Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Whether or not his observation is true, I’ve begun to wonder if we might not be standing on the brink of a second Roaring '20s.
There are certainly some parallels between the famous '20s of yore and our own newly minted decade. Both came about after the end of a frustrating war and in the wake of a debilitating pandemic.
Both ushered in dozens of technological changes, especially in the workplace, and made millions of citizens comfortable with using all sorts of new everyday devices such as the telephone, the radio, the gas or electric refrigerator, and even the stock market.
Celluloid (plastic) shirt collars for men were replaced by the more comfortable (but also harder to clean) linen collar built into the shirt. The beginning tendrils of processed food began easing their way into the grocery stores, together with a slowly rising ocean of bottled soft drinks.
Led by states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, such drinks came to be known as soda pop, or sometimes just soda, and established an enormous popularity among the young as the beverage of choice on a hot summer day.
Perhaps the biggest change of the 1920s rolled into the world on rubber tires: the suddenly ubiquitous automobile.
In 1900, the United States contained some 4,190 cars. Twenty years later, that number had risen to an estimated 7 million. A decade after that, at the conclusion of the 1920s, the number stood at some 26 million.
From the start of the decade and through to its end, in ways no one could have predicted, the availability and the influence of the so-called “horseless carriage” probably changed American society more than any other factor, especially in rural areas.
Instead of being “trapped out on the farm,” rural residents could motor into town for social or religious events, shopping, doctoring, entertainment or just for the fun of it. Dating-age youngsters could sneak off on a date from home, secure that their distance from parental gaze would provide them with plenty of privacy.
Questionable activities of any sort, whether social or sexual or illegal, could be carried out away from one’s home community.
As might be expected, these sorts of unprecedented changes had a significant impact on the way life was lived a hundred years ago. The sense of belonging to a particular place began to wane, increasingly replaced by a feeling of being part of the world in general, or perhaps not belonging at all.
New habits and behaviors spurred the change along. More and more women began to drink and smoke, fashions and hairstyles grew more daring, and energetic new forms of dancing began to supplant the fox trot and waltz.
Though the ways in which our own times have begun to shift are not completely clear, some things stand out. Given the enormous success and influence of the computer, and with it the ever-rising presence of the internet, it’s safe to conclude that shopping has changed forever, as has the way we gather and verify information.
In the wake of COVID-19, it’s clear that many Americans will probably spend far less time commuting to the office than before. Working from home has prompted millions of citizens to risk starting businesses of their own, though how successful such efforts prove remains to be seen.
In short, the new decade into which we’ve moved (called by one quip the “Boring” instead of the “Roaring” '20s, thanks to the pandemic) may prove to bring about as many, if not more, changes than those of its predecessor a century ago.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.