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Pottermore’s guide to the twenties: 1920s New York

A case full of fantastic beasts is the least of it – if ever a city encapsulated the ups and downs of the turbulent 1920s, it was New York…

A street scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them showing No-Maj New York in the 1920s
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Rarely has a decade generated as many epithets as the one from January 1920 to December 1929. Known variously as the Roaring Twenties, the Golden Twenties, the Happy Twenties and the Jazz Age, it was without doubt a defining era, signalling great change in everything from politics to art to music to fashion.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the city of New York, which was at once home to the Harlem Renaissance, the newly opened New York Museum of Modern Art and the race to build the tallest Art Deco-style skyscraper. It was, however, also where the prosperous 1920s ended with a bang, when the Wall Street Crash kick-started the Great Depression.

Newt New York skyline no WM

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander first sets his case down in New York in 1926. By this point, the city had been in the grip of Prohibition for six years and speakeasies like The Blind Pig were commonplace (well, okay, The Blind Pig itself was not commonplace). It was also around the middle of the cultural explosion that was the Harlem Renaissance.

In the early 1920s the Manhattan borough of Harlem became the centre of artistic expression as black writers, intellectuals, musicians and artists explored and took on new opportunities and challenges. The result was the emergence of a new black cultural identity and a prolific outpouring of influential literature, music, visual art and theatre.

The New York wizard newspaper Fantastic Beasts teaser trailer pic 10

In 1925, the first edition of the now world-renowned magazine The New Yorker was published. Its founders, Harold Ross and Jane Grant, wanted to create something distinctive and uniquely for New Yorkers – in outlining his vision for publication, Ross wrote, ‘The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.’

Ross and Grant wanted to serve a New York that was metropolitan, humorous and interested in the arts in all its various forms. At the time, American modernism was beginning to exert a huge influence on the visual arts, from buildings to paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe was producing striking images of New York’s skyscrapers, and the architects of those skyscrapers were becoming increasingly competitive in the challenge to build higher and higher.

Seen by many as the pinnacle of the Art Deco movement, the skyscrapers built during the 1920s were the ultimate in modernist design. They were bold, bright and big – and this race to the top created some of New York’s most iconic buildings, including the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, both planned and designed just as the 1920s were finishing.

Back on the ground – in some cases, actually under the ground – New York’s speakeasies were flourishing. Music and dance fused with illicitly served alcohol, creating some of the city’s most famous venues and introducing some of the Jazz Age’s most enduring musicians, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. But despite being home to some of the greatest black entertainers of the era, a few of New York’s best-known clubs upheld strict whites-only policies – like Harlem’s The Cotton Club.

Gnarlak, Tina and Newt in The Blind Pig

New York proved a more progressive location in terms of technology. In 1927, the city watched as American aviator Charles ‘Lucky Lindy’ Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. On the morning of 20 May, he aimed his fuel-laden aircraft ‘The Spirit of St Louis’ down a dirt runway in Long Island and took off in front of a crowd of 500 people. 33-and-a-half hours and 3,500 miles later, he landed in Paris.

The Roaring Twenties also saw a number of breakthroughs for American women, beginning with the right to vote, granted in 1920. New York was a particularly interesting place to be for women – it was the centre of America’s growing beauty industry, which really came to prominence in the 1920s with the expansion of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden’s cosmetics empires. Meanwhile The New Yorker’s first fashion editor, Lois Long, essentially invented fashion criticism, and in so doing helped position clothing as an art form.

Tina and Queenie magically changing their outfits
Tina and Queenie magically change outfits.

In the last year of the 1920s, two events happened in New York that help sum up this tumultuous decade and the city’s particular influence on wider American culture. In October 1929, the Wall Street Crash – also known as Black Tuesday, the most devastating stock market crash in US history – heralded the end of the prosperous twenties and ushered in the worldwide Great Depression. And nine days later, on 7 November, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened its doors for the first time under the particular patronage of three women – Miss Lillie P Bliss, Mrs Cornelius J Sullivan and Mrs John D Rockefeller, Jr.

So New York in the 1920s was a place of contradictions, of great highs and crushing lows. Good luck, Newt…

In celebration of Fantastic Beasts, Pottermore will be delving into the history of the 1920s each week. Stay tuned for more!