History & Mythology

'Roaring Twenties' Explained: What was New York like 100 years ago

The Big Apple. The metropolis. The City that never sleeps. Nowhere else on earth quite captures the imagination quite as much as New York. It has shaped our culture, inspired our songs, films, fashion and cuisine. You can love it, you can hate it… most people have a healthy mix of both. But whatever you feel. you just can’t ignore it.

But have you ever wondered… what was New York like 100 years ago?

It was in the 1920s when New York became known to many as the “capital of the world”. 

But to find out why, we have to look closer at two related cultural revolutions that shaped New York 100 years ago. 

The first was the Roaring Twenties— the term describing thechanges in sexual, artistic and cultural norms that leapt (or “roared”) their way into big appsociety throughout the decade.

At the start of the Twenties, the horrors of World War I had a particular impact on the mindset of young American women. It made them realise that life was too short, too easily snatched away to go back to the way things were, sitting around waiting for a man to marry them. These women wanted to rebel, to party, drink and smoke, wear armless dresses, have drastic haircuts. Daring stuff indeed. These women were known as the “flappers”, and 
nowhere in the world where they more welcome than in New York, which was simply bursting with dance halls, nightclubs and the types of parties written about in The Great Gatsby. Even though drinking alcohol was technically Prohibited by law, there were an estimated 32,000 “speakeasies” in New York; bars which sold illicit liquor, with their entrances often elaborately hidden behind fake walls or bookcases.

Whilst the flappers were the icons of the Roaring Twenties, the soundtrack was supplied by the Jazz Age. By 1920, 300,000 African Americans had left their homes in the deeply racist South, attracted by the promise of a better life up North. They settled in large numbers in New York, specifically in Harlem. Harlem became the black cultural mecca, attracting some of the great African American artists and intellectuals, including WEB DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston. The poet Langston Hughes described the Harlem artists as intending to “express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame”, creating a sense of racial pride that had been supressed by decades of oppression. One of the ways they achieved this was through their music, the music of jazz, which swept through the nation like wildfire.

So with this in mind, lets transport ourselves back to 1920s New York, a city where the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age came to life and see what a day would look like.

Day in the life

Its hardly a surprise won’t be shocking to anyone to hear that no matter where you landed in 1920s New York, you’re going to hear noise. A lot of noise. So much noise, that the New York Noise Abatement Committee (yes, that was a thing) claimed "there are many places where a tiger … could roar or snarl indefinitely without attracting the auditory attention of passers-by.” 
At the start of the 1920s, that noise might have belonged to street vendors, loudly selling and buying their wares. By the end of the decade, they had to leave the streets to make way for the new-fangled automobiles, like the Ford Model T. A big part of the Roaring Twenties was the move towards mass consumerism, as people spent their excess money on consumer goods, including cars. So by 1924, Ford were producing 10,000 Model T’s a day, so you can be sure that you would have seen a lot of them in New York 100 years ago, and you can also be sure of the colour. The company claimed at the time “you can buy Ford in any color you want… as long as it's black”

Mass consumerism was also great news for New York department stores, and if you time-travelled back to Winter 1924, you might see the very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is now perhaps New York’s most famous event. 

Another common sight would be that of a construction site—no pun intended… Okay, some pun intended. The almost unprecedented economic prosperity led to a skyscraper building spree where many of the buildings that dominate Manhattan’s modern skyline were built, including the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. Both were built in the classic Art Deco style popularised in 1920s New York.

Of course, the combination of cars and construction sites led to one big problem for New Yorkers—Smog. So when you time travel, be sure to pack a change of clothes… or two.

But what about the fun activities New York had to offer? During the day time, you could take the elevated train to the Bronx to watch the New York Yankees and the greatest baseball player that ever lived—Babe Ruth. In the age of mass consumerism, Babe was arguably the first sports celebrity, becoming one of the first athletes to be paid large sums of money to star in adverts. So every athlete you see today as the face of those multi-million Nike or Adidas campaigns have Babe Ruth to thank. But you’d need to get to there early—the Yankees were known for having to turn up to 25,000 spectators away due to the demand to see The Sultan of Swat.

But now, night-time has set in and, just like today, that’s when New York really comes alive. 

The heart of the city, the place where all subways, trains and bus routes stopped, was Times Square. As today, it was brightly lit, and you would have heard the buzz of the neon lights on every corner. You could take your pick of the theatres that had moved to there over the previous decade or so, eat at the best restaurants the city had to offer and if you got exhausted, you could always stay at the finest hotels like the Astor or Knickerbocker.

But it wouldn’t be a night out in New York if you didn’t go to Harlem. For 30 cents, you could swing by Savoy Ballroom, known as the Heartbeat of Harlem, which attracted up to 700,000 people a year. The jazz was hot, but the dancing was hotter, and the famous Savoy nights popularised dances such as the Lindy Hop, the flying Charleston and the Jive. 

But the most famous club in Harlem, for better or worse, was The Cotton Club. Some of the best jazz music in the world could be found at this speakeasy, with bands led by legends including Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. However, unlike the Savoy, the only black people allowed in the club were the performers and staff. The owner of the club was the prominent gangster Owney Madden, nicknamed “The Killer” who encouraged his African American employees to play up to the racist stereotypes held by the exclusively white clientele. 

Ultimately, for all its excitement, lavish parties, liberation, new music, new ideas, we can’t forget that New York 100 years ago had a darker side to it. And just like in The Great Gatsby, the good times couldn’t last. In 1929, the most devastating stock market crash took place in Wall Street, Lower Manhattan, which began the Great Depression, caused in part by the culture of excess of the Roaring Twenties. 

But New York has always been a city of contradiction, and it always will be. But love it, or hate it, but you just can’t ignore it.

Made on