Chicago, 1928: The Era of Wonderful Nonsense (From the Playbill)

The Jazz Age. The Lawless Decade. The Roaring Twenties. No matter the moniker, the decade between the First World War and the beginning of the Great Depression was not only a period of immense cultural change – it was a rollicking good time. It was a time of “permanent prosperity” and unprecedented affluence as the wealth of the nation doubled between 1920 and 1929, when skirts rose above the knee as victorious suffragettes marched to the ballot box and flappers filled the jazz clubs, when Ford Model T cars carrying unmarried young couples and families alike trundled down the streets of America’s cities, when speakeasies flourished in response to Prohibition and bathtub gin flowed. It was the boom time. The specter of the war (1914-1918) and the subsequent worldwide influenza epidemic (1918) had lifted, and Americans were in the mood to indulge.

The country’s response to Prohibition captures well the devil-may-care spirit of the decade. Intended to ban the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol in the United States and lasting from 1920 to 1933, Prohibition was a fantasy. It was the law that impacted the most Americans, and the one to which they paid the least attention. The nation not only disregarded this law, moral codes of days gone by were discarded altogether – and old ideas about thriftiness went with them. Americans kicked up their heels and danced the Charleston all the way to Wall Street, where investors flocked to the rising stock market.

The influx of the nouveau riche combined with new technologies created a consumer culture, and by the end of the decade, more than twelve million homes had a radio and one in every five Americans owned a car. New technologies like washing machines and vacuums abounded and, perhaps in response to life being made easier in many ways, deeds of derring-do and tests of endurance became the entertainment du jour. Dance marathons, flagpole-sitting and cross-Atlantic flights embodied the reckless, unsinkable character of the time.

And Chicago shimmered at the center of it all. Founded in the 1830s, the city was established as a water transit hub. The Chicago River opened the channel between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and the early addition of railroads exponentially improved the city’s ability to transport and process the area’s raw materials. 

Chicago became an industrial metropolis with iron and steel mills as its foundation. The opportunities available there attracted huge pre-World War I migrations, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe, and the social upheavals after the war brought swells of African-American migrants. Though often fraught with racial tension, this diversity proved fruitful, creating a vibrant community that led to commercial success and cultural creativity such as the birth of Chicago’s versions of blues and jazz.

By the beginning of the twenties, Chicago had 2.7 million residents, with more on their way. Much of the city’s commerce was centralized near the business district known as “the Loop” –  a half-mile-square section of downtown – and this tiny area saw the arrival of 750,000 people every day on public transit, including streetcars and “L” trains.

As America’s second-largest city, Chicago was an epicenter of activity on the rise. The forces at odds in the country were magnified there, with the most active proponents of Prohibition (the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) based just outside Chicago as Al Capone’s bootleggers and gangsters ran the city from within. The city was a bustling party, seemingly headed toward a bright and buoyant future.

By 1929, Chicago (and the country at large) was forced to face the dark side of an irresponsible and lawless economy as gang wars surged uncontrollably and the stock market crashed. But the twenties remain the city’s golden age, when everything seemed possible with a Louis Armstrong record on the gramophone and a jar of moonshine in hand.