the roaring twenties

January 3, 2020

It’s hard to believe, but the ‘20s have rolled around again. Very few of us experienced the 1920s, but it is arguably one of the most celebrated decades in popular culture, immortalized, almost to the point of cliché, as an age of modernity, jazz, and flappers. But what was really going on in Vernon one hundred years ago, in 1920?

1920 began with a cautious optimism that the year ahead would bring “the zest to aspire, to struggle and, if it may be to attain.” The Vernon News of January 1 reported that the previous year had been somewhat of a disappointment; it began with so much enthusiasm and gratitude for the end of the Great War, but this elation quickly faded as the reality of what the world had experienced for the last four years began to sink in. 

 

 

Photo of Vernon, taken from East Hill, in 1920

The newspaper cautioned against too much of the “shoddy sense of optimism that throws a base of unreality over the future,” adding that “the period which opens up before us will demand a good deal of grim determination … comfortable platitudes will have to be discarded, and a realization reached that though the war is over, it still remains to be paid for.” It would take several months for the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties to overshadow the darkness of World War One.

The prosperity that came to mark the decade was felt even in the Okanagan Valley, where an exceptional crop year in 1919 produced more than six million dollars, nearly two million more than was accumulated in 1918. This figure accounted for more than 80% of the fruit grown in B.C. that year. The valley had cemented its place in food-production, and the ‘20s was a period of agricultural boom.

On a darker note, it was also during this time that the Vernon Internment Camp finally closed, nearly two years after the war had ended. Hundreds of men, women, and children were kept behind barbed wire fences in an age where fear and suspicion reigned supreme, until they were released in February of 1920. Among the freed were eight to ten children under the age of five who had never experienced life outside of the camp.

The 1920s was the age of women’s suffrage. In June, Nellie McClung, Canadian author, politician, and suffragette, presented at Vernon’s Empress Theatre. Her theme was “The Building of a New World.” She discussed the importance of uniting with those one views as different or foreign from themselves in the wake of a broken post-war world. The Vernon News states that “none who heard this gifted author and speaker for the first time failed to have their most sanguine expectations more than realized.” Groups like the National Council of Women were very active in Vernon, its members inspired by suffragettes like McClung and the group’s founder and Vernonite Lady Aberdeen.   

Over this period, Vernon boasted both the biggest Chinese community in B.C.’s interior (500 individuals), and experienced the largest increase in Masonic Lodge membership in the history of the province. A training school for nurses was started up again at the Vernon Jubilee Hospital in November of that year. Clubs that were disbanded during the War were reformed, factories were opened, and new roads were built.

Vernon and the Okanagan Valley experienced a significant number of changes during the 1920s, as the district crawled from the wreckage of the First World War and experienced a period of (unfortunately short-lived) prosperity. Reflecting on the events of a century ago makes you wonder what this round of the ‘20s holds for our city of Vernon.

Gwyn Evans

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