Roaring into the ’20s

The decade’s glamor and glitz overpowers its racism, crime and economic troubles.


A seeming rite of passage in high school English classes involves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Flappers, elegance and elaborate parties have become synonymous the 1920s based not only on Fitzgerald’s portrayal, but the majority of depictions of the era in popular culture.

A century later, heightened enthusiasm surrounds the start of 2020 with hopes the decade will mirror that of the “Roaring ‘20s.” While it may seem like a magnificent era, romanticism is at the heart of somewhat skewed perceptions.

Thomas Krainz, associate history professor, said the ‘20s “emphasized greater consumerism and youth culture,” which contributes to the modern rose-tinted attitudes towards the era.

“Part of that understanding of the ‘20s embraces the notion of fun,” Krainz said. “This notion of new technology, automobiles, radio, motion pictures. All of those things were becoming more widespread in America at that time. Having said that, though, there is also a great blind spot to all of the, kind of, negative things that happened in the ‘20s.”

Krainz said these romanticized views of the past exist because people “don’t like to dwell on unpleasant topics.”

“People do re-enactments of Civil War battles,” Krainz said. “These were horrific events, yet people re-enact them and people watch these things. These were terribly bloody affairs. There is a tendency, I think, to wash over negative aspects even in something like a battle.”

Similarly, Colleen Doody, associate chair of DePaul’s history department, said the emphasis on progress makes the era stand out today.

“The economy was very good for certain people,” Doody said. “People in urban areas did very well. Farmers were suffering, but I think a lot of that suffering was not necessarily obvious to people in the cities.”

Despite what seemed like progress, crime marked the decade as prohibition took effect. Krainz said marginalized communities were the true targets of law enforcement of prohibition rather than mobsters.

“That gets lost in our popular culture,” Krainz said. “In this kind of romanticism of the gangster culture.”

Doody said these individuals were also targeted through the rise of the second wave of the Klu Klux Klan, who targeted essentially anyone who wasn’t a “white Anglo-Saxon.”

“They did bring the racism of the earlier Klan, but they extended it beyond just African Americans being the targets to all of these other groups that they say cannot possibly by a part of the American nation,” Doody said.

History professor Emily Romeo said the fight for women’s suffrage was “much darker and more violent than most people are aware,” as suffragists who were arrested would be usually be sent to workhouses, like the Occoquan Workhouse prison in Virginia, where they endured abuse and “cold, unsanitary and rat-infested cells.”

“It was only after news of the conditions in the prison reached the news media that the government began to relent, and President Wilson, seeing the PR nightmare that would result, began to support passage of the 19th amendment,” Romeo said.

Amy Tyson, director of the American Studies Program and Professional History Internships, said the “most salient” component of suffrage following the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1919 was the failed ratification Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

“The ERA is in the news even today because it looks like Virginia is poised to ratify the amendment, which would give it the three-fourths majority of states required,” Tyson said. “But the Justice Department is saying that this is a no-go because hitting that mark will have come 38 years too late.”

Remnants from the failures of the era continue to be seen in other ways as well, as Doody said that the “true dark underbelly of the 1920s” is nativism that remains apparent today.

“Think about say Charlottesville,” Doody said. “The white supremacists who were marching in Charlottesville were very much making the older 1920s argument about blood and race. And who is it for them? Who is an American?”

Despite its dark side, Krainz said the depiction of the roaring ‘20s in popular culture –such as Fitzgerald’s classic—celebrates certain values of society today.

“It does capture a slice,” Krainz said. “A slice of this consumer culture. A slice of a group in society not interested in social reform, just interested in partying. This notion of superficial status. These are all things that are a part of the twenties and ‘The Great Gatsby’ does demonstrate that. The problem is that the discussion stops there.”