• Jonathan Walford

A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1921

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

A Scrapbook of 1921 fashions

For Canada, 1921 was a better year than 1920: William Lyon McKenzie King, Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister (and popular at the time), was voted in for the first time; Agnes Macphail became the first woman to be elected to Parliament; and University of Toronto biochemists Drs. Banting and Best announced the discovery of insulin for treating diabetes. Some Canadians were also happy that prohibition began to be repealed through plebiscites. However, for much of the rest of the world, 1921 was a difficult year.

In the United States, Warren G. Harding became president on March 4. In an effort to curb high unemployment, Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act that restricted the number of immigrants to three percent of those from countries already in the U.S. as of 1910. The Act especially limited Eastern and Southern European immigrants. As a result, Eastern European Jews began to immigrate to Palestine instead of the U.S.

Immigrants at Ellis Island, 1921

A race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma began with an accusation by a white woman of being assaulted by a black man. Although the charges were dismissed, sensationalist media coverage fueled fear and misinformation and the event escalated into a two day conflict that left the prosperous black neighbourhood of Greenwood a smouldering ruin with over 300 dead and a thousand injured.

The Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (as it was known from 1917 to 1922) was in the midst of a civil war. In March 1921, a rebellion by Russian sailors in the city of Kronstradt ended with thousands of deaths. A famine brought about by a combination of the civil war, bad government policies, and a severe drought gripped the new country. It is estimated that by the time the famine ended in 1923, five million Russians had died.

World War I was finally concluded when a treaty between the United States and Germany was signed (the U.S. had not ratified the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.) Reparations were determined by the allies that required Germany to pay the equivalent of 2.5 billion gold marks per annum to a total of 132 billion gold marks. Germany printed money to make payments, which lead to hyperinflation, riots, and the assassination of the former Finance Minister. (the debt was finally paid off in 2010.)

With general political unrest, Adolf Hitler became the chairman of the National Socialist German Workers Party. By the end of the year the Sturmabteilung (brownshirts or SA) had been established.

From 1921 to 1925 the Nazi Party offices were at 12 Corneliusstresse, Munich. This photo taken in 1921

For those looking for a median between extreme politics, the new word ‘centrism ’ was coined, although extremes seemed to be growing faster than middle-of-the-road politics. The International Working Union of Socialist Parties was founded in Vienna. Throughout the year Communist parties were established in Italy, Belgium, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Spain, and China (by founding member Mao Tse-tung.) In Italy, Mussolini founded the National Socialist Party, which won 29 seats in a parliamentary election that year.

There were labour strikes by miners in Britain, the United States, and South Africa, and a general strike in Norway. Unrest elsewhere led to the assassination of the Spanish Premier, as well as the Portuguese and Japanese prime ministers.

With anti-colonial riots in Egypt and home-rule battles in Ireland, Britain regrouped, creating the British Commonwealth of Nations. Afghanistan was given its sovereignty and Northern Ireland was created by an act of Parliament, paving the way for the creation of an Irish free state (Southern Ireland) with the signing of an Anglo-Irish treaty at the end of the year.

Anglo-Irish treaty envoys, 1921

Extreme weather events included: a summer heat wave in Europe, a geo-magnetic storm that caused extensive damage to electrical systems, especially along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., and flash floods in Colorado that drowned 1500. A boll weevil infestation decimated Georgia cotton crops that led farmers to plant peanut crops instead.

The sinking of two ships, the Hong Koh in China and the Santa Isabel in Mexico, took over 1200 to their death, and a nitrate factory explosion in Oppau, Germany killed over 500. An outbreak of Sleeping Sickness in the U.S. claimed nearly 1,000 lives, and Franklin Roosevelt contracted Polio while swimming at Campobello, Nova Scotia, rendering him a paraplegic.

Catching world attention was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-born anarchists who were convicted for the murder of two men and the robbery of a Massachusetts shoe company’s payroll. Conflicting evidence and recanted testimony did not sway the jury, and despite protests around the world, the cause celebres case ended with their eventual execution in 1927.