I wasn’t the best student of American history as a child growing up in the 1960s. Truth be told, it really didn’t interest me at all. Too many names, dates, battles and treaties to read about, memorize and spew back for the next history exam.
It was information overload—too many facts, on too many topics, from too many time periods, to try to keep straight. It all just seemed to merge into one giant bottomless pit of data that was overwhelming and meaningless to me.
All of that changed, however, when I started pursuing my own family history just four years ago. Now it seems, I just can’t get enough of those historical documentaries on Ireland, Lincoln, the Civil War, New York, Chicago, and the Great Depression. I’ve realized that all of those topics—and many more—are an integral part of my past, even though I personally wasn’t there to experience them.
Books, especially big hardcover, generously illustrated photo books that depict these historical topics so clearly, are another addiction related to my newfound passion. I try to downplay my collection around the house though, by “only” buying second hand copies online with points accumulated on a credit card. (That’s not real money, is it?) Then I switch them out from my stash of favorites stored on basement bookshelves so I don’t appear to have quite as many as I really do. (Not so sure these deceptive practices are really hiding anything from anyone.)
Recently though, I came across a paperback—yes, a real book with words—not a DVD, e-book or coffee table collectible—which also offers incredible insight into an era of my family’s history that I’m currently educating myself on. It’s become my “go to” book for anything and everything related to the social history of America in the period between the two World Wars. The title? Daily Life in the United States: 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig. Now don’t let that title scare you away. The keywords here are: “daily” and “life”.
It’s a fascinatingly, detailed, entertaining volume that could be read rather quickly, if you’d like. I don’t recommend it though, if you hope to savor all the author has to offer in this unique period of American history punctuated by two world wars. No names and dates to memorize; no battles, leaders or treaties to study; and no exams when you finish your reading … a-a-h-h-h …
Universal experiences Americans endured during that era, like Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression are all in there of course, but only to provide context, and as placeholders in time for understanding how Americans experienced daily life during the 1920s and 30s.
It’s a narrative that delves deeper than traditional history books do into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. Examples?
- How the increase in auto ownership revolutionized not only transportation itself, but the entire American job market and even American dating rituals
- How the increasing availability of home lighting enabled people to extend usable hours into the pre-dawn, twilight and evening periods of the day
- How the gas industry, with competition from a new electric industry to sell their lighting services, began concentrating instead on producing gas cooking stoves (which replaced wood burning ones); hot air furnaces (eliminating messy soot producing fireplaces); and gas powered water heaters (a luxury for those who heated water on a stovetop in the kitchen.)
- How new home construction, which began to accommodate this new marvel of electricity, launched a whole new industry of both large and small electric labor-saving devices like clothes washers, sewing machines, and vacuum cleaners; irons, toasters, and fans—all at the very time domestic servants virtually disappeared due to the availability of better paying factory and office jobs
But, wait! Like the infomercials always say, there’s more. Kyvig also serves up historical details on:
- How fashion—specifically shorter hemlines and bobbed hairstyles—gave American women in the 1920s and beyond a freer, more comfortable, less restrained lifestyle than they’d ever enjoyed in the past as they shed skirt yardage and locks of hair that had literally been holding them back
- How, as vaudeville faded, going to the movies became mainstream for everyday Americans, and in the short span of just 20 years, silent pictures with subtitles gave way to talkies, news reels, animation, and special effects; eventually, progressing to even more extravagant offerings like musicals and color films which debuted in 1939 with such movie classics as Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz—both of which are still enjoyed today
- How the universal use of radio simultaneously linked urban and rural dwellers throughout the nation with the news, politics, entertainment, and even live sports coverage of the day
- How education in America changed for the better as centralized school buildings containing multiple classrooms of students at the same grade levels replaced one-room school houses where a lone teacher, taught multiple age levels and abilities together
- How Americans adopted a more standardized diet—think casseroles and jell-o molds vs. regional and ethnic foods that were handed down by their immigrant ancestors
- How courtship, marriage, religion, and leisure—virtually every aspect of American life—were transformed during this unique American era that faced both unprecedented growth and historic challenge in a multitude of arenas
So, if you’re doing research on family members who lived anytime from the 1920s through the 1940s, you may want to consider picking up this captivating book. You can also check out some of the following documentaries on DVD which also focus on subjects and people from this fascinating early period of 20th century America:
Produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for PBS, Copyright © 2011, 6 hours
How the 1920 ban on liquor turned a nation of law abiding citizens into lawbreakers overnight and kept them that way until its repeal thirteen long years later. It ‘s all there: the speakeasies, bootleggers, “flappers”, gangsters, religious zealots, and makers of bathtub gin.
Directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, Copyright © 2009, 1 hour
Historical overview of the events leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. A visual depiction of that fateful year when America’s meteoric economic rise eventually plummeted an entire nation into an economic abyss—one it would not recover from for than a decade when the U.S. entered World War II. Music of the day and informative narration form the backdrop for interviews, photos, and period film footage that detail how this monumental event—that was all about money—affected everyday Americans in every conceivable way.
Directed by David Grubin for PBS, Copyright © 1994, 257 minutes
Biography of the first (and only) three-term U.S. President who was the right man at the right time for a nation embroiled in some of the most challenging domestic and world issues in U.S. history: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, bank and farm failures, environmental issues and the panorama of World War II.
Archival film footage includes home movies; interviews with family members, biographers and eyewitnesses; and newsreels of the day. Shows how the successful results of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for an economically downtrodden American people are still being felt today.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, Directed by Robert Stone. Copyright © 2009, 60 minutes
Focuses on just one of FDR’s many government programs during the Great Depression, which provided relief, recovery and reform to America during the worst economic crisis in its history. The CCC provided outdoor work on government projects to more than 3 million poor, unemployed young men, successfully boosting their collective health, morale and financial well-being while literally changing the landscape of America’s national parks.
The Dust Bowl, Produced by Ken Burns for PBS, Copyright © 2012, 4 hours
Portrays how the perfect storm of a lengthy, unexpected drought combined with over farmed land plowed beyond its capacity to produce, brought economic ruin to American farmers in the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history—a disaster that coincided in the 1930s with an already economically fragile nation dealing with the Great Depression.
Riding the Rails, Produced by Michael Ulys and Lexy Lovell for PBS, Copyright © 2003, 72 minutes
The story of how hundreds of thousand of young runaways, hobos and vagabonds during the Great Depression hopped freight trains as they passed through town, riding the rails across America in search of adventure and fortune.
Why they left, where they went, and experiences along the way are all part of this fascinating slice of Americana which, while often nostalgic, prove to be heart breaking at times, as well.
Want to learn more about this unique era of American history that bridged two world wars? You can also check out some of the links below:
The Dust Bowl
The Great Depression
Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Going In-Depth, a digital genealogy magazine produced by theindepthgenealogist.com.