What America looked like 100 years ago

Check This Out

It’s been 100 years since the birth of America’s “Roaring Twenties.” In 1921, alcohol was contraband, headlines were shouted from street corners and much of American life was racially segregated by law. 

These photos show American life — the strange, the quaint, the funny, the disturbing — in the early 1920s.

In this photo from 1921, NYPD Deputy Commissioner John A. Leach watches agents pour liquor into the sewer following a Prohibition-era raid.

Fashion police

Bathing Suit Fashion Police
GETTY IMAGES

In the 1920s, thousands of women were arrested and fined for breaking laws regulating their clothing. Expose too much thigh or shoulder, and it could land you in jail.

Here, an Atlantic City police officer measures the hems of the newest swimwear fashions.

First Miss America

First Miss America
GETTY IMAGES

The first-ever Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1921.

Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman, of Washington D.C., won the competition. She was awarded this Statue of Liberty crown and flag-striped striped cape.

The Big Apple

Times Square
GETTY IMAGES

This is what Times Square looked like in 1921.

On the right, you can see a marquee advertising the silent film “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Main Street, U.S.A.

Main Street
GETTY IMAGES

Outside of New York City, things were a little sleepier. 

This 1921 photo of Cassville, Wisconsin, shows an automobile repair shop and a shoe store.

The radio was everything

Boys Listen To Early Radio
BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

In 1919, after World War I, the U.S. government lifted a ban on civilian radio ownership and transmission, and it wasn’t long before commercial radio became a favorite source of entertainment.

The first baseball game to be broadcast on the radio was one between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies on August 5, 1921.

“Gould the Light Man”

Gould The Light Man
GETTY IMAGES

And with the increasing popularity of radio, the personal electronics industry boomed. This store in Stockton, California, was billed as “the only real radio store in San Joaquin Valley.”

The owner, Clarence O. Gould, ran his own KJQ radio station out of the store from 1921 to 1925.

Cars get popular

Car Makers Inspecting Their Product
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Technological advances drove down car prices in the early 1920s. With a car, Americans could take road trips or move to the suburbs and drive to jobs in urban centers.

In this photo from December 1921, William C. Durant, head of Durant Motors, inspects cars at a factory in Queens.

Topanga Canyon Road In LA

Topanga Canyon Road In LA
GETTY IMAGES

America’s road systems were growing, but many major roadways looked pretty different.

In this photo from 1922, a car drives up an unpaved Topanga Canyon Road near Los Angeles.

This was high school

A Third year high school girl in the chemical laboratory, - Greenbank Consolidated School,
GETTY IMAGES

The very first public American high school was established 200 years ago, in 1821, but for a long time secondary education wasn’t for everyone. By 1921, public high schools were emerging as an integral part of society, a stepping stone between childhood and the more adult worlds of college and employment.

Following in the footsteps of scientists like Marie Curie, this high school student studies chemistry in a laboratory at Green Bank Consolidated School in West Virginia.

School’s in session

School in Session - (Sunset school).
LEWIS W. HINE/BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES

In the 1920s, many schools in smaller towns continued to function out of one room.

Here, older students sit in the back while younger ones are at the front of the classroom.

Segregation in schools

Reading At School
GETTY IMAGES

In many states, Black students were not permitted to attend the same schools as White children. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington helped build esteemed schools for Black children. Teachers were important community leaders.

In this photo from 1921, a girl reads a book at her desk at Pleasant Green School, in Marlinton, West Virginia.

Bulletproof mail truck

Uniformed Postal Official tests Regulation Army 44 Colt and its effect on bullet proof glass used in the new armored postal trucks
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/GETTY IMAGES

In 1920s, mail trucks became a favorite target for organized crime. So, to maintain public confidence, USPS toughed up some of their vehicles.

Here, a postal worker in 1921 demonstrates the strength of the bulletproof glass used in armored mail trucks. 

An unusual speeding ticket

Motorcycle Cop Give a Bicycle Rider a Traffic Ticket for Speeding
GETTY IMAGES

A police officer on a motorcycle writes a speeding ticket for a man who was going too fast on this penny-farthing bicycle.

Believe it or not, it is still possible to get a speeding ticket on a bike today. Modern cyclists report being cited for traveling too fast downhill in school zones.

Tony Kaufman on Catalina Island

Chicago Cub Tony Kaufman
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Baseball had been gaining steam in the United States since the mid-19th century. Then a 1919 game-fixing scandal involving members of the Chicago White Sox had left the sport in shambles. 

But something big was on the horizon. Here, Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Kaufman gets ready for the 1921 season at spring training on Catalina Island in California.

The Sultan of Swat

Babe Ruth Wearing Crown
GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

A young baseball player named George Herman Ruth signed with the New York Yankees in 1920, and by July of that year, Ruth was already setting — and then breaking his own — batting records.

In this photo from 1921, Babe Ruth wears a towering silver crown celebrating one of the home-run records he set that season.

Legends still have to do yardwork

Babe Ruth Hauling Logs
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Here’s a fun photo of Babe Ruth, also known as the Bambino, hauling logs with a team of horses outside his home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, in 1922.

The property is known as “Home Plate Farm.”

A heavyweight champion

Like a presdential parade was the reception given by the cit
GETTY IMAGES

Baseball certainly wasn’t the only source of entertainment in the country in 1921. Boxing also attracted big crowds and prize purses to match. 

Here, boxer Jack Johnson (in pinstripes) enjoys a king’s welcome in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1921. Johnson was the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion. 

The Jazz Age begins

Kid Ory Original Creole Jazz Band
JP JAZZ ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Jazz music began as the soundtrack to the counterculture and exploded into the mainstream throughout the decade. 

Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band, out of New Orleans, was an early jazz act. Here, the band plays a show in Oakland, California, in the early ’20s.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) american jazzman trumpet player and singer with mother and sister Beatrice in New Orleans in 1921
GETTY IMAGES

Music historians credit trumpet player Louis Armstrong with trailblazing the art of the solo in jazz performance.

This 1921 photo shows Armstrong as a young man with his mother and sister, Beatrice, in New Orleans.

High school basketball

EJ Hooper Basketball Team
GETTY IMAGES

Basketball also grew in popularity during this period. This is the 1921 team from Oliver High School in Winchester, Kentucky, pictured with coach EJ Hooper. 

The NBA wouldn’t emerge for another 25 years.

Swish

Making a Basket
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The original 1921 description of this photo says these children are “caging a basket.”

Though that specific lingo didn’t stick, the game did. A century later, the NBA is valued at more than $66 billion.

Don’t forget about football

University Of Southern California Trojans Football
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA/COLLEGIATE IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES

American football almost didn’t make it to the 1920s. In the 1905 college season, there were 19 deaths and 137 serious injuries. 

But, with the help of President Theodore Roosevelt, the NCAA approved rule changes in 1906 and again in 1910 that slowed player fatalities. The NFL was founded in 1920.

Here, the USC Trojans play a 1921 game against the Occidental Tigers.

Fitzgerald and Zelda

F. Scott Fitzgerald [& Wife]
TIME LIFE PICTURES/MANSELL/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were notable personalities of the Jazz Age. Between his novels — like “The Great Gatsby” and “This Side of Paradise” — and her role as the “first American flapper,” the couple epitomized the glamorous and unapologetic counterculture of the Roaring Twenties.

This 1921 photo shows the young couple on the lawn at Zelda’s mother’s home in Alabama.

Tulsa masscare

Billowing Smoke during Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, Alvin C. Krupnick Co., June 1921
GETTY IMAGES

The Tulsa massacre took place in 1921. The attack remains one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in American history. 

From May 31 to June 1, a White mob looted and burned the city’s Greenwood district — a prosperous Black neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” Black Tulsans were attacked, interned and killed. Here, smoke from the fires rises during the onslaught.

The aftermath

Entrance to Refugee Camp on Fair grounds after Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, June 1921
AMERICAN NATIONAL RED CROSS PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

Death-toll estimates vary, but historians today believe between 100 and 300 people were killed.

Thousands of Black residents were interned at local facilities, like the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, seen here. An estimated 10,000 people were left homeless.

National Woman’s Party

National Woman's Party headquarters.
GETTY IMAGES

In 1921 — two years after the 19th Amendment established women’s right to vote — the National Woman’s Party met with President Warren G. Harding to discuss a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women equal rights.

The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923. It was never ratified.

Suffrage continues to be an issue

Penobscot Chief Conversing with His Wife and Women
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Here, a Penobscot Nation chief and his wife host a discussion on suffrage in 1921.

Indigenous Americans were technically granted the right to vote with the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, but poll taxes and literacy tests continued to disenfranchise many until well into the 1960s.

A star-studded camping trip

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, U.S. President Warren Harding and Harvey Firestone, Portrait while Sitting at Campsite, Maryland, USA, Harris & Ewing, 1921
GHI/UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In 1921, a group of notable Americans self-styled as “The Vagabonds” gathered for their annual camping trip.

Those so-called vagabonds were none other than Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs (not pictured). In this photo, Ford, Edison and Firestone chat with President Warren G. Harding.

Immigration slows

Italian Immigrants in 1921
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

After World War I, anti-immigration sentiment grew in the United States. The open-door policy that brought millions of people to ports like Ellis Island would begin to close in 1921.

That year, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, setting birthplace quotas meant to lock in America’s demographic makeup. Here, a mother and two children from Italy arrive in Boston in 1921.

Marie Curie with President Warren Harding

Marie Curie with President Warren Harding
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Chemist and physicist Marie Curie discovered the element radium, but, as a widowed mother living on a professor’s salary in 1920, she could not afford to purchase any to continue her research. The substance was wildly expensive — $100,000 per gram.

American women, led by prominent academics, crowdfunded more than $156,000 for the Marie Curie Radium Fund. In 1921, Curie stood arm-in-arm with President Warren G. Harding, clutching that pricey gram of radium.

More liquid contraband

Prohibition 1921
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS/GETTY IMAGES

Barrels of wine piled up in New York City streets as police raided speakeasies and other businesses.

Prohibition, the nationwide ban on alcohol, went into effect in 1920 and lasted until December 1933.

A bar no more

Hotel Bar During Prohibition
GETTY IMAGES

What is a hotel to do when the sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited across the country?

At the Hotel Majestic in New York City, they swapped out liquor bottles for books and converted their bar into a library.

Underground economy

Agents Pouring liquor down a sewer on the Street
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/GETTY IMAGES

Here a look at Prohibition agents pouring perfectly good liquor into the sewer. But all this effort to sober up the country didn’t pan out the way government officials or temperance activists had intended.

Historians believe that driving the vice economy underground actually fueled the rise of organized crime. Gangsters such as Al Capone profited greatly from Prohibition, as they became the sole suppliers of beer and liquor to speakeasies.

A day at the beach

Aerial View of Crowds on a Boardwalk
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

With the economy booming, families could afford a little diversion now and then.

One popular destination for people looking to escape the drudgery of city life: the beach. This 1921 photo shows the Atlantic City boardwalk on Easter Sunday,

Keeping cool at the lake

View Of Clarendon Beach
CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM / GETTY IMAGES

Here, people keep cool at Clarendon Bathing Beach, a once-popular municipal recreation area in Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan.

This beach remained a summer hotspot until the 1930s, when construction of a landfill moved the shoreline further east, separating the park from the water.

Moviemaking in the early ’20s

Director Rex Ingram
GETTY IMAGES

Silent films were all the rage in the early ’20s.

Here, Rex Ingram holds a megaphone and cigar while directing “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” starring Rudolph Valentino.

You should be in pictures

Chaplain & Coogan In 'The Kid'
GETTY IMAGES

People flocked to movie theaters — lavish venues with red velvet seats, often called “picture palaces” — to see movie stars like Charlie Chaplin flicker onscreen.

This image is a publicity photo for his 1921 film “The Kid.”

Movie magic

Movie Set Replica of Manhattan
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Movie sets were pretty different. In 1921, there were no sound engineers, massive lighting rigs or drone shots. But some elements of movie magic remain the same today.

Here, artificial building fronts erected in Hollywood mimic 1920s Brooklyn.

A dangerous revival

Klansman Holding Cross at Ku Klux Klan Ceremony
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

But the influence of film wasn’t universally positive. After the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” glorified the post-Civil War era Ku Klux Klan, a man named William Joseph Simmons revived the group as modern white supremacist organization (and pocketed the membership fees).

By the mid-1920s, historians estimate membership in the KKK totaled several million. In this photo from 1921, members of the Klan hold a ceremony on Stone Mountain near Atlanta.

Transition of power

Wilson and Harding on Inauguration Day
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/CORBIS/VCG/GETTY IMAGES

Here, outgoing President Woodrow Wilson rides in a motorcade with newly elected President Warren Harding on the way to the latter’s inauguration.

Though Wilson rode along in the car, he missed the ceremony due to ill health.

Presidential pets

Laddie Boy with Birthday Cake
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/CORBIS/VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

President Harding and his wife, Florence, continued the tradition of having pets in the White House. They had two dogs, a squirrel named Pete and several canaries.

Here, Laddie Boy, one of the First Dogs, eats a birthday cake made just for him in 1921.

Elephants at the White House

Circus Elephants Visit the White House
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/GETTY IMAGES

In this photo, circus elephants gather outside the White House in 1921.

A performer waves from atop one of the rearing pachyderms.

A boon for churches

Baptism by Ken O'Brien
KEN O’BRIEN COLLECTION/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

The ’20s also proved a bountiful time for Christian churches. Rising hemlines and the apparent influence of jazz counterculture drove millions of Americans to the pew.

Churches emphasized the importance of maintaining traditional norms and often resisted science as anti-faith. Here, a minister performs a baptism in a river near Marysville, Texas.

Madison Square Garden as a swimming pool

Madison Square Garden as a Swimming Pool
BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In the summer of 1921, Madison Square Garden in New York City was transformed into a massive indoor swimming pool. 

Boxing promoter Tex Rickard had the idea that the venue could sell tickets to diving and swimming performances. Later, the pool was opened to the public.

The news takes flight

New York Times Delivered to DC by Plane
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/GETTY IMAGES

Seven decades before major news outlets began publishing online, the ’20s still saw major tech improvements that sped up the news cycle.

Just before 1920, American newspapers were able to expand their circulation with help from airplanes. In this photo from 1921, a morning edition of The New York Times is loaded onto a plane headed for Washington, D.C.

Young newsie

Young Newspaper Seller
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/CORBIS/VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Many people still bought newspapers from sellers, often children, on street corners.

This little boy, selling copies of the Washington Daily News, wears a hat which reads “Have you read The News? One cent.”

Birthing ward

Nurse Bringing Newborn Infant to Mother in Hospital Room, Garfield Hospital, Washington, DC, 1921
GETTY IMAGES

Giving birth in the 1920s was a dangerous affair. In the first half of the decade, the maternal mortality rate in America fluctuated between 700 and 800 deaths per 100,000 births. That’s one death for every 125 babies born.

Today, in the United States, that rate is much lower, around one death per 5,000 births.

A day to celebrate

Nurse and Doctors During Footprinting of Newborn Baby
GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

In 1921, Dr. Albert S. Hyman helped footprint a newborn baby at Jewish Maternity Hospital in Philadelphia.

Footprinting babies for identification purposes grew in popularity in the 20th century.

Wedding bells

Wedding Of Natalie Talmadge And Buster Keaton, 1921
KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GAMMA-RAPHO/GETTY IMAGES

Here, two silent film stars, Natalie Talmadge and Buster Keaton, pose for photos at their wedding in Los Angeles in 1921.

Her tiered dress was perfectly fashionable wedding attire for the era.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories

Click here for full list of trending stories