Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen – review

What is to say about a decade in which men and women abandoned their morals and created a newer, more daring code of conduct to live by? How would someone react by reading about the sudden fascination with sex and individuality by Americans in the post-war decade if he were to read it decades after it went on? How would one explain the dramatic change in wealth and prosperity experienced by nearly every businessman that took part in the action? Then, how would one begin to tell the story of how all this faded away in just a few weeks? This is the story of the 1920s. Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen is a book detailing a span of slightly over ten years in which the people of the United States experienced a time of lawlessness and lack of control like never before. The retelling of the post-war decade is much like writing a dramatic novel with a catastrophic finish, but except, this is no novel. It is entirely real. These were the wild and wacky 1920s.

Before the book begins, we are given an introduction by Roger Butterfield (an author himself), written in 1956-only two years after the death of Frederick Allen. The introduction compares the two post-war decades of World War I and World War II, giving overwhelming favoritism for the first. In prefacing the book, Allen expresses his belief that future research will “disclose errors and deficiencies in the book, and the passage of time will reveal the shortsightedness of many of my judgments and interpretations” (p. xiii). This is to be expected when a book is written so soon after the events occur, but not so in Only Yesterday. Frederick Allen so accurate and precise in the majority of his writing, there is little to correct, even after 70 years have passed. A reason why Yesterday has become an American classic and stood the test of time is because of its accuracy and amazing detail. There is a risk in writing a book so soon after the events occurred, but there is also a big reward if done correctly. Frederick L. Allen certainly took this risk, and succeeded.

Allen begins his book with a prelude set in May of 1919, detailing the lifestyles of a well-to-do couple in America. This helped me understand what life was like before the beginning of the decade, and allowed me to compare and, for the most part, contrast between the two completely different ways of life that existed before and after the war. For example, I never knew how difficult it was to start a car in those days, but it took a lot of work. The author gives incredible detail, probably all from his own memory of how difficult it was to start a car in 1919. Again, these are the rewards you gain from writing such a book so prematurely. Now that the reader has an idea of what the general mood was shortly before the pre-war decade began, Allen began the wonderful story that is the 1920s. After the Armistice was signed, there was a nationwide feeling of disgust toward the Reds, or members of the Communist party. This feeling of hatred seemingly spread out to other groups, mainly any group that was not pure white. The Ku Klux Klan was reorganized after a fifty-year hibernation, spreading more hatred, but only to die away slowly once again after wartime emotions had ebbed away. The decade started off slowly and gloomy, but it would soon pick up, and when it did, there was nothing that could stop it…well, almost nothing.

Of course a nation cannot just jump from the perilous times of war to having fun and enjoying themselves. “Like an overworked business man beginning his vacation,” wrote Allen, “the country had had to go through a period of restlessness and irritability, but was finally learning how to relax and amuse itself once more” (76-77). The beginning of this relaxation period began with the emergence of the radio. Broadcasting radio took America by storm, carrying major sporting events, political events, and anything that would interest the average American. The sporting events that aired on the radio sparked interest in the sports themselves. Attendance records were setting new highs and sports figures were as popular as the biggest celebrities. It is rare that a country would catch on to two life-changing crazes at nearly the same time. Can you imagine if the television and computer were both becoming popular in America at the same time? For sure, this would change daily life as we know it-two-fold. It was interesting to read how America handled these two forms of recreation, especially from a first-hand account like that of Frederick Allen’s.

It was great for Americans to enjoy themselves together, and images of everyone cuddled up, listening to the radio as a family are about as common as the events themselves. Nevertheless, the nation was looking for individuality. People wanted to be able to act as themselves, and this meant a revolution in manners and morals that swept across America to men and women, young and old. After the war, the middle generation had “spent themselves and wanted a good time” (95). This good time came in the form of shorter skirts than ever before, petting parties, intimate dances, cosmetics, and foul language. The words “damn” and “hell” became commonplace. (I can only imagine if some of the language ordinarily used today was to be used in the post-war decade.) Wives seemingly forgot they had husbands at home and vice versa, when taken into account the activities they took part in without the accompaniment of their spouse. Mrs. Bertrand Russell defined this as “the right, equally shared by men and women, to free participation in sex experience,” to which Allen added, “that it was not necessary for girls to deny themselves this right before marriage or even for husbands and wives to do so after marriage” (117). I was very surprised to read all of this, only wondering when any remote sense of values was going to reemerge back into the minds of Americans. The sense eventually did come back, and in very ugly fashion. It seemed as if Americans were almost ashamed at what they had done; I certainly cannot blame them. They could not go through life without a set of values and everything seeming meaningless and unimportant. It was only until the end of the decade when the nation had officially calmed down. Sadly, it took utter ruin to do so.

Soon, there came a bump in the road: The Harding Scandals. When Warren G. Harding took the presidency in 1921, all was running smoothly on the outside. Harding was calm, stern, and generally laid-back man. After only two years of his term went by, however, Harding died of an alleged apoplexy. This was a huge shock to the American people, as it obviously should have been. It is difficult, for me at least, to imagine a president dying mid-way through his term. It would be even more difficult had the people known the corruption that existed within his Administration. Everything from bribery, illegal looting of government money, profiting from the sale of alcohol, and fraud were rampant throughout Harding’s inner circle. Allen wrote, “the proved evidence is enough to warrant the statement that the Harding Administration was responsible in its short two years and five months for more concentrated robbery and rascality than any other in the whole history of the Federal Government” (155). Yet, not at all surprisingly, the American public was not quick to criticize Harding or any of his men. Keep in mind that Americans were in search for “normalcy.” Nobody wanted more drama, especially because the economy was just beginning to boom once again, largely due to the automobile.

The automobile, as one would figure, boosted the economy like no other industry in America. The introduction of each new Ford automobile was a cause for celebration. “On December 2, 1927, when Model A was unveiled…one hundred thousand people flocked into the showrooms of the Ford Company,” and, “mounted police were called out to patrol the crowds” (163). Advertising became a profession in itself, salesmen were being pressured to sell like never before, and business in general was booming at an all time high. Formerly typical stories that were generally not what one would be accustomed to seeing on the front page became front-page news simply because Americans were hungry for any excitement they could get their hands on. Tabloids became popular. This was called “ballyhooing.” For sure, Americans did not have much to frown about now, but it just seems impossible to me for nobody to have considered an eventual collapse in the stock market. Prices were gaining in value at such a high rate-a dangerously high rate. Meanwhile, President Calvin Coolidge kept quiet and allowed business to run uninterruptedly. This is a decision he might have regretted at the close of 1929.

Although the greatest era of prosperity was in session, the most disastrous and ineffective law in American history was put into place in this era, as well. Prohibition began early in 1920, but it unofficially ended around that same time, as well. Liquor was being produced at higher rates than before prohibition was put in place, and it prompted gang violence and crimes increased overall. At the same time, the government pushed the issue of prohibition aside, for the most part. In my opinion, the government acted very na�vely in putting into affect prohibition. I just can’t imagine how the government would fully expect the nation to comply with the outlaw of alcohol-especially if the law was almost impossible to enforce. Sure, public opinion was turning against the consumption of alcohol, but it definitely was not against the sale of alcohol. Many drinkers would agree that a ban on alcohol would benefit them and their children when they become adults, but obviously no distillers would be in agreement with the idea. And of course, when you have distillers, you have alcohol, and when you have alcohol, you have drinkers. It just does not make any sense to me, but thankfully, it has never been tried again. Not that I would dislike the United States to be freed from alcohol, but an outlawing of alcohol would just cause more problems.

As stock prices continued to soar, so did the spirits of the American people. Soon, however, both prices and sprits would take plummets down into the abyss. A foretelling sign of an eventual crash is the erraticism of stock prices. In June and July of 1929, stock prices occasionally fell, but they would always rebound higher than their previous number. Beginning at around September of 1929, stock prices continued to occasionally fall, but except now, they would not rebound as greatly. So, in previous months, you would have an upward slope in prices, but now, the slope was downward. The slope took the ultimate turn downward beginning on October 22, and from there on out, it continued to drop. About a week later, it jumped back up again, but only to drop again on October 29, or what is commonly known as, “Black Tuesday.” This break in the market changed the mentality of the whole nation. “With the Big Bull Market gone and prosperity going,” wrote Allen, “Americans were soon to find themselves living in an altered world which called for new adjustments, new ideas, new habits of thought, and a new order of values” (338). It was truly and end to an epic era. Allen concludes the book with a quote that I believe is a perfect ending to such a great decade. “Only one thing could one be sure of. [What was to come in the nineteen-thirties] would not be repetition. The stream of time often doubles on its course, but always it makes for itself a new channel” (357).

Only Yesterday has stood the test of time for over 70 years, and I believe it will continue to enlighten readers for decades to come. Frederick Allen’s writing tells the story like it is and paints a clear image to accompany the information he writes about. I believe the most important thing to learn from this book is to always keep yourself in check, especially in times of prosperity and joy. When times seem perfect and nothing seems to stand in your way, it is always good to assure yourself that you are secure in what you are doing. For example, if one were to play in the casinos very often and won a lot of money one day, it would not be smart to try to gain even more money by risking all that you have earned. In 1929, times seemed to be running smoothly, but beneath the surface, it was like a person blowing a balloon. The more air that was blown in, the more prosperity the nation experienced. However, that last blow popped the balloon, and America was never the same.