Don't Know Much

“Return to Normalcy”

The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over but people are already asking what a post-pandemic world will look like. Will there be more telemedicine? Less time in the office? More remote learning?

The short answer is nobody really knows. But history can help. The sweeping changes that followed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 offer some lessons.

Following the pandemic of 1918-1919, which took 675,000 American lives, most people just wanted to feel “normal.” Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding made “Return to Normalcy” the centerpiece of his 1920 campaign and won the White House in a popular landslide.

Warren G. Harding (1920)

People also adopted a collective amnesia. The Spanish flu pandemic overlapped with the First World War and there was widespread sickness, death, and destruction. But while the First World War profoundly influenced art and literature, the Spanish flu pandemic left few marks in culture or popular memory.

There was no “pandemic literature.” Few novels, plays, movies, or paintings depicted the flu. A notable exception is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story written by Katherine Anne Porter, a survivor of the flu. No full-scale history of the flu was written until years later.

No surprise, the pandemic was followed by a desire to relax, have fun — even go a little wild– especially after after Prohibition was ushered in starting on January 17, 1920.


Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery. (National Archives ID 541928)

Actress Louise Brooks an icon of “Flapper” style (Library of Congress

Famed entertainer Josephine Baker does the Charleston in Paris (1926 Wikimedia)

The 1920s brought loosening styles of clothing (Flappers!), music (Jazz!), dancing (the Charleston!), and the boom of Hollywood into one of the nation’s biggest businesses. It was the “Roaring Twenties.” After years of war and disease, people wanted to forget their troubles.

The status of women changed— they largely benefited. They had stepped in as nurses, factory workers, and teachers, helping the sick on the home front as others went to war. Women won the right to vote in federal elections in 1920 and voted in all 48 states that year.

And there was a dark side. During the pandemic, Germans were blamed for poisoning the water and causing the pandemic. Crowded tenements were hotspots and immigrants often got blamed for the outbreak. America retreated into isolationism and the anti-immigration laws passed after the pandemic were draconian. The fear of foreigners also emerged in the nation’s firest “Red Scare,” in which a young J. Edgar Hoover began his quest to find socialists, Bolsheviks and communists. And the hatred of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and African Americans led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and with it a wave of lynchings.

Of course, the excitement of the “Roaring Twenties” would be short lived and come crashing down –literally– with Wall Street’s “Great Crash” in October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.

I discuss some of these changes in my book More Deadly Than War and the era of the “Roaring Twenties” in Don’t Know Much About® History.


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