The country was in the market for heroes in the 1920s. The sturdy, young veterans who’d recently fought, and won, the World War, fit the bill perfectly. The media presented the young heroes, the pride of their country, as victorious but modest. They were already becoming what heroes often become unintentionally: fashion trendsetters. America’s clothing manufacturers were now designing suits that, they believed, reflected this vibrant young American male.
The new look came at a time when America was hungry for fresh starts and new ideas. Unfortunately, the 1920s had a bad start. A sharp, post-war recession slowed business growth and consumer spending. But by 1922, the market had revived and the U.S. economy took off.
With the return of optimism and the promise of prosperous times, men grew tired of the heavy, bulky suits that filled their wardrobes as shown in these ads below.
Vintage men’s fashion ads from the pages of The Saturday Evening Post of 1910:
“Men’s dress and masculine identity reflected a national obsession with the youthful warrior,” writes Daniel Delis Hill, in his book American Menswear (Texas Tech University Press, 2011. “The power look of the bulky, over-padded clothing of the Edwardian era was abandoned in favor of the slim silhouette of the lithe young man. Jackets and trousers narrowed significantly for a tight, contouring fit. Natural shoulder lines emphasized a feline agility rather than brawn, and shorter jackets made legs look longer and slimmer.”
They were ready for the trim, new look of America’s youth, which was advertized in the pages of the Post.
For years, American tailors had been copying the traditional styles of the French and British. But in 1922 they began reworking their suits to reflect this young image, making them less formal and more comfortable. The new styles proved so popular, they began influencing styles in Europe. Men in France and Britain began wearing the soft-collared American shirts instead of the hard-as-cardboard versions they had been sporting. And, like their American visitors, they began wearing tuxedos without vests, and ordering suits in lighter, more comfortable materials.
Before the 1920s, clothing advertisements tended to show men at work or in formal settings. Illustrators drew the models as earnest, determined-looking businessmen. Now the men in the ads looked young, relaxed, and rarely at the office or the opera. Instead they were shown lounging with friends, idling, or relaxing at a sporting event.
Sports became an important element of life in the 1920s. Baseball, golf, and boxing gained a new popularity. Men were discovering a new enjoyment of exercise and were willing to take time away from work for athletics. The Interwoven Socks advertisement below, by Normal Rockwell, is a good symbol of the times: a golfer ignores the figures from the stock ticker as he studies his numbers scorecard.
Vintage men’s fashion ads from the pages of The Saturday Evening Post of 1922:
You might recognize the work of J.C. Leyendecker in several of the ads above. He was highly regarded by clothing manufacturers in the 1920s because he seemed captured the spirit of vigorous, modern youth like no other illustrator.
The men he drew for Cluett Peabody & Company’s Arrow collars campaign became a symbol of the 1920s. They all looked strong, self-confident, determined, and somewhat heroic. And young.
There must be good money in making predictions because no one would go into the business for job satisfaction.
If you correctly foresee events a century before they occur, none of your contemporaries will still be alive to remember your predictions. Furthermore, the marvels you forecast—manned flight, say, or the internet—will seem inevitable and obvious after the fact, robbing you of any credit for foresight. And if you’re wrong, you’ll probably sound ridiculous.
Yet each new year, a new batch of predictors offer us their forecasts for the future. Most are promptly forgotten. One who deserves to be remembered, though, is John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., a Post writer in the early 20th Century. Back in December 1900, he wrote his ideas about “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for the Post’s sister publication, the Ladies’ Home Journal.
Where he was wrong, he was very, very wrong:
Nicaragua (i.e. Panama) will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people.
There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.
Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated… There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct.
A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.
A university education will be free to every man and woman.
Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes… The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed… These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles.
But this selection is hardly fair to Watkins. Some of his predictions were only partly wrong.
Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour.
High-speed trains are traveling over 300 mph. Just not in the United States.
Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today.
This is just barely true. In 1900, work horses sold for $225 to $250. Adjusting for inflation, that price is approximately $6400, which will buy a new, low-end, import, budget car.
[The future American] will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present.
In fact, the overall life expectancy in 1900 was 47.8 years. And in 2000, it was 77.
There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century.
The figure is high, but at least Watkins was guessing in the right direction. America’s population had grown 14000% between 1800 and 1900. If that rate had continued, the total would have exceeded 1 billion in 2000. Instead, it grew just 360%, reaching 280 million at the start of the new century.
Where Watkins was correct, however, he was unusually far-sighted.
Americans will be taller by from one to two inches.
The average American male in 1900 was 66-67” tall. By 2000, the average was 69”.
Photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colors… [They will be transmitted] from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.
Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.
Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.
Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.
Refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals.
Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days. The farmers of South America… whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods which cannot be grown here.
There is one last peculiarity to Watkins’ article.
Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans. He saw only positive change in the new century. Today’s predictors don’t see the future so optimistically, but will they see it as clearly as Watkins?