I Remember It Well
December 9, 2013 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s is very nearly literal in its title—its author, Harper's editor Frederick Lewis Allen, published it in 1931. Writing before popular memory of the decade had solidified, Allen chronicles the Scopes Trial and the Harding scandals, radio and the Red Scare; but he ignores jazz for the mahjong craze and devotes an entire chapter to the real estate boom in Florida.

Since Yesterday, a sequel along similar lines, followed in 1940.
posted by Iridic (33 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh man, this is going to be so, so awesome.
posted by koeselitz at 9:22 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh man, the Flordia real estate boom is such a fun, insane side show to the 20s -people built insane mansions, replicas of venenitan palaces, filled them with treasures from around the globe and then lost it all and all the damn things got torn down in the span of a decade.
posted by The Whelk at 9:28 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Worth reading both. A more recent pop culture survey of the 20s is Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 which is pretty good but Frederick Lewis Allen is a classic (and mentioned by Bryson).
posted by stbalbach at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The tabloids, indeed, were booming-and not without effect. There was more than coincidence in the fact that as they rose, radicalism fell. They presented American life not as a political and economic struggle, but as a three-ring circus of sport, crime, and sex, and in varying degrees the other papers followed their lead under the pressure of competition. Workmen forgot to be class-conscious as they gloated over pictures of Miss Scranton on the Boardwalk and followed the Stillman case and the Arbuckle case and studied the racing dope about Morvich.
posted by The Whelk at 9:31 AM on December 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


I need a browser plugin to reformat this as an oral history.
posted by migurski at 9:36 AM on December 9, 2013


Only Yesterday was used in one of my high school classes. Great book, with the added bonus of, as Iridic suggests, also showing us what people of the era thought future generations would want to know about their era, in contrast to what we were actually interested in.
posted by Naberius at 9:39 AM on December 9, 2013


I wonder what the copyright status of the book is? I wouldn't expect a UVA site to be too cavalier with an in-print book.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:39 AM on December 9, 2013


It is fun, but how anyone can write about the Florida land boom without mentioning Addison and Wilson Mizner, well, that's just leaving gold doubloons on the sidewalk.
posted by BWA at 9:42 AM on December 9, 2013


Not content with example and reproof, legislators in several states introduced bills to reform feminine dress once and for all. The New York American reported in 1921 that a bill was pending in Utah providing fine and imprisonment for those who wore on the streets "skirts higher than three inches above the ankle." A bill was laid before the Virginia legislature which would forbid any woman from wearing shirtwaists or evening gowns which displayed "more than three inches of her throat." In Ohio the proposed limit of decolletage was two inches; the bill introduced in the Ohio legislature aimed also to prevent the sale of any "garment which unduly displays or accentuates the lines of the female figure," and to prohibit any "female over fourteen years of age" from wearing "a skirt which does not reach to that part of the foot known as the instep."

I'm going to stop before quote the whole damn thing, just read it.
posted by The Whelk at 9:45 AM on December 9, 2013


he ignores jazz

Not exactly:

The current mode in dancing created still more consternation. Not the romantic violin but the barbaric saxophone now dominated the orchestra, and to its passionate crooning and wailing the fox-trotters moved in what the editor of the Hobart College Herald disgustedly called a "syncopated embrace." No longer did even an inch of space separate them; they danced as if glued together, body to body, cheek to cheek. Cried the Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati in righteous indignation, "The music is sensuous, the embracing of partners--the female only half dressed--is absolutely indecent; and the motions--they are such as may not be described, with any respect for propriety, in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that there are certain houses appropriate for such dances; but those houses have been closed by law."
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:45 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


New words and phrases began to be bandied about the cocktail-tray and the Mah Jong table-inferiority complex, sadism, masochism, Oedipus complex.

"My my my what an egear little mind, come Dennis you won't need those words for months and months!"
posted by The Whelk at 9:50 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


1919: One more word about Mr. and Mrs. Smith and we may dismiss them for the night. Not only have they never heard of radio broadcasting; they have never heard of Coue, the Dayton Trial, cross-word puzzles, bathing-beauty contests, John J. Raskob, racketeers, Teapot Dome, Coral Gables, the American Mercury, Sacco and Vanzetti, companionate marriage, brokers' loan statistics, Michael Arlen, the Wall Street explosion, confession magazines, the Hall-Mills case, radio stock, speakeasies, Al Capone, automatic traffic lights, or Charles A. Lindbergh.

The Post-war Decade lies before them.


If you asked me to list "21 things from the 1920's" I doubt I would have come up more than a few of these. Five are completely new to me. This is going to be a fun Monday morning read.
posted by kanewai at 9:50 AM on December 9, 2013


The Marx Brothers' movie The Cocoanuts satirizes the Florida land boom.
posted by brujita at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now here is a little peninsula and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

Why a duck?
posted by Melismata at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


What's great about the book is that it offers a view from only a couple of years after the fact. It's easy for us to look up a timeline and see that Walter Chrysler started selling cars under his own name in 1924. It gives the same facts a different feel when the author is showing us Mr. & Mrs. Smith in 1919 and reminding us that they couldn't have owned a Chrysler because there were no Chryslers to own. It would be like someone writing about our own recent past and reminding us that Mr. & Mrs. Smith could not be laughing at YouTube cat videos in 2003 because there was no YouTube in 2003. You get the impact of the swift change in technology, fashion, and attitudes on the people who lived through it.

His account of the stock market crash really made the event come alive for me.
posted by Longtime Listener at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2013


Damn you brujita
posted by Melismata at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2013


Groucho auctioning off lots in Florida: "You can get any kind of a home you want. You can even get stucco. Oh, how you can get stucco."
posted by Longtime Listener at 9:54 AM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


We read this in 10th grade social studies when I was in high school. Our teacher, Kent Walker, was an old SDS guy who wound up teaching history in the affluent liberal suburb of Washington, DC where I grew up. Every year he held a "Grade Grubber" contest where teams of kids competed to see who could memorize the most information from Only Yesterday -- e.g., a typical question would be to reproduce the list kanewai quoted from memory. We worked really hard on this. And the prize for the winning team was that you didn't have to take the test on Only Yesterday, getting an automatic A for it instead.

But here's the thing -- the actual test was always really easy, and everybody got an A anyway.

So what I realized much later is that this whole thing was a consciousness-raising exercise where Mr. Walker was trying to alert us to the fact that a substantial chunk of our schooling consisted of hard work expended to achieve memorization of meaningless lists in order to get gold stars that didn't actually benefit us. And every year he did this, and every year nobody got it, because we were good rule-following achievement-oriented kids who gave our all to whatever tasks our teachers put in front of us. My team won the Grade Grubber contest when I was in Mr. Walker's class, and I was proud.

It must have been incredibly frustrating for him.

Googing his name, I see that my high school now offers a "Kent Walker Outstanding Achievement Award for Social Studies." I'll bet it always goes to a total grade grubber.

Anyway, thanks, Mr. Walker. If you ever Google your own name, I hope you find this thread and learn that somebody finally got the message.
posted by escabeche at 10:03 AM on December 9, 2013 [22 favorites]


I wonder what the copyright status of the book is? I wouldn't expect a UVA site to be too cavalier with an in-print book.

If it was published in 1931, that falls within the 1923-1963 range when copyright holders would have had to explicitly file for a renewal after 28 years to get their ownership extended into the era where Congress started trying to make copyright automatic and permanent. So UVA may have done the research to establish that it wasn't renewed.
posted by XMLicious at 10:04 AM on December 9, 2013


I thought of that, but it looks like it was renewed in 1959.

(To be clear, I'm not unhappy about it, just curious, since I deal with these issues at work.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:09 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't expect a UVA site to be too cavalier with an in-print book.

Wouldn't UVA be pretty much cavalier about everything?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:19 AM on December 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


In any cafe in Paris one might find an American expatriate thanking his stars that he was free from standardization at last, oblivious of the fact that there was no more standardized institution even in the land of automobiles and radio than the French sidewalk cafe

*snort*
posted by The Whelk at 10:45 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cocoanuts also mentions the latest 20s food craze - brought to your breakfast table from the exotic Carribean Isles, that super-delicious, super-nutritious super-fruit the alligator pear. Filled with doctor-recommended nutrients and oils!
posted by ormondsacker at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a PD version for sale on Amazon. Perhaps there is some issue with the original version, didn't display a copyright notice. Or the PD publisher wasn't paying attention and downloaded a pirate copy thinking it was PD. Assuming it is copyright, it should enter PD around 2028. Unless terms are extended again.
posted by stbalbach at 11:12 AM on December 9, 2013


Road Show is a lesser-known and not terribly successful Sondheim musical about the Mizner brothers (who were profiled in the New Yorker in a series of articles in the early '50s) and their role in the Florida land boom. Road Show happens to include one of the most lovely love songs between two men that I am aware of in musical theatre, The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened To Me.
posted by janey47 at 11:48 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


"syncopated embrace." Ugh. I'm retching just thinking about it!
posted by Navelgazer at 12:06 PM on December 9, 2013


"The older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us," wrote one of them (John F. Carter in the Atlantic Monthly, September, 1920), expressing accurately the sentiments of innumerable contemporaries. "They give us this thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don't accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, way back in the 'eighties."
*snorf*
posted by Etrigan at 12:13 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


So you're trying to tell me that about 100 years from now, no one will remember George Zimmerman, Solyndra, the Amazon drones, "50 Shades Of Gray", or the KFC Double-Down?

Pshaw!
posted by briank at 1:22 PM on December 9, 2013


I hope not all at once.
posted by Etrigan at 1:22 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


In any cafe in Paris one might find an American expatriate thanking his stars that he was free from standardization at last, oblivious of the fact that there was no more standardized institution even in the land of automobiles and radio than the French sidewalk cafe



Yes- the contempt that the waiter displays on the left bank will be exactly the same as the contempt in Montmartre.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:11 PM on December 9, 2013


20+ years ago I read an essay, somewhere, that argued that Only Yesterday is punctuated with a really large number of basic factual errors. I have no idea is this is actually the case. Anyone know the piece I am talking about?
posted by LarryC at 10:41 PM on December 9, 2013


This is cool. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:52 PM on December 9, 2013


A while back, I did most of the work converting the UVA etext to an epub, but one of the reasons I never released it is that I realized it doesn't appear to be public domain, as Horace Rumpole noted above.

The New York Public Library has a Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room with admittance restricted only to working writers with a current publishing contract.
posted by Zed at 12:21 PM on December 10, 2013


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