All Those Yesterdays That Built Today

by Thomas O’Dwyer

An 1820 print celebrating the execution of the English Cato conspirators.
An 1820 print celebrating the execution of the English Cato conspirators.

We still recall the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age. Not many will know that the decade which began 200 years ago with U.S. President James Monroe in office was the Era of Good Feelings, a name coined by a Boston newspaper. In 1820, a presidential election year, Monroe ran for his second term — he was unopposed, so there was really no campaign. He won all the electoral college votes except one, narrowly leaving George Washington to remain as the only president ever to score a unanimous victory.

In the flood of commentary, prophecy, gloom, and nostalgia that has greeted the start of a new decade, many of the comparisons with the past have fixed on the 1920s. That age is almost within living memory, maybe not personal, but at least familial, through the reminiscences and records of parents or grandparents. And for the first time in human history, we have extensive evidence in sound, film, and photography from the fascinating 1920s.

But is also interesting to look even further back, another 100 years, to the 1820s. For here, most people can agree, lie the true roots of the science-driven modernity that was more spectacularly obvious in the 1920s and beyond. Full documentary records in the 1820s were sparse but growing. Nicephore Niepce developed the first photograph in 1826 but sound reproduction would have to wait another 50 years for Thomas Edison. The first moving-picture sequence was made by Frenchman Louis le Prince in 1888. The new inventions and discoveries of the 1820s were physically primitive, but loaded with hidden significance and promise that no one could have guessed. Read more »