Now & Then: 1920s and the 2020s

One hundred years ago, the world looked different. What things have changed and what things have remained the same? Read on to learn about some major events and changes that the world faced. What do you think the 2020s will bring for you and the world?

2021 Update

I'm not sure that any of us could have foreseen the challenges our world would face in 2020. We saw:

  • Increasing concerns around climate change as wildfires sweep across Australia and then across California.
  • Heightened social unrest and a renewed focus on political and social injustice during the summer as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum after the police killing of George Floyd.
  • A threat on American democracy during the 2020 presidential election as attempts were made to subvert and overturn the election, culminating in our nation's capital being attacked on January 6, 2021 during the Electoral College certification process.
  • And finally, the unprecedented impact that COVID-19 had as the world faced the largest public health crisis in living memory. From the loss of loved ones to devastating job losses, adjusting to remote learning and work environments, the perseverance of exhausted healthcare workers, and the negative effects COVID-19 had on mental and physical health.


World War I had just ended in 1919. As a result of the Central Powers collapsing, the once-mighty Austria-Hungary empire fell and three new countries—Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia—were formed. Several other countries gained independence after World War I, including Armenia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania. In the war's aftermath, Europe and Asia saw several armed conflicts in the 1920s including the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) and the Chinese Civil War (1927–1937). Italy become the world's first fascist government in 1922 and that same year, the Soviet Union was created. Germany and Russia suffered greatly after the end of WWI. Germany fell into an economic crisis, with rampant hyperinflation and severe food shortages, after struggling to pay back wartime reparations. Russia suffered from a crippling famine; an estimated 5 million people died, and during the Russian Civil War (1917–1922), an estimated 7-12 million Russian casualties died. Learn more about WWI's aftermath in European history.

The League of Nations was formed in 1920 as an intergovernmental organization to resolve international disputes and maintain world peace. The League's was ultimately unsuccessful and operations ceased during WWII, though the League of Nations was a precursor to the United Nations. The U.S. tried to pursue an isolationism policy after WWI but that proved nearly impossible as the U.S. became the world's leading creditor nation and now had a vested interest in world politics, an interest which continues still. Learn more about WWI's aftermath in American history.

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In America, women were granted the right to vote in 1919 and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Over the next several years, states continued to ratify the amendment, though Mississippi did not ratify until 1984.

The "Great Migration" of African Americans from the South to Northern cities upset some White Americans, and the Ku Klux Klan was at its most popular in the 1920s. In addition, xenophobia, or a dislike or prejudice against people from different countries, spread across parts of the U.S. In 1924, the National Origins Act was passed, which set quotas on the number of immigrants permitted to enter the U.S., and the act completely excluded immigrants from Asia. Not until 1965 did Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Immigration and Nationality Act which removed discrimination against non-Northwestern European ethnic groups.

There was also the First Red Scare from 1919–1920 in answer to the rise of communism in Eastern Europe after the formation of the Soviet Union. Twenty years later, after communist Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949, and as tensions rose between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a Second Red Scare occurred after World War II during the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s.

Prohibition went into effect from 1920–1933. Most people think that it was illegal to drink alcohol during Prohibition, but the 18th Amendment forbade the "manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors", not its consumption. Not all states enforced Prohibition either; "bathtub gin" and moonshine was produced in the millions of gallons, and thousands died from drinking tainted and unsafe alcohol. Ten states still have counties that prohibit alcohol sales.

The U.S. had a period of great economic prosperity before the 1929 Stock Market Crash which lead to the Great Depression. Consumers spent their extra money on things like home appliances (hello, washing machines and vacuums), ready-made clothes and both their money and leisure time on movie theater tickets, but especially, the car. Did you know a Ford Model T cost $260 in 1924? Millions of women also went to work. Penicillin was also discovered (1928) and Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic (1927). 

Learn more about 1920's American history.


Popular sports included baseball, boxing and basketball. Babe Ruth, part of the Yankee's "Murder Row," dominated baseball along with Lou Gehrig. College football also became popular as soldiers returned home from the war to attend college. Jack Dempsey was a famous boxer and the world heavyweight champion from 1919–1926, born in Manassa, Colorado. Horse racing captivated massive crowds, who gathered to watch Man O'War, largely considered to be the world's greatest racehorse, and golf also drew large crowds to see Bobby Jones, who was sometimes a hothead on the green. Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to cross the English Channel in 1926 and she recorded a time that was nearly two hours faster than any man had done.

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2021 update: The 2020 Summer Olympics were delayed due to COVID-19 and were rescheduled, opens a new window.


Art Deco, Surrealism and Cubism exploded onto the arts scene across Europe and America. Western Europe, particularly Paris, saw an increase in ex-patriots, known as the Lost Generation, who were Americans, usually WWI survivors, who felt aimless and directionless. Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, and Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises' epigraph, "You are all a lost generation." Lost Generation authors are Hemingway, Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot

The Harlem Renaissance represented African American expression in art, novels and music, and it was the first time that mainstream critics and publishers took African American art seriously. Entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker (who was also a spy) were very popular. Famous authors included Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. When the Great Depression began, the Harlem Renaissance faded away as organizations like the NAACP (founded in 1909) focused on economic and political issues facing the Black community. 

Writers of the Harlem Renaissance

List created by ArapahoeAlice

An explosive literary and cultural revolution, the Harlem Renaissance began when thousands of African Americans moved to New York following World War I. A new cultural identity and voice for African Americans was cultivated through art, music, and literature. Also called the New Negro Movement, it was a time of tumultuous change and tremendous hope. One novelist wrote, “In Harlem, it was like a foretaste of paradise.”

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The 1920s are also known as the Jazz Age. Dances like the Charleston, the Foxtrot and the cake walk were incredibly popular, though some people thought jazz music would lead to the moral degradation of society. In addition, women began wearing more comfortable clothes like trousers and shorter skirts and even sportswear. Silk was still expensive but rayon, a cheaper substitute, was patented and become very popular. Hair was bobbed and a more boyish figure became popular. Cosmetics were in vogue, especially with the invention of swivel lipstick. Men's fashion became less formal, with two or three button coats instead of longer, more formal tailcoats. Top hats faded away as bowlers were in, with straw boaters being the hat of choice during hot summers.