Remembering the Days: The Roaring '20s

Remembering the Days podcast — Episode 14

What was it like in America and on the Carolina campus a hundred years ago during the Roaring '20s? Contrary to popular belief, not everyone was having a roaring good time, but that memorable decade brought lasting change to the university and the nation.


The Roaring '20s — America and the university a century ago

It was called The Roaring ‘20s, the third decade of the 20th century that we generally associate with prosperity, jazz music, the Charleston dance craze and speakeasies.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at the decade of the 1920s to get a handle on what was happening in America and right here at the University of South Carolina. You might be surprised at how much changed on campus in that span of 10 years.

But first, here’s a quick plug for this year’s alumni Homecoming at Carolina, which takes place Oct. 16-18 . The theme this year is, you guessed it, the Roaring ‘20s — the Cockiest Decade Ever, and I’ll tell you more about how to get in on the fun at the end of this podcast.

So, I’ve always subscribed to the popular notion of the 1920s as being a prosperous decade in America. World War I had ended, people were buying cars and kitchen appliances. Young women were bobbing their hair and dancing the Charleston. Oh, and there was this thing called Prohibition — no drinking allowed anywhere in the country, but not everyone paid attention to that memo.

I wanted to get a more scholarly perspective on that decade, so I turned to Stephanie Riley, a Ph.D. candidate in American history at the university. She says there’s the popular, sort of superficial view of what was happening back then — and then there’s a more gritty reality.

Stephanie Riley: This was an era that a lot of people think of as the Jazz Age and that it was very prosperous and that was the case for certain people, but it was also a time of devastation and conflict for other people.

Stephanie says there was unrest in America on several fronts. There was a rise in anti-immigration sentiment; the violent racist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan had revived; and there was a rising gap between the haves and have-nots.

Riley: The upper class saw that income growth but the lower classes did not. They saw stagnant wages, and during this time the top 1 percent was actually greater than the 42 percent of the bottom half of society. And about 66 percent lived below the level necessary to maintain a standard quality of living.

And we thought the 1 percent was a new thing.

South Carolina back then was a pretty poor state, and a significant chunk of its population — particularly those in the farming sector — was struggling to make ends meet. Quite a bit of the state’s economy was tied to agriculture, and cotton prices had fallen a lot after World War I ended. But it seems that at least some of the nation’s general prosperity managed to trickle its way down to the Palmetto State.

Enrollment at the University of South Carolina more than doubled, from 621 students in 1921 to more than 1,400 in 1925 and by the end of the decade, women made up about 25 percent of the student body. The university added a lot more faculty members and created academic programs in music, art, electrical engineering, pharmacy and journalism. A marching band was created in 1920, and you can learn more about that on our episode called 100 years of the Mighty Sound.

The first dorm for women was built, Wade Hampton, and it would be rebuilt decades later as part of the women’s quad. Central heating was added to Harper and Elliott on the Horseshoe, a fourth floor was added to what’s now called Barnwell on Gibbes Green. And the Melton Observatory was built, named in memory of university President William Davis Melton who died in office unexpectedly in 1926.

In spite of all that construction, though, basic technology was lagging — as late as 1927 the entire campus had fewer than half a dozen telephones.

Along with everything else going on at this time, there was the Great Migration, in which 1.2 million African Americans left the South between 1916 and 1930. Jim Crow laws, violence against Blacks in the form of lynchings and the rise of the Klan all played a part in the mass exodus — and so did the hope of a better life. Here’s Stephanie Riley.

Riley: So you have a lot of Black Americans from the South moving north in the hopes they would get better jobs and better quality of life. Unfortunately, when they got there, they did not have that.

It’s one of the sad chapters of the 1920s and in the history of race relations. If there is a little bit of silver lining, it’s that Black jazz musicians, many of whom came from the South, were able to bring the music to a bigger stage, and the jazz music phenomenon spread far and wide. So much so that by the end of the 1920s, even the University of South Carolina — nestled in what was then a sleepy southern city — could boast of its own jazz orchestra.

Something else from the 1920s made its way to this campus. Two American writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, came to prominence during that decade, and the University of South Carolina now holds some of the country’s best collections of materials from each of them. Literary scholars consult these materials, and you can have a look, too, just by visiting the University Libraries website.

You can get a different dose of the Roaring ‘20s by participating in Homecoming Oct. 16-18. To keep everyone safe during these COVID-19 times, it’s going to be a virtual event but if you’ve got Gamecock spirit, it will still be fun. Learn more details by visiting, the website of the UofSC Alumni Association, which is the home for all Gamecocks, connecting students and alumni to advance their careers, their passions and their university.

For the University of South Carolina, I’m Chris Horn and I’m looking forward to taking another stroll with you down memory lane on the next episode of Remembering the Days where — well, I don’t want to give it away, but we’re going to go on a time traveling adventure to campus in the year 1840. Until then, forever to thee.