Pottermore’s guide to the twenties: boom and bust

From innovation and development to crash and burn – how the 1920s roared their way from the Great War to the Great Depression (and, in the wizarding world, saw a startling increase in Dark magic…).

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports on the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports on the Wall Street Crash of 1929. FPG/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images.

This is part of a Pottermore series celebrating the era of the 1920s, the decade where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place.

The 1920s have been called a golden age. In June 1919, Germany had signed the Treaty of Versailles and ended the war, so for many it was a time for celebration. Less so in Germany, which experienced a significant downturn, but other countries that had lived through the horrors of the Great War were in the mood to spend.

This was particularly true in America, where the 1920s really roared. Economic prosperity was the name of the game, especially if you lived in a city. It was in the 1920s that Henry Ford revolutionised the car industry, turning his Detroit complex into the most fully integrated car manufacturing plant in the world. By 1927, when Ford finally replaced his Model T – the first affordable motor car – it is said that a majority of Americans had learned to drive in one.

Assembly line workers inside the Ford Motor Company factory at Dearborn, Michigan.
Assembly line workers inside the Ford Motor Company factory at Dearborn, Michigan. Hulton Archive/ Getty Images.

The assembly-line techniques developed by Ford were soon copied by manufacturers and consumer goods like washing machines and fridges became more readily available. Mass production, crucially, also made them more affordable – in previous years new technologies would only have been for the wealthy, but consumerism was now open to the middle classes.

Advances in technology introduced new products, too. In 1920, the first radio news programme was broadcast, also in Detroit. By the end of the decade, 60 per cent of American families owned a radio, and by 1929, one in six people had a telephone at home. Meanwhile, across the US and Great Britain, inventors like Charles Jenkins, John Logie Baird and Philo Taylor Farnsworth were working on the prototypes for what would later become television.

A crowd outside a radio shop, USA, circa 1925.
A crowd outside a radio shop, USA, circa 1925. FPG / Staff / Getty Images.

These developments were powered by electricity, so the electric industry had to keep up. In 1920, 35 per cent of American homes were wired for electricity; by the end of the decade it was 68 per cent. It was a similar story in the UK, where the 1920s saw more and more households wired up to the National Grid. That meant electric light and electrical goods – not just radios, but irons, cleaning equipment and heaters. Queenie Goldstein might have had magic to help her cook up a storm, but for the No-Majs of the period these labour-saving devices gave them more free time.

Queenie Goldstien rests her chin on her hand as she sits at a candlelit dinner table
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

So it was lucky, then, that there were many things to enjoy. Along with new technologies, the cultural innovations of the 1920s offered more entertainment options than ever before. Silent films gave way to ‘talkies’, and stars became accessible through the advent of radio and the proliferation of lifestyle magazines. Clothes and cosmetics became talking points, with The New Yorker appointing fashion editor Lois Long – one of the first people to approach fashion as an art form. Some of the most iconic writers of the century made their mark: people like Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, F Scott Fitzgerald, DH Lawrence and Edith Wharton. And music was everywhere, too. Of course it was, this was the Jazz Age.

Transatlantic travel also became a reality, with Charles ‘Lucky Lindy’ Lindbergh becoming the first person to fly solo from New York to Paris. Okay, it’s not a Portkey, but imagine seeing a man take off and fly a plane across the Atlantic for the first time...

Portrait of Aviator Charles Lindbergh with Spirit of St. Louis.
Portrait of Aviator Charles Lindbergh with Spirit of St. Louis. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images.

Technology, communication, travel, culture – the list of innovations is almost exhausting. But the Twenties weren’t all golden. While America was flying, the German Weimar Republic was experiencing an economic downturn as a result of the debts imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. This was significant, because it changed the landscape of Germany and ultimately contributed to the rise of the Nazis and the onset of the Second World War.

Even in America the Twenties weren’t roaring for everyone. Rural areas experienced an agricultural depression as export prices crashed after the war, a situation exacerbated by innovations in technology that led to mechanised farming practices. African Americans fared badly, too. In the southern states particularly, racism was rife and jobs were scarce, leading many to migrate to northern cities.

So when Wall Street crashed in October 1929, perhaps it wasn’t such a shock for everyone. Not that it improved matters for African Americans, or America’s southern states, or Germany, as it precipitated a worldwide collapse that led to the Great Depression – as the saying went, ‘When America sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold.’

Crowds gather in New York after the Wall Street crash
Crowds gather in New York after the Wall Street crash. Fox Photos / Stringer / Getty Images.

The exuberance of the 1920s is at least partly to blame for the Wall Street Crash. People had been buying shares with the expectation of making money. As prices rose, they borrowed to invest, and the market got caught up in a speculative bubble which had to burst. In September 1929, the market dropped then rose again, but nobody heeded the warning. When it happened in early October and didn’t rise, people began to panic. On 24 October – Black Thursday – people started rushing to sell their shares. Some Wall Street financiers tried to buoy confidence by buying up what they could, but the relief was temporary. The following week panic set in again, and on 29 October – Black Tuesday – the market was overwhelmed. Wall Street had failed, and more than $30 million had been lost. This time, the resulting economic downturn was everyone’s problem.

And so the 1920s ended not with a whimper, or a roar, but a loud crash and a stunned silence. The golden age was well and truly over, and the world was about to slip into darkness…