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Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's

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“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 publishe “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.


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“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 publishe “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.

30 review for Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tripp

    I have a bias against older nonfiction books as I don't think they age well. The evidence gets old, the arguments get settled or the style becomes out-dated and the read just isn't the same. Well, Frederick Allen Lewis sure showed me up. He wrote Only Yesterday in 1931 and it read like it was written last year. Lewis was an editor at the Atlantic and I wonder if his style has influenced later writers there. He is crisp, funny and has a strong point of view throughout. I loved his description of I have a bias against older nonfiction books as I don't think they age well. The evidence gets old, the arguments get settled or the style becomes out-dated and the read just isn't the same. Well, Frederick Allen Lewis sure showed me up. He wrote Only Yesterday in 1931 and it read like it was written last year. Lewis was an editor at the Atlantic and I wonder if his style has influenced later writers there. He is crisp, funny and has a strong point of view throughout. I loved his description of the motivations of Klan members: "...but it white robe and hood, its flaming cross, its secrecy, and the preposterous vocabulary of it ritual could be made the vehicle for all that infantile love of hocus-pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places. Here was a chance to dress up the village bigot and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire." It doesn't hurt that the subjects feel particularly relevant today. Lewis covers racism, populism, and the infatuation with celebrity, sports, and trifling events, at the expense of vital issues. He describes the madness of the stock bubble and the shouting down of anyone who call into question the riches to be made. He also looks at the cult of business (the business of America is business, and all that) and at the how religion and business began to use each other's language. He describes a very popular book called the Man Nobody Knows which argued that Jesus was the founder of modern business thanks to his executive experience and his skills at advertising. Reading this book, I was both happy and sad to see that we as a society have many of the same problems. On the downside, there are many problems that we have failed to conquer for so long. On the plus side, our time is not a uniquely debased one.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ron Davidson

    A very thorough review of the very turbulent decade of the 1920s. As James Howard Kunstler said in a recent podcast (probably quoting somebody else), "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." We find a lot of "rhyming' with recent years in the story of the 1920s: starting the decade with a blind faith in the power of capital, and attacking those who question the irrational exuberance of the dedication to material gain; the rise of sports and entertainment as dominant forces in American cul A very thorough review of the very turbulent decade of the 1920s. As James Howard Kunstler said in a recent podcast (probably quoting somebody else), "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." We find a lot of "rhyming' with recent years in the story of the 1920s: starting the decade with a blind faith in the power of capital, and attacking those who question the irrational exuberance of the dedication to material gain; the rise of sports and entertainment as dominant forces in American culture; the failure of Prohibition, and the rise of organized crime as a result; and the naivete of those who expected "prosperity" to continue forever. (Republicans never change, do they?) Many more comparisons can be found in the text. Overall a very interesting observation of the USA of the time, from politics to culture, and everyday life. I'll be reading (or listening to) the sequel ("Since Yesterday") sometime soon.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Barbara H

    We read this as a text for a wonderful course I am taking about the "Roaring Twenties". Allen has written an entertaining and full-scale history of this period. It was a perfect complement for an excellent subject. We read this as a text for a wonderful course I am taking about the "Roaring Twenties". Allen has written an entertaining and full-scale history of this period. It was a perfect complement for an excellent subject.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    What makes this history of the 1920's so fascinating is that it was published in 1931. This is no cold and bloodless text, no sentimental blue fog draped over the past. It feels immediate. It's very well written. And, yes, there are parallels. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear the author was intentionally alluding to current events. At times, it reads almost like a joke: "...[the] song that gave the Post-war Decade one of its most persistent and wearisome phrases, 'I'll Say She Does.'" Or a What makes this history of the 1920's so fascinating is that it was published in 1931. This is no cold and bloodless text, no sentimental blue fog draped over the past. It feels immediate. It's very well written. And, yes, there are parallels. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear the author was intentionally alluding to current events. At times, it reads almost like a joke: "...[the] song that gave the Post-war Decade one of its most persistent and wearisome phrases, 'I'll Say She Does.'" Or a warning: "It was an era of lawless and disorderly defense of law and order, of unconstitutional defense of the Constitution, of suspicion and civil conflict..." I had wanted to escape into the past and discovered that we never learn anything. Everyone should read this.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Charles Haywood

    Much modern popular history is mendacious, written with an ideological agenda that deliberately distorts, or omits, or simply lies about, the truth. Sometimes, therefore, reading history written in the past can offer better information. Earlier historians were often more objective, ideology being less prevalent. Their biases, if they have any, are usually obvious. Thus I thought that "Only Yesterday," a semi-famous history of the 1920s, published in 1931 by a mass-market journalist/intellectual Much modern popular history is mendacious, written with an ideological agenda that deliberately distorts, or omits, or simply lies about, the truth. Sometimes, therefore, reading history written in the past can offer better information. Earlier historians were often more objective, ideology being less prevalent. Their biases, if they have any, are usually obvious. Thus I thought that "Only Yesterday," a semi-famous history of the 1920s, published in 1931 by a mass-market journalist/intellectual of the time, Frederick Lewis Allen, might teach me something new about that decade. But I found, to my sorrow, that I learned little new, and I was instead again reminded of how early the rot in America’s ruling classes set in. In today’s common imagination, the 1920s are the “Roaring Twenties”—an economic boom combined with a new focus on the freedom to do as one pleased (even if Prohibition was the law of the land). The HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" gives a flavor of the times—or at least reflects the common imagination. Only Yesterday contains nothing that is not precisely in-line with today’s common imagination about the decade, which suggests one of two things. Either today’s common imagination correctly reflects the reality of the 1920s—or today’s common imagination was shaped by men like Allen, with their own agenda, and does not fully reflect reality. After reading this book, I conclude the latter seems more likely. It would appear that since all his readers lived through the period he covers, Allen could not distort history. Up to a point, that’s true, since he couldn’t simply lie like many modern historians do. But Allen still distorts, because he is preaching to the choir—he is writing to people like him, members of the 1920s professional-managerial elite, sympathetic to the Progressives and Woodrow Wilson, violently opposed to Calvin Coolidge, and eager to find and support a candidate like Franklin Roosevelt, although he is nowhere mentioned in this book. Allen’s main air is one of supercilious superiority; he knows what is good for the country, and he is pleased to be able to report that the benighted masses are generally getting with the program advocated by their betters. He reports the 1920s through this lens, not objectively. And that his book has been used for decades in schools and colleges reinforces my conclusion that our image of the 1920s, in particular that it was a decade of moral progress, rather than moral decay, arises from this book and the ideology its author pushes. Allen begins with a great deal of detail about Wilson’s attempts to force America to join the League of Nations. Using a combination of over-the-top language about the utopia the League would bring and what he knew to be falsehoods about the League’s origin and purpose, Wilson, the first ideological President, desperately tried to get America to take the medicine he was sure would be good for it. “He warned his audiences that if the Treaty were not ratified, disorder would shake the foundations of the world, and he envisioned ‘those heights upon which there rests nothing but the pure light of the justice of God.’ ” But America, we know, was not interested, something Allen attributes mostly to a lack of “idealism” and a desire to return to “normalcy,” along with a variety of special interests, not to simply a clear-eyed rejection of what Wilson had to offer. Wilson failed, as we also know. In the next section, Allen’s prejudices really begin to show. He sneers at length at “The Big Red Scare.” I don’t know how significant the Communist threat in America was in 1919 and 1920. Certainly, there were many militants demanding Communism and anarchism, and the war atmosphere, combined with the Bolshevik victory in Russia and numerous bombings of public places in America killing hundreds of people (with an impact on society like September 11th on us), certainly led many to rationally believe that Communism was a real present threat to America. That it didn’t turn out to be a problem in the end does not prove that it was not a problem at the time. Communists certainly were a huge problem later, in the 1940s and 1950s, when circumstances were more favorable to Communist traitors and to Communist power gains. Not to mention that the crackdown on Communists in 1919 may have prevented it being a bigger problem in 1921. Allen’s claim, though, is that the public was stupid, the “Red Scare” was a chimera put out by the Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer, for no good reason while Wilson was incapacitated and unable to stop him, and there was zero basis for concern. Allen, who has nothing to say about the massive suspensions of civil liberties by Wilson and the federal government during World War I, nor about the hundreds of African Americans killed in race pogroms at the exact same time as the so-called Red Scare in places like Tulsa, claims that this period was “in a very literal sense, a reign of terror,” even though no Communist was harmed or killed (except a few executed for proven crimes) and within a few months they could stop even looking over their shoulders. The reader concludes that suppression of the Left is Allen’s only concern, and that suggests that he’s simply protecting his own kind and enlarging their freedom for future operation. That said, it’s certainly possible Allen is objectively describing the ideological oppression that he says briefly swept over the country for a few months. Students and businessmen, he says, were only able to state their real opinions in whispers; schoolteachers were made to sign ideological commitments; college professors were dismissed for wrongthink; the media spread historical propaganda; and much more along the same lines. All of it is very familiar, because it is precisely the treatment conservatives suffer under in America today, under constant vicious attack by the woke Left that controls all the levers of power. In 1919, though, things quickly returned to normal, whereas our current Scare isn’t a scare at all, but a deliberate attempt to exercise total ideological dominance and total power. That’s why today’s atmosphere of Left terror has lasted for years, not months, is accelerating, not slowing, and is very unlikely to stop unless it is stopped by force. This is also the chapter in which we are introduced to Calvin Coolidge, not by name, but as the Governor of Massachusetts, “an inconspicuous, sour-faced man with a reputation for saying as little as possible and never jeopardizing his political position by being betrayed into a false move.” Allen’s treatment of Coolidge, the substance of whose Presidency he barely mentions, further betrays his bias in favor of the Left. Coolidge’s "Autobiography" is “smug”; in all his writings and speeches “the most original thing you will find in them is his uncompromising unoriginality.” For no given reason at all, Allen claims “his presidential record was surprisingly negative.” He was “uninspired and unheroic”—Allen wants, obviously, the so-called inspiration and heroism that the Progressives and other men of the Left foisted on America. As to the common people, Allen complains that in the 1920s “public spirit,” that is, eagerness for Left nostrums, “was at low ebb.” Instead, Americans filled up their time with becoming excited about boxing matches and local crimes given national attention, sniffs Allen, along with crosswords and mah-jongg. Allen is glad that at least religiosity declined, accelerated by the appearance of the prosperity gospel and by propaganda pushing science as exalting itself over religion. But what makes up for it in Allen’s eyes is “The Revolution in Manner and Morals” and its effect on the common people, both of which he celebrates, not analyzes. (And revolution was no doubt what it was, although nothing compared to what the Baby Boomers managed to bequeath to us since the late 1960s.) Allen attributes the new moral laxity to many factors: the war, the “growing independence of the American woman,” arising from labor-saving housekeeping devices and an increased ability to be employed outside the home; Freudianism; automobiles; Prohibition; and mass media, especially movies and the new risqué magazines. Slickly, he deliberately confuses new hairstyles and clothing with substantive changes in morals, a motte-and-bailey technique allowing him to respond to any criticism of the corrosive social effect of lax sexual morality with a snippy comment about rubes who think that hairstyles have a moral component. What is very evident is that in every area, the ruling classes set new low standards permitting and encouraging hugely increased moral laxity, which quickly filtered down to the lower orders. Among the “prosperous classes,” “It was better to be modern, —everybody wanted to be modern, —and sophisticated, and smart, to smash the conventions and to be devastatingly frank.” Allen loves all of the resulting moral laxity spreading through the country. Obscene material is, righteously, “upheld by a liberal judge and endorsed by intelligent public opinion.” Those trying to maintain the rules on obscenity found “the intellectuals of the whole country were laughing at them. . . . [T]he taste of the country demanded a new sort of reading matter.” That is, for Allen, the “taste of the country” is really the “taste of the left-wing intellectuals.” He even has a whole chapter celebrating left-wing intellectuals, whom he calls “highbrows,” such as Sinclair Lewis (and also H. L. Mencken, not strictly speaking left-wing but just as corrosive), and magazines like the "American Mercury" (where the odious Albert Jay Nock got his start). This is contrasted with the “hinterlands [where] there was still plenty of old-fashioned sentimental thinking about sex,” leading to “frantic efforts to stay the tide of moral change” by people unable to “all at once forget the admonitions of their childhood.” Sure, Allen says, this laxity led to some temporary bad manners, but was all to the good with a few years of practice in the new laxity. The masses experienced, despite Prohibition, a great deal of new freedom, the release from old moral codes and expectations, and for Allen, this is all to the good, as long as they keep the right people in charge. Not necessarily in charge of the government—the federal government did not have the powers it does now, and its only real relevancy was in foreign affairs and, as the Progressive agenda of hugely expanding federal power began its first major project, Prohibition. Rather, in charge of society at every level. Allen covers Prohibition and the resulting big-city crime, especially Al Capone. He admits Prohibition sharply reduced alcohol consumption, and resultant pathologies, among the common people, but “among the prosperous classes which set the standards of national social behavior, alcohol flowed more freely than ever.” In other words, the rotten ruling classes of the 1920s were responsible for the ills of Prohibition, too. When Allen wrote this book, Prohibition was still in effect, so there is no resolution, just lots of text about the social ills resulting. Other chapters cover land speculation boom and bust in Florida, and, for the last third of the book, the run-up in the stock market and the subsequent crash, in more detail than is really interesting. At the end, the modern reader has learned nothing new about the 1920s, and as I have shown, has good reason to suspect he has been led by the nose down the ideological garden path. Like so much else used in the educational system today, this book is still force-fed to present-day students because it is useful as propaganda to advance the indoctrination of the Left. I suspect that there exist now-obscure works that portray an entirely different picture of the 1920s. Find those books, and give them to your children, not this toxic mush.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    Noticed that one of my goodreads friends had read this, and it triggered me to add it. I read it years ago, but it is easily one of the best compact histories of the 1920s. The only thing I can compare it to is the multi-volume Mark Sullivan series "Our Times" (which dealt with several decades, but Allen is a more engaging writer. It is interesting to see the perspective on the 1920s from 1931. Many things that seem iconic about the decade are ignored or glossed over in this book, but it gives Noticed that one of my goodreads friends had read this, and it triggered me to add it. I read it years ago, but it is easily one of the best compact histories of the 1920s. The only thing I can compare it to is the multi-volume Mark Sullivan series "Our Times" (which dealt with several decades, but Allen is a more engaging writer. It is interesting to see the perspective on the 1920s from 1931. Many things that seem iconic about the decade are ignored or glossed over in this book, but it gives a rather immediate sense of the everyday concerns and social attitudes of the time. "Only Yesterday" was turned into a movie by Universal in 1933, though the film tosses out any pretense of being a history of the 1920s; rather the filmmakers just used the title and adapted the story of what was later remade as "Letter From an Unknown Woman." A great movie, nonetheless. Although not quite as good as "Only Yesterday," Allen's study of the 1930s, called "Since Yesterday," is also worth reading.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lance Carney

    There’s politics, political scandals, the Big Red Scare, laxity of morals among the young and technology that altered the daily habits of Americans. Minus flappers, Prohibition and the market crash of the Great Depression (we hope), this could describe today’s America. But this is the 1920s of Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Young people were not staring at candlestick phones, wall phones or into phone booths, but were listening with fascination to the new technology There’s politics, political scandals, the Big Red Scare, laxity of morals among the young and technology that altered the daily habits of Americans. Minus flappers, Prohibition and the market crash of the Great Depression (we hope), this could describe today’s America. But this is the 1920s of Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Young people were not staring at candlestick phones, wall phones or into phone booths, but were listening with fascination to the new technology of radio. Only Yesterday is a wonderful book about the fashion, fads, music, sports of the 1920s, first published in 1931. I was looking for a book to get the feel and mindset of people living in the Roaring Twenties that didn’t read like a textbook and this book was more than I could have hoped for. Only Yesterday is the bee’s knees and highly recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    This is a very interesting little book which touches on the memorable (and not so memorable) events of the Roaring 20's. The author covers most of the things that history lovers already know but adds his own thoughts which makes old material new again. Since it was written in the 1930's, there are some events that have been interpreted a little differently in the present day. An example is the positive light thrown on the Coolidge presidency and the blaming of the great depression solely on Pres This is a very interesting little book which touches on the memorable (and not so memorable) events of the Roaring 20's. The author covers most of the things that history lovers already know but adds his own thoughts which makes old material new again. Since it was written in the 1930's, there are some events that have been interpreted a little differently in the present day. An example is the positive light thrown on the Coolidge presidency and the blaming of the great depression solely on President Hoover. Time has shown that this is not exactly the way it was but that just makes the information more interesting. His analysis of the stock market crash is very well done and understandable even to the reader who knows little about how that system works. Enjoyable and recommended.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    I pulled this for a hold at my library a few weeks ago so when I saw it again on the shelf, I picked it up. Considered an historical non-fiction classic, the author also wrote Since Yesterday (about the 1930s), which I'd also like to read. Though under 300 pages, this is a tightly written and concise history of the madcap 1920s, covering everything from fads to fashion, murder to prohibition, to the inevitable stock market crash. There was a section highlighting the crazy real estate boom in Flo I pulled this for a hold at my library a few weeks ago so when I saw it again on the shelf, I picked it up. Considered an historical non-fiction classic, the author also wrote Since Yesterday (about the 1930s), which I'd also like to read. Though under 300 pages, this is a tightly written and concise history of the madcap 1920s, covering everything from fads to fashion, murder to prohibition, to the inevitable stock market crash. There was a section highlighting the crazy real estate boom in Florida during this time and, coincidentally, I just picked up a new book focusing on just that titled Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How it Brought on the Great Depression by Christopher Knowlton. I was struck by how many events have been repeated in this country (especially the 2008 housing bubble), with short memories and the same tragic results. But I suppose that's human nature and the infallibility of each generation.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Evan

    This classic of popular history is the best first place to go to wade into the decade of the 1920s. Breezily written and spiced with on-the-ground anecdotes that lend depth to the larger events and trends. I read this many years ago, but I'll never forget the story about the company sales dinner in which the salesmen were humiliated by exponentially decreased meal portions based on their sales performance. The sales winner who best exceeded his quota had a grand roast beef feast with all the fix This classic of popular history is the best first place to go to wade into the decade of the 1920s. Breezily written and spiced with on-the-ground anecdotes that lend depth to the larger events and trends. I read this many years ago, but I'll never forget the story about the company sales dinner in which the salesmen were humiliated by exponentially decreased meal portions based on their sales performance. The sales winner who best exceeded his quota had a grand roast beef feast with all the fixins and the loser was served something like a single pea with a sprig of parsley. That story somehow gets at the heart of darkness of the cutthroat side of the modern American Dream; a Republican wet dream of social Darwinism gone amok. One of the most memorably interesting things about the book is its wistful and distanced perspective, because even though this was published in 1931, it already regarded the 1920s as ancient history. ([email protected])

  11. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Fredrick Allen undertook this informal history of the twenties in 1930 to aide him in grieving the loss of his wife and daughter. This shows in how compassionately and understandingly he writes of a confusing and confounding time. His story begins with a look at how Mr and Mrs Smith lived in 1919 and reflects on what they do not know (radio, prize-fighting, Al Capone, normalcy for starters). Each successive chapter focuses on how one aspect of life changed dramatically. After finishing this book Fredrick Allen undertook this informal history of the twenties in 1930 to aide him in grieving the loss of his wife and daughter. This shows in how compassionately and understandingly he writes of a confusing and confounding time. His story begins with a look at how Mr and Mrs Smith lived in 1919 and reflects on what they do not know (radio, prize-fighting, Al Capone, normalcy for starters). Each successive chapter focuses on how one aspect of life changed dramatically. After finishing this book I felt intimately acquainted with Woodrow Wilson, the Labor Movement, Warren G. Harding and his scandals, Lindbergh, Coral Gables, and all that jazz of the twenties.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    This probably isn't a fair rating. This was assigned reading in tenth grade history. I read it, completed the required exercises, got As on my papers ... and forgot everything. I just didn't identify with anything in the book ... it seemed like ancient history, and yet it truly was "only yesterday." I should read it again. This probably isn't a fair rating. This was assigned reading in tenth grade history. I read it, completed the required exercises, got As on my papers ... and forgot everything. I just didn't identify with anything in the book ... it seemed like ancient history, and yet it truly was "only yesterday." I should read it again.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    I confess I didn't finish this. It was just too boring. If the 1920s had been as yawn-inducing as this book, I would have been throwing myself off a window ledge well before the stock market crash in '29. I confess I didn't finish this. It was just too boring. If the 1920s had been as yawn-inducing as this book, I would have been throwing myself off a window ledge well before the stock market crash in '29.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tom Schulte

    Very well narrated by Grover Gardner, this was an enjoyable re-read of a history classic. Allen really brings the '20s into an exciting light. It seems like wedged between WW I and The Depression was a time of exuberance and exciting changes during a period of enlarging freedom (Women Granted the Right to Vote in U.S.) and improved quality of life (radio frenzy). This all jibes peculiarly with sociological pathology (crimes and trials "of the century" like Leopold and Loeb Murder a Neighbor Out Very well narrated by Grover Gardner, this was an enjoyable re-read of a history classic. Allen really brings the '20s into an exciting light. It seems like wedged between WW I and The Depression was a time of exuberance and exciting changes during a period of enlarging freedom (Women Granted the Right to Vote in U.S.) and improved quality of life (radio frenzy). This all jibes peculiarly with sociological pathology (crimes and trials "of the century" like Leopold and Loeb Murder a Neighbor Out of Boredom; "Fatty" Arbuckle Scandal) and loosening of sexual mores in flapper lifestyle and shortening skirts much documented by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The intensely interesting decade gave birth to fads and crazes: mah jongg, hobby radio, crossword puzzles, etc. That wireless invention was bringing in the world's exciting changes and discoveries: Tomb of King Tut, Not all knowledge was embraced and the radio made the nation ringside to The Scopes (Monkey) Trial and the imperiled

  15. 4 out of 5

    Reinhardt

    An opinionated history. Not an arms-length textbook history, it is rather a gut level look back at the roaring 20s. As it was written in 1931, the 20's were still a fresh memory. You can feel the visceral sense of the debates of the time. In that sense, it is dated. the attitude reminds me a bit of HL Mencken: snooty and dismissive, but not vitriolic. But this 'point of view' history does provide some benefits. It makes for a lively read. It also provides a lot of social history. the fads and cha An opinionated history. Not an arms-length textbook history, it is rather a gut level look back at the roaring 20s. As it was written in 1931, the 20's were still a fresh memory. You can feel the visceral sense of the debates of the time. In that sense, it is dated. the attitude reminds me a bit of HL Mencken: snooty and dismissive, but not vitriolic. But this 'point of view' history does provide some benefits. It makes for a lively read. It also provides a lot of social history. the fads and changes that occurred in the 20s are a big concern. It covers fashion, fads, mores, crime, prohibition, politics, scandals, and of course the economy. In many ways, a lot of the concerns of the book sound remarkably contemporary. Socialism and the capitalist, race, new technology (radio), science vs state, the rise of entertainment, weird fads, changing morality, obsession with sex, gender norms, immigration, Asian competition, political scandals, emptying churches, nihilism, antitrust concerns, prohibition, free speech, the markets. It's as if we are rewriting the 1920s a hundred years later. Overall, an enjoyable read to get a sense of what the 1920s felt like, at least what they felt like in the early 30s. It also shows how the time of writing has a big impact. This book says as much about 1931 as about the 1920s.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Autumn Kovach

    This book was SO interesting. I feel like I have a more well rounded view of New York (and America) in the 1920s. All I was really in love with was the flapper dresses and speakeasies. But with this book, the author explains how the change of technology (the radio), culture, the stock market, agriculture, magazines all affected each other. The contrast of city vs. country. Why people moved where. I wish I had taken better notes because there was so much to learn. He also wrote a book about the 3 This book was SO interesting. I feel like I have a more well rounded view of New York (and America) in the 1920s. All I was really in love with was the flapper dresses and speakeasies. But with this book, the author explains how the change of technology (the radio), culture, the stock market, agriculture, magazines all affected each other. The contrast of city vs. country. Why people moved where. I wish I had taken better notes because there was so much to learn. He also wrote a book about the 30s -- only a few years after both decades wrapped up so it feels very current. Many issues they faced as a society are not unlike those of today which brings a unique sort of comfort as well.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Alicia Woods

    I love reading history books. It's one of my favorite genres. This book was so interesting because it was written as modern history, that is, right after the events happened, Mr. Allen wrote about them. No worry about being tainted by 2020 thoughts or comparisons. Just full-on history. I loved it. I took my time reading it because I let each chapter soak in. I'm so glad that I did. And if there's anything I learn from history books, it's that as much as things change, they stay the same. I was c I love reading history books. It's one of my favorite genres. This book was so interesting because it was written as modern history, that is, right after the events happened, Mr. Allen wrote about them. No worry about being tainted by 2020 thoughts or comparisons. Just full-on history. I loved it. I took my time reading it because I let each chapter soak in. I'm so glad that I did. And if there's anything I learn from history books, it's that as much as things change, they stay the same. I was continually amazed by how similar things are, 100 years and loads of technology later. There were passages and passages of this book that could easily fit descriptions for today. Truly a great view in to the past. Highly recommend.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    This is an approachable, fascinating overview of the 1920s, covering everything from popular culture to hemlines to the Florida land boom to the stock market crash. The original edition was published in 1931 (and is available as a free legal download through the New York Public Library at archive.org).

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    I have read this book before, but I enjoyed revisiting this informal history of the 1920s in America. Frederick Allen has a very insightful account of the great party Americans had in the decade following the war that ended very suddenly in October 1929. He looks at several cultural aspects of the 20s including the new attitudes toward sex, religion, sports, economics, fashion and politics.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kurtbg

    This book provides and high-level review of what happened in the 1920's. I believe this was written in the 1950's. Amazingly it shows how things really don't change - mainly the boundaries of extremes get pushed. Every generation goes through a generational Amnesia, as it doesn't know what came before, so the perception of reality is baselined at now... and not the 20-30 yrs prior in which their parents grew up. This is the importance in reading and knowing history. The below quote applies to eve This book provides and high-level review of what happened in the 1920's. I believe this was written in the 1950's. Amazingly it shows how things really don't change - mainly the boundaries of extremes get pushed. Every generation goes through a generational Amnesia, as it doesn't know what came before, so the perception of reality is baselined at now... and not the 20-30 yrs prior in which their parents grew up. This is the importance in reading and knowing history. The below quote applies to every decade up to today: "The older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us." Other chestnuts: - Preachers using bible verses saying god support you to be rich - The morality of elders imposed on participants returning from WWI and being forced to puritanical and pollyanna morals that world had destroyed for them (paraphrase by me) - the belief in uninhibited sex - Fundamentalists pushing through an amendment (prohibition) which nobody thought would pass, but did, and couldn't possibly be funded to enforce. It moved the public from grain (beer) to distilled (gin) alcohol consumption, created a lucrative black market (Capone) which pervaded racketeering into government at all levels, thereby training them on how to game the system. "Whats the use of trying to do anything about?" - The rise of sensationalism of sex, crazy stunts, Charles Lindbergh flying to Paris (though others did similar flights before him) as the press/media learned that leading with one top story is what draws the people in. Case in point: a guy gets stuck in a cave as he was worming his way through the underground to find natural resources for companies. He gets stuck and captures the headlines for weeks until he dies. A mine collapse during the same period gets scant coverage even though many people died. - The profits of heroism - Charles Lindbergh again, but today it's celebrities who make even less an impact and receive great compensation: CEO's, sports players, musicians. "A disillusioned nation fed on cheap heroics and scandal and crime was revolting against the low estimate of human nature..." - the consolidation of the press into less owners. Local reporters being replaced by access to agencies providing content nationally. - advertising from what a product does to selling a lifestyle - "hands off" approach to Business by the president/government (basically cash and carry and letting the public get swindled and then having them pay to clean-up the mess, see The Big Short) - The increase in industrial corporations mergers - financial instruments that had holdings of Company A, which invested in Company B, which owned pieces of Company C, and Company C invested in Company A... - securities being sold of investment trusts which held stock in holding companies which owned stocks of banks, which had affiliates which in turn controlled holding companies, etc - "The big bull market covered a multitude of sins."" The economic system had proved itself too complex... to continue unbridled" (ha ha!) - lost prestige of religion - Extreme PC-ism based on nothing "The red scare" (See Trumbo), where an actual government committee was funded to perform witch hunts by pointing a finger at someone and accusing someone of people a US-hating communist. - Political fund-raising and government contract scams where the whistle-blowers are treated as the bad guys, even by the press. The circle of life can be dizzying.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Oleksandr Zholud

    This is, as the title suggests, the history of the 1920s, chiefly in the USA. My first surprise with the book was that it wasn’t written recently but in 1930 and first published in 1931. This fact cannot be spotted immediately, thus it is a rare kind of the historical text that remains valid. It is true that the book omits or pays a little attention to some themes, which other more modern books on the period describe, most importantly life of African-Americans and jazz music. At the same time it This is, as the title suggests, the history of the 1920s, chiefly in the USA. My first surprise with the book was that it wasn’t written recently but in 1930 and first published in 1931. This fact cannot be spotted immediately, thus it is a rare kind of the historical text that remains valid. It is true that the book omits or pays a little attention to some themes, which other more modern books on the period describe, most importantly life of African-Americans and jazz music. At the same time it illuminates in detail such advances as a sexual revolution (not in the 60s), appearance of tabloids and sensational press – I’ve learnt a new word – ballyhoo from it :) It is astounding how the life drastically changed during the roaring 20s – out of my four decades on this Earth I cannot select one that shifted the world so drastically. Despite the fall of the USSR, rise of the internet and election of non-white as a president of the USA. It is interesting how open the author speaks about prohibition and Al Capone, I thought that a lot of details were open to general public much later. Other flashlights: the Red Scare of 1920, Lindbergh’s flight, Ford model A, boom and crash of the stock market, Harding and corruption, Wilson and the world peace. Recommended as a forgotten jewel of the early 1930s to anyone who has the basic knowledge of the period

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Goodwin

    Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen starts out as an interesting book. Filled with specific details, Allen does an exemplary job of describing life before the 1920’s. After that chapter, everything goes crazy. This book is like a rich, delicious cake. The first few bites are amazing, and the reader doesn’t want to stop eating. The cake begins to get sweeter and harder to digest until the reader has to take a break before starting again. Only Yesterday is similar to this example. Although the Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen starts out as an interesting book. Filled with specific details, Allen does an exemplary job of describing life before the 1920’s. After that chapter, everything goes crazy. This book is like a rich, delicious cake. The first few bites are amazing, and the reader doesn’t want to stop eating. The cake begins to get sweeter and harder to digest until the reader has to take a break before starting again. Only Yesterday is similar to this example. Although the first chapters were captivating, the rest of the book only contained a few sentences that were worth reading. The book began to drag, and all of the facts were thrown in a non-chronological order, making the book confusing and dull. Even so, the beginning of the book was an insight into daily life for an ordinary family and was delightful to read. Overall, the book was a long, tiring journey whose end was boring and monotonous like the chapters preceding it. This book is recommended to readers who enjoy reading plain, stated facts and a more encyclopedia-like book on the 1920’s.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This is a great book because it contextualizes the '20s so that you can understand everything that's happening as it happens--from Scott Fitzgerald's writing to Lindbergh's famous flight to the Dempsey-Tunney fight to the stock-market crash and prohibition. And it's written informally enough that it is entertaining. The original book was written in the early '30s, so it is remarkably fresh in its assessments, yet upon reading the second edition released by the author's widow, you can see how spo This is a great book because it contextualizes the '20s so that you can understand everything that's happening as it happens--from Scott Fitzgerald's writing to Lindbergh's famous flight to the Dempsey-Tunney fight to the stock-market crash and prohibition. And it's written informally enough that it is entertaining. The original book was written in the early '30s, so it is remarkably fresh in its assessments, yet upon reading the second edition released by the author's widow, you can see how spot-on he was in his narration of history--even nearly a century later. For someone like me who knew about the 1920s only what he read in Fitzgerald stories or novels, this broadens the context so that I understand now how lucky a president Coolidge was and how unlucky Hoover was--and not just because he had to wear those high, tight collars that probably cut his circulation off. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A very enjoyable read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Randy Fay

    This is astonishingly well written. Normally something written in 1930 or 1931 would seem quite dated, but this just reads like the best of writing from today. It gives a great view of the 1920s as viewed from the end of them. How did he do that? The only questionable thing is that he writes from the vantage point of the upper-middle and upper classes, with people living in their fine single-family homes and going to the country club. It's clear that it's a pretty limited overall viewpoint econo This is astonishingly well written. Normally something written in 1930 or 1931 would seem quite dated, but this just reads like the best of writing from today. It gives a great view of the 1920s as viewed from the end of them. How did he do that? The only questionable thing is that he writes from the vantage point of the upper-middle and upper classes, with people living in their fine single-family homes and going to the country club. It's clear that it's a pretty limited overall viewpoint economically.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    A fantastic cultural history of the Jazz Age, published at the beginning of the Great Depression to show how much had changed in America in the span of one decade. Allen has a great ear for the telling fact or anecdote and an unusually keen sense of historical perspective. Virtually all of what he wrote in 1930 about the meaning of the 1920s is still incontrovertible today. And Only Yesterday is an incredibly fun book to read. (When William Leuchtenburg wrote The Perils of Prosperity, with the be A fantastic cultural history of the Jazz Age, published at the beginning of the Great Depression to show how much had changed in America in the span of one decade. Allen has a great ear for the telling fact or anecdote and an unusually keen sense of historical perspective. Virtually all of what he wrote in 1930 about the meaning of the 1920s is still incontrovertible today. And Only Yesterday is an incredibly fun book to read. (When William Leuchtenburg wrote The Perils of Prosperity, with the benefit of an extra three decades of hindsight, he recognizably recapitulated much of this book without adding anything that appreciably alters Allen's picture of the period. Leuchtenburg tried to replace Allen's account of revolutionary change, suggesting that 1919 was not the beginning of a completely new era and 1929 was not its end, but he failed.)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Emmett Hoops

    This book, published in 1931, is an example of why good writing is essential. Even though most readers will hardly be interested in the minutiae of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen's incredibly modern and readable style makes this a book that any reader will enjoy. Some parts are quite memorable, such as his comments about how society did not keep up with the rapid changes that were taking place in the post-World War One decade. You can easily see how his observations fit today's issues of same- This book, published in 1931, is an example of why good writing is essential. Even though most readers will hardly be interested in the minutiae of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen's incredibly modern and readable style makes this a book that any reader will enjoy. Some parts are quite memorable, such as his comments about how society did not keep up with the rapid changes that were taking place in the post-World War One decade. You can easily see how his observations fit today's issues of same-sex marriage, for instance. Altogether, this is a classic book.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I first read this book in the mid-nineteen seventies, and I enjoyed it even better this time. Frederick Lewis Allen masterfully narratives and analyzes the nineteen twenties, the events leading up to that decade, and a peek into the next. With the ease

  28. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Good quality review of the 1920s in America. Wanted to read a book written long ago to avoid any current politics, thus I found this to be a winner! This book gave me good perspective on the technological changes of that era (automobiles, radio, etc) and how things evolved quickly in the U.S. Amazing how many comparisons I can make to today’s world of the 2020s. Is history repeating itself? Key excerpts below. - Counsels of idealism sometimes fail in the relaxation that comes with peace. P14. - T Good quality review of the 1920s in America. Wanted to read a book written long ago to avoid any current politics, thus I found this to be a winner! This book gave me good perspective on the technological changes of that era (automobiles, radio, etc) and how things evolved quickly in the U.S. Amazing how many comparisons I can make to today’s world of the 2020s. Is history repeating itself? Key excerpts below. - Counsels of idealism sometimes fail in the relaxation that comes with peace. P14. - The nation at war had formed the habit of summary action, and it was not soon unlearned. The circumstances and available methods had changed, that wall all. Employers who had watched with resentment the rising scales of wages paid to labor, under the encouragement of a government that wanted no disaffection in the ranks of the workers, now felt that their chance had come. The Germans were beaten; the next thing to do was to teach labor a lesson. P17. - Prohibition went through on the tide of the war spirit of “no compromise.” P18. - Human nature, the world over, was beginning to show a new side, as it has shown it at the end of every war in history. The compulsion for unity was gone, and division was taking its place. P22. - For the professional super-patriot… had only begun to fight. Innumerable patriotic societies had sprung up, each with its executive secretary, and executive secretaries must live, and therefore must conjure up new and ever greater menaces. P51. - Nor did the Roman Catholics escape censure in the regions in which they were in a minority. Did not the members of this Church take their orders from a foreign pope, and did not the pope claim temporal power, and did not Catholics insist upon teaching their children in their own way rather than in the American public schools, and was not all this un-American and treasonable? P56. PJK: Always wondered why Catholics were looked down upon so much during this timeframe… and for many decades ongoing. - … but its white robe and hood, its flaming cross, its secrecy, and the preposterous vocabulary of its ritual could be made the vehicle for all that infantile love of hocus-pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places. Here was a chance to dress up the village bigot and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire. P57. PJK: Even today, everyone seems to want to be a Soldier… at least for a couple hours. Dress up in Army clothes, march around, be seen, then run back home. - “The older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us, “ wrote one of the them. P82. PJK: This was written ~1920. Guess the “new” generation didn’t do much better as the 1920s ended in the beginning of the Great Depression. Instead of “ruining” the world after WWI (literal destruction), now the world was in an economic disaster. - The old-time saloon had been overwhelmingly masculine; the speakeasy usually catered to both men and women…. Under the new regime not only the drink were mixed, but the company as well. P86. PJK: Was this because the speakeasy’s were more progressive or because they needed the paying customers? - The nation was spiritually tired…. Sick of Wilson and his talk of America’s duty to humanity, callous to political idealism, they hoped for a chance to pursue their private affairs without governmental interference and to forget about public affairs. There might be no such word in the dictionary as normalcy, but normalcy was what they wanted. PJK: Seems to be the same desire after the 2020 election.. and the same desire after 20 years of conflict in AFG and Iraq. - The copywriter was learning to pay less attention to the special qualities and advantages of his product, and more to the study of what the mass of unregenerate mankind wanted – to be young and desirable, to be rich, to keep up with the Joneses, to be envied. PJK: Seems like this is a very similar way of advertising even 100 years later.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Eb

    Radio made popular, Freud and psychoanalysis says self-control is a mistake which undermines the clergy, ppl complain abt the loosening of morals of the kids, clothing more risqué but still puritan by our standards (skirts go up a few more inches), mah-jong becomes popular, pubs become coed instead of male only thanks to prohibition, washer & dryer & bakeries & canned food give women more time to go out into the workforce, war weariness results in letting loose, cars allow ppl to leave homes for Radio made popular, Freud and psychoanalysis says self-control is a mistake which undermines the clergy, ppl complain abt the loosening of morals of the kids, clothing more risqué but still puritan by our standards (skirts go up a few more inches), mah-jong becomes popular, pubs become coed instead of male only thanks to prohibition, washer & dryer & bakeries & canned food give women more time to go out into the workforce, war weariness results in letting loose, cars allow ppl to leave homes for longer periods without supervision, lurid pictures & magazines, petting parties, popularity of jazz and it’s criticism as morally loose, Major loosening of morals due to Freud & less economic dependence of family on each other & war weariness, & cars & movies & magazines, “you can’t help but get up and go necking while watching one of those movies. Me & my bf always leave in the middle. Same for my friend” ---we see here how tv changes morality and points of view of what’s acceptable and appropriate behavior “an upheaval in values was taking place” Prohibition actually did reduce drinking in the lower classes. It’s the upper-classes that actually increased drinking—Very typical. It’s the poor that these vices ensnare more The book speaks of a “revolution” in morals. This revolution is thought to have taken place in the 1960s in our current popular imagination. How amusing that history constantly repeats itself A great deal of damage to religion was done by science and belief in the superiority of science above all things. (Now it’s belief in big data). More specifically, psychology did a lot of damage. Henceforth, the things religion advocated, such as restraint, would be undermined The liberalization of the west didn’t begin in the 1960s. It began at least as far back as the early 1900s under Freud. By the 1920s, the educated upper class was becoming more and more liberal and accepting of “sexual liberation”. Is it possible then that the world wars actually slowed down the pace of liberalism? That the 1960s were nothing more than a return to the course that was already there in the early 1900s? After all, modernism in art began in the 1910s. It may be a myth that the 1960s changed everything….Seen in this light, the 1950s are but a hiatus in this march. A hiatus brought upon by the exhaustion from the 1930s poverty and 1940s war. Then liberalization resumes in the 1960s….(Consider for example, the writings of Virginia Woolf in the 1920s) Among the liberal intellectuals, “Anybody who did not regard tolerance as one of the supreme virtues, was to them, intolerable”….To me this is shocking. That statements like these could be made in 1931 about the 1920s seems anachronistic; these statements are made today in the 2010s… “they were mostly, though not all, religious skeptics” Babbits, Coolidge Prosperity "Believed in greater degree in sexual freedom, but then were disappointed when they got it." "Emotions cannot be dignified unless they are first respected. And love was becoming too easy and too biological to be an object of respect." "They were discovering that the transmutation of love into a carefully cataloged psychosis, had robbed the loveliest passages of life of their meaning. The moment love became casual, it became commonplace as well." "They had their freedom but they did not know what to do with it." "What most distinguishes the generation who have approached maturity since the debacle of idealism at the end of the war is not their rebellion against the religion and the moral code of their parents, but their disillusionment with their own rebellion." By the beginning of the decade and the depression in full swing, skirts are longer again and a lot of the liberalism has faded away; though a new less conservative equilibrium is set

  30. 5 out of 5

    David Valentino

    Lessons That Go Unheeded History teaches many lessons but people are bad pupils. Not just people today, but people throughout history have ignored the lessons taught by events preceding them. Consequently, we repeat mistakes over and over again. Those new to Only Yesterday will only have to read a few chapters to see how true these statements are, because the parallels between the 1920s and current times are numerous. Errors made then are still being made today. Read it for yourself to see the tr Lessons That Go Unheeded History teaches many lessons but people are bad pupils. Not just people today, but people throughout history have ignored the lessons taught by events preceding them. Consequently, we repeat mistakes over and over again. Those new to Only Yesterday will only have to read a few chapters to see how true these statements are, because the parallels between the 1920s and current times are numerous. Errors made then are still being made today. Read it for yourself to see the truth in this. Only Yesterday is a contemporaneous history published two years after the 1929 stock market crash, as well as shortly after the Florida Land Bubble bust that began in 1925 (and is argued to be the precipitating cause of the Great Depression by Christopher Knowlton in his recent book, Bubble in the Sun). Frederick Lewis Allen worked as a contributor to Harper’s Magazine, later, in 1941, assuming the position of editor-in-chief. Readers will enjoy his breezy and often tongue-in-cheek style, making this anything but a dry trudge. Allen covers all the highlights of the years 1919 through 1929, among them the incapacitated years of Woodrow Wilson, the scandal-plagued presidency of Warren G. Harding, the Red Scare spearheaded by AG Mitchell Palmer, the complacent and laissez-faire presidency of Calvin Coolidge, the disaster that was Prohibition, the rise of organized crime that features Al Capone, the rising popularity of spectator sports starring Tunney, Ruth, and others, the adoption of more liberal mores, the books and intellectual arguments of the times, and the financials of the day, among them the above mentioned Florida Land Bubble, the plight of American farmers, intermingling of business and religion, margin buying, unregulated mutual trusts, boosterism, and other like factors resulting in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Readers cannot help but be struck by the similarities, especially in government and business, to what we are experiencing today. To emphasize this, readers will find much that rings true in this brief quote from the Red Scare pages: “There is a certain grim humor in the fact that what Mr. Palmer did during the next three months was done by him as the chief legal officer of an Administration which had come into power to bring about the New Freedom.” Palmer-ism burned hot in America for a time with some pretty terrible consequences, as this passage reveals: “The intolerance of those days took many forms. Almost inevitably it took the form of an ugly flare-up of feeling against the Negro, the Jew, and the Roman Catholic. The notions of group loyalty and of hatred, expanded during war-time and then suddenly denied their intended expression, found a perverted release in the persecution not only of supposed radicals, but also of other elements which to the dominant American group—the white Protestants—seemed alien or ‘un-American.’” Yes, it is as if we are gazing into a mirror and seeing ourselves. So, here’s a book of its times that speaks as truly of our own, with lessons for us all. Americans should spend a couple of hours with it, and maybe, hopefully, draw some lesson from it.

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