55 vintage photos show what life looked like in the 1920s

55 vintage photos show what life looked like in the 1920s
  • It's no secret that people's day-to-day lives in the 1920s were very different than they are now.

  • Prohibition, the 19th Amendment, and the Harlem Renaissance were key points of the decade.

  • Jazz, the Charleston, and flapper fashion had their moments in the '20s, too.

It may be hard to believe, but the start of the Roaring Twenties was over 100 years ago.

The 1920s brought amazing artistic, cultural, and technological advancements in the form of Jazz, new voting rights, radio, and more. But while the decade is best known for its glitz and glamour, there's a darker side to its history, too, that includes many of the same societal issues the world continues to grapple with, like racism, sexism, and wealth disparities.

Take a look at 55 vintage photos that show society's immense progress, the simple pleasures we all still enjoy, and where we can look to improve in the next century to come.

The Roaring Twenties marked a new era of automobile advancements, with stylish vehicles becoming an iconic part of the decade.

chrysler car 1920s style fashion
A woman with a Chrysler vehicle, circa 1920s.Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The 1920s are often looked at as one of the most influential decades of automobile advancements.

Long before Uber and Lyft, cabs were classy vehicles.

woman gets into cab 1920s car
Cabs looked a tad different than they do now.Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images

Here, a woman was photographed outside a cab vehicle in Los Angeles, circa 1925.

The Model T vehicle defined much of the 1920s — it was sold until 1927.

model T 1921 tudor san francisco car
A Ford Model T descending a hill in San Francisco, circa 1921.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Model T was sold by the Ford Motor Company 1908 until 1927, per History.com. The vehicle was the earliest effort to make a modern car that was affordable to the masses.

As explained by the History Channel, the Model T was so affordable that it helped rural Americans connect to other parts of the country, which eventually led to the creation of the numbered highway system that's known throughout the US today.

Luxe fabrics, flapper girl silhouettes, and art-deco style dominated the fashion world in the '20s.

1920s fashion
A woman wearing a fur coat and hat in the '20s.Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

In the Roaring Twenties, fashion was characterized by fringe, loose fabrics, and glamorous details. The garments differed immensely from the athleisure and street style-inspired looks that fill clothing racks today. But as fashion historians explain, trends are cyclical — meaning '20s-inspired clothes could (and will likely) make a comeback into mainstream fashion again.

Prohibition banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol within the US until 1933.

prohibition 1920s
People by a Prohibition sign reading, "No booze sold here."Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Prohibition went into effect in 1920 with the 18th Amendment. Until it was repealed in 1933, the law greatly impacted American culture and society, giving way to organized crime and speakeasies.

Prohibition led people to create speakeasies, or secret bars where they could drink in private.

1920s speakeasy
A speakeasy cellar, circa 1920.Bettmann / Contributor

Here, people drink at a speakeasy around 1920.

Suffragettes rallied for women's right to vote in America.

Suffragette Protesting 1920
A flag and ballot box supporting women's suffrage.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. However, the law largely applied to white women, as Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color were prohibited from voting for many decades to come.

Suffragettes throughout the US celebrated the victorious moment the 19th Amendment was ratified.

suffrage 19th amendment
Women wave American flags to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty

Here, a photographer captured celebrations after the newly ratified 19th Amendment in August 1920.

In the 1920s, drugstores weren't only places to pick up prescriptions — they were also soda and candy counters.

drug store chemist
Frankfurt Pharmacy in Rosemead, California, in 1927.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Drugstores weren't just places to grab quick convenience items like they are today; they were central gathering spots in the community. At a 1920s-era pharmacy, customers could sit at the counter and enjoy a root beer float or an egg cream.

These pharmacies of a bygone era were much more ornately decorated — with marble countertops and beautiful light fixtures — than the fluorescent lighting-clad drugstores of today.

General stores were the go-to spots for workers, food, and household items.

general store 1920s
A group of people gathered in a small general store, Utica, Mississippi, circa 1920.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

General stores became less common after the 1920s, but throughout the decade, they were still popular for various goods for farmers and industrial workers, as well as equipment and food.

Schools for young students around 1920 were typically large classrooms that fit as many pupils as possible.

kids students classroom 1920s
Young students in a classroom, circa 1920.JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

At the time, classrooms and schoolhouses were designed to hold as many students as possible to maximize space.

But in the 1920s, more educators and administrators started to support "progressive" schools that were built to house programs that were new at the time — allowing more open-air, light, and access to outdoor activities, per a 2012 report from the National Institute of Building Sciences about school design.

The Roaring Twenties saw the birth of historic figures, such as Queen Elizabeth II, who was born in 1926.

Queen elizabeth II in 1929
Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) with her grandmother in 1929.Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Here, the Queen — then known as Princess Elizabeth — was pictured in 1929 at a train station, apparently on the way to the family's Sandringham estate for Christmas.

Prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was also born in the 1920s.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in 1967.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in 1967.Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

He was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta and became one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement during the '50s and '60s.

A hundred years ago, the Charleston was the dance of choice.

charleston dance 1920s man woman
The iconic Charleston dance move.Bettmann / Contributor

Here, two people photographed around 1926 do the Charleston dance.

The famous Charleston dance came from a song in the Broadway show "Runnin' Wild."

girls dancing the charleston in harlem 1920
A group of girls dancing in Harlem, New York City, circa 1920s.NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Per the Charleston County Public Library, it became a mainstream dance after the musical's release in 1923 and defined the rest of the decade.

Jazz music was the most popular genre of the decade.

louis armstrong
American jazz musician Louis Armstrong poses on stage with a band for the WMSB radio station in New Orleans, Louisiana, 1920s.Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Jazz music dominated 1920s culture in America thanks to popular musicians like Louis Armstrong.

The genre was a key feature of the Harlem Renaissance, which encompassed music, literature, and art created by Black Americans.

Left to right: Honore Dutrey, Baby Dodds, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin, Bill Johnson, and Johnny Dodds.
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago circa 1923. The band included Honore Dutrey, Baby Dodds, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin, Bill Johnson, and Johnny Dodds.JP Jazz Archive/Contributor/Redferns

The National Museum of African American History and Culture reported that after the end of the Civil War, the Great Migration brought over 100,000 Black Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds to Harlem, New York City.

Throughout the 1920s and '30s, Black creatives across disciplines shared their art en masse, documenting what it was like to be Black in America during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Iconic works from the likes of Nella Larsen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and more were all produced during this era.

However, throughout the 1920s, Black people continued to face barriers like segregation, discrimination, and even violence.

Segregated waiting rooms in Rosslyn, Virginia, circa 1928.
Segregated waiting rooms in Rosslyn, Virginia, circa 1928.Bettmann/Contributor

In the photo above, the waiting room on the right was designated for "Colored" individuals while that on the left was for white people.

Segregation was a prominent aspect of life in the US following the Civil War, especially in the South where Jim Crow laws were harshly enforced.

Other minority groups also faced discrimination. Below are Japanese "picture brides" who immigrated to the US in 1920 to marry American men as a result of exclusionary immigration laws.

Japanese picture brides having their passports investigated by members of Congress in 1920.
Japanese picture brides having their passports investigated by members of Congress in 1920.Bettmann/Contributor

Immigration from Japan to the US was largely limited during the 1920s as a result of the 1907 Gentlemen's Agreement.

However, it had an exception for Japanese wives of current American residents, which led to the practice of American men choosing Japanese women to be their wife solely based on photos.

Many of the Japanese "picture wives" faced discrimination, spousal abuse, and poor living conditions upon arrival to the US, Women & the American Story reported.

Such marriages were made illegal by the 1924 Immigration Act, which barred any immigrant who wouldn't be eligible for citizenship from coming to the US.

People of Asian descent were denied full US citizenship until the 1950s.

The year 1920 also saw the first Olympic Games since before World War I.

1920 summer olympics antwerp belgium
Swimmers at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.Bob Thomas/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

After the 1916 Olympic Games were canceled due to World War I, the 1920 summer Olympics were set in Antwerp, Belgium, as a way to honor "the suffering that had been inflicted on the Belgian people during the war," the Olympics reported.

It was also the first year the Olympic Rings symbol was publicly displayed.

Back then, sporting equipment like tennis balls, footballs, and other athletic gear was often handmade.

Tennis sports 1920s
Workers carried freshly manufactured tennis balls.General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Here, people carry newly manufactured tennis balls.

In the 1920s, athletic wear was very different from the nylon pants we're familiar with now.

sports 1920s
A football team lined up for a portrait in Winchester, Kentucky, 1921.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Pictured here, a football team poses in sporting uniforms at Oliver High School in Kentucky in 1921.

Gym class appeared much more elegant in the '20s than it is today.

gym class in 1920s
People throwing balls in sync in a 1920s gym class.Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

This looks way more sophisticated than a sweaty game of kickball.

Cities were changing in the Roaring Twenties, with public transportation advancements giving people new ways to commute.

london tube entrance 1924 subway station
A London Underground entrance.Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Pictured here is a subway entrance in London, circa 1924. Transport for London reported that the city's Underground was the first subway in the world, having opened in 1863.

Beyond underground trains, rail trains were also a central part of life in the 1920s.

train travel 1920s
Rail trains were a popular mode of transportation in the 1920s.JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

Here, a group of employees stand in front of a train in 1920.

Train travel in the 1920s was often comfortable and glamorous compared to the cramped cars that many commuters know today.

new york rail commuters 1920s
Commuters on a train, circa 1920s.Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Train travel was arguably its most glamorous from 1910 through 1950.

However, much of public transportation has stayed the same over the decades, like the realities of crowded bus and subway stops.

1920s chicago group of people bus stop
Waiting at the bus stop.Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

Here, a group of people wait to board a bus in Chicago around 1925.

Fire engines in the 1920s looked much more ornate than today's modern, large trucks.

fire truck pittsburgh
Firefighters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1920.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Here, members of a fire department in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were photographed around 1920.

Horse races were a ritzy leisure activity that often involved fabulous outfits and hats.

fashion 1920s
A woman wearing a voluminous feather hat at a horse race.Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Here, people attend a horse race at Ascot Racecourse in Ascot, England, around 1920.

In the 1920s, a trip to the fair became a popular pastime. Fairgoers could go for a spin on the carousel ...

people enjoy a fair ride in 1920
People enjoying a fair attraction, circa 1920.Central Press/Getty Images

Carnivals and state and county fairs in the US were popular summertime activities during the early 20th century.

... or make a go-around on bumper cars.

dodgem bumper cars 1920
People ride bumper cars, circa 1925.Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

USA Today reported that Coney Island's Luna Park is believed to have had one of the first bumper car attractions.

Coney Island in Brooklyn represented a new era of entertainment at the turn of the 20th century in America.

coney island 1920s
Advertisements at Coney Island, circa 1920s.Irving Browning/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Coney Island was an iconic part of the early 20th century that transformed how Americans spent their free time.

Here, groups of couples competed in a dance contest at the Coney Island boardwalk.

coney island couples dancing
People dancing at the Coney Island boardwalk, circa 1928.Bettmann / Contributor

The Brooklyn park gave locals and visitors new ways to stay entertained and spend time with one another in the form of roller coasters and rides, animal exhibits, and a lively boardwalk and beach.

Here, women competed at a patriotic-looking beauty pageant at Coney Island.

miss coney island 1920s
Women at a Miss Coney Island pageant.Bettmann / Contributor

Miss Coney Island 1924 and 1925, respectively, appeared to stand on the Coney Island boardwalk sometime during the mid-1920s.

Long before the days of Instagram, photographers captured the moment at county fairs.

people at a fair photographer 1920
All smiles at a county fair, circa 1920.H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

This snapshot from around 1920 shows fair attendees having their picture taken.

Spending time at the beach in the '20s sometimes meant catching shrimp with huge nets, apparently.

swimming 1920 family
A family at a beach around 1920.The Montifraulo Collection/Getty Images

Around 1920, a family was photographed at a beach in Germany holding up shrimping nets.

Silent films dominated the movie industry in the 1920s ...

silent film
The filming of a German silent film in the 1920s.ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The National Endowment for the Humanities reported that the silent film era began in 1894 and continued through the 1920s. Before there were "talkies," audiences were dazzled by films starring actors like Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow.

... but the decade also saw the transition to the "talkies," or movies with spoken dialogue.

the jazz singer scene 1927
A scene from "The Jazz Singer," 1927.John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1927, "The Jazz Singer" became the first feature-length movie to feature dialogue scenes, marking a transition from the silent film era, per the Museum of Modern Art.

The World reported that the first film (that wasn't a feature-length movie) with talking scenes was actually created in 1898 by Alice Guy-Blaché.

As film began to include sound, musical movies captured the hearts of audiences.

movie filming 1920
A shot from the filming of a movie with dancers, circa 1920.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Musical movies produced in the late 1920s, like "Broadway Melody," continued to push "talkies" into the mainstream.

Vaudeville, which consisted of short acts of dancers, musicians, magicians, and comedians, was also a popular form of entertainment throughout the 1920s.

The Dolly Sisters Vaudeville performance entertainment in 1920s
The Dolly Sisters.adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

The Dolly Sisters, pictured here, were famous vaudeville performers in the early 20th century.

Another iconic vaudeville production during the 1920s was the Ziegfeld Follies, PBS reported, which preceded the modern Broadway musical and helped launch the career of many theatrical stars of the time.

Leo, the lion that became a symbol of MGM Studios, made his debut in 1927.

leo lion mgm filming 1920
The first MGM lion was named Leo.Bettmann / Contributor

MGM's first lion named Leo was shown on screen in 1927, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Circus shows also featured animals 100 years ago.

1920s circus elephant
A woman is held up by elephants at a circus in 1926.ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In the almost 100 years since this photo was taken, some states in the US have banned the use of animals in circuses, while others have enacted partial bans.

The famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus show, "The Greatest Show on Earth," shut down in May 2017 after 146 years of shocking the nation with its acrobatic and animal performances. It reopened five years later, but without animals.

In recent years, changing attitudes toward animal rights, as well as high operating costs of shows, and declining attendance rates, have led to the demise of the circus.

coney island women with pigs
Women outside of a circus in New York.Bettmann / Contributor

Here, women are photographed holding pigs outside of a circus in New York around 1920.

Before modern conveniences like central air conditioning, people found creative ways to stay cool in the summer, like this group of women who appeared to be sitting on a chunk of ice.

women cool off on ice 1920s
A group of women on a golf course, circa 1920.Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Willis Carrier invented the first air conditioner in 1902, but it wasn't until 1929 that Frigidaire introduced a unit that was suitable for use in homes, the US Department of Energy reported.

Any curiosity about what was going on in the world required a look at the daily newspaper.

Josephine Baker reading a newspaper in 1928.Bettmann/Contributor

People relied on newspapers for local, national, and global updates, as well as advice columns, entertainment, and other stories.

The world's first commercial radio broadcast was made in 1920.

frank conrad radio braodcast kdka
Frank Conrad, the founder of KDKA radio station.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book reported that Pittsburgh radio station KDKA produced the world's first radio broadcast on November 2, 1920.

Frank Conrad is known as the "father of radio broadcasting" for inventing the first station, which was located in his garage.

Throughout the decade, radio continued to grow as a pivotal technology that changed the way people received the news, communicated, and connected with pop culture.

First Black Radio Station Operator
Rufus P. Turner was a student at the Armstrong Technical High School.Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Per MIT Black History, Rufus P. Turner was the first Black radio station operator. He began operating his station, W3LF, in Washington, DC, in 1928.

Wedding-dress styles from the '20s included ornate headpieces.

wedding dresses 1920
Brides and grooms gathered in the St. George Church on Christmas Day in 1920.Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Brides Magazine reported that beaded headbands were common additions to wedding gowns during the Jazz Age, as were dresses with high necklines and cape- or flutter-style sleeves.

Cruise ships in the Roaring Twenties were often extravagant.

cruise ship 1920 fancy dinner dance
Passengers dance on the Saturnia ship.Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Here, passengers onboard the Saturnia ship partake in an evening dance in the 1920s. The Saturnia was an Italian liner that sailed until the 1960s. Along with its sister ship, Vulcania, it was among the first large transatlantic liners driven by diesel engines, the Italian Liners Historical Society reported.

Telephones looked just a tad different from the smartphones we know today.

woman using telephone 1920s
A woman uses a mobile-type telephone in London, circa 1920.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Phones of the 1920s and '30s were characterized by their rotary dials and "spit cup" receivers.

Being a switchboard operator was a common job for many women in the early 1920s.

1920s telephone switchboard operators
Telephone switchboard operators, circa 1920.GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Being a switchboard operator often required saying the phrase "number please" hundreds of times per hour for eight hours a day, according to a 1922 op-ed in The New York Times, as cited by Time.

The shift from rural to urban living was prominent in the 1920s.

Aerial view of lower Manhattan, New York City, 1923.
Aerial view of lower Manhattan, New York City, 1923.FPG/Staff/Getty Images

The US Census Bureau reported that the 1920 census marked the first time over 50% of Americans reported living in urban areas compared to rural ones.

Kitchen appliances were much different than they are now.

cooking school 1920s kitchen
Women at the Soho School of Cookery in London in the 1920s.FPG/Getty Images

The beginning of the 20th century brought many advancements to the home — from gas ranges to the advent of refrigerators, which became commonplace in homes by the 1920s — but kitchens certainly didn't have the multi-functional, high-tech gadgets many homes are equipped with today.

While much has changed in the past century, from cars and technology to pastimes, many of the simple pleasures of life have remained constant, like getting ice cream from a snack stand ...

kids ice cream soda stand paris 1920
A summer day in Paris.Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Here, kids were photographed at a soda stand on a street in Paris around 1920.

The only thing that would make this sweeter was if Coca Cola still cost a nickel.

... and catching up with good company at a café.

cafe paris circa 1920
Women at a café in Paris, circa 1920.Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Here's to all the changes and all the lasting pleasures of the next 100 years.

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