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Living the Twenties: S,T,U

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 S, T and U.

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

Sanitary advancement was astounding in the 1920s. Many discoveries were made in that decade, but even more came from the 1800s and only became accessible to the wide public in the 1920s. They affected the lives of a large part of the Western World population, changing the habits and the expectations regarding the house and the personal state.

In general, people became cleaner and enjoyed cleaner and healthier surroundings. More wholesome food became more readily available. Medicine made major advancements in the cure of many common illnesses.


For most of the early 19th century, most people thought that eating a lot was sensible, even necessary, they worked in manual labour and starvation was a far bigger threat than obesity. Diet pills existed in the 1800s but they were the concern of a rich minority. There wasn't much general awareness, outside of academic circles, of what we could call a balanced diet. Or that an unbalanced diet, heavy on calories and poor in vitamins, didn’t give them all the necessary nutrition. The emphasis was just on filling food.

This was especially true in WWI when food was not readily available. In Germany famously the starving people resorted to eating turnips, once used only as stock for animals and this led to increasing malnutrition and illness. Even in the UK and other countries less effected rationing meant people needed to eat less but better, with governments dictating a healthy diet through rations with sugar, meat, flour, butter and milk controlled. To a very limited extent some poor people found their diet improved by these limitations, though the lack of food meant more were reduced to only one meal a day. Tuberculosis provably increased due to this lack of nutrition though the government still came to the conclusion that the civilian population's health improved in general under rationing.

As a result this idea of a healthy diet by limiting certain foods took hold. By the late 1920s, you began to see more people arguing for different diets. In Italy for instance futurists began to argue for rice instead of pasta on the basis that it gave you more energy. As Filippo Tommaso Marinetti put it, "People think, dress and act in accordance with what they drink and eat". Slightly later on, the 'Grapefruit Diet' emerged in America.

And new technology also shifted what food was available. After the war, improved food processing methods helped sharply increase the sale of canned fruits and vegetables, as well as condensed soup, beans with pork, sugar and tomato sauce. In 1925 Clarence Birdseye discovered how to quick-freeze fresh food in cellophane packages (itself a new product) while in the 1910s new methods for large-scale pasteurization made milk (which had long been risky to drink), a popular drink, and not just for infants.

Personal cleanliness

Already in the 1800s, scientific discoveries about the role of bacteria in causing illness had called for the development of urban sanitation systems and more through personal cleanliness. But it was only after WWI (and the further medical advances that the war caused) that cleanliness became a requirement of everyday life.

In the 1800s and very early 1900s, hot baths were discouraged because though to be dangerous for the heath. Educationalist James Pope advised that frequent hot baths made the blood flow away from the heart and lungs. One hot bath a week sufficed for most people.

In the 1920s, the attitude toward cleanliness shifted significantly. Both body and clothes cleanliness became a standard requirement.

As the new house appliances became more available and economical, cleanliness in the house also became a requirement.


The 1920s were a time of change in the field to medicine. While old beliefs and practices were still widely accepted and used, many discoveries advanced the understanding of many illnesses and their cures.

A few vaccines had been discovered in the previous decades, but it was only in the 1920s that they found practical use. In fact, throughout the decades, researchers found or advanced the cure for many diseases that previously had been potentially deadly such as tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, and syphilis.

The most influential of all was probably penicillin. A young French medical student, Ernest Duchesne, was the first to discover the antibiotic effect of Penicillium glaucum in 1896, but the Institut Pasteur ignored his discovery. In 1928 Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, rediscovered it, creating the penicillin, which would be the base to the cure many illnesses.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

During the last stages of WWI, an outbreak of influenza swept the globe, killing people of every age and walk of life indiscriminately.

It was (and it is) called the Spanish Flu, but today historians think it unlikely that it really arose in Spain. Europe was at war, all borders were closed, and all media was censured. But Spain was neutral, her news system freer, and so it was there that the first cases emerged.

In 2014, Mark Humphries argued that the influenza probably emerged in China, and was carried to Europe by Chinese labourers who dug the trenches of WWI, though this has been disputed. Other sources have argued it already existed in Europe before WWI. Regardless of how it get there, it was in the Trenches that it first spread.

The cramped, dirty, damp conditions in the trenches were optimal for the spread of the virus. Coupled with the weakened immune systems caused by malnourishment, it caused many soldiers to fall ill. Soldiers in the trenches knew it as ‘la grippe’ and most got over it in about three days, if there weren’t other complications. But in the summer of 1918, several battalions went on leave and brought the undetected virus back home with them.

The virus found no barriers. It spread like wildfire from a country to another, until the entire globe was its victim, causing particular devastation in the south Pacific and India. The number of dead was so high to overwhelm cemeteries and families had to dig graves for their relatives. Schools and other buildings became makeshift hospitals, where medical students took the place of the doctors still away at war. But the action of viruses was very little known at the time and even doctors didn’t know how to cure this influenza. Doctors recommended to avoid crowded places and to cover mouth and nose. But some suggested remedies such as eating cinnamon, drinking wine or even drinking Oxo’s meat drink (beef broth).

Although it is unclear when exactly the influenza broke out, March 1918 is the most accepted date. It was only in the spring of 1920 that it finally died out.

Today it’s difficult to say how many people it killed. The severer stages manifested like a form of pneumonia that killed in two days, so the documented cause of death might be different from influenza. Historians estimate a number between 25 and 50 million of deaths.

The Twenties were a time of many discoveries and inventions. New production processes became common and often applicable to industry, which allowed them to lower their prices and make new goods available to a larger number of consumers.

This was the case with food, which became largely available in the supermarkets that sprang up everywhere in the big cities. And in the clothing industry, which made mass-product dresses available in the new department stores.

Many new devises were mass-produced at affordable prices. Hair Dryers, electric blenders, loudspeakers and instant cameras are only a few of the items we are so familiar with that became available to the large public for the first time in the 1920s


Before the 1920s, radio communication was mostly used to contact ships out at sea. But the signal wasn’t very clear, so the most common radio communication was with the Morse alphabet. It was during WWI that the importance of clearer radio communication became apparent. A lot of advancement in terms of purity of signal and transmission of voice occurred during the war.

The 1920s benefited from this. Once the war was over, civilian enterprises appropriated radio communication and customers started purchasing radios for private use.

In Britain, radio broadcasts began in 1922 with the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) based in London. It wasn’t an instinct success, though. Although broadcasts became quickly accessible across the UK, most Britons still preferred the newspapers as a means to get their news. It was only in 1926, when newspapers went on strike, that the BBC took their place as the leading source of information for the public.

In the US, the start of radio broadcasting is generally traced to before the war, in 1910, when the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City broadcasted some of their music. But it was in the 1920s that the radio became widespread and widely owned. As radio owners became more numerous, so did broadcasts. Radio became the most popular and most inexpensive of entertainments, with radio dramas and shows becoming popular throughout the country.

Enjoying the same shows, listening to the same news, and enjoying the same music (the radio had a significant part in the spreading of jazz) brought the population together. The power of radio further accelerated the process of creating a shared national culture that had started when railroads and telegraphs widened the distribution of newspapers.

Radio also helped to spread the mass-production market through radio advertisement, which started from the onset. In many ways, radio advertisement was even more effective than traditional advertisement. People didn’t need to know how to read to be affected by a radio ad. They didn’t even need to stand by the radio to hear it. It was a powerful push to consumerism.


Just like the radio, cinema had a great power to unify the aspirations and expectations of the public.

Created in the very last part of the 1800s and developed in the 1910s, cinema knew unprecedented popularity in the 1920s. This was probably the decade of the gretest output of films – challenged only by the 1930s -and more affluence of public to the theatres. In the US, movie “palaces” capable of seating thousands sprang up everywhere, with more density in major cities. A ticket for a double feature and a live show cost 25 cents. It was the most inexpensive amusement that allowed people of all classes to watch films multiple times a week.

It was through the shared enjoyment of films that some ideas spread to a broader public in many nations. The looks and the attitude of the flapper was one such example. The 1920s were the time of the first rise of stardom, with actors and actresses who became so popular that they could influence the behaviour of their fans. Stars became the model for every young person.

Movies were silent throughout the decade. Sound was indeed an available technology from 1927, but it was so expensive at the time that it didn’t take on until the next decade.

WWI was a traumatic experience for many nations across the globe. In the trenches of the Great War, a generation of young people lost their lives. When the war was over, the overwhelming common feeling was grief.

People tried to find all ways to cope with the sudden disappearance of their loved ones, often with communal practices of mourn. Sometimes in public celebrations. Sometimes in the building of memorials. And sometimes in the seeking of communication with the world of the dead.

Spiritualism had been around for a long time. It had arisen in the 1800s, a time of unprecedented scientific advancement and discoveries, which created a likewise unprecedented clash between scientific knowledge and spiritual beliefs. Believers started to wonder whether science could prove the existence of the afterlife. If it couldn’t, did this mean that there was nothing beyond the veil?

An answer seemed to come from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox, who on 31 March 1848, announced they had contacted the dead and got a reply from them.

This was the first step in the rise of Spiritualism, which wasn’t a true religion, and it wasn’t mere entertainment, although it seemed to have characteristics of both.

The movement became very popular, especially with the middle class and involved many thinkers of the time, as well as many scientists. It was so popular that even when the Fox sisters admitted in 1888 to have faked their communication with the dead, the movement still maintained its popularity.

Spiritualism had a sharp resurgence during and after WWI. Spiritualism seemed the answer to the grief of many families, giving them the hope to be able to contact the loved ones that had so violently and senselessly been taken from them. It was an experience that crossed classes and religious inclinations, but that was most popular among women – the mothers and wives and sisters of the fallen of WWI.

Mediums became very requested. Séances took place everywhere, both privately and even publicly. Many grieving families turned to them so to be able to speak with their loved ones once more and be reassured that they were well and living a good life on the other side. And of course, with an increasing market, there was a source of money ripe for the taking by con artists.


Most often, séances were private gatherings of people – friend and family of the dead, mostly – who would join hands around a table in their darkened drawing-rooms. Guided by a medium, they would chant loudly and wait for an answer to come. The slightest noise, movement or smell was often enough to convince them that the dead had joined them.

This practice reached its pick in the mid-1920s but remained very popular up to the outbreak of WWII.

Frauds were exposed very often, which is how we know that most of the tricks used in these performances were actually quite rough and primitive. They were also quite dramatic and theatrical. But no exposure was enough to weaken the power of mediums and the illusion they created. Many mediums were exposed more than once, yet people continue to turn to them for the same practices and possibly the same tricks.

The people who took part in the séances wanted to believe them. They wanted to believe they could hear the voice of their loved ones again. And nobody is easier to fool than someone who wants to be fooled.


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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