, and the desire to control oil fields became a key motivating factor in international relations – the ramifications of which are still being played out in the Middle East today.
Socially, too, cars brought revolution in their wake. Contemporary commentators believed cars were as corrosive an influence on traditional family values as Hollywood: Children from rural areas could more easily go to school, earning the chance to live different lives from their parents; teenagers could borrow the family car and socialize independently for the first time (code for necking in the back seat); young people were able to move from the countryside to rapidly growing towns; families began to go for a drive on Sundays, rather than to church.
It’s hard to believe that one day we might live in a world without the traditional automobile, so completely have we adopted it in the century since 1920, but over the coming decades, with the rise of electric vehicles and autonomous cars, it might disappear almost completely.
While business was dominated by the invention of the modern consumer, politics were marked by complacency and corruption.
U.S. President Donald Trump has his closest comparison in Warren Harding, whose chiselled features looked as if they belonged on Mount Rushmore but whose ignorance and personal weakness brought the institution of the presidency into disrepute.
The Republican Party used a special slush fund to pay off his mistresses during the campaign, and even before he took office there was a scandal over a love-child.
As president, Harding looked away as some of his cabinet members accepted bribes from speculators to plunder government-owned land, notably the oil fields at Teapot Dome in Wyoming.
Harding didn’t bring Prohibition into being – that dubious honour belonged to Congress, which passed the Volstead Act over the veto of his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, in 1919 – but he ignored it as effectively as any of his citizens or law-enforcement agents.
If the 1920s were defined by Prohibition, will the 2020s be the decade of legalization? Canada’s experiment with legalized cannabis might be commonplace globally by the end of the 2020s.
Much of the new wealth created in the 1920s was illusory, though, patchily distributed and dependent on either high levels of investment or astronomical luxury spending, or both. Rapid growth masked the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
In the United States, easily the most prosperous country in the world at this time, more than two-thirds of families were living on incomes below the generally accepted minimum standard – and this was before the stock-market crash.
Those hardest hit were often immigrants, unwanted in their home countries and uninvited to the places they settled. Today, migrants move predominantly away from Africa and the Middle East, while a hundred years ago, people travelled from southern and Eastern Europe, with Catholics and Jews finding acceptance and prosperity in new worlds. What contribution will recent immigrants be said to have had on the countries they’ve adopted, 100 years from now?
Seeking to appeal to a recently expanded electorate, public figures at times barely bothered to disguise the racism that lay beneath their messages of patriotism and progress.
While the Ku Klux Klan – revived in the 1920s from its post-Civil War heyday with a new corporate structure but the same silly costumes and deathly aims – marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Adolf Hitler was fermenting his own cocktail of xenophobia and eugenics in Germany, while Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy supported by gangs of black-shirted squadristi.
Mussolini’s path to totalitarian dictatorship came via an almost plausible law in 1923 that granted a two-thirds majority of the seats in Parliament to the party, which received a quarter of the vote; not until three years later did he ban opposition parties altogether.
Despite the darkness of the political mood, we remember the 1920s best for its thrilling developments in art and culture, opening up a world not just tolerant of difference but celebrating previously marginalized groups: the eccentric majesty of the Chrysler Building in New York, the fragmented selves that inhabit the great poems and novels of the period (too many to mention), the throbbing notes of jazz musician Fats Waller and singer Bessie Smith, the cabarets of Weimar Germany, the streamlined elegance of Chanel, the heyday of Hollywood as expressed by Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson. It was an entirely modern aesthetic: “The rhythm of life/Is a jazz rhythm,/Honey,” wrote Langston Hughes, the great voice of the Harlem Renaissance.
But the theme that most recalls a century ago is the pervasive sense that the older generation have let down younger people – indeed, all future generations. In 1919, it was retrospective disillusion created by the devastation of the Great War that made the young feel as if they had inherited a broken world.
“They give us this thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, way back in the ‘80s,” 23-year-old John F. Carter furiously wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1920. “We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of ‘tomorrow we die,’ and so, naturally, we drank and were merry.”
These disenchanted phrases could have been written by any member of Extinction Rebellion yesterday, looking not backward but ahead, at a heating planet – except that the older generation are as bemused by the younger at the looming apocalypse; and today, one hopes, for young and old, the response is not blind hedonism but energy and commitment to change.
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