What Was It Like 100 Years Ago Today?

March 31, 2020  - by 
A couple from 1920, 100 years ago today

What was life like in the United States 100 years ago today? The year 1920 ushered in a new decade and brought new innovations and a life of abundance. Let’s take a trip to the past and see what life was like for your ancestors 100 years ago today!

Life Expectancy Was Shorter

In the United States, the life expectancy for men in 1920 was around 53.6 years. For women, it was 54.6 years. If you compare that number to today’s average life expectancy of 78.93 years, you can see just how much better we are doing! The main causes of death in 1920 were heart disease, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.

The World Was Recovering from a Pandemic

hospital beds from the pandemic in 1920, 100 years ago from today

By 1920, the world was just coming out of one of the greatest pandemics it had ever known. This flu, H1N1, known as the Spanish flu, infected about 27 percent of the world’s population. It is estimated to have killed at least 50 million people.

The Automobile Industry Was Born

Woman drives car while man stands outside of the car, 100 years ago today

As the decade progressed, the 1920s invited increased prosperity due in major part to manufacturing jobs in the automotive industry. Additionally, the automotive industry led to steel production, highway building, and more.

The automotive industry also introduced assembly-line work. Because companies such as Ford were using this new assembly-line technology, they were able to hire cheaper, less-skilled laborers. Many companies filled those positions with women.

Alcohol Was Prohibited

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect on January 16, 1920. This amendment outlawed the production and consumption of alcohol and is commonly known as Prohibition.

Many historians believe that it was during this time that organized crime began to increase. Black market alcohol, bootleggers, moonshiners, and speakeasies were part of the landscape of the 1920s.

Women Could Finally Vote

Women earn right to vote 100 years ago during 1920

The 19th Amendment was also ratified in 1920. In February of 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters in Chicago, Illinois. By August, the 19th Amendment had passed and gave women the right to vote in the United States. The League of Women Voters was created to encourage women to use their newfound influence at the voting polls. It is still a functioning organization today.

Radios Were a Main Source of Entertainment

Little girl listens to radio

Today’s average family may prefer a binge-worthy television series, but 100 years ago the American family could be found huddled around the radio in living rooms across the nation. The first commercial radio station in the United States was Pittsburgh’s KDKA. Within a few short years, there were more than 500 stations across America.

Jazz and Dance Clubs Were All the Rage

jazz players perform on stage. jazz came into popularity 100 years ago

Radio programs broadcasted the news, sports, comedy, and music. The 1920s sparked a musical plethora of new styles such as jazz, blues, Broadway, and dance bands.

With the introduction of fun, edgy music, many young people gravitated to dance clubs and roadhouses to socialize. They could gather with their friends and enjoy all the latest in music and dance steps such as the Charleston, black bottom, shimmy, fox-trot, and the Lindy Hop!

Hats Were Essential to Fashion

Man and woman in 1920 dressed in clothes people wore 100 years ago

Just like now, 100 years ago today men and women dressed for the occasion. In other words, a woman might wear a traditional housedress while at home with her family. This simple cotton dress may have been made with colorful plaids or stripes and was comfortable for doing chores. But when a woman needed to run errands, she may have donned a “walking suit” or “day dress.”

A lady would never be without her hat and gloves. These accessories were essentials in every woman’s wardrobe. From her bobbed styled hair to her Mary Jane sensible-heeled shoes, women of the 1920s had style and dressed appropriately for every event.

Men’s fashion began to take on a more casual appearance in the 1920s too. Although the traditional business suit was still common, Grandpa may have tried a sportier trend with “oxford bag” pants and V-neck sweaters.

Hats were a must for every man and served as a symbol of social status.

The Most Popular Occupations

At the beginning of 1920, women typically worked as teachers, nurses, and maids, while men were mostly farmers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers.

A hundred years ago seems very far away, but there are still some similarities to the way we live now. Where were your ancestors living 100 years ago? Search for them today in the United States 1920 federal census!

Search the 1920 Census Records


Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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  1. “At the beginning of 1920, women typically worked as teachers, nurses, and maids, while men were mostly farmers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers.” What??? What about women who worked in the garment industry and cotton mills, men who worked in steel mills, as general laborers, janitors, brick masons, ditch diggers, drivers, etc., etc.? Aside from other careless errors (showing a picture of a 1930s automobile), this statement in itself makes this a pitifully useless article.

      1. Thanks Josh – My grandparents on both sides were working farms – the women giving birth every year! When they first came in the early 1900s they went to mining towns. Life was never easy. I hope it was better than where they came from.

  2. Hello there! This information was very helpful! I am a writer on the platform wattpad and I am thinking about writing a book about somebody who time travels back 100 years ago. This website definitely gave me some great ideas! thanks for the help.

  3. Someone recently sent this and would be nice to have it fact checked.

    The Year is 1920! One hundred years ago !!!
    Very interesting for all ages. This will boggle your mind!
    The year is 1920,”One hundred years ago.”
    What a difference a century makes!
    Here are some statistics for Year 1920:
    The average life expectancy for men was 47 years.
    Fuel for cars was sold in drug stores only.
    Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub.
    Only 8 percent of homes had a telephone.
    The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
    The tallest structure in world was Eiffel Tower.
    The average US wage in 1919 was 22 cents per hour.
    The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year.
    A competent accountant could expect to earn $2,000 per year.
    A dentist earned $2,500 per year.
    A veterinarian between $1,500 and 4,000 per year.
    And, a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
    More than 95 percent of all births took place at home
    Ninety percent of all Doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!
    Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which condemned in press AND government as “substandard.”
    Sugar cost four cents a pound.
    Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
    Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
    Most women washed their hair once a month. and, used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
    Canada passed law prohibiting poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
    The Five leading causes of death were:
    1 Pneumonia and influenza
    2 Tuberculosis
    3 Diarrhea
    4 Heart disease
    5 Stroke
    The American flag had 45 stars …
    The population of Las Vegas , Nevada was only 30.
    Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
    There was neither a Mother’s Day nor Father’s Day.
    Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write
    And, only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
    Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were available over counter at local drugstores.
    Back then pharmacists said, “Heroin clears complexion, gives buoyancy to mind, regulates stomach, bowels, and is a perfect guardian of health!” (Shocking?)
    Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help…
    There were about 230 reported murders in ENTIRE U.S.A.
    It is impossible to imagine what it may be like in another 100 years.

  4. My grandfather built his home at 566 Danforth Rd/St. Clair E 1921, with his own hands and scraps of wood. It is still there and lived in. Inside is pretty much the same. The garage was made of wood from old railway cars ready for scrap. Cost gramma William Bradley, nothing but the nails. He and my grandmother scooped the earth out from underneath the house to make the basement. I was inside last year and it all looks the same. 100 years old and right beside a new build on Danforth. I thought this might make a good article for a 100th anniversary. Hope you do also. It would make my mom very happy to see news about her dad – especially for Mother’s Day -my mom is 92. my grandfather and grandmother immigrated from Ireland. My mother still has the boarding pass from Cork harbour.

  5. Very interesting to read about 100 years ago today. I love reading history. Thank you for this information.