You've seen The Great Gatsby, Chicago, and Boardwalk Empire, but have you read any nonfiction books about the 1920s? If you aren't into history books, don't worry: it's impossible to make the Roaring Twenties boring. I've got 11 great recommendations for you below.
With its gin, flappers, and frivolity, the 1920s continues to fascinate us today, nearly a century later. It was a decade of incredible social upheaval, which led to many advancements for women, including birth control access, the right to vote, and relaxed social mores. It was also the decade in which the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance reached their peaks.
Today, many book nerds hear "the Roaring Twenties" and instantly think of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Lost Generation. But there was so much more going on in that decade, and every fan of the age should read about the 1920s' impact on modern-day society.
The books on this list examine the culture shifts that took place in the U.S. and Europe, along with certain newsworthy events, and the lives of prominent women and activists of the decade, including Bessie Smith, Gertrude Ederle, and Zora Neale Hurston.
As always, this is an incomplete list. Once you're done here, head on over to Twitter and share with me your recommendations for the best nonfiction books about the 1920s.
1. Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore
2. Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife by Gioia Diliberto
For well-to-do Americans in the 1920s, Paris was the place to be. Fans of Paula McLain's The Paris Wife will love Gioia Diliberto's Paris Without End, which recounts the true story of Hadley Richardson: the 29-year-old Midwesterner who would become Ernest Hemingway's first wife.
3. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America by Nathan Miller
While U.S. women were winning the right to vote and shaking up the social scene, the post-WWI boom held rapid advancements for technology and medicine in the 1920s. Nathan Miller explores this world-changing decade in New World Coming.
4. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
In 1924, Chicago Tribune "girl reporter" and aspiring playwright Maurine Watkins wanted to write big, sensational news. So she turned her attention to two Cook County inmates, whom she styled as "Stylish Belva" and "Beautiful Beulah," and got the city obsessed with accused murderesses.
5. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
From 1920 until 1933, the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal in the U.S. The ban drove liquor underground, fueled criminal empires, and defined the 1920s. In Last Call, Daniel Okrent examines the forces that initiated, sustained, and profited from the Volstead Act, and how it all came crashing down.
6. Zelda by Nancy Milford
F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife was a writer, too, but her work remains largely unknown. There's also evidence to suggest that the author of The Great Gatsby stole his ideas from his wife, only to commit her to an asylum after 10 years of marriage. In Zelda, literary biographer Nancy Milford tells her tragic story.
7. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
There are few more enduring images of the 1920s than that of the flapper: the short-haired, short-skirted gamine who smoked, drank, cursed, danced, and engaged in her fair share of heavy petting. Joshua Zeitz examines some of the decade's most famous New Women in Flapper.
8. Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties by Marion Meade
What were the Modernist Period's great women writers doing during the 1920s? Running wild, according to Marion Meade. In Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, Meade explores the Roaring Twenties activities of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna Ferber.
9. The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer
In 1926, four women from the U.S. journeyed to Europe to compete in a grueling race across the English Channel. Back at home, tabloids chose sides and backed their swimmers with press. In The Great Swim, Gavin Mortimer delves into one of the decade's biggest news stories to get the truth behind the headlines.
10. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd
She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men, and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, but her writing was nearly lost to time. In Wrapped in Rainbows, Valerie Boyd retells Zora Neale Hurston's bustling life story.
11. Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay
Trumpet author Jackie Kay explores the life of her heroine in this biography. Styled "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith would eventually be buried in an unmarked grave after her death at age 43. All that came before is a rollicking ride through the Jazz Age. Don't miss it.