By Phillip G. Payne, Anne W. Lee and Hadley Thompson
In the spring of 2021 Americans really wanted normal. In the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccines were rolling out. A new president took the oath of office. On Twitter, #hotvaxedsummer trended. The same for other social media outlets. T-shirts were made. In The Washington Post Maura Judkis and Lisa Bonos wrote, “Hot Vax Summer is Coming: Can it possibly live up to the hype?” Of course, the answer was no. People, the authors explained, would fall victim to “rosy prospection,” the idea that the anticipation of an event is more fun than the actual event. Reality is a let down. Still, people wanted to party and hook up after quarantine. In addition to high expectations, Judkis and Bonos noted:
The hype is rooted not just in psychology but also in history. The end of the 1918 pandemic ushered in the Roaring Twenties, an era we now associate with short hemlines, speakeasies, jazz and promiscuity. Teenagers scandalized their elders by attending “petting parties,” also known as “snugglepupping” — a word we should definitely bring back — where they would make out and fondle each other (but would not necessarily have sex).
Judkis and Bonos looked at how the pandemic might change dating habits and hookup culture, which, of course, became one of the points of comparison with the first Twenties. Judkis, Bonos, and others naturally began to look for another point in time that combined the end of a pandemic, a war with rapid social and economic change. They landed on the 1920s, which saw the end of the Great War, the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the Roaring Twenties. For their article, Judkis and Bonos interviewed historian Erica Ryan, an academic expert on the 1920s, who explained that the 1918 pandemic did not change American culture. What did was the shock of the Great War and other historical trends already in place.
The Judkis and Bonos article and similar ones demonstrated interesting insights when using history to predict the future but also the difficulties of determining ultimate causation for complex events.
As we move through the 21st century decade that was supposed to be a sequel to the Roaring Twenties, it is interesting to contrast the expectations with the reality, the predictive value of history. People posting #hotvaxedsummer seemingly meant anything and everything related to celebrating the arrival of vaccines and hoped for end of the pandemic that started March 2020. There seemed to have been little — or not deep — analysis comparing the two post-pandemic decades that came in the second decade of a century. As happens on Twitter, the hashtag seemed more of a chance to celebrate life, promote vaccines, and advertise products. However, the social media celebration seems to have prompted a comparison with the 1920s complete with caveats to not overly romanticize the first Twenties.
As noted in the Judkis and Bonos article, the Roaring Twenties were a romanticized past. That is all very true. A lot of what we think of as the Roaring Twenties was romanticized. However, the same is true for pretty much any historical period. While the 1920s of contemporary popular culture is often romanticized, it is worth noting that F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) was not unlike Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) in that they criticized the glitz and glamour of their present set against a better past. However, we should recognize the folks who posted under the hashtag shared something with people a century ago. In both decades, people actively attempted to define the here and the now to shape the culture they lived in. So, while the Roaring Twenties lacked social media influencers, it still had boosters telling the story to shape the narrative, to define the moment. In the late 1990s, Gary Alan Fine introduced the idea of reputational entrepreneurs, who are individuals who attempt to control an historical reputation by the shaping of narrative and institutions for the purposes of controlling a contemporary agenda. This concept is closely related to activists as cultural warriors who often attempt to shape a narrative about the past to influence current politics.
Therefore, it stands to reason that 2020 would bring us another opportunity to frame the coming decade with an imagined past. In 1920, Americans went to the ballot box to pick a president and a new direction for the country, a break with President Wilson and the Great War, to get relief from the turmoil of war. In 1920, however, the pandemic was not a political issue. One century following the Jazz Age, Americans were focused on ending a pandemic and embroiled in a never-ending Culture War around issues of social change that paralleled the changes of the 1920s. Much like today, in the 1920s some Americans objected to a changing America with its talking movies, prohibition, flappers, sexual revolution, and youth culture.
Nostalgia as Normalcy
In November 1920, Americans voted for normalcy. American voters wanted things to settle down, or as Republican candidate Warren Harding put it: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate…” After years of war, trauma, and upheaval, voters opted for an obscure United States senator who ran on nostalgia for small towns and the good old days. Out with progressivism, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and grand crusades. In with business, boosterism, small towns, and good times. Americans turned their backs on the recent past by embracing an imagined past captured by a candidate in a boater hat bloviating on his front porch for the cameras.
Harding and the GOP left a lasting impression of the image of the 1920s. They were only a few among a variety of people who attempted to shape the narrative of the decade as it unfolded. The list would include political leaders, who naturally sought to shape a narrative to fit their political ambitions. Harding did a great deal to shape people’s perceptions of the decade by framing it around a “return to normalcy” and “America First” during the 1920 presidential election. Harding was the consummate booster. Before entering politics, he was a small-town newspaper publisher with the motto of “boost, don’t knock.” Harding’s short administration ended in his premature death followed by the revelation of scandals. While Harding was a hail fellow well met who liked a good time, Calvin Coolidge projected the image of a dire puritan. Coolidge assumed the presidency upon Harding’s death and won election in his own right in 1924 with “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” Coolidge continued Harding’s booster themes celebrating business and “America for Americans.” Finally, Herbert Hoover rounded out the decade of presidential image making by fully embracing the image of businessman as president, promising boundless prosperity only to be crushed by the Great Depression. The decade’s narrative arc.
The Gospel of Prosperity narrative could also be found in the newspapers, magazines and books of the period. Business journalism and the ticker tape made Wall Street emblematic of the entire economy with bankers as heroes. Bruce Barton helped spread the message of a man on the go and the power of advertising with his 1925 book The Man Nobody Knew, in which Jesus Christ is cast into the role of entrepreneur and ad man.
During the 1920s, rapid change intensified this desire to see a before and after. In her introduction When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America’s Culture Wars, historian Erica J. Ryan (mentioned above) points out the sense of dislocation people experienced, quoting Willa Cather: “As though some chasm opened up to separate the 1920s from a nostalgic, idealized past. The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.”
This break, the 1920 election, neatly fits into the American penchant to organize history into decades, looking for breaking points, and that is a trend we also saw with the 2020s. This tendency to focus on decades as historically significant rather than dates appears in many places: in courses offered, in books, and in popular culture. Often, we end up with a handful of iconic images and events that seems to capture some aspect of certain decades: Dorothea Lange’s1936 photograph “Migrant Mother”; President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination; Neil Armstrong’s 1969 stepping on the moon, and so forth. We see this in waves of nostalgia for a past decade that seems to mirror the waves of change we experience. For example, look at the unfolding television shows that framed decades of a generation past: Happy Days, That Seventies Show, The Wonder Years, and Stranger Things to name a few. These shows are often more about today than the past, as the creator of Mad Men (another show set in a mythical version of the Sixties) reflected on in an interview. Thus, we end up with a vision of the past neatly divided into periods with strongly identified themes culturally conditioning us to understand history as discrete moments in time defined by iconic images.
Decades are arbitrary. The “Twenties” works reasonably well because it is framed by the Great War on one end and the October 1929 stock market crash on the other. Chronology usually doesn’t work this neatly a — decade defined by a landslide election, realignment election on one end and a financial meltdown on the other end. In addition to Harding articulating Americans’ desire for normal, we also have “F. Scott Fitzgerald describing the 1920s as “The most expensive orgy in history.” Between quotes like that and canonical works like The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald has an outsized role in how the Roaring Twenties are viewed today. Finally, it is worth noting that the Lost Generation writers that we now associate with the decade were not dominant voices then. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would find their audiences later. Charlie Chaplin had a bigger cultural footprint. Of course, the promise of normalcy proved as elusive as #hotvaxxedsummer.
Myth and Reality: What made the Twenties Roar?
If anything characterized the Twenties, it might be best summarized by the onward rush of modernity in the wake of the Great War and the subsequent backlash to modernity. The Great War, a.k.a. World War I, had been a devastating event. Europeans in particular found this to be the case as they wrestled with collapsing empires and enormous carnage. The flipside to the Twenties as a party was a decade characterized by disillusionment. In the United States, Americans experienced the war differently. The Great War marked the first time Americans involved themselves in a European war. President Wilson, who in the 1916 election won promising to keep America out of the war, now led the nation into war promising it would “Make the world safe for democracy” and would be a war to end all wars. Obviously, neither came to be, and Americans rejected Wilson’s leadership in the 1918 midterm elections.
The “party” that was the Twenties and also goes by another name, the Jazz Age, could best be summarized as a business boom — meaning that people had money to flout Prohibition. We get the great tycoons, the Babbitts, gangsters, and speakeasies. The Twenties were the great age of supply-side economics, with Edward Mellon as Secretary of Treasury promoting the idea that lower taxes for the wealthy would mean more money for the public coffers. The United States was flush with cash after the Great War because European nations, via loans and the gold standard, had transferred a great deal of their wealth to the United States to pay for the war. Maybe more than anything else, the new era referred to a new economy dominated by a booming stock market and new industries founded on exciting new technologies. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) stood as the avatar and stock market favorite as Americans flocked to buy radios, giving birth to a truly national popular culture. The American chemical industry flourished partly because the United States had seized German chemical industry secrets during the war. General Motors surpassed Ford in car manufacturing by introducing the make and model and allowed customers to finance the purchase of a new car. General Motors was not alone, as many other companies and stores allowed and encouraged customers to buy the latest home appliances on credit. Hollywood became Hollywood. All of these elements were tied together by advertising, and the Twenties being a golden age of advertising, as Americans looked to radio and mass-produced magazines for guidance on how to improve their lives.
The Jazz Age refers to the music made popular in the 1920s after the Great Migration and points to one of the central tensions of the period. During the boom, America got youth culture, one of the earliest examples in U.S. history of young people, mostly urban, having a distinct popular culture that differed from that of their parents and grandparents. Part of that was the young white speakeasy patrons listening and dancing to jazz. A tension of the 1920s is that the Great Migration of African Americans moving north to escape Jim Crow dramatically shifted the nation’s racial demographics, presenting more opportunities to African Americans, who also suffered white backlash. Both could be found in the popular culture of the decade. While some Americans listened to Black music, others saw and were inspired by the 1915 film the Birth of a Nation based on the novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) by Thomas Dixon. This movie gave viewers a romanticized version of the Old South that inspired the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which became enormously popular in the decade. The irony is that the Klan sold a deeply flawed nostalgia for the Old South popularized with modern advertising techniques.
During the decade, the Klan sold Americans a lily-white version of American history, but the reality of race relations was grim. This is perhaps best seen in 1919 during the summer known as “Red Summer.” White supremacist attacked Africans Americans throughout the country, but particularly in Northern cities that had seen an increase in the Black population as a result of the Great Migration. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 might best exemplify the trend. It was a brutal attack by white supremacists on an expanse of black neighborhoods and businesses, once referred to as the Black Wall Street, that largely went forgotten in the national narrative until recently.
The Twenties also saw Americans not only turn inward, but actively reject immigration, especially if those immigrants came from countries considered undesirable. Immigration laws passed in 1921 and 1924 dramatically restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Similar acts restricted immigration from Asia.
It is worth noting that Americans rejected Wilsonian idealism and interventionism during the Twenties by and large by thinking of their adventure into European great power conflicts as a mistake. Harding’s campaign slogan “America First” captured this isolationist sentiment. The years following the Great War saw a continued deterioration of race relations and culture wars within a rapidly changing society, especially concerning sexuality and gender. Given this, it is fitting that in the United States we, by and large, ignored the centennial commemoration of the Great War. Guided by our present desire for a #hotvaxxedsummer at the end of a terrible pandemic, we instead focused on the aftermath of the “Spanish Flu.”
Predicting the Past
As 2020 unfolded we saw a flurry of articles predicting that the end of the pandemic would bring about another Roaring Twenties. For most writers, the common thread hinged on comparing the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic flu, often misnamed as the “Spanish Flu,” with the predicted end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In likelihood to this, Zack Stanton writing in Politico interviewed John Barry, author of The Great Influenza, who noted that Americans really did not mark the end of the flu but focused on the end of the war, perhaps because they really experienced pandemics and epidemics.
In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk summarized the predictions of economists, historians, and social media influencers that the pandemic would change everything, arguing instead that:
The devastation of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic was quickly followed by a manic flight into sociability. The Roaring Twenties saw a flowering of parties and concerts. The 1918 virus killed more people than the deadliest war humanity had hitherto experienced, but it did not reduce humanity’s determination to socialize.
Mounk continued, “Similarly, those who make bold predictions about the future should beware the ‘predictive fallacy’: Just because current circumstances provide reason to think that something ought to be the case hardly means that it will be.”
Peter Coy, writing in Bloomburg, began his essay by quoting Warren Harding’s inaugural address, which he described as a somber address before Americans went on a tear. For a variety of reasons, Coy argues that we could get another Roaring Twenties, but it is not likely. And Coy writes, “For the average American, life changed more from 1920 to 1929 than it’s likely to change from 2020 to 2029.”
Lila Thulin, writing in The Smithsonian Magazine, also argued that the coming decade would not be a Roaring Twenties despite what people said on social media: “On social media and in conversations from behind the shelter of masks, many Americans bat around the idea our own `Roaring 2020s.’ ”
On the surface, the similarities abound: A society emerges from a catastrophic pandemic in a time of extreme social inequality and nativism, and revelry ensues. But, historians say, the reality of the 1920s defies easy categorization.”
Thulin interviewed J. Alexander Navarro, a historian who co-edited the University of Michigan’s digital Influenza Encyclopedia, who noted that before the pandemic ended, the press paid less attention to it. Navarro told Thulin, “I don’t think you can divorce the experience of the 1918 pandemic with that of the war.” And he added that the nation ”is poised for a post-COVID-19 summer of sin, spending and socializing.”
As we wind our way through the 2020s, we can still learn some lessons from a century ago, but the lesson will be a complex one. Some of the issues that plagued America during the 1920s continue to plague us in the 2020s, and that is not simply the drawn-out end to the pandemic. A culture war still divides us, pitting Americans into partisan camps based on urban versus rural, young versus old, progressive versus conservative. We are still arguing over what should be taught in schools and what role religion should play in our public and governmental institutions. Those opposed to modernity still fight it with the tools of modernity. Our fights over history continue outside the classroom, as Lost Cause statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders (many erected during the 1920s) are being torn down. Then it was radio; now it is social media. We continue to have a love or hate relationship with the captains of industry who amass vast fortunes while others struggle economically.
In 1920, Warren G. Harding promised a return to normalcy, but that did not happen. Many, but not all, Americans saw peace and prosperity. The Roaring Twenties were not the normalcy of idyllic small towns — owns that onrushing modernity would soon threaten to turn into backwaters. Change was the new normal of the 1920s. In this sense, there might be more to #hotvaxxedsummer in this new age of the Twenties than the critics acknowledge.
Phillip G. Payne is a history professor at St. Bonaventure University; Anne W. Lee is a lecturer in St. Bonaventure’s Jandoli School of Communication, and Hadley Thompson is a Jandoli School student.
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