Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's
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Prohibition. Al Capone. The President Harding scandals. The revolution of manners and morals. Black Tuesday. These are only an inkling of the events and figures characterizing the wild, tumultuous era that was the Roaring Twenties. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday traces the rise if post-World War I prosperity up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 against the colorful backdrop of flappers, speakeasies, the first radio, and the scandalous rise of skirt hemlines. Hailed as an instant classic, this is Frederick Lewis Allen's vivid and definitive account of one of the twentieth century's most fascinating decades, chronicling a time of both joy and terror--when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows.

Customer Reviews:

  • Good historical account and more
    Very good account of the historical events of America in the 1920's. The vivid description of the period enables the readers to "live" through that time again. The change of collective mentality is another focus of the book. For example, it reflects the general public attitude towards the war that is outside of their continent.

    Therefore this book have given me a lot of insight of how USA comes to be what it is now. And moreover, it can be read as a FORWARD-LOOKING book: the Globe is closer to the blink of Great Depression than ever. We can spot a lot of parallel between US then and US now: speculation of real estate, stock; the style of the media (aren't they all interested in soapie-like story?). As well, we can spot all the syndromes in our current econ situation that were present in US in 20's. If the world leaders cannot learn from History and steer the course correctly, we will soon dive into the merciless age of depression again, and soon someone else will follow the author and wrote us a book of World in 90's, "Yesterday Once More"(?!)...more info

  • Only Today?
    The summer of 2002 is a very interesting time to be thinking about the 1920s, and this book is the perfect way to do that. One of Allen's major themes is the Big Bull Market of that decade -- how it gradually, little by little, seduced many economic thinkers into believing that the business cycle had been permanently changed for the better, and how stocks turned into a nationwide spectator sport. Sound familiar? As with our more recent bull market, the end wasn't pretty. But one of the things the book suggests is that we haven't seen anywhere near the calamity that followed the crash of 1929. (Allen finished the book in 1931.) I don't know that the book offers much guidance about what will happen next for us in 2002, but it does teach a powerful lesson about the ways that history repeats. Allen covers other ground, too, like the Teapot Dome scandal and the rise of Al Capone, as well as some of the more frivolous "hot" stories of the time. Among the other dj vu themes he hits is how easily distracted we are by trivial stories when the economy is good. Nicely written, still holds up remarkably well....more info
  • A not so distant mirror...
    Frederick Lewis Allen's book on the 1920's was first published in 1931. His informal history of this time period has withstood the test of time. He identified and described the major events and trends in that decade, without the benefit of what historians like to call a "decent interval." His writing style is lively, with a keen ability to capture the essence of broad historical trends. Once again, as Faulkner so eloquently said: "The past is not dead; it is not even the past." So many elements of the `20's have parallels today, certainly the economic bubble that burst into the Great Depression, but also the use of foreign "threats" to reduce the constitutional liberties of Americans.

    Allen commences his book with the end of the "War to End All Wars," prior to the adding of a "I" after the "World War." Wilson lacked the support of the broad American people for his post-war initiatives, as they had a strong desire to return to "normalcy." Allen's chapter on "The Big Red Scare" is most illuminating, showing how readily government officials could use "fear" to void the Constitution. "It was an era of lawless and disorderly defense of law and order, of unconstitutional defense of the Constitution, of suspicion and civil conflict- in a very real sense, a reign of terror." (p39). "In Hartford, while the suspects were in jail the authorities took the further precaution of arresting and incarcerating all visitors who came to see them, a friendly call being regarded as prima facie evidence of affiliation with the Communist party." (p48). "Innumerable patriotic societies had sprung up... and must conjure up new and ever greater menaces. Innumerable other gentlemen now discovered that they could defeat whatever they wanted to defeat by tarring it conspicuously with the Bolshevist brush..." (p49).

    The author is equally strong examining the changes in morals. He relies heavily on the Lynn's excellent sociological work, "Middletown." Hemlines were shortened, and numerous state legislatures tried to pass laws specifying, by inches, how much female flesh could be exposed. It was also an era of endless political scandals, and much corruption, epitomized by the Tea Pot Dome scandal. Concerning the President of the United States, Allen says: "His liabilities were not at first so apparent, yet they were disastrously real. Beyond the limited scope of his political experience he was `almost unbelievably ill-informed,'.... His mind was vague and fuzzy. Its quality was revealed in the clogged style of his public addresses, in his choice of turgid and maladroit language.... It was revealed even more clearly in his helplessness when confronted by questions of policy to which mere good nature could not find the answer." He could easily be describing George W Bush, but is actually describing Warren G Harding. Although America's Imperial reach was just in its infancy, still: "Only occasionally did the United States have to intervene by force of arms in other countries. The Marines ruled Haiti and restored order in Nicaragua; but in general the country extended its empire not by military conquest or political dictation, but by financial penetration. (p146). It was also another era that pitted fundamentalist religion against science, and Allen does a good job of describing the forces behind the Scopes trial.

    Certainly one of the largest parallels was the increase in financial speculation that, as we know now, left at least a 10 year "hangover," and was only finally resolved by another "Great War." Allen devotes an entire chapter to the less well remembered real estate rush, and speculation in Florida. He also devoted a chapter to the more familiar stock market bubble and bust. "The market, as Max Winkler said, was discounting not only the future but the hereafter." And for those currently contemplating the sorry state of their "301k's", "It seems probable... that stocks have been passing not so much from the strong to the weak as from the smart to the dumb." (p269). And in his chapter entitled "Crash," another thought for our times: "Prosperity is more than an economic condition; it is a state of mind. The Big Bull Market had been more than the climax of a business cycle; it had been the climax of a cycle in American mass thinking and mass emotion." (p281)

    Overall, an excellent book for our times, now that we might have more time for the simpler pleasures, like reading.
    ...more info
  • The more things change...
    Allen does not limit himself to the "great man" school of history, but gives a wide-ranging and colorful view of a decade disquietingly like the 90s/00s - a careening stock market, a failing war on drugs, and oil company execs in to clean up the White House. This book would get five stars for the Prohibition poem alone: " doesn't prohibit worth a dime/Nevertheless, we're for it!" One of the most interesting parts was what Allen doesn't - and couldn't - write about. Only Yesterday was written in 1931, before the full effects of Versailles had been felt. Viewed in that light, Allen's portrait of Wilson, while romanticized, astutely outlines why Wilson's ideas for the peace treaty were wise, and why they were so unlikely to ever be realized. From hemlines to geopolitics, Allen pulls it all together in a fascinating book....more info
  • Only Yesterday--Understanding A Forgotten Era
    In my US History studies in school, I have focused on studying the Wars--Revolutionary, Civil,WWI, WWII, etc. I have learned so much less about other periods in US History. This book helps fill in one huge gap in my US History education. Mr. Allen's writing allows the reader to understand in depth what it was like to live in the Twenties which in some ways seems remarkably similar to the current cultural and economic conditions....more info
  • Engaging Storyteller
    Allen takes us back to the 1920s through the craft possessed only by skilled storytellers. He puts culture into its proper context by pointing out how rapidly things were changed by technological innovations of the time. For example, on page137 he notes "there was no such thing as radio broadcasting to the public until the autumn of 1920, but that by the spring of 1922 radio had become a craze."
    The nation was in some ways, still in the remnants of an agrarian society, poised to enter the industrial, urban era, but not making the full plunge yet. Perhaps a transitional time would be a better label to put on the snapshot of this period. The reason I say that is due to the description he gives of the swearing in of Calvin Coolidge. "Business was booming when Warren Harding died, and in a primitive Vermont farmhouse, by the light of an old-fashioned kerosene lamp, Colonel John Coolidge administered to his son Calvin the oath of office as President of the United States" (p. 132).
    The book is full of glimpses which fit together to provide a hoistic portrayal of the decade....more info
  • Wow, this book is boring
    From the view point of a sixteen year old who was assigned this book for school reading it is not very interesting. Although some things like prohibition and the womens rights are fun to read and learn about most of the book is so boring. Would not recommend....more info
  • A throughly excellent historical reference
    This is exactly the type of history book I like to read. The subject matter is brought to life in a way simply not found in other authors. It reminded me quite a bit of Howard's Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" because I read that first and I wonder if Professor Zinn took a hint from Mr. Allen's style because they are very similar.
    I will remember events, people and places in this book long after I am done reading it (for a college class) simply because of the way the author seems to be talking directly to you.
    It is as if you are just sitting down for dinner, or a chat, and he's laying out the 1920's to you because you asked.
    I am throughly impressed with this book and I am glad my Professor exposed me to it. I recommend it to anyone who has ever wondered what the "Roaring 20's" were all about....more info
  • Influential
    I remember reading this book some 30 years ago. I don't know where I got it from and I no longer have it but it has coloured my thinking about finance, morals, the markets, everything about modern day life in the late 20th and early 21st century ever since. It has all come around again but thankfully and hopefully economists now know more about the way that the financial world works and the present difficulties will not last as long as the previous one - it took WW2 to get the Western world back on its feet!...more info
  • Only Yesterday
    I am doing some research for a novel set in the 1920's. This book is very helpful in giving a favor of what the people in this time were thinking and some of the major events in this time.

    Someone looking for a more serious work may wish to broaden their research a bit to get more depth....more info
  • Read this book! Very entertaining, informative, and relevant
    This engaging account of the 1920's is an especially remarkable book given the year it was written: 1931. With remarkable detachment and prose which has stood up to the test of time, Frederick Lewis Allen wrote about the 1920's just after the decade had ended. Writing in a voice that is half that of a journalist and half that of a historian, Allen covers everything from presidents and presidential politics, to prohibition, the economy, sweeping social changes, the coming of mass media through radio, syndicated columnists, and increased attendance in movie houses; the red scare, the rise of business and science in popular esteem, religion, and a variety of other cultural and social events and trends. The modern era, it could be argued, began on Armistice Day, 11/11/1918.

    The trends and issues of the post-World War I decade resound with amazing familiarity today, at the dawn of the 21st Century. Through reading Allen's account the reader is reminded that McCarthyism that oft referred to "ism," was hardly the invention of McCarthy, nor was it unique to the late 1940's and 1950's. A red scare based on hysteria and fear proceeded "McCarthyism" by a good thirty years. The red scare that was brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution was ferocious in its intensity. Fanned by the winds of a handful of true radicals, the red scare that came immediately after the war was characterized by labor unrest, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the trampling of any ideas or books that had a hint of "Bolshevism," mass deportations of Communists (or suspected Communists), and the waiving of due process under law with mass arrests.

    Allen says the big red scare faded quickly, as it became all too evident that there really wasn't much Communist or Bolshevik subversion to begin with. Also, the country was ready for The Next Big Thing. "Only Yesterday" details a series of manias that swept the country in the twenties. One of these manias was a revolution in morals. Here too, the reader of the year 2000 is reminded that the sixties and early seventies were not the only time period of a sexual revolution in twentieth-century America. The post-war decade of the twenties was a dramatic precursor to what came later, and an important breaking off point, for many at least, from Victorian mores.

    Tired of Wilsonian idealism and weary from the First World War, American's were starved for a return to "normalcy." From Marion, Ohio, Warren Harding seemed like just the man to succeed Wilson. Harding was swept into the White House in what would be the beginning of twelve years of Republican rule from Pennsylvania Avenue. No great intellectual, Harding was a genial man and the country took to him. Meanwhile, as it would be revealed after his timely death, Harding ran one of the most corrupt administrations in the nation's history. The scandals came to light after Harding died and the moralistic (although not necessarily idealistic) Calvin Coolidge was just the man for the times. The "Coolidge Prosperity" is aptly named in that most of the 1920's were good times economically for all but a few sectors of the economy. Coolidge ran the country with a maxim of what was good for business was good for the country. If he had any ideology that was probably it.

    The most capable of the three Republicans, or at least certainly the brightest, was Herbert Hoover, elected at the height of the Coolidge prosperity. Hoover was in office just over six months when the bubble burst The stock market-fueled by speculation-crashed, followed soon by a general economic collapse.

    With the Scopes Trial, sports mania, and the introduction and popularity of radio, the nation went from one craze to the next. Whether it was anti-Bolshevism, or stock market mania, these were all national manias with the help of new forms of communication as well as new ways of mass manipulation by editors and announcers. Allen's "Only Yesterday" gives the reader a good feel for the events and trends of the 1920's, as seen by a man who had just lived through that decade....more info

  • During the 'Roaring 20's' they had it all!
    This is a wonderful little book (301 pages) about life in America in the decade between World War I (Armistice Day) and the Panic of October 29, 1929. Frederick Lewis Allen - a career writer-editor for various national publications (Atlantic Monthly, Century, Harper's, etc.) wrote this book in 1931. Thus, he provides a quick, fresh glance back upon this exciting period - the "Roaring 20's" - that he'd personally just experienced.
    Allen touches briefly, but poignantly, on all the important political, economical and social aspects of American life in these years. He includes capsule biographies of the
    presidents: of Woodrow Wilson and his failure to successfully promote his `14 Point-based peace treaty and a League of Nations; of Warren G. Harding - handsome, personable, decent, but unaware, apparently, of the scandals taking place around him; of `silent' Calvin Coolidge and his era of prosperity; and of Herbert Hoover - well-meaning, but unable to find answers to the deteriorating economy and the approaching depression.
    Allen also describes the people, events and activities that impacted the lives of Americans in those years, including the fear of communism and socialism (`The Red Scare'), women's emancipation, the growing proliferation and influence of radio, the impact of new magazines dealing with the movies, adventure, romance and true confessions, the importance of newly created newspaper empires and chains, beauty contests, changing fashions, cosmetics, advertising, and new automobiles (Ford's Model A). He describes the country's heroes and its new obsessions and fads: Babe Ruth and baseball, Charles Lindbergh and aviation, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan doing verbal battle over religion at the Scopes' Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and boxing, Bobby Jones and golf, Bill Tilden and tennis, flag-pole sitters, flappers, marathon dancing, scandals and crimes.
    Allen provides a wonderful chapter on prohibition - one of the really great issues of the era. The oft repeated message that man is destined to repeat past mistakes if he refuses to
    heed the lessons of history is demonstrated, I think, in this very chapter. Having succeeded in legislating this specific moral behavior (i.e., abstinence)the federal and state governments quickly learned that the people were not going to obey this law voluntarily, and that no one was going to be able to enforce it (sound like somebody's 'drug war'?!). Prohibition introduced - indeed, precipitated - a fascinating, new period in U.S. history: the country was soon awash with bootleggers, bathtub gin, speakeasies, gangwars, lawbreaking, hipflasks, sex, and exuberant hell-raising. Al Capone arrived in Chicago from New York, hired some 700 goons, armed them with shotguns and machine guns and tasked them with monopolizing Chicago's beer and liquor trade. When enormous profits started rolling in, the gangsters then moved into other lucrative business activities - gambling, horse racing, boxing, dance halls, prostitution, unions, restaurants, distilleries, breweries, etc. Life was good.
    Allen's chapter on the `Big Bull Market' and the subsequent `crash' of 1929 reminds one very much of America's more recent adventures involving Wall Street - of a
    time when investors were mesmerized by the seemingly perpetual rise of stock prices, while being at the same time oblivious to any possibility that stock prices could fall and thereby wipe out almost overnight their newly acquired fortunes. Of course, that's what happened then, and that's what happened to current investors quite recently. So much for respecting the
    lessons of history.
    On a happier note - history also shows that readers have been buying, reading, and enjoying this little book for some 7 decades. So, please do heed just this one lesson: read this book yourself! It's history reading at its best!...more info
  • Valuable comparison piece to modern studies.
    I read this for the first time when I was in sixth grade and it continues to be one of my favorite books on the 1920's.

    I will agree that maybe it's not the best place to start for a complete Jazz Age neophyte because it requires the reader to get over his/her modern-day attitudes, but after a little starter research, it's fascinating.

    Obviously, since it was first published in 1931, it lacks long-term analysis, which some people might find frustrating. Personally, I think that the fact that it was written when these events and views were still so fresh, and that it does not have modern ideas projected onto it, makes it a valuable and interesting comparison to later perspectives on the decade. ...more info
  • Great Reference
    This book is a wonderful source of information about the 1920s in the USA. It has lots of facts and makes them personal with anecdotes and the sort of details about daily life that textbooks omit. It was written shortly after the decade and still holds as one of the best sources of information about the decade....more info
  • Great book!
    Im a 15 year old student and just finsished reading this book (and am writing a 10 page paper for in in A.P history :( )This was an excellant book. Allen is very insightfull for his time. The changes that occur, and the analysis he gives are parallel to those of present day. The only dull point was the Harding Scandal, but otherwise the rest was a good read. I like his sense of humor.

    Flip Side...more info