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Living the Twenties: Y,Z

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 Y and Z.

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

The 1920s were the time of the Youth. In a very solid, practical way, a social group emerged that was identified by age and presented homogeneous characteristics.

Youth became a social group distinct from all others, with their own value, their own rules and their own aspiration.

The birth of Youth

In most civilisations, a person often passed straight from being a kid, to be an adult. That was a passage that could occur quite early in life, the lower the social class, the earlier it would happen, since children’s labour was vital in the economy of a family.

But already in the course of the 1800s, among the middle class in particular, things started to change. This was a very moveable class, whose members knew that by their activity, their entrepreneurship, their intuition and hard work, an upward movement was possible. The idea that education was the single most important weapon in this battle became widespread over the century.

At the beginning of the 1900s, college attendance started to rise. Colleges were still very exclusive and expensive, but the middle class was becoming steadily more affluent, and as this happened, families preferred to invest in the education of their children rather than introduce them straightaway to a job.

After WWI, the number of enrolments in colleges throughout the Western World rose considerably.

When young people left for the college, they entered a particular state where they were not children anymore because they were expected to work for their own advancement, but they were not adults yet because they were still not required to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood.

They spent most of their time away from family, with an obvious lessening of the control that families had on their life. These students that lived on campus had the most freedom people their age had ever had before.

Youth’s culture strengthens

The Youth’s culture first emerged in the US and then spread all over the Western World and beyond, reaching even Japan, where a Western-inspired youth culture became very prominent in the 1920s.

There were two environments in particular where this culture found fertile soil to bloom:

The college

The college was the place where the youth culture first emerged and where it found its true aspiration.

In colleges, students went about their life with very little monitoring from family and elders in general, and so they were free to create their won society.

The ‘collegiate style’ became a look that all young people tried to imitate, not only college students because that was how modern young people were supposed to look like. Collegiate attitudes also broke out of the colleges and became the attitude of young people in general. It involved a more modern idea of the relationship between men and women; the acceptance of new social situations, like women working outside the house and seeking their own careers; a rebellious attitude towards tradition and the traditional values of the elders; also a certain disillusionment about the future, which pushed young people to seek fun and gratification while they could.

Inside the colleges, fraternities and sororities became a steady point of guidance for young people. They were a bridge between family and adult life since they often act as a family to the members, who would find acceptance and guidance in the group. But it was a peer group, where everyone – at least in theory – had the same power and influence.


When Prohibition went into effect, it didn’t magically erase any opportunity to drink alcohol. Bars simply went underground, which made them appealing to a larger population than that who had been frequenting the saloons. These new bars, the speakeasies, were accessible to a lot of people that would have never gone to a saloon, in particular women.

In these places that were to some extent shady, a rebellious form of life flourished, and it was in this environment that a freer form of sexual expression manifested, especially on the part of women. Daring dancing, dating, petting, all of this was part of the regular life of the speakeasy, though young people follow this line of conduct even outside of it.

But it was in the speakeasy, with its bootleg alcohol, its devil jazz music, the promiscuity of the patronage, that the rebellious aspirations of youth found its more visible expression.

Born together with the 20th century, the Zeppelin was perfected during WWI and entered civil use after the war. All through the interwar years, they offered luxury transportation. It was only the terrible disaster of the Hindenburg that put an end to their popularity in 1937.

The invention of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin

Although hot-air-balloons had been around since the 1700s and the first airship appeared in the mid-1800s, the first of what we now call airships were built by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1900.

The shape of those first zeppelins was very different from what we are familiar with today. They were long and slim, like a pencil, to allow it to get in and out the hangars easily. These were would float on water, which allowed the airship to face into the wind for an easier take off.

Count Zeppelin’s revolution was a cloth-covered aluminium structure, with seventeen hydrogen cells, propelled by a 15-horsepower Daimler internal combustion engine, which could be stirred by directional fins. Quite a fantastic and improbable invention, according to many.

Not according to the king of Wurttemberg, who financed the building of the first prototype. For this reason, rigid airships are often called Zeppelins.

The Zeppelins and the bombing of London during WWI

During WWI, both sides of the conflict used airships for surveillance, fleet manoeuvres and to spot submarines.

Germany owned the larger fleet of rigid airships and made use of it in a revolutionary way. Although airplanes already existed, they could not fly for the several hours required to reach Great Britain from Germany. Airships could. And they were faster and could transport larger loads of bombs.

When the war came to a deadlock, the Germans decided to try a new strategy: the night of 19 January 1915, they flew their airship over the British Channel and bombarded the eastern coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. Only a first step, because the true target was London, which was bombed later that year and all through the war, with the last bombing on 5 August 1918.

In those early stages of aerial warfare, the business of bombarding a place was quite imprecise. The Zeppelins went out at night, and they needed to fly very high to avoid artillery. It involved a good amount of guesswork. In fact, the actual bombing and consequent destruction wasn’t even the primary goal. In terms of damage, they weren’t very effective. It was the psychological blow the Germans were after.

Despite the great initial shock, these attacks had minimal, if any, military advantage. They were rather designed to break the spirit of the British. A goal that was never really achieved.

The Hindenburg Disaster

The DELAG had started regular air service even before the war. After the war was over, Zeppelins were used ever more often for the transportation of both goods and passenger. For the most part, they were like trains, efficient and Spartan. It was with the Hindenburg that these travels became a luxury.

When the Hindenburg made its maiden voyage in 1936, it inaugurated a time of luxury travel across the Atlantic. It was, in essence, a very special and exclusive transatlantic. It had cabins for the passengers, lounges, a promenade from which the passengers could gaze upon the land and ocean below. It had a smoking room and a bar. Cabins had showers and meals were served on schedule in the dining area.

Travelling on the Hindenburg was very expensive, but it was the experience of a lifetime.

It didn’t last long, though. On 6 May 1937, the Hindenburg – carrying 61 crew and 36 passengers – burst into a fire just when it was approaching the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. The fire killed 36 people and was on camera. The media attention and social outcry made travelling by airship seem very dangerous.

As a result faster, and increasingly luxurious, seaplanes started supplanting the more expensive airship travel.


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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