A quick blog post from April 2020 started things off early, making the prediction that after our pandemic finally ends, we’d have a second Roaring ’20s. “100 years ago: An election, a virus and a cry from disillusioned youths,” ran a headline in the Washington Post in October for a story drawing suggestive comparisons between the two decades that are separated by a hundred years of history. As we limped into 2021, the comparisons picked up. “The 1920s Roared After a Pandemic, and the 2020s Will Try,” ran a headline in Bloomberg Businessweek in January, the same month Marker published “Will the 2020s Really Become the Next Roaring Twenties?” It’s a fun thought and a good joke: “There’s been a crash in the matrix and they lost the 2020 files so there just using 1920s as filler,” laughed one commenter on TikTok.
Fun thoughts aside, however, my “hmm” reflex at historical comparisons is strong, and it’s been further honed by the “Is this fascism?” wars of 2016–21. At least one historian of the 1920s whom I reached out to for an interview for this piece said that the prediction of a “new ’20s” was so strained as to be not worth exploring. Steve LeVine, focusing on points of economic comparison in that piece in Marker, also thought: Probably not. LeVine points out a few key reasons the “new ’20s” idea might not work—there were a lot more young people in the United States then than now; a reprise of the world-changing inventions and discoveries of the 1920s would be a big surprise to those economists who believe that we have been in an invention dry spell since the 1970s. In his Businessweek piece, Peter Coy largely agrees, writing, “In all probability … the U.S. will continue to wrestle with ‘secular stagnation’ … an aging population, slow labor force growth, and weak demand for credit.” Robert Gordon, an economist Coy interviewed, looked at the numbers and argued that the next decade’s productivity growth could not possibly begin to equal that of the 1920s.
These experts make strong cases, and they satisfy my natural instinct not to go there. But I remain very interested in the reasons the ’20s appeal to our imagination right now. Of course, it’s the booze, the sex, and the parties. But it’s also a decade with a very strong identity—and I think that helps. Writing in the journal American Speech in 1951, Mamie J. Meredith argued that the ’20s boasted the most nicknames “of any period in our national life.” To make the point, Meredith pulled a list out of periodicals: “Golden Twenties,” “Gaudy Twenties,” “Easy Twenties,” “Bonanza Twenties,” “Boisterous Twenties,” “Tempestuous Twenties,” “Bloody Twenties” (referring to the era’s very public gang-related killings), “Naughty Twenties.”
I’d argue that Meredith’s point about the decade’s exceptionality still holds: How many other 20th century decades have a nice little permanent descriptor like Roaring? It helps that most of these are good adjectives, evoking a time you’d probably like to live through again—but even the slightly dangerous-sounding ones conjure up something specific. That definiteness offers an appealing sense of certainty to the weary and existentially burned-out person living through this down period between the Trump era, COVID, and whatever’s next. The descriptors also conjure up a sense of national unity and happy monoculture—“we’re all living through the Boisterous Twenties”—which is, of course, an illusion (inequality! the rural-urban divide! racial oppression!), but has a lot of appeal for us in the fractured America of 2021.
Anyway, let’s get to that fun. A very joyful book to read about the decade is Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, which Allen—a blueblood journalist and editor at Harper’s—published in 1931. The book chronicles all of the movement and motion that makes the decade sexy, and doesn’t seem to miss a fad. Among the fleeting obsessions Allen catalogs are “the sudden and overwhelming craze for Eskimo Pie” that made the price of cocoa beans go up by half; the rage for the positive-thinking guru Émile Coué; the obsessive news coverage of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen; the popularity of the novelty song “Yes! We Have No Bananas”; crazes for the foxtrot, the crossword puzzle, mahjong, and, of course, Charles Lindbergh. Allen sees this whole thing as an incomprehensible whirl, marveling at the fickle nature of the public’s interest, but this sounds like group joy at a glacial pace compared with our own lightning-quick meme culture. Maybe that’s another reason the history compels. Imagine a fad lasting for a year—or even half a year, as the 1920s “crazes” did? Wouldn’t that be restful?
Allen is also really good at describing parties—or, at least, the ones the middle class and upper class attended. The historian wrote about how women taking up smoking had “strewed the dinner table with their ashes, snatched a puff between the acts, invaded the masculine sanctity of the club car, and forced department stores to place ornamental ash-trays between the chairs in their women’s shoe departments.” In what I think may be the best passage in the book, Allen described the way 1920s partygoers stepped all over every previous genteel convention:
during this decade hostesses—even at small parties—found that their guests couldn’t be bothered to speak to them on arrival or departure; that “gate-crashing” at dances became an accepted practice; that thousands of men and women made a point of not getting to dinners within an hour of the appointed time lest they seem insufficiently blasé; that house parties of flappers and their wide-trousered swains left burning cigarettes on the mahogany tables, scattered ashes light-heartedly on the rugs, took the porch cushions out in the boats and left them there to be rained on, without apology
The horror! The horror! Invite me to your party! I will not leave the cushions out, I promise.
“Perhaps by remembering the twenties merely as an enchanting series of novelties or the crude afterthought of a simpler past, we preserve the illusion of our own simple innocence,” mused historian Paula Fass in the introduction to her book The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. When I spoke with Fass recently, she wanted me to make sure to include the story of the reactionary cultural politics of the 1920s in this piece—to stress the fact that all of this gaiety didn’t happen in a vacuum. A white mob burned the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921; the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted entry of immigrants from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe; and this was the decade of the resurgent (or “Second”) Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, Fass pointed out, operated out of motives of racism and xenophobia, but also out of generalized backlash to what Allen called “the Revolution in Manners and Morals.” “The KKK was reacting to changes in behavior in women—adultery, premarital sex, wearing short skirts. Things that are emblematic of our picture of the 1920s provoked a lot of negative response at the time,” Fass said.
I describe the “fun” parts of Only Yesterday because they’re wonderful, but also to make a point about the origin story we’ve learned about the mood of the ’20s. Looking back at Allen’s work from the vantage point of 1986, historian David M. Kennedy argued that the biggest failing of the book was its lack of historical depth: “Rarely did Allen forge an explanatory chain whose links ran back more deeply into the past than 1917.” And indeed, Allen seemed to blame World War I for every ash-covered carpet and scarred dining table. Young people who had been overseas and seen so much blood were not ready to conform, Allen wrote: “They found themselves expected to settle down into the humdrum routine of American life as if nothing had happened, to accept the moral dicta of elders who seemed to them still to be living in a Pollyanna land of rosy ideals which the war had killed for them. They couldn’t do it, and they very disrespectfully said so.” The war loomed large, and it was clearly hard for Allen, writing only a decade and change out from Armistice Day, to see whether some of these big changes had deeper roots.
I think a lot of us know that the comparison between that time and this one cannot fly. But we turn to the 1920s because it’s impossible to imagine how COVID will live on in our lives. Remember when we were still surprised at the idea that people “forgot” the 1918–19 pandemic? When COVID felt so huge to us that we couldn’t imagine it getting smaller in the rearview? I can’t believe I ever wondered. The past year has taught me that for Americans, our pathological optimism can move mountains. At the end of her book American Pandemic, historian Nancy Bristow argues that the people in the throes of flu amnesia in the 1920s were engaged in “a process common in the nation’s history”—the “drowning-out” of “narratives of anguish with the noise of public optimism.” Imagine, Bristow writes, how the “sense of opportunity and progress would have sounded to someone who had lost a mother, a brother, a wife, a son.” This was the hidden 1920s—a decade of private grief. It’s the only part I know for sure we’ll be doing again.