Weird History

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

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. 

  • There Were Huge Stockpiles of Booze All Over the City

    There Were Huge Stockpiles of Booze All Over the City
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1919, and on January 16, 1920, it went into effect. The Volstead Act set up the laws for closing taverns and beginning Prohibition. But there was a loophole: the Volstead Act didn't ban the consumption of alcohol, just its import and sale. So, naturally, people stockpiled alcohol before the Act went into effect. One rumor states that the Yale Club in New York City had a 14-year supply of booze in its basement.

    Whether or not the people of New York City were preparing for close to two decades of prohibition with gallons of hidden gin is impossible to know, but it sounds like something that would happen in the city that never sleeps. 

    • Zeppelins Were a Normal Thing to See in the Sky

      Zeppelins Were a Normal Thing to See in the Sky
      Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

      As strange as it may sound now, it was entirely commonplace to look up and see zeppelins floating over the skyline of New York City. Or, rather, it was common to see dirigibles floating around; "Zeppelin," much like "Kleenex" or "Xerox," is a brand name that became so common it turned into a synonym for the product. In 1928, the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin completed the first passenger trip across the Atlantic.

      It carried 20 passengers and 43 crew members at a time. This was a time when people were still taking ocean liners for transatlantic travel and the spectacle of seeing floating balloons carrying only the wealthiest people hadn't yet been sullied by the fact that they were easily combustible.

      • People Regularly Took Passenger Liners to California

        People Regularly Took Passenger Liners to California
        Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

        Travel was strange in the 1920s. Most people lived and died where ever they were born, but in New York City anything was possible. If you wanted to take a trip to California, all you had to do was carve out a couple of weeks to float around the continent. The American Line Steamship Corporation wanted to capitalize on the Panama Canal and create an alternative to cross-country railroad travel. So they had a giant passenger ship, the SS California, built. 

        It could carry over 4,400 people and was the first passenger ship specifically built to sail between the East and West Coasts through the Panama Canal. A one-way trip took 13 days, and the crew of the California brought passengers from New York to San Francisco with stops in Havana, Cuba, Balboa, Panama, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

        • Everyone Went to Speakeasies

          Thanks to decades of mythologizing, speakeasies and the underground nightclubs of 1920s New York City are old hat to many armchair historians. But it's genuinely very strange that people had to go to a nondescript building and say a code word so they could drink something that included a base ingredient that was likely brewed in a bathtub. But that's not even the craziest part.

          At one of the most popular speakeasies, Chumley's, the staff was told by the police that in an event of a raid that they should empty people out of their Bedford Street door as the police would always enter through the Pamela Court entrance.