50 Books for 1926 New York

project: for a friend

I ran this up for someone at NaNoWriMo who asked for help. You might as well get some mileage out of it too. The main character was an upper-class girl of 16. Because this was done with only a few weeks to go, I tended to emphasize free online books.

As well, I had some great chats with Sarah Zama, who is fabulous on the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Belt in Chicago around this time. I include some books she suggests.

Now that it is years later, I am going to add in some books to buy, assuming some of you are not doing this research in blitz mode.


Umm, let me know what works for you.

I would tend to rely on Emily Post, Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. It's simply your major guide to upper class activities. This is how your MC lives.

1). A general history of the time, not over 200 pages.
Flappers, Bootleggers, "Typhoid Mary" & The Bomb: An Anecdotal History of the United States from 1923-1945
by Barrington Boardman; 1988; Harper & Row, NY. This is it for this period, like we keep using the one outline history from the Fall of the Rome to the end of the Renaissance. If you find a good one, it's your first book every time you need to check when you want to write in. This one is cool because it isn't a political history, more a headlines of pop culture. Otherwise, go read Wikipedia on the era.

2.) An "everyday life" book of the period.
Everyday Life Through the Ages
; Reader's Digest editors; 1992; Reader's Digest Assoc, London; nonfactual in many places, making rest suspect, but it's a start if you have no clue. You can also use This Fabulous Century v. III, 1920-1930; the Editors of Time-Life Books,1969; Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA. But it would pay you to also read v. II, 1910-1920 (1969) because it fills in what's there in technology and is what most adults have lived through, including the European War and the Spanish Influenza.

3.) General transportation
Hollingsworth, JB, & PB Whitehouse; North American Railways; 1977; Bison Books, London.

4.) General costume
Costumers Manifesto
is a free online resource for this.

5.) Specific transportation
Historical Maps of Subways and Els, 1880-1976
(in NY of course)

6.) Etiquette, and I don't mean morals for maidens.
Emily Post, Etiquette, in the era. Her first edition was 1922.

7.) Spectator entertainments, a general overview.
Overviews are always difficult in Near History: there's the assumption that we know because it's just yesterday (this is pushing a century, now). However, we can use our introductory material to look at what entertainments were more popular, then go to specific books. Vaudeville was the TV of its day: Stein, Charles W., ed & comm; American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries; 1984; Knopf, NY. Marjorie Farnsworth; The Ziegfeld Follies: A History in Text and Pictures; 1956; Bonanza Books, NY.

8.) Self-entertainments
Foster's Complete Hoyle
(1922) by Robert Frederick Foster was the closest I could get you in freebies.

9.) Food and dining, including what sort of public dining was available.
For the night life, I found Dining in New York (1930) by Rian James, only 4 years later so probably written 3 years later: real close. The chapter on popular cocktails and their recipes is great help. You have to remember that when alcohol became illegal in the USA, that meant there were no age limits. It spread rapidly among college and high school students who before either drank little or not at all. If she looks well-heeled and likely to behave, or comes in with some slightly older people, your 16yo can walk into a speakeasy and get a drink. New York was one place everyone pretty much discreetly ignored Prohibition. In fact, they were the first state to vote a law refusing to enforce the Volstead Act.

10.) Recipes for period food.
The New Home Cook Book, 1922, by The Illinois State Register, Springfield, Ill.. You can almost always find a cookbook. Put in your year, "cook book" or "cookery" or "cooking," and something usually will show up. If not, step back year by year. You always want before, not after.

11.) Marriage and family.
This is pretty modern, though women still have many legal debilities as wives, and the police aren't inclined to interfere much in domestic violence. On the other hand, women could still sue for breach of promise and a genuine case would win. Still looking. Woman, Her Sex and Love Life by William J. Robinson, MD, New York, the Critic and Guide Company, 1917, is a bit early.

12.) Specific dress styles, for your decade, including specialty costumes for clerics.
Photoplay Magazine
(Jan - Jun 1926), - Chicago, Photoplay Magazine Publishing Company. This is a movie fan magazine, with lots of ads for movies and cosmetics, and with beauty and fashion articles. You also get the synopses of what's at the theatre, and an illustration of normal bathing suits.

13.) Religion for the time and place.
I actually found a volume of Jehovah's Witnesses publications from the period, the predecessor to The Watchtower. I also talked to old Catholics about their church before 1968. I researched the Masons and the Rosicrucians, including the anti-Masonic literature. My chosen substitutes are Are the Jews a Menace to Civilization? The Character of the Jew Explained, 1934, which for a change is an anti-anti-Semitic anonymous pamphlet. To balance it, read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion updated, Anti-Semitism is fairly normal, and even if you don't emphasize it, it is just there, like rain.

14.) A fat history book of the area and quarter-century before as an introduction.
Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's
(1931) by Frederick Lewis Allen may also fit the bill. Running from 1919 to 1931 (remember, "the Twenties" didn't really exist), it's a an intro to political scandals, baseball, Lindbergh, Florida, gangsters, and the other major matters, sometimes in detail that makes you want to scream, or at least turn pages real fast. Which sections do that depends on what you like.

15.) A history of the most influential country at the time (country A).

16.) A history of its rival (country B).

Simonds, Frank H., LittD & Brooks Emeny, PhD; The Great Powers in World Politics; International Relations and Economic Nationalism 1935-1939; 1935-1939; American Book Co., NY. Actually covers 1890-1939 without foreknowledge of WW2. This will work quite nicely for a history refresh over all.

17.) A biography of the leader of country A

18.) A biography of the leader of country B

If they feature in your book. In Near History, you can substitute two biographies of any notable celebrities of the time, though the more different they are the better. Say, Al Capone (Al Capone; the Biography of a Self-made Man (1930) ;-) and Billy Sunday, or Clara Bow and Aimee Semple McPherson.

19.) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
Really, if you passed college second-semester American History, you're probably okay if you refresh your dates with a couple of hours at Wikipedia. If you haven't got that far, do your Wikipedia and stay away from the halls of power and international politics. But remember that your protagonist will probably have a better grasp of American history-as-national-propaganda than you do: she goes to much more demanding schools. She will be able to name all presidents and their years in office (possibly the vice-presidents), all the important battle dates for the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War in some detail, the Spanish-American War, and will have child memories of the European War in the papers and as discussed around her, besides what they teach in school about it.

20.) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
A large encyclopedia article may do.
.Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941 (Norton twentieth century America series) by Michael E. Parrish (W.W.Norton, 1992) will fill the bill, though it goes well beyond, but you can usually find this at the library, or buy it pretty cheap second hand.

21.) A biography of the leader of the country of your setting.
Substitute another celebrity biography, preferably one who isn't stereotypical. Say, Life and Lillian Gish, by Albert Bigelow Paine (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1932), as a non-scandalous movie star who returned to the stage when talkies came in.

22.) An everyday life for the commoner/lower classes of your time and place.
Of course, we will be tempted to load up on bootleggers. Every book on the era covers bootleggers, usually picking a favorite to follow. Many choose Capone, but look for others. The gangster movies before 1934 are pretty good for this (Little Caesar, Public Enemy (poor movie, good on vignettes of the life), The Roaring Twenties, Smart Money). But check #47, Popular Science, for articles on rum runners and how the Feds go after them. It's the period approach. They also give an unusual time-table on what approaches to getting liquor were being used. Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang is your guide to talking tough for underworld types. Accurate and well-researched. Check especially the note on "gunsel."

23.) An everyday life for the upper classes of your time and place.
Emily Post, Etiquette (1922). That's what she born into and where she lived.

24.) An everyday life for the middle class of your time and place.
See #23, and every movie about the middle class from the late 20s you can get your hands on, drama or comedy. They'll be silents, and often found on the Internet Archive. Yes, they will be exagerrated, but that tells you things right there, don't they? Also, when you have time, read period domestic drama fiction. It tells you how people believed they behaved or misbehaved, or ought to behave.

25.) An everyday life for women of your time and place,
American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition
(American Social Experience) by Kenneth D. Rose (NYU Press, 1997) actually covers the role of women in both the support and the later repeal of Prohibition. But it's not really what we want. That's women in politics rather than women in the kitchen and office.

26.) An auto/biography of someone like your protagonist, or a book as much as possible focused on people like that.
Still looking. I take that back. You ought to still be looking, because I don't know what she's like. Is she pretty typical or working on wild rebellion? If you can't find something in particular, you can look for Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945 by Jon Savage. He's careful to always get both a male and female "voice" for each era. For something more girly, try Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945 (Girls' History & Culture Book) by Kelly Schrum.

27.) A book on houses and furnishings of the period, if possible.
There are lots of catalogs at the Internet Archive. Alpern, Andrew; New York's Fabulous Luxury Apartments With Original Floor Plans from the Dakota, River House, Olympic Tower and Other Great Buildings; 1975, McGraw-Hill, NY, as Apartments for the Affluent: A Historical Survey of Buildings in New York; Dover, NY; 1987.

28.) A book about courting, romance, and sex of the time.
Birth Control
by Dr. B. O. Whitten, "read before Columbia Medical Society, June 13, 1932." Now that's a subject you don't often find covered. Discusses acceptability more than actual method, and tells me that it is pretty normal among the middle and upper classes. Also Eugenics and Sex Harmony. the Sexes, Their Relations and Problems, &c. by Herman H. Rubin, MD; 1933, NY, Elliot Publishing Company.

29.) A book for naming historical characters properly.
The Social Security site, but remember: you need to choose the decade or year not by when the story is but by when the character was born. A high school girl and her mother, let alone grandmother, can have very different kinds of names. By all means, latch onto ones near the top of popularity that aren't in use now: they make your characters seem less of today and very much of then. Also, these are only personal names, and characters need family names. For specific ethnic groups, Holly Ingraham, People's Names: A Cross-Cultural Reference Guide to the Proper Use of Over 40000personal and Familial Names in Over 100 Cultures, 1997, McFarland.

30.) Medicine of the time and place.
American Red Cross; American Red Cross First Aid Text-Book; 1933; The Blakiston Co, Phila. PA for medical and first aid, 1925-1945. Our first responders only have to keep things together until the ambulance or medivac chopper arrives. These guys might have to carry out someone with a broken bone to get somewhere with a phone or radio or telegraph to get a doctor in. So the techniques actually go deeper into care, like how to splint. Also, A History of Medicine, 1945 Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd;. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, New York; it covers around 500 BC to 1940 CE. There's a nice history of the treatment of bone fractures up to the 1500s from 1936: it includes information on the Winnebago and Dakota tribes, along with the expected European.

31.) Climate, weather, and seasons.
Newspapers are your friend. See below.


Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection is the go-to site.

The Rand McNally 1923 Handy Railway Atlas is now at Historical Novelists Center, as separated maps at 400dpi so they're readable..

Historical Maps of Subways and Els, 1880-1976

32) Newspapers: Found some 1926 NY Times at Internet Archive! Most of the files are called only "The New York Times" without date indicator, but if I roll my cursor onto the link, it shows the actual file name, which includes the date. Definitely, 1925-6 has coverage. You just have to dig. Try a search, {subject:"New York (N.Y.) -- Newspapers" AND 1926} That yields 4 weeks: 1925 has one, in January.

33) Prohibition: Because it is focused on Prohibition, not the rest of everyday life, Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America is a good background on why The Great Experiment was imposed.

34) Automobiles: Hildebrand, George, ed., The Golden Age of the Luxury Car: An Anthology of Articles & Photographs from "Autobody" 1927-1931; 1980, Dover, NY.

35) Style: Menten, Theodore; The Art Deco Style in Household Objects, Architecture, Sculpture, Graphics, Jewelry; 1972; Dover, NY. This is the period in America when Art Deco really takes over from Art Nouveau. However, the Colonial imitations may actually be more popular, especially among the middle class. Naturally, the wealthy just bring down some antiques from the attic or buy a batch for heart-stopping prices. Some never put them away in the attic, but lived with their Georgian silver and Sheraton tables all along.

36) Financiers: Holbrook, Stewart H.; The Age of the Moguls, 1954; Doubleday & Co, Garden City, NY; actually covers a number of robber barons, East and West Coast, up to 1930.

37) Language: Partridge, Eric; A Dictionary of Catch-Phrases, British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day; 1977; Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, NY. You do have to go through it to pick them out by period.

38) Everyday Life: Goodrum, Charles & Helen Dalrymple; Advertising in America: The First 200 Years; 1990; Harry N. Abrams, Inc. NY

39) Everything Home Chem Lab: Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas, recipes and processes, containing ten thousand selected household and workshop formulas, recipes, processes and money-saving methods for the practical use of manufacturers, mechanics, housekeepers and home workers (1919; Hiscox, Gardner Dexter, 1822?-1908. ed: New York, Henley)

40) Everyday Life: Various mail-order catalogs, from Sears, Montgomery Wards, Speigel, &c., especially the Christmas "wishbooks."

41) Fitness & Combat: Physical Training for Women by Japanese Methods (1904) by H. Irving Hancock, 1868-1922: New York; London : G.P. Putnam's Sons. This came out 22 years earlier, and the female character may have gone to a private school that used this for gym classes. It isn't going to show up at public schools, though. Basically, it gives a character access to jiu-jitsu (judo).

42) New York City: Broadway; the Grand Canyon of American Business (1926)

43) New York City: New York Architecture, 1650-1952 (1952) by Jackson, Huson; New York: Reinhold

44) New York City: New York, the Metropolis of the Western World (1924; The Foster & Reynolds co.) aka The New York Guide. Photo-illustrated

45) New York City: New York Illustrated (1924: New York, Manhattan post card Co) by H. and A. Shishko. 54 pages of pictures.

46) New York City: That's New York! (1927; NY; Macy-Masius) by Morris Markey.

47) New York City: Negro Life in New York's Harlem : A Lively Picture of a Popular and Interesting Section (1927) by Wallace Thurman. There is a lot since they added the Seymour Durst collection: just go browse that.

48) Technology: Popular Science Monthly Magazine, for January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December. Okay, I read this magazine a lot. That's because if you don't read the years around you won't see when pinking shears are a new household device (not until 1932), or when electrocardiographs come in (at least by 1937, so far) and that contact lenses were invented in 1930 (but not popularized in place of glasses until the mid-1960s). Popular Mechanics isn't nearly as good for our purposes. Ads tell you about tobacco products, power tools, and electric shavers, not to mention that pimples aren't called zits, they're called hickies. Use that one at your own peril. In this period it's all about radio, with some on aeronautics, and all other topics a poor third.

49) Celebrity, Movies, & Fashion: Motion Picture Classic magazine (1923, 1924, 1926; Chicago; Motion Picture Publications, Inc.)

50) Music & Radio: This is right when radio is starting to matter. Radios are being sold with these strange new things called speakers, rather than one-person headsets (I know this from the articles and ads in Popular Science). The electric microphone is new, which revolutionized the music biz, both radio and recording. The mechanical mike (period slang and spelling) required a lot of volume. The electric mike could pick up much softer voices and instruments, so that the likes of Whispering Jack Smith could be a hit. The big operatic/theatrical voice is about to be ignored in favor of the chamber voice, the crooner who sounds like one of your friends singing at the piano. Download one of the 1925-1934 collections posted by PopularJazzArchive, or a 1920s pop collection.


If you need something else for your particular story around this time, maybe Historical Novelists Center can help with their Hot Jazz Age pages.

copyright Holly Ingraham



More Near History Lists 

1926 New York

1931 New York

1934 New York

1937+ Los Angeles

1937+ Europe

1943 New York

1940+ Europe


 1940+ London

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