“A style that is verve itself.” — New York Times
“A perfectly grand piece of historical record and synthetic journalism.” — Chicago Daily Tribune
From Frederick Lewis Allen, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine, comes a classic history of 1920s America, from the end of World War I to the stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday has an exuberance and proximity to its subject—the Roaring Twenties in all its scandal and glory—that uniquely captures the feel of the era.
About the Author
Frederick Lewis Allen was born in Boston in 1890 and graduated from Harvard in 1912. He served on the editorial staffs of the Atlantic Monthly and Century magazines and was editor in chief of Harper's magazine from 1941 until his death in 1954
Read an Excerpt
Prelude: May, 1919
If time were suddenly to turn back to the earliest days of the Post-war Decade, and you were to look about you, what would seem strange to you? Since 1919 the circumstances of American life have been transformed--yes, but exactly how?
Let us refresh our memories by following a moderately well-to-do young couple of Cleveland or Boston or Seattle or Baltimore--it hardly matters which--through the routine of an ordinary day in May, 1919. (I select that particular date, six months after the Armistice of 1918, because by then the United States had largely succeeded in turning from the ways of war to those of peace, yet the profound alterations wrought by the Post-war Decade had hardly begun to take place.) There is no better way of suggesting what the passage of a few years has done to change you and me and the environment in which we live.
From the appearance of Mr. Smith as he comes to the breakfast table on this May morning in 1919, you would hardly know that you are not in the nineteen-thirties (though you might, perhaps, be struck by the narrowness of his trousers). The movement of men's fashions is glacial. It is different, however, with Mrs. Smith.She comes to breakfast in a suit, the skirt of which--rather tight at the ankles--hangs just six inches from the ground. She has read in Vogue the alarming news that skirts may become even shorter, and that "not since the days of the Bourbons has the woman of fashion been visible so far above the ankle"; but six inches is still the orthodox clearance. She wears low shoes now, for spring has come; but all last winter she protected her ankleseither with spats or with high laced "walking-boots," or with high patent-leather shoes with contrasting buckskin tops. Her stockings are black (or tan, perhaps, if she wears tan shoes); the idea of flesh-colored stockings would appall her. A few minutes ago Mrs. Smith was surrounding herself with an "envelope chemise" and a petticoat; and from the thick ruffles on her undergarments it was apparent that she was not disposed to make herself more boyish in form than ample nature intended.
Mrs. Smith may use powder, but she probably draws the line at paint. Although the use of cosmetics is no longer, in 1919, considered prima facie evidence of a scarlet career, and sophisticated young girls have already begun to apply them with some bravado, most well brought-up women still frown upon rouge. The beauty-parlor industry is in its infancy; there are a dozen hair-dressing parlors for every beauty parlor, and Mrs. Smith has never heard of such dark arts as that of face-lifting. When she puts on her hat to go shopping she will add a veil pinned neatly together behind her head. In the shops she will perhaps buy a bathing-suit for use in the summer; it will consist of an outer tunic of silk or cretonne over a tight knitted undergarment--worn, of course, with long stockings.
Her hair is long, and the idea of a woman ever frequenting a barber shop would never occur to her. If you have forgotten what the general public thought of short hair in those days, listen to the remark of the manager of the Palm Garden in New York when reporters asked him, one night in November, 1918, how he happened to rent his hall for a pro-Bolshevist meeting which had led to a riot. Explaining that a well-dressed woman had come in a fine automobile to make arrangements for the use of the auditorium, he added, "Had we noticed then, as we do now, that she had short hair, we would have refused to rent the hall." In Mrs. Smith's mind, as in that of the manager of the Palm Garden, short-haired women, like long-haired men, are associated with radicalism, if not with free love.
The breakfast to which Mr. and Mrs. Smith sit down may have been arranged with a view to the provision of a sufficient number of calories--they need only to go to Childs' to learn about calories--but in all probability neither of them has ever heard of a vitamin.
As Mr. Smith eats, he opens the morning paper. It is almost certainly not a tabloid, no matter how rudimentary Mr. Smith's journalistic tastes may be: for although Mr. Hearst has already experimented with small-sized picture papers, the first conspicuously successful tabloid is yet to be born. Not until June 26, 1919, will the New York Daily News reach the newsstands, beginning a career that will bring its daily circulation in one year to nearly a quarter of a million, in five years to over four-fifths of a million, and in ten years to the amazing total of over one million three hundred thousand.
Strung across the front page of Mr. Smith's paper are headlines telling of the progress of the American Navy seaplane, the NC-4, on its flight across the Atlantic via the Azores. That flight is the most sensational news story of May, 1919. (Alcock and Brown have not yet crossed the ocean in a single hop; they will do it a few weeks hence, eight long years ahead of Lindbergh.) But there is other news, too: of the Peace Conference at Paris, where the Treaty is now in its later stages of preparation; of the successful oversubscription of the Victory Loan ("Sure, we'll finish the job!" the campaign posters have been shouting); of the arrival of another transport with soldiers from overseas; of the threat of a new strike; of a speech by Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle denouncing that scourge of the times, the I.W.W.; of the prospects for the passage of the Suffrage Amendment, which it is predicted will enable women. . .
Table of ContentsPrelude: May, 1919.
Back to Normalcy.
The Big Red Scare.
The Revolution in Manners and Morals.
Harding and the Scandals.
The Ballyhoo Years.
The Revolt of the Highbrows.
Alcohol and Al Capone.
Home, Sweet Florida.
The Big Bull Market.
What People are Saying About This
Marvelously absorbing…Only Yesterday tells the story of the 1920s from the collapse of Wilson and the New Freedom to the collapse of Wall Street and the New Era.
(Stuart Chase, Book)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting account of the "roaring twenties" from the speakeasy's to the big crash. The author wrote the book in the early '30's, thus, the evidence of firsthand experience to lend credence to the book.
I was tasked with writting a paper in an American History class in college which I was completely dreading. I had never studied the 1920's though and the word, 'Informal' made me perk up a little bit. For me this book covered the major instances of the 1920's and occasionally touched on topics that were not so mainstream American History. The way the book read more as a compellation of stories allowed the book to be picked up and sat down easily which can be necessary if you aren't a history loving individual. If you have to read a book for American history this is a good choice, if you are curious about the economy in the 1920's this is a pretty decent read and finally if you don't know a darn thing about the 1920's this is the best book out there.
Alert!! This e-book version contains hard-coded line brakes, which cannot be removed. As a result, the layout is horrible, unless one uses the default tiny font size! I would suggest getting a different version. The real book itself is a gem - nearly 5 stars. An amusing, informative, close-up look at what it was like in this country nearly 100 years ago. I only wish there were more like it. Great light read, but with a lot in it.
Having read this book, one can easily get a snapshot of the 1920s with their salient events. However, given today's turbulent world with the financial crisis leaving all of us searching for seemingly unfathomable reasons, this book is a must-read because it proves in chapter after chapter, in excruciating detail, that mankind and its follies have not changed even an iota in the last 90 years and our memories have become so bad that we are condemned to repeat history with increasing frequency !
This book was required for me to read during high school. In the last few years as the problems with our financial system became more apparent, I reread it. The companies and events are not exactly the same as today, but the events substance and greed are no different. The 1920's were ignored by us today, but the the lessons are ones we will have to remember and reconstruct. I would suggest reading SINCE YESTERDAY if a copy can be found. It is also written by the same author.
Anyone who reads this book will be forever interested in that "Roaring" decade. The concepts are broad but as a result of the chapter arrangements great detail is presented. As a result, once one reads "Only Yesterday" those years will remain not in history but current as while reading the newspaper, the repetition of the news will be reflected by the history of what Allen has related.
The 1920¿s brought with them a drastic change in the way people acted. It was the general belief that young women acted perfectly. They never drank, smoked, or did anything wrong, for that matter. Some young men could be expected to slip up, and give into the temptations of sex, but that was only with women of low class and disrespected families. Thus, boys and girls had a lot of freedom to be together. Parents just assumed that they wouldn¿t take advantage of the situation. This wasn¿t the case. Young women began to smoke and drink much more. The way women acted wasn¿t the only thing that changed, however. Women were beginning to wear clothing that revealed way too much skin. The skirts, in fact, were now beginning to show kneecaps. Yet another reform was in music and dance. The good ole¿ elegant music of the violin was being replaced by the loud, up-beat saxophone. Kids were now even dancing with their bodies touching each other. For the elders of America, this was too much. Most felt that these kids were morally lost. There were a couple of reasons for this revolution in morals. First, these kids had just gone off and fought a war. They had been through hell in Europe and now came back to America after facing some emotional times. They returned home expecting an exciting life. They just couldn¿t settle down and live by the moral code already laid down. Also, women were growing more and more independent at the time. They had just won women¿s suffrage in 1920, giving them equality to men. Women¿s role of housekeeping was also becoming less important. Another big cause to the moral reform was the automobile. At a time when cars were becoming more and more popular, kids saw a great opportunity for freedom in the automobile. At any time, kids could just jump in and go somewhere without supervision from a parent or chaperone. Kids could drive out to a dance in another town, where they could act more freely, without people they knew all around them. Finally, there was prohibition. The 18th Amendment, passed by 1919, banned any sale of alcohol in the United States. This law, of course, was never followed. Bootleggers and speakeasies were created as safe havens for alcohol. Drinking became thing to do because it was a way to revolt. The change in women¿s dress was another key change in the `20¿s. From 1921 to 1924, the skirt length only shortened by a little bit. Paris, in fact, predicted that skirts would return to longer length, but women just kept on buying the shortest length they could find. By the end of the decade, the knee-length skirt was the regular skirt length. Women began to wear rayon, too. Rayon was a skin-colored stocking that was extremely popular. They were wearing less and less clothing in general. The amount of fabric needed for a woman¿s outfit had shrunk from 19.25 yards to just 7 yards. Clothing wasn¿t the only big change. Women also started to wear their hair shorter, another freedom that they had never experienced before. Barriers between men and women were being broken. Both views of drinking and smoking were changing drastically, too. Women began to widely accept smoking. Before the `20¿s, it was something women didn¿t do. Another such barrier was found in drinking. Men and women were now drinking together. Speakeasies were one popular scene for mixed parties. People would also go out to hotels to drink. Men and women would lie on the beds in their rooms and drink away. During these years of prohibition, alcohol was drunk in more abundance than ever before. With the weakening of morals and the increase in sexual activity among kids, the divorce rate began to rise. In only 8 years, the divorce rate rose by nearly 8 percent. Divorce, in earlier years, was really looked down upon. To get a divorce was a shameful disgrace to you and your family. By the end of the `20¿s, however, it wasn¿t such a bad thing anymore. At the beginning of the decad
Its had to say that a history book is good, especially when you are taking AP US history (oh, the torture!). However, Allen's narrative of the 1920's proved to be rather interesting...at the beginning. It started out well, depicting an average couple from the 20's. he showed their opinions and everyday struggles. But when he started to probe the political aspects of the 20's, the book fell flat. The social issues were well persented, but i skimmed most of the presidential scandals and such. Overall, it was pretty good. Better than Minutemen and their (incredibly boring)World, that's for sure!
This is a great historical book, written shortly after the 1920s was over. It gives a great overall history of the 1920s in America. Great read!
I am a 17 yr. old A.P. U.S. History student who had the experience of reading this book by assignment. I must say, although the factual information provided in the reading is plentiful, to call this book a piece of syntheic journalism is a stretch of the term. Most of the book entails the author describing a general depiction of the 1920s by major events, and it never goes much farther beyond that. I thoroughly enjoy studying history, but I found the book to be extremely dry and did not find myself being interested in the story being told. Perhaps it I am alone in this point of view, or maybe what I was looking for in the book for my assignment made me overlook what is meant to be enjoyed in the text. But, as for what I have experienced from reading this text, I would not recommend it for 'a good read'.