Frederick Lewis Allen’s book Only Yesterday is an informal look at life in the 1920’s. The book begins with a prelude that details the lives of a young married couple. The book then proceeds to tell the events that occurred during the 1920’s beginning with the signing of the armistice and ending with the stock market crash of 1929.
Woodrow Wilson was the president at the end of WWI. He had the great honor of informing the American public that the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. When the news reached the people they literally poured into the streets in celebration. Four days before a false report was released that the armistice had been signed and America erupted into mass hysteria throwing parties and parades. It was debatable if the happy chaos would be repeated when the news of the actual signing was released. But that question was soon answered because with the news came a celebration that topped the one previously held. People ran into the streets shouting, “the Kaiser is dead”. Joyously America celebrated her triumphant defeat over the dreaded Kaiser. Soon the excitement of the signing died down and people began to face the realities that followed a post war nation. Troops were still marching into Germany and there was still a casualty list that added new names each day.
America faced other problems. Workers began to form Unions in order to gain more wages and benefits. One of the most notable strikes was the one by the Boston Police Department. The Police force went on strike and Boston went virtually unprotected. The criminals saw their opportunity and began to riot and loot. The National Guard had to be called in to regain order. It took several weeks for any semblance of order to return. Consequently the police who were striking were fired and eventually replaced. Another problem for America was a rumor that caused widespread panic in the minds of the American people. Supposedly the Bolshevics had plans to infiltrate the U.S. government and other institutions. A handful of radicals added to this fear by bombing certain buildings and high-ranking officials. This and other aggressive action by the radicals caused the public to act out in fear. Many people were deported for being accused of affiliating with the Communist party. Illegal searches and seizures of property were used to convict and deport undesirable aliens. One man killed an alien for saying “To Hell with the U.S.” and he was acquitted of the crime after two minutes of deliberation. This and other acts kept occurring until the American public realized that the Bolshevic threat was not that serious.
America soon turned its attention to topics of leisure as opposed to those of war. The invention of the radio became the main topic of discussion. People were now able to hear music as well as preaching and sporting events via the airwaves. Baseball grew in popularity as Babe Ruth broke the home run record. Thousands of people flocked to see college football games. Also the first beauty pageants were being held. Men had the opportunity to view the first installment of the swimsuit segment of the pageants. Although the swimsuits of the day were much more modest than those of today they still turned a lot of male heads.
With the advancement of technology came a revolution of morals. Prior to the 1920’s there were distinctive class and family roles firmly established. The father was the head of the household and the mother and children followed his philosophies. Women were not allowed to vote or hold high-ranking jobs. Instead they had to stay at home and cook, sew and do other chores that were required to efficiently run a household. Then came inventions like the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron as well as a number of other appliances and inventions that made housework easier. With hard housework a thing of the past women had more time to concentrate on other things. They got the right to vote and began to go to college. Women began to invade the work force and think for themselves. The boundaries between young men and women were soon disappeared in more ways than one. Young couples disregarded the fact that they were supposed to wait until marriage to become physical. Couples soon found other ways to use a car. American youth had discovered the joys of “necking” and began having “petting parties”. The age of innocence in youth would soon be over in America.
While the innocence of youth was being questioned, the United States had elected a naive president. Warren G. Harding was sworn in on March 4, 1921. Harding was a trusting and jovial man but he lacked certain qualities that would allow him to be discerning. This fault led him to elect cabinet members who took advantage of him. The people surrounding Harding led him to participate in questionable activities involving the nations oil reserve?????????????????????????????????but only???????????????????????????????
??????Calvin Collidge’s??????????president was???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????intensity. People began to live beyond their means. Traditionally people only bought the items that they could afford but the new generation of consumers began to purchase their goods on credit. This caused an economic boom. Radio and the automobile companies had the most success but companies that sold cosmetics, appliances, and other new inventions did well also. Farmers and textiles did poorly and many farmers fled the countryside to find better jobs in the city. The Ford Model A car became a big craze and consumers flocked to purchase one. Gas stations and paved roads cropped up throughout the country. The United States was having a huge economic boom and the majority of the country was reaping the benefits.
The 1920’s brought many economic changes but it also brought changes in ethnical areas of the country. America was founded on the principle of religious freedom. Schools openly taught lessons from the bible. Scientists began to publish theories about the evolution of the human race. They contended that the Bible was nothing more than fictitious literature and that humans evolved over millions of years from lower life forms. Many states past laws that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. This brought about the Scopes trial. John Thomas Scopes was a 24-year-old biology teacher from Dayton, Tennessee. He was dared into teaching evolution just to see what would happen. He did and the country erupted with an overwhelming response. People across the nation began taking sides on the issue. A trial progressed with Clarence Darrow defending Scopes and William Jennings Bryan took on the role as prosecutor. In the end Scopes was found guilty of breaking the law but the fundamental religious attitude that had dominated America since it was founded slowly began to lose its hold on people.
The American population soon found other things to talk about. One was Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop flight between New York and Paris. A prize of 25,000 dollars was being awarded to the first man to make the flight to Paris from New York. Lindbergh was a young stunt pilot from the pacific coast. He captured the hearts of the American people by not only making the flight but also going solo. On his return from Paris banquets and a ticker tape parade that rivaled the one that was thrown after the signing of the armistice greeted him. America had found a new hero to take their thought and worries away from the change and uncertainty that was sweeping the nation.
Crime was also sweeping the nation. Prohibition had opened the doors to organized crime. Consumers wanted alcohol but it was not available on the open market. Since it was illegal people began to go to underground clubs called “speakeasies”. The gang led by Al Capone primarily supplied the speakeasies of Chicago. Capone had hundreds of men armed with sawed off shotguns and sub machine guns at his service to convince the owners of speakeasies that hey should buy their alcohol from him. Capone’s group of thugs was also efficient in keeping rival gangs out of business. However some opposing gangs continued to sell their liquor. Capone’s main opposition was the O’Banion gang. Gang wars gripped the city as the two gangs sought control of the illegal bootlegging industry. Drive-by shootings and gunfights became a regular event. Prohibition did not improve the American people as it had intended, in fact, it only made things worse. Gangster related activities became common place in American society and people soon came to accept the violence.
October of 1929 proved to be a defining month for the United States. America had been prospering throughout the decade. The stock market was high and people were investing money in banks and stocks. While the people were investing their money the banks were giving out large loans to companies and prospectors. The prices of shares began to decline in late October and by the 29th they had plummeted to an all time low. October 29, 1929 will always be known as “Black Tuesday”. Black Tuesday was the day when many American dreams were destroyed. Middle class as well as affluent members of society went into debt. Banks began to call on loans but the people were unable to pay. Virtually billions of paper profits were lost in a matter of days. Uncountable amounts of suicides can be contributed to the events that happened that Tuesday as the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans had been destroyed. The prosperity of the 1920’s was now over.
With the end of prosperity came a shift back into more traditional roles. Things did not revert completely back to the way they were before but some essential qualities had returned men and women began to dress more modestly. Women’s dresses were not as short as they were in the prosperous years of the 1920’s. America was learning to deal with the loss of wealth and the carefree attitude that had accompanied that wealth.
Frederick Lewis Allen’s book Only Yesterday, illustrates the great changes that occurred in the United States in the 1920’s. America came out of a major war to face great advancements in technology that made their lives much easier to live. America obtained great wealth and began to spend large amounts of time and money on entertainment. Movies, radio, and sporting events dominated the minds of the American public. Moral and religious beliefs began to shift as women joined the work force and America’s youth revolted against the strict restraints set by their parents. America lived through prosperity only to lose it one fateful Tuesday. The 1920’s saw many changes that molded the future of the American people. The events of this decade changed the future of America forever.