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Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  1,665 ratings  ·  212 reviews
“A style that is verve itself.” — New York Times

“A perfectly grand piece of historical record and synthetic journalism.”
Chicago Daily Tribune

From Frederick Lewis Allen, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine, comes a classic history of 1920s America, from the end of World War I to the stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression. Originally publishe
Paperback, 352 pages
Published June 29th 2010 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics (first published 1931)
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Sep 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I have a bias against older nonfiction books as I don't think they age well. The evidence gets old, the arguments get settled or the style becomes out-dated and the read just isn't the same. Well, Frederick Allen Lewis sure showed me up. He wrote Only Yesterday in 1931 and it read like it was written last year.

Lewis was an editor at the Atlantic and I wonder if his style has influenced later writers there. He is crisp, funny and has a strong point of view throughout. I loved his description of
Ron Davidson
Feb 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very thorough review of the very turbulent decade of the 1920s. As James Howard Kunstler said in a recent podcast (probably quoting somebody else), "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." We find a lot of "rhyming' with recent years in the story of the 1920s: starting the decade with a blind faith in the power of capital, and attacking those who question the irrational exuberance of the dedication to material gain; the rise of sports and entertainment as dominant forces in American cul ...more
Barbara H
We read this as a text for a wonderful course I am taking about the "Roaring Twenties". Allen has written an entertaining and full-scale history of this period. It was a perfect complement for an excellent subject.
Jul 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What makes this history of the 1920's so fascinating is that it was published in 1931. This is no cold and bloodless text, no sentimental blue fog draped over the past. It feels immediate. It's very well written. And, yes, there are parallels. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear the author was intentionally alluding to current events. At times, it reads almost like a joke: "...[the] song that gave the Post-war Decade one of its most persistent and wearisome phrases, 'I'll Say She Does.'"

Or a
Nov 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Noticed that one of my goodreads friends had read this, and it triggered me to add it. I read it years ago, but it is easily one of the best compact histories of the 1920s. The only thing I can compare it to is the multi-volume Mark Sullivan series "Our Times" (which dealt with several decades, but Allen is a more engaging writer. It is interesting to see the perspective on the 1920s from 1931. Many things that seem iconic about the decade are ignored or glossed over in this book, but it gives ...more
Lance Carney
Nov 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
There’s politics, political scandals, the Big Red Scare, laxity of morals among the young and technology that altered the daily habits of Americans. Minus flappers, Prohibition and the market crash of the Great Depression (we hope), this could describe today’s America. But this is the 1920s of Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Young people were not staring at candlestick phones, wall phones or into phone booths, but were listening with fascination to the new technology ...more
Charles J
Nov 29, 2019 rated it it was ok
Much modern popular history is mendacious, written with an ideological agenda that deliberately distorts, or omits, or simply lies about, the truth. Sometimes, therefore, reading history written in the past can offer better information. Earlier historians were often more objective, ideology being less prevalent. Their biases, if they have any, are usually obvious. Thus I thought that "Only Yesterday," a semi-famous history of the 1920s, published in 1931 by a mass-market journalist/intellectual ...more
Jul 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I pulled this for a hold at my library a few weeks ago so when I saw it again on the shelf, I picked it up. Considered an historical non-fiction classic, the author also wrote Since Yesterday (about the 1930s), which I'd also like to read. Though under 300 pages, this is a tightly written and concise history of the madcap 1920s, covering everything from fads to fashion, murder to prohibition, to the inevitable stock market crash. There was a section highlighting the crazy real estate boom in Flo ...more
This classic of popular history is the best first place to go to wade into the decade of the 1920s. Breezily written and spiced with on-the-ground anecdotes that lend depth to the larger events and trends. I read this many years ago, but I'll never forget the story about the company sales dinner in which the salesmen were humiliated by exponentially decreased meal portions based on their sales performance. The sales winner who best exceeded his quota had a grand roast beef feast with all the fix ...more
Jill Hutchinson
Jul 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
This is a very interesting little book which touches on the memorable (and not so memorable) events of the Roaring 20's. The author covers most of the things that history lovers already know but adds his own thoughts which makes old material new again. Since it was written in the 1930's, there are some events that have been interpreted a little differently in the present day. An example is the positive light thrown on the Coolidge presidency and the blaming of the great depression solely on Pres ...more
Mar 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Fredrick Allen undertook this informal history of the twenties in 1930 to aide him in grieving the loss of his wife and daughter. This shows in how compassionately and understandingly he writes of a confusing and confounding time. His story begins with a look at how Mr and Mrs Smith lived in 1919 and reflects on what they do not know (radio, prize-fighting, Al Capone, normalcy for starters). Each successive chapter focuses on how one aspect of life changed dramatically. After finishing this book ...more
This probably isn't a fair rating. This was assigned reading in tenth grade history. I read it, completed the required exercises, got As on my papers ... and forgot everything. I just didn't identify with anything in the book ... it seemed like ancient history, and yet it truly was "only yesterday." I should read it again.
Jun 16, 2008 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
I confess I didn't finish this. It was just too boring. If the 1920s had been as yawn-inducing as this book, I would have been throwing myself off a window ledge well before the stock market crash in '29.
Tom Schulte
May 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very well narrated by Grover Gardner, this was an enjoyable re-read of a history classic. Allen really brings the '20s into an exciting light. It seems like wedged between WW I and The Depression was a time of exuberance and exciting changes during a period of enlarging freedom (Women Granted the Right to Vote in U.S.) and improved quality of life (radio frenzy). This all jibes peculiarly with sociological pathology (crimes and trials "of the century" like Leopold and Loeb Murder a Neighbor Out ...more
Autumn Kovach
Jun 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: new-york
This book was SO interesting. I feel like I have a more well rounded view of New York (and America) in the 1920s. All I was really in love with was the flapper dresses and speakeasies. But with this book, the author explains how the change of technology (the radio), culture, the stock market, agriculture, magazines all affected each other. The contrast of city vs. country. Why people moved where. I wish I had taken better notes because there was so much to learn. He also wrote a book about the 3 ...more
Beth Cato
May 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an approachable, fascinating overview of the 1920s, covering everything from popular culture to hemlines to the Florida land boom to the stock market crash. The original edition was published in 1931 (and is available as a free legal download through the New York Public Library at
I have read this book before, but I enjoyed revisiting this informal history of the 1920s in America. Frederick Allen has a very insightful account of the great party Americans had in the decade following the war that ended very suddenly in October 1929.
He looks at several cultural aspects of the 20s including the new attitudes toward sex, religion, sports, economics, fashion and politics.
This book provides and high-level review of what happened in the 1920's. I believe this was written in the 1950's.
Amazingly it shows how things really don't change - mainly the boundaries of extremes get pushed. Every generation goes through a generational Amnesia, as it doesn't know what came before, so the perception of reality is baselined at now... and not the 20-30 yrs prior in which their parents grew up. This is the importance in reading and knowing history.

The below quote applies to eve
Oleksandr Zholud
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is, as the title suggests, the history of the 1920s, chiefly in the USA. My first surprise with the book was that it wasn’t written recently but in 1930 and first published in 1931. This fact cannot be spotted immediately, thus it is a rare kind of the historical text that remains valid.
It is true that the book omits or pays a little attention to some themes, which other more modern books on the period describe, most importantly life of African-Americans and jazz music. At the same time it
Rebecca Goodwin
Dec 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen starts out as an interesting book. Filled with specific details, Allen does an exemplary job of describing life before the 1920’s. After that chapter, everything goes crazy. This book is like a rich, delicious cake. The first few bites are amazing, and the reader doesn’t want to stop eating. The cake begins to get sweeter and harder to digest until the reader has to take a break before starting again. Only Yesterday is similar to this example. Although the ...more
Aug 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a great book because it contextualizes the '20s so that you can understand everything that's happening as it happens--from Scott Fitzgerald's writing to Lindbergh's famous flight to the Dempsey-Tunney fight to the stock-market crash and prohibition. And it's written informally enough that it is entertaining. The original book was written in the early '30s, so it is remarkably fresh in its assessments, yet upon reading the second edition released by the author's widow, you can see how spo ...more
Randy Fay
May 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is astonishingly well written. Normally something written in 1930 or 1931 would seem quite dated, but this just reads like the best of writing from today. It gives a great view of the 1920s as viewed from the end of them. How did he do that? The only questionable thing is that he writes from the vantage point of the upper-middle and upper classes, with people living in their fine single-family homes and going to the country club. It's clear that it's a pretty limited overall viewpoint econo ...more
Emmett Hoops
Mar 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book, published in 1931, is an example of why good writing is essential. Even though most readers will hardly be interested in the minutiae of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen's incredibly modern and readable style makes this a book that any reader will enjoy. Some parts are quite memorable, such as his comments about how society did not keep up with the rapid changes that were taking place in the post-World War One decade. You can easily see how his observations fit today's issues of same- ...more
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I first read this book in the mid-nineteen seventies, and I enjoyed it even better this time. Frederick Lewis Allen masterfully narratives and analyzes the nineteen twenties, the events leading up to that decade, and a peek into the next. With the ease
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Radio made popular, Freud and psychoanalysis says self-control is a mistake which undermines the clergy, ppl complain abt the loosening of morals of the kids, clothing more risqué but still puritan by our standards (skirts go up a few more inches), mah-jong becomes popular, pubs become coed instead of male only thanks to prohibition, washer & dryer & bakeries & canned food give women more time to go out into the workforce, war weariness results in letting loose, cars allow ppl to leave homes for ...more
David Valentino
Mar 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Lessons That Go Unheeded

History teaches many lessons but people are bad pupils. Not just people today, but people throughout history have ignored the lessons taught by events preceding them. Consequently, we repeat mistakes over and over again. Those new to Only Yesterday will only have to read a few chapters to see how true these statements are, because the parallels between the 1920s and current times are numerous. Errors made then are still being made today. Read it for yourself to see the tr
Matt Mansfield
Sep 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Only Yesterday Just Now

Years ago in college I delighted in reading Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1931 “Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s”. I just reread this classic and am glad to report his labor of love holds up - and has relevance to today.

Allen’s conversational and informative style seems to define what might be called “popular history”. More about how people lived and reacted to the major themes surrounding them at the time than a dry recalling of names, places and dates. It is a
This book is something of a treasure, in my opinion. It was written by a man who wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and was editor at Harper & Row (so he knew how to express an idea well but not tediously) but the treasure is that it was originally published in 1931. Before F. D. Roosevelt was elected President of the U.S. Before the repeal of Prohibition. After the Crash, but before the grass of the years obscured the Roaring Twenties. This book is not a history of the 1920s seen at a distance, thro ...more
Oct 05, 2019 rated it liked it
The writer is superb and the experience is altogether fascinating and engaging. This book illumines the block of the American post-war journey with grace, relevance, and sincere portrayals of the maturation of the nation.

The reason for three stars: 1) the sections or parts to do with economics were difficult to break down and understand in layman’s terms 2) very time-specific, i.e. it is written prior to WWII, and so, can contain what is trivial or small-scale for readers in 2020 3) not much ex
Jun 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
I still don't understand how Wall Street works with the investing and the margins and the selling and the speculation, but I feel like after reading this book it makes a tiny bit more sense than before. Not only that, this book has gotten me interested in delving further into figuring out the logistics of the world of finance.

But that's not why I read the book. I read the book (at a recommendation of a friend), because I was interested in the cultural goings-on in the 1920s, and this book provid
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Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954) was born in Boston, studied at Groton, and graduated from Harvard in 1912. He was assistant and associate editor of Harper's Magazine for eighteen years, then the magazine's sixth editor in chief for twelve years until his death. In addition to The Lords of Creation, Allen was well known for Only Yesterday, Since Yesterday, and The Big Change.

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“The new code had been born in disillusionment, and beneath all the bravado of its exponents and the talk upon entering a new era, the disillusionment persisted. If the decade was ill-mannered, it was also unhappy. With the old order of things had gone a set of values which had given richness and meaning to life, and substitute values were not easily found.” 1 likes
“Nor did the Roman Catholics escape censure in the regions in which they were in a minority. Did not the members of this Church take their orders from a foreign pope, and did not the pope claim temporal power, and did not Catholics insist upon teaching their children in their own way rather than in the American public schools, and was not all this un-American and treasonable?” 1 likes
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