1920s

Margaret Gorman was as surprised as anyone when she was named Miss America. (Source: Wikipedia)

D.C.'s Margaret Gorman Becomes the First Miss America

Most 16-year-old girls dream of being popular. And while some can claim to be the queen bees of their high schools, not many can maintain that they are the most popular girl in the country. In 1921, though, Margaret Gorman could. Fresh out of her junior year at Western High School (later the Duke Ellington School of the Arts) in Georgetown, Margaret went from being a regular teenager to the best-known girl in the nation when Atlantic City judges crowned her the first Miss America.

Cooling Off in the Tidal Basin

Swimmers of all ages enjoy the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach in 1922.

The National Building Museum’s new indoor beach may be making headlines, but it’s not D.C.’s first seashore. For a period of time between 1918 and 1925, Washingtonians dipped into the Tidal Basin to experience some summertime heat relief. Now I know what you’re thinking: you couldn’t pay me to swim in that water today. But with a serious lack of public pools, and no air conditioning, citizens back then were pretty desperate.

The Closest Thing to a "Little Italy" in Washington

Holy Rosary Church, which was built by Italian immigrants in the early 20th Century. Credit: Farragutful, via Wikimedia Common

The great surge of Italian immigration to the U.S., which began in the 1880s and lasted until 1920, brought about four million Italians to this country. Many flocked to places such as Little Italy in lower Manhattan and comparable ethnic neighborhoods in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, where new arrivals could speak their native language, find familiar food and churches in which to worship, and plug into a network that helped them to find employment. But Washington, D.C. didn't attract similarly large numbers of Italians. It was a government town without mills, factories or a commercial port, and there were fewer opportunities for unskilled former rural dwellers without language skills to support themselves. Instead, the area drew smaller numbers of skilled immigrants, such as the construction workers, artists and tradesmen who labored on the government buildings erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Those early Italian immigrants to DC never really established a true Little Italy of their own. Instead, they mostly settled in two residential neighborhoods that vanished long ago — Swampoodle, near the U.S. Capitol and Union Station, and the Judiciary Square area.

Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal

"You don’t have to look too far when you’re in Shenandoah to see the relics of human habitation. You don’t have to be a historian. You don’t have to be an archaeologist. You can stay on trail. You can’t help but find stone walls that were built by somebody, clearly. There’s old roads. There’s house foundations. These are things you can see from the trail. So, I just saw these things over many, many years and I kind of wondered for awhile what they were all about but I didn’t really look into it for quite some time, until I started going a little bit off trail and finding more things off trail. And my curiosity was really piqued and I wanted to know, who were these people? Why are they not here? Why did they leave? Where did they go? And, what is their story all about?"

As the nation geared up for World War I, inventor Thomas Edison urged the government to fund and create a laboratory to further research toward national defense. It took a few years, but he finally got his wish. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Thomas Edison's D.C. Invention

Tonight our favorite documentary series, American Experience premieres a film about Thomas Edison, which you can watch on WETA TV26 and WETA HD at 9pm. Of course Edison is most known for his many inventions at his New Jersey lab. But, he also has a very unique connection to Washington.

The year was 1915. World War I was raging in Europe and Americans were uneasy at the prospect that their country would soon be brought into the conflict. As a man with a history of creative ideas, it's no surprise Edison had some thoughts on the situation and he was not shy about sharing them:

"The Government should maintain a great research laboratory, jointly under military and naval and civilian control. In this could be developed the continually increasing possibilities of great guns, the minutiae of new explosives, all the technique of military and naval progression, without any vast expense. When the time came, if it ever did, we could take advantage of the knowledge gained through this research work and quickly manufacture in large quantities the very latest and most efficient instruments of warfare."

It took a few years, but he finally got his wish and it left a lasting impact here in Washington.

The Klan Leaves Its Mark on Washington's Airwaves

Membership in the Ku Klux Klan spiked in the 1920s as evidenced by the thousands of marchers at the KKK's 1925 rally in Washington. (Photo source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

It was the roaring '20s and radio was taking off. Americans were tuning-in in droves for news, opera, popular music and sports. No other medium offered the ability to reach so many people instantaneously. Advertisers took note.

So, too, did the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, which was interested in its own sort of advertising: promoting a unique brand of “patriotism” founded upon white privilege and intolerance for blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants amongst others. The Klan's foray into broadcasting is still felt in Washington to this day.

Al Capone in 1930 as photographed by the FBI's Chicago Bureau (Source: Wikipedia)

How Hoover — No, Not That Hoover! — Got Al Capone

Years after the 1931 federal conviction for tax evasion that put Al "Scarface" Capone in prison and ended his career as Chicago's most feared mobster, he was known to complain bitterly about the man whose vendetta, in Capone's view, had put him behind bars. "That bastard Hoover," Capone would rant. But he suprisingly, he wasn't talking about FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who, despite his heavily-hyped reputation as a gangster nemesis, had little to do with Capone's demise. 

Instead, Capone saw his true mortal enemy as President Herbert Hoover. And unlike most of the people who harbor grudges against Presidents, Capone actually was right. 

DC Was a Busy Place for Women in April 1922

April 1922 was a busy time for Washington socialites and the newspapers that followed them, as the city hosted no less than five national and international women’s groups in the span of a few short weeks.

DC had long been a party town (pun intended) but these gatherings provide a glimpse of the changing dynamics of womens’ political involvement during the 1920s, immediately following the passage of the nineteenth amendment. Let’s take a look at some highlights.

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