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10 World-Shaping Events That Happened in 1920

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The “Roaring Twenties” are the only decade in American history with a nickname. In his book 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, Eric Burns explores the first year of a captivating decade and shows that it wasn't all flappers and jazz bands. Every aspect of life today was in some way influenced by the title year. Here are 10 things that 1920 has to say about 1920. 

1. The League of Nations was established. 

In an address to Congress in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson presented what he called the “Fourteen Points” (derided by others as his Ten Commandments because of Wilson’s insufferable self-righteousness), a plan to end war forever. The following year, he traveled to Paris to help negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Upon his arrival, as Burns relates, “he was hailed by the French as no American since Benjamin Franklin had been hailed.” The Fourteen Points were enthusiastically adopted by diplomats, and became a framework for the League of Nations. On January 16, 1920, the League held its first Executive Council meeting, consisting of the major member-powers. In November of that year, it held its first General Assembly in Geneva, which was open to all members. At its height, the League of Nations had 58 member states. The United States never joined. 

2. America had a de-facto woman president. 

While on the campaign trail pushing for the U.S. to accept the League of Nations, President Wilson suffered a blood clot that caused paralysis, partial blindness, and brain damage. For the remainder of his term—another year and a half—he was, as Burns describes, “an invalid at best, little more than a rumor at worst,” totally incapable of meeting with lawmakers, governing, or performing the duties of the presidency; the First Lady, Edith Wilson, stepped in and assumed his role. She controlled access to the president and made policy decisions on his behalf. When something needed to be signed or written, she wrapped her hand around his and scrawled words with a pen. The French ambassador to the United States reported back to his superiors that Wilson was a non-factor in governance. The real power rested with “Mme. President.”

3. America sustained the worst terrorist attack in its history. 

On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart carrying a massive, improvised explosive was detonated on the busiest corner on Wall Street. One eyewitness described “two sheets of flame that seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street and as high as the tenth story of the tall buildings.” Thirty-eight people were killed in the Wall Street Bombing, and hundreds were injured. It was, at the time, the worst terrorist attack in American history, unsurpassed in horror until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. The perpetrators were likely Italian anarchists. 

4. J. Edgar Hoover began his ascent.

As a result of a series of bombings in 1919, the attorney general of the United States, Mitchell Palmer, mounted a campaign to capture and deport foreign radicals. The next year marked the “most spectacular” of the Palmer raids, in which thousands of accused communists and anarchists across the country were arrested in a single swoop. The raid’s organizer was a young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation’s General Intelligence Division.

Ultimately, the raids proved to be fraught with questionable confessions and illegal warrants, and Palmer’s career was derailed as a result. Hoover, however, would go on to lead the Bureau and its successor agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from 1924 until 1972.

The raids were a formative lesson for Hoover. After witnessing what happened to Palmer, Hoover would work obsessively to keep in the good graces of the politically powerful (the FBI never investigated a member of Congress while Hoover was in charge), and work always to protect the FBI’s image. 

5. Women gained the right to vote. 

The women’s suffrage movement reached as far back as 1638, when Margaret Brent, a successful businesswoman in Virginia, demanded the right to vote in the state’s House of Burgesses. By 1920, every state west of the Mississippi River allowed women to vote. Burns notes that “a mere nine states denied women the vote in all instances, and seven of those, to their inexplicable shame, were among the original thirteen colonies.” The last “yes” vote needed for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which provided for women’s suffrage, was Tennessee. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of the amendment by a vote of 50-49. 

6. The Constitution was twice amended in a single year.

It was the only year since the passage of the Bill of Rights that the Constitution was twice amended. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol in the United States. It was, writes Burns, “the most openly ignored regulation in American history ... Not only did the Amendment fail to be heeded; it often failed to be acknowledged with a straight face.” As Will Rogers asked at the time, “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.” In 1920, Burns provides an astonishing array of statistics that were the result of Prohibition: drunk and disorderly arrests increased 41 percent; drunk driving increased 81 percent; violent crime and murder went up 13 percent; the federal prison population swelled by a staggering 366 percent; and “federal expenditures on penal institutions of all sorts soared a thousand percent!” 

7. The “Lost Generation” began its transformation of American literature. 

In 1920, the “Lost Generation”—expatriate writers who lived in Europe following World War I—became a force in American literature. Among books published in 1920 were Main Street, a skewering of small-town America by Sinclair Lewis; This Side of Paradise, the debut novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald’s first collection of short fiction. That year, Fitzgerald also introduced Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor for Scribner’s, to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, who would go on to some success. 

8. The KKK terrorized the nation. 

The Ku Klux Klan, a genocidal domestic terrorist organization founded during Reconstruction, was revitalized in 1920, the result in part of new Klan leadership with an eye for publicity. The Klan’s activities, Burns describes, were “reigns of terror, spaced widely in time and place,” that could be “loosely compared to latter-day outbreaks of the Inquisition.” But while the Inquisition targeted heretical Roman Catholics, the Klan “hated not only Catholics, but Jews, Asians, African-Americans, and Europeans who were not from the non-Nordic countries of the north.” Fifty years later, President Johnson turned J. Edgar Hoover loose on the KKK, and the FBI would achieve the greatest law enforcement victory in its history, all but eradicating the terrorist organization. 

9. A guy named Ponzi came up with a sales scheme. 

In the early 1900s, representatives from countries around the world worked out a way to make it easier for people to send mail across national borders. They created an “international reply coupon,” which could be bought in one country and traded for postage stamps in another. Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States, discovered a loophole in the system. Because World War I left much of Europe in economic ruin, Ponzi realized that he could buy coupons in various countries and redeem them in the United States for a return on investment. Because he wanted large returns, he needed a large investment. He set up a business called the Security Exchange Company (which, Burns writes, “had just the right sound to him. Respectable, trustworthy, and accurate; the company was, after all, exchanging securities”). He hired agents to bring in new investors, promising large commissions for the money brought in. Eventually, word spread that investments could bring massive returns, and investors were able to bring in new investors, who brought in new investors, and so on. Ponzi soon found that profit was no longer even a necessary ingredient for the company to operate; investors were essentially funding each other’s commission. The system, of course, eventually collapsed, though Ponzi schemes live on today. 

10. The mass media was born.

In November 1920, the first commercially-licensed radio station began broadcasting live results of the presidential election. The transmission of breaking news was new and unprecedented, and as word spread of this new medium, the “talking box” exploded in popularity. Two years later, Americans bought 100,000 radios. In 1923, they bought 500,000. By 1926, there were over 700 commercial radio stations, and virtually the entire country was covered by radio signals. As Burns writes, “No other event of 1920 would have more of an effect on the future than the birth of radio, with was in turn the birth of American mass media.”

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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