The era of the 1920s has secured its place in the popular imagination, thanks in no small part to literary works such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which brought to life the glitz and glamour we now associate with the “Roaring ’20s.” The decade is often characterized by the dramatic excesses sparked by the end of World War I; economic growth caused a cultural boom in Western nations, and ushered in an era of social change marked by lavish, boozy parties and the rise of the “flapper” style embraced by a new generation of socially liberated women.
But this romanticized view tends to undercut the complexity of the time: In the U.S., Jim Crow racial segregation laws and anti-immigration sentiments threatened individual freedoms, and the gap between the haves and have-nots, and white and Black Americans, became more and more exaggerated. For better and worse, the rapid pace of the Roaring ‘20s heralded many major societal changes: In these 10 years, women gained the right to vote; Prohibition sparked a black market of bootleggers and raucous speakeasies; technology innovations including the telephone and “talking pictures” arrived; cities and consumerism began to rise; and the arts flourished, from the rise of jazz music to the cultural explosion of the Harlem Renaissance. Here, we’ve gathered 12 quotes from prominent figures and literary works of the era that give a taste of life during this unique and iconic decade.
To be able to look life in the face: that’s worth living in a garret for, isn’t it?
― Edith Wharton in “The Age of Innocence,” 1920
The Flapper awoke from her lethargy… put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle… She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do.
— Zelda Fitzgerald in “Eulogy on the Flapper,” 1922
They were smart and sophisticated, with an air of independence about them, and so casual about their looks and clothes and manners as to be almost slapdash. I don’t know if I realized as soon as I began seeing them that they represented the wave of the future.
— Actress Colleen Moore on flappers in the 1920s
The worst is not that one gets burned, but that the flame goes out.
— Natalie Clifford Barney in “Women Lovers, or The Third Woman,” 1926
I can never put on paper the thrill of the underground ride to Harlem. I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight. Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.
— Langston Hughes, writing about his arrival to Harlem in 1921
No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost.
— Zora Neale Hurston in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” 1928
Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.
— E.M. Forster in “A Passage to India,” 1924
“I love my past. I love my present. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve had, and I’m not sad because I have it no longer.”
— Colette in her novel “Chéri,” 1920
If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets.
— Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921
Don’t do nothing halfway, else you find yourself dropping more than can be picked up.
— Jazz great Louis Armstrong
We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.
― Ernest Hemingway, describing Paris in the 1920s in “A Moveable Feast,” 1964
It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, describing the 1920s in “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” 1931