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Only Yesterday Essay

The “Roaring Twenties” as they’re called, was the period of ten years in the Untied States, which saw the biggest change in society, the boom in the economy, and later the downfall of the nation. This time in America was a time of economic prosperity for the most part; a great social revolution took place and saw the formation of a modern America.

All this is the subject, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, written by Fredrick Lewis Allen. Allen writes a very informative book of what happened throughout this great decade, but from the aspect of an ordinary individual. He writes of the social history of the 1920s, with little to mention of major politics and economics. From presidents to fashion, Allen covers it all. It’s an effective look at people in the 1920s, and what life was like. Only Yesterday begins in May 1919, and ends with a brief look at 1930 and 1931.

The book begins out with a prologue more or less, in which Allen writes of a fictitious couple, the Smith’s, in the year 1919. Allen, through this prelude, tells the reader of the accomplishments up until 1919, and what is to come in the coming decade. This 14-page introduction lets reader get an idea of what is to come, within the book. It begins with a look at the wartime economy and slow down from it. The period of the so-called “Red Scare” is written in detail in this book. Allen writes of the terror during this time, from everything like Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer’s raids on radicals, labor strikes and anarchism, and the intolerance of the early 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan also played a major part in this period. The early 1920s was a great time of mass hysteria, and intolerance for anything “un-American”. In one such story Allen writes about, how a black boy is stoned to death in a lake by whites on the shore, in the summer of 1919.

Even though this existed, the 1920s brought great change. The first radio broadcast was in November 2, 1920. Allen talks about the social times changing during this time as well. Everything from sports to makeup was becoming an obsession, like baseball and tennis for the guys, and bathing suits and makeup for the women. During this time new games such as Mah Jong from China and crossword puzzles, and new songs, all which captured the American spirit, as well as many other things, which thrilled Americans. As Allen writes, “A few weeks later there was new national thrill as the news of the finding of the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amen, cabled all the way from Egypt, overshadowed the news of Radical trials and the K.K.K.”

This new time was the social revolution for the people. Ladies began smoking and drinking in public, skirts became shorter, the use of makeup, and the quest for slenderness began. The twenties was also a time of relaxed spirituality. Many looked at society as more important than religion. Celebrities replaced religion in some cases. The younger gernartion searched for things such as passion and thrills, and were much more open with their sexuality. Charles Lindbergh and his trans-Atlantic flight threw him to stardom. Impressing others became the “thing to do”, and sexual appeal was big.

Also during this time of social revolution, prohibition was in full swing, while the 18th amendment was passed, and did reduce drinking in the country, it wasn’t very effective for a number of reasons. The mob and Al Capone ran “bootlegging” of alcohol. Racketeering was introduced during this time, many people looking for the get rich quick schemes, brought them into illegal activities such as bootlegging and such. People were just discovering themselves during this time and speak-easies and social clubs became the rage. Women would openly drink and smoke to show their independence.

Allen talks of the Harding Presidency and the scandals that surrounded it. The return to normalcy as it was called; he returned the presidency to the people. His scandals, which range from sneaking to secret bars in this time of prohibition, to appointing friends and family to the cabinet, and many others. Allen also writes of the Coolidge presidency and the prosperity along with it. The stock market was in a boom, and the economy pumping. The automobile industry fueled the economy and radios brought the people closer to each other. Under the Coolidge prosperity the “Big Bull Market” was formed. The stock market grew and grew. The economy grew and couldn’t be stopped, the stocks grew dangerously high, but like all good things, it came to an end. The end of an era came about in 1929 on September 3, after that prices crashed and continued to fall until October 24, when the market began to steady again. Yet, the market fell even more, after that and into 1930 the market would be at an all time low.

Allen attributes this to a list of seven things ranging from overproduction to the psyche of the American public, all which led to the Great Depression. This is the last thing Allen writes, and he asks the question, “What was to come in the nineteen-thirties?” With the fall of the market, came the fall of individualism, as Allen writes, “As the stock prices fell so did the lengths of the dresses”¦” These are the things, which defined the decade of the 1920s: oily scandals, non-spirituality, the “good old days”, and the revolution, which, fell just as soon as was started. The 1920s was nothing like America had seen before. It was returned to the people, people weren’t afraid to speak out, or try something new. What was to come in the 1930s? A new decade, which people needed to survive the depression rather than socialize, and it would dismantle everything, which was made in the 1920s.

Only Yesterday, was a very good look at the 1920s. It effectively shows what people went through in this crazy time. This book focuses around the social history of the “˜20s, from women’s skirts to the economy of 1929. Allen balances this with the politics of the three presidents, which defined this era. The book is very easy to read, and spares the reader with his simple clear and simplistic style of writing. The book was immensely enjoying, and grabs the attention of the reader immediately. He refers back to the New York Times, on numerous occasions, which seems to be one of his primary sources. He uses many details to back up the stories in which he writes about. While he is not very specific in his writing, he incorporates a lot of information in the book. He told everything from the good, to the bad and even to the ugly, which exposed America’s true sense. Only Yesterday: a great book for anyone looking at the social history of the 1920s: where individualism ran wild and “normalcy” had returned.

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