Welcome to the ‘20s. (OK, we’re a few days late—New Year’s and all that. Don’t judge.) The 1920s are remembered as the Roaring Twenties. How will our 20s be remembered? Guess we have to live through them first, but it’s worth looking back at the last decade with this name. Those ‘20s turned out to be consequential years that still shape our lives today.
The 1920s began, as our own will, with a presidential campaign. The winning candidate that year promised a “return to normalcy”—a word that earned Warren Harding jeers from grammarians but a landslide victory from voters. We’ll see in November what version of “normalcy” today’s voters prefer. That election was also the first in which women were allowed to vote; the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified just in time. In this year’s centennial of women’s suffrage, we now have a woman presiding as U.S. Speaker of the House—for the second time—and a woman four years ago received more votes for the presidency than her rival. (Just not enough electoral votes).
When the Virginia General Assembly convenes Wednesday, we’ll see a record number of women in the state legislature—11 out of 40 in the state Senate and 30 out of 100 in the House of Delegates. Moreover, Virginia will see its first women as Speaker of the House (Eileen Filler-Corn), House Majority Leader (Charniele Herring) and chair of the Senate Finance Committee (Janet Howell). That legislature will also take up the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment. Virginia’s expected ratification of that amendment might—or might not—make it part of the U.S. Constitution. It all depends on how courts interpret the time limits that Congress once placed on the amendment.
The 1920s may seem quaint to us now but at the time they were felt like an unsettling break from tradition and a headlong rush into modernity. We remember flappers stylistically but more substantively the 1920s saw first-wave feminism, the Harlem Renaissance and what at the time was an unprecedented openness about homosexuality—at least in urban centers such as New York and London, Paris and Berlin.
Then, as now, technology drove social change. Cars were mass-produced; by 1928, presidential candidate Herbert Hoover was able to promise “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.” Telephones become commonplace household items; by decade’s end nearly 41% of American homes had one. The rural-urban divide of the ‘20s involved electrification; today it’s broadband internet. Robert Goddard blasted off his first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926; today we’ve ridden rockets to the moon and are talking about sending people to Mars. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927; today planes crisscross the globe as a matter of routine. Alexander Fleming discovered something he called penicillin in 1928; medicine today cures diseases we scarcely knew existed a century ago.
Jazz wasn’t invented in the ‘20s but the ‘20s became the jazz age. It’s still with us, just not as the dominant musical genre. Movies boomed; vaudeville died. By the decade’s end, movies had evolved, too—silent films were history, “talkies” were in. A century later we have Netflix. Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in the 1920s. Today we have Disneyland, Disney World—and the company that Disney created now owns the “Star Wars” franchise. You can unwind all that back to the ‘20s. It’s hard for most people to name a sports figure from before the ‘20s, but everyone knows the name Babe Ruth. He joined the New York Yankees a century ago this year. The National Football League played its first season in 1920, albeit under a different name.
All that sounds like progress and—unless you were a Boston Red Sox fan who regretted the Ruth trade—it was. The ‘20s, though, were not an unyielding arc bending toward progress. The ‘20s saw a dark surge of racism across America, partly in response to decades of large-scale immigration and the domestic migration of African-Americans from the South to the North. The Klan saw its membership soar; by some estimates by 1924, some 1.5 million to 4 million people were members of that hateful organization. The ‘20s also saw a wave of Confederate nostalgia, powered both by the Civil War generation dying off and a reaction to the social changes people saw around them. The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville that’s been the source of so much controversy was dedicated in 1924; decisions made in the 1920s still animate our politics today.
The 1920s saw the United States make two historic mistakes we’re now repeating. The blatantly racist Immigration Act of 1924 not only severely limited immigration, it completely banned certain types of immigrants (such as Asians). In the late 1920s, the U.S. started raising tariffs, culminating with the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. Many economists blame the cutbacks on immigration—and the tariffs—with worsening the Great Depression after the market crash of 1929. The former reduced the number of consumers for American-made goods; the latter raised prices.
The ‘20s also saw the advent of prohibition. That era passed but today we’re dealing with a different sort of prohibition as states begin to loosen the laws banning marijuana. In Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring has proposed the state eventually legalize cannabis. It was in the 1920s that American states first began ban marijuana, culminating with a federal ban in 1937. Marijuana hadn’t been a problem for Americans until Mexican immigrants coming north after the Mexican Revolution started bringing it with them.
In Virginia, the 1920s saw a new political era take shape. Harry Byrd was elected governor in 1925 on a promise of building roads—the demand for better roads was a direct consequence of all those cars being mass produced in Detroit. There had been a dominant political organization of conservative Democrats before him; under Byrd it became more formally known as the Byrd Machine and it ruled Virginia with an iron grip until the 1960s. In 1923, Linwood Holton was born in Big Stone Gap; in time, he would be the first to wrest the governorship from the Byrd Machine. Today, there is a plaza in his honor in Roanoke.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” Mark Twain is supposed to have said. A century ago in the ‘20s, we were dealing with the rights of women and minorities, vast technological and social changes, immigration, trade, intoxicating substances and a state dominated by one political party. In our ‘20s, we still are.