01 Oct Everything Was Right in the 1920’s
Generally, conversations about the 1920’s in Chicago have a soundtrack of jazz and Tommy gun fire. If a decade had a smell, it would most certainly include gin flavored wood grain alcohol and for most of us, we can only really picture it in black and white. We think about Capone and the Valentine’s Day Massacre and flappers holding cigarettes and gin in either hand. What those young people were experiencing in real time in Chicago, though, was nothing short of amazing. If the Chicago lights and noises don’t make you nostalgic for a Chicago you weren’t alive to appreciate, you just don’t get it.
The Chicago Daily Tribune called the 1920’s, the “gaudiest spree,” which unfairly minimizes the culture of Chicago in that decade. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the new, first term governor in the State of New York. That he would soon be a four-term president, presiding over World War II and the greatest generation was unknown to the electorate. A night out at the opera might mean you saw Al Capone in person, flanked by more than a dozen bodyguards and several girlfriends. The Model A was introduced by a guy named Henry Ford, not yet a household name or a tagline you recognize (“Have you driven a Ford lately?”). Charles Lindbergh, though, was a household name and most couldn’t believe you could fly an airplane all the way to France.
If you could pick up a ticket to a baseball game, you might catch a glimpse of Babe Ruth, while he was in town. He was just a great baseball player and not yet a legend. The Chicago Cubs didn’t suck and you could see Rogers Hornsby play a game. “Ole Man River” was a new hit and not a nostalgic old song your grandparents slow danced to at weddings. In Chicago, you were likely to hear Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman play live even before you could possibly know what that meant. Irving Berlin was writing songs no one had yet heard and the first musicals in color were being made in Hollywood.
You could pick up a novel by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, or Ernest Hemingway that had only just been released.
And then, just like that, the decade came crashing down. Too many people had simply taken too much from the stock market. People panicked, the stock market crashed, the depression started and although the country recovered, was it ever really the same? Was anything ever as exciting and new as the 1920’s in Chicago? The flappers and mobsters, bootleggers, first movie stars and the greatest American writers in history had been there, though. And if you could, wouldn’t you want to go there and experience all those firsts that could never be firsts again anywhere in the world? Even if you knew what comes next? If America is an idea, rather than merely a place, then Chicago in the 1920’s might just be the greatest idea we ever had.
Look again the next time you’re in Chicago and just for a minute, think of the 1920’s.
Written by Amy Williams