Weird History
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The Most Fascinating and Bizarre Parts of Daily Life in 1920s New York City

Updated November 21, 2019 148.0k views15 items

Life in the 1920s in New York City was exciting, to say the least. At the beginning of the Jazz Age, people were flush with money, dance music was blaring from every open window and underground club, and strange things were happening all over the city. Inventions that people now think of as commonplace were popping up all over in New York in the 1920s and modern American life was quickly changing from the coal dust-saturated 19th-century lifestyle that many people were used to. Thanks to an influx of people from all over the world, cultures were mingling, tastes were changing, and there were zeppelins flying overhead; 1920s New York City was the place to be.

If you were living in New York City in the 1920s, it didn’t matter what part of town you were living in; something wild was always happening. There was probably a speakeasy in your neighborhood, and you were eating a roast ham on every Sunday night. There's a reason so many movies and TV shows love setting things during the Roaring Twenties - despite the onset of Prohibition, there were no inhibitions, and people danced until they dropped every night of the week.

It wasn’t all fun and games in the 1920s, though. People were being struck with a mysterious sickness that would keep them in bed for the rest of their lives, and there was a looming economic decline waiting for the people of New York at the end of the decade. Knock three times and say the secret password to keep reading about the most bizarre parts of life in New York City in the 1920s. 

  • The Marriage of Peaches and Edward Browning Hypnotized New York City

    Photo: New York Evening Graphic / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On June 23, 1926, Peaches Heenan, 16, married Edward "Daddy" Browning, 51, and began what may have been the first relationship to be covered exclusively by tabloid journalism. A few months after they married, Peaches tried to get a divorce, citing Daddy's strange behavior (He kept a goose in their bedroom!

    He constantly referred to her as "a goof!"), but the court ruled in Daddy's favor and Peaches became a laughingstock and was immortalized in the George Gershwin musical Funny Face

    • Dance Derbies Destroyed the Feet of New York's Youth

      Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

      If you thought that all night dance-a-thons were a thing dreamt up by Sissy Spacek films and Gilmore Girls, then you've got a lot to learn about the early 20th century, daddy-o. Not only did a wave of dance trends like the Charleston and the Black Bottom break out across the country, but in New York City people began partaking in non-stop dance competitions where guys and gals stayed on their feet until they collapsed.

      "Of all the crazy competitions ever invented," commented the New York World, "the dancing marathon wins by a considerable margin of lunacy."

      • Modern Art Got Very Weird

        In 1926, the Brooklyn Museum had an exhibit highlighting European modernism which featured “The Large Glass” by Marcel Duchamp. The piece was a large sheet of glass (duh) with a mobile attached to it. People weren't really sure how to react to these outlandish pieces of European modernism and they instead turned their focused to artists like Georgia O'Keefe, whose work was oddly enticing to the New York scene. 

        • The Man with the Axe to Grind with Organ Grinders

          Photo: Fred Palumbo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

          Like speakeasies, organ grinders seem like a given when referencing the world of the early 20th century. But in Little Italy, organ grinders weren't just some passing fad, they were a way of life. That is until Fiorello H. La Guardia became mayor. La Guardia grew up in Arizona, and apparently, when an Italian organ grinder with a dancing monkey came to his town, children shouted racial slurs at him and compared him to the grinder.

          La Guardia saw the monkey-toting organ grinders as a negative stereotype and banned the acts. At the time, he claimed the ban was due to traffic congestion but later opened up about his true reasoning in his autobiography.