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Living the Twenties: G,H,I

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2020 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of the 1920s over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for G, H and !.

It is worth noting that an extended version of this series is available to buy.

Games obviously predate the 1920s but they became increasingly prevalent as a part of the post war prosperity of the middle classes. Board games and especially sports were a new mode of being together, especially for young people.

The new companionate couple changed the way young people spend their spare time.

Up until the war, middle classed men and women would seldom share time in the same activities. They usually engaged in different activities in different places with even seaside beaches being segregated.

This idea inevitably ran up against young people wanting to spend time with people of the same age, in the view of choosing a life partner. In order to choose, they needed to be together and see the person acting and reacting with other people. Although dances and parties were traditionally the most popular events where youths engaged with each other's company, sports and sports events became increasingly popular.

The rising popularity of sports

Being in the sun was often viewed by rich city dwellers of the 19th century as something to be avoided, it was seen as a thing the working class farm labourers endured. From the 1810s up until the 1920s while fresh air was promoted as a key to a healthy living, a tan was seen as vulgar by the upper classes, especially by women.

But around the 1920s, that began to change. Getting tanned became newly fashionable after being shunned for decades as the mark of heavy labour. Young people began to be in the open air a lot more often, and one of the best things to do in the sun was sports.

The beach began to allow visitors to show more bare skin. Bath suites became their own attire and for the first time, showing naked legs and arms became acceptable (though there were outcries against it and even police patrolling to check the shortness of the bathing suits).

As women dresses became lighter and the corset ever more unpopular, there was very little that could shape the body of a woman. But the desirable silhouette was thinner than ever. This made dieting and physical activity extremely popular. The modern young person was a person involved in sports.

Besides, sports events also created the opportunity to be together. Team sports, like soccer or football, often supported by colleges, became all the rage, spreading through out the world in the 1920s. It gave the opportunity to young men to show off their physical prowess and to women to cheer for them.

Houses in the 1920s change dramatically. The large numbers of people who moved from the country to the city called for new dwelling solutions. And the massive electrification of the cities allowed for new home layouts and interior decoration.

New public services for private houses

Electricity had started to become a more common occurrence in cities by the last decades of the 19th century when those cities switched from kerosene to electricity for public illumination.

And slowly, electricity became more available to private houses as well. By the 1920s the majority of the urban houses throughout the Western World were electrified. Though this wasn't true for the countryside where the majority of households would still lack electricity for at least another decade.

Plumbing also became more common in 1920s houses. The service had started as a public service as well, initially mostly used to pressurise water for fire hydrants. But throughout the 1800s, it became ever more apparent how sanitary sewers were essential for public health. Because new medical theories made it clear that cleanliness and health were closely connected, great effort was made to make home plumbing a norm. By the 1920s, this had largely come true, at least again within the larger cities.

The availability of these facilities in a significant number of new houses made their layout and decor very different from houses built only a couple of decades before.

The 1920s bright house

The gas-fueled Victorian houses tended to have many small rooms, easier to air and to isolate in case of fire. Interior decorations tended to be in deep reds, blues, greens and browns to try and conceal the soot from candles and gas lamps.

When electricity became commonplace, houses turned into open spaces where living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens often flowed together. Bright, even pastel colours, became the most popular choice. Electricity allowed more numerous and flexible light sources, thus more freedom in furniture arrangement.

Plumbing and sanitary waste disposal sewers made practical and appealing the consolidation in one room of sink, toilet and bathtub, which were previously placed in different locations inside and outside the house. Bathrooms would normally be small, tiled – therefore easy to keep clean – and the fixtures were white. Only towards the end of the decade, other colours were introduced.

Electricity and plumbing added considerably to the cost of the new houses, so to keep the prices affordable, builders eliminated other rooms that were not necessary. Front parlours and large entrance halls progressively disappeared, normally integrating into the living room. Kitchens also progressively shrunk, allegedly to save housewives unnecessary steps.

Slowly, the houses started to take up the familiar look we know today.

At the moment when the United States’ presence on the world stage became more critical, they pulled back and pursued a policy of isolationism.

American Isolationism in the 1920s

The United States had long been an open country. Born from immigration, for a long time, it put little to no barrier to the arrival of new people. Besides, in the beginning, the booming economy was hungry for workers, who were welcome wherever they came from. A policy of expansion over a large continent created the idea that there was no shortage of space.

But at the beginning of the 1900s, things started to change. A new American culture had emerged, and as it started to consolidate itself, it also began to fear that new influxes of different peoples and cultures could disrupt it.

In this climate, WWI broke out.

The US initially stayed out of it, mostly because the public opinion didn’t care for the European war. But as the conflict proceeded, it became ever more clear that the consequences may touch the US too.

Besides, even at home, things were changing. The German community were very numerous and economically powerful. Entire cities, like Cincinnati, were basically German colonies. An anti-German feeling, fuelled by the Prohibition campaign, arose in throughout the country.

When the news came out that Germany was considering an alliance with Mexico, with the promise that Mexico would regain its lost lands in case of a victory of the Central Powers, many in the United States feared that all these foreigners might pry apart America.

It was to protect themselves that the United States finally entered the Great War in 1917.

The cover of Life Magazine, February 10, 1916 shows a partitioned America as part of its editor's campaign to get America into the war against Germany.

The League of Nations

The United States found themselves involved more in the conflict than they may have bargained for. Their military power gave an advantage to the Allies (besides their freshness counted as all of the European nations had been at war for three years at this point), which gained them a place at the Treaty of Versailles table.

But at the same time, the US involvement in the huge loans to different nations to sustain the war reparations, started to weigh on the country’s economy, especially when it started to lose its boom.

President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations didn’t meet his country’s approval. The public opinion and a part of the Congress were not willing to become entangled in the thorny post-war situation in Europe, which was unstable at best. Many thought that although the war was over, grievances among nations were not, and some supposed that war was not really over. Nobody wanted to be part of that kind of mess.

Eventually, the US was among the first nations to refuse to join the League. And for the next twenty years, the US basically kept to itself, away from any European matter.

The Immigration Act of 1924

After the Great War, the immigration situation of the US became busy on both its shores.

From war-destroyed Europe arrived throngs of people in search of a new life. Many of these new immigrants came from South Europe, which had long been less industrialised and advanced than the North; and from the East, where people fled from the new Soviet Union.

These groups of people were very different from the second- and third-generation immigrants already present in the US. The worries of these consolidated ethnic groups added to the fear of the native-stock Americans, worried that their culture could be swarmed by different cultures, languages and religions.

Meanwhile, on the other shore, the arrival of immigrants from Asia was also increasing.

China knew a terrible famine in the early 1920s, a time of political unrest and civil war, which weakened the ancient feudal system but didn’t create a new one. In this situation of total confusion, Japan tried to conquer a part of the land.

In these circumstances, many Chinese fled the country toward the land their countrymen had been heading to for at least a century: the United States.

Asian immigrants, from Japan, Korea and the Philippines as well as China, were treat somewhat differently from European immigrants. Poor Chinese immigrants had been banned by the Chinese exclusion act of 1882. By 1920 the number of Chinese Americans was just other half what it had been in 1860. But, while Labour was still banned, merchants were not and in 1915 it was ruled that restaurant owners were merchants. This meant the 1920s saw a huge increase in Chinese restaurants, which meant even though numbers of Chinese immigrants had fallen, those still there were much more visible. The arrival of so many new immigrants from Japan and Europe and the increased visibility of the Chinese strengthened the perception of an invasion and an attack on the true American way of life. The KKK capitalised on these fears, as did the Prohibition movements.

In this time of growing uncertainty, the Congress finally passed a first emergency law in 1921, which put a maximum incoming quota on all nationalities. Then, in 1924, the draconian Immigration Law was passed, which effectively barred entrance to the United States to most immigrants (those from the Philippines could still come due to being a US colony).

For decades, the doors of America were closed.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter. An extended version of this series can be bought here.


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