What Was Life Like in NYC in the Roaring Twenties?

Family History
21 May 2021
by Sandie Angulo Chen

The only constant in New York City is its constant change.

So what was life like in New York City a century ago? Read on for a description of life in the Big Apple during the Roaring Twenties.

Population and Immigration

In 1920, New York City was a polyglot mix, the result of more than a century of continuing, though fluctuating, immigration into the country.

About 35 percent of the city’s 5.6 million residents were foreign-born.

Left to right: a 1920s shopkeeper, the Statue of Liberty, immigrants through Ellis Island
Although quotas were put in place, groups of immigrants continued to arrive in America in the 1920s, through New York.

Russian Jews (480,000) made up the largest foreign-born group in New York, followed by Italian (319,000), Irish (203,450), and German (194,154)  immigrants.

But by 1921, concerns about competition for jobs plus ethnic prejudice led to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which established numerical limits on immigration into the United States. In 1924, the United States passed another law that tightened the quotas and made them permanent.

Lawmakers intended those country-by-country limits to keep out certain ethnic groups and reverse the influx of southern and eastern Europeans who had started to arrive in the 1890s.

But a loophole allowed one ethnic group to continue its immigration to the United States. Because many West Indian islands were still British colonies, Jamaicans and other West Indians were subject to Great Britain’s generous quota. By the end of the 1920s, West Indians made up 25 percent of the population of Harlem.

Do you have an immigrant ancestor who may have come to New York and been living there in the 1920s—or passed through the city? Take a look in these Ancestry® collections to learn more about their immigration story:

New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957, which could include details like hair color and how much money they had

Immigration and Travel collection, which is your best option for finding immigrant ancestors, with passenger arrival records, naturalization records, passports, and more

U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1992 (Indexed in World Archives Project), which is free to access and has indexes to naturalization records for various courts

The Great Migration

Another notable group of arrivals to New York in the 1920s was African Americans. Between 1917 and 1925, 200,000 African Americans moved to New York.

They were part of the river of humanity flowing northward from 1916 to 1970 now known as the Great Migration.

African American recruits for the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, all with hats and arm bands
Between 1917 and 1925, about 200,000 African Americans moved to NYC as part of the Great Migration.

The roots of the Great Migration took hold during World War I, which slowed overseas immigration and created labor shortages in the North. To fill those jobs, recruiters traveled south to find African American labor.

Southern resistance required the recruiters to sometimes act in secret to avoid fines or prison. Authorities also tried to keep African Americans from leaving by arresting them on train platforms for “vagrancy” or tearing up their tickets.

But those efforts at stemming the movement north largely failed. And by the 1920s, many of the African Americans who arrived in New York City had settled in Harlem, a formerly all-white neighborhood in Manhattan.

Do you have an ancestor who may have arrived in NYC as part of the Great Migration? Here are some places you can look on Ancestry to explore their stories:

Census records such as the 1920 U.S. Census, which would reveal where your ancestor was living in New York and in which state they were born

New York, U.S., City Directories, for a list of citizens, their addresses, and occupational information

New York, New York, U.S., Marriage License Indexes, 1907-2018, which for the 1920s represent indexes of marriage licenses issued by the New York City Clerk and are accompanied by images

Interestingly, for some Ancestry customers it’s also possible to find a family connection to the Great Migration through their DNA. For instance you might be able to find a genetic connection to the South Carolina African American community, whose members moved from south to north from 1925 to 1950.

The Harlem Renaissance

The river of the Great Migration watered the arts scene in Harlem in the 1920s that blossomed into the Harlem Renaissance. Fletcher Henderson arrived from Georgia to lead the most successful African American jazz band in the 1920s.

Composer and bandleader “Duke” Ellington arrived from Washington, DC; and pianist “Jelly Roll” Morton and singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong arrived from New Orleans.

Left: Three young women in fancy attire in 1920s Harlem, Right: People at a jazz club
The arts scene in Harlem flourished in the 1920s with famous Harlem Renaissance figures such as “Duke” Ellington and Louis Armstrong and had a lasting impact, into subsequent decades.

These artists and others made jazz the sound of the city, and of the decade, through recordings, radio broadcasts, and live performances at speakeasies such as the Cotton Club which, although located in Harlem, served an all-white clientele.

The Harlem Renaissance included musicians and writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, actors such as Paul Robeson, and visual artists such as Aaron Douglas who defined “cool” for the rest of the country.

Do you have a family connection to the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s NYC? Here are some collections to explore:

New York, U.S., City Directories for a list of citizens, their addresses, and occupational information, which could reveal a connection to the arts

Newspapers on Ancestry, for day-to-day diaries of community events, which include stories of famous and ordinary people

Census records such as the 1920 U.S. Census also include addresses and could reveal if your ancestor lived near a prominent figure in Harlem


Live music from Harlem speakeasies wasn’t the only form of entertainment for New Yorkers at the time. In the 1920s, New Yorkers, along with the rest of the country, discovered they could enjoy music over the radio.

For New Yorkers interested in visual entertainment, “The Jazz Singer,” the world’s first talking movie, had its debut on October 6, 1927 in the Warner Theater in Manhattan’s Times Square. New Yorkers could see a movie that year for 20 cents (or 15 cents for children).

Clockwise starting at top left: a performer, a baseball player, 3 women with a radio, two men with a Hollywood movie camera, jazz performers, a 1920s automobile
From radio shows in their apartments to live music at jazz lounges, baseball games at stadiums, and movies in theaters, NYC was a hotspot of entertainment in the 1920s.

In the 1920s, New Yorkers seeking entertainment on the athletic field looked first and foremost to the bat of Babe Ruth. His performance set also attendance records: from 1921 to 1930, the Yankees earned more than $1 million in profits.

In 1923, the team plowed $2.5 million of that money to build a new Yankee Stadium. Tickets for opening day 1923 in the new stadium cost 25 cents for bleacher seats.

Pro football was far less popular until the Giants formed in 1925. And after Congress legalized professional boxing in 1920, boxers like Jack Dempsey grew the sport beyond its ethnic and working-class roots by attracting fans of all types who filled Madison Square Garden to watch fights.

The first radio station in America, KDKA, first hit the airwaves on November 2, 1920. Over the decade, the popularity of radios grew: By 1929, Americans were buying $843 million in radios a year. Chances are that many New Yorkers in the 1920s got their radios on Radio Row, a specialty shopping district in Lower Manhattan for radios and electronics whose first store opened in 1921.

By its peak in the 1950s, Radio Row held more than 1,000 businesses, many of them blaring music onto the streets that could be heard for blocks.

Curious about entertainment in 1920s NYC?  Take a look at newspapers and census records to see how entertainment in the city may have connected with the lives of your ancestors:

Newspapers on Ancestry for coverage of sporting, cultural, musical events and more

1920 U.S. Census for details like location and occupation (trade, profession, and industry), revealing relatives who may have worked in entertainment

1930 U.S. Census, asked if people owned a radio, so you could discover if your NYC relatives had joined the radio buying trend of the 1920s

Baseball player profiles, photos, and illustrations, which could include your athlete ancestors or the players they rooted for in 1920s NYC

Public Health/Disease

Nineteenth century innovations that brought fresh water into New York City and carted away its sewage and trash eliminated many of the epidemics that had threatened New Yorkers before the 1920s. The 1918 flu pandemic had killed 30,000 New Yorkers, but it had passed by the beginning of the new decade.

As a result, most of the leading causes of death for New Yorkers in the 1920s are familiar today: cardiovascular issues, pneumonia, infant mortality, and cancer.

Men in white uniforms sweeping up garbage in city streets in NYC
By 1920, advancements like fresh water and large scale trash disposal had eliminated many epidemics in NYC.

Tuberculosis, the fifth most common cause of death, is largely forgotten today, thanks to the widespread use of antibiotics. But from 1926 to 1930, tuberculosis killed 4,574 New Yorkers a year.

Tuberculosis disproportionately affected African Americans and other  new arrivals with more limited financial means to New York. Through public health efforts, however, such as tuberculosis clinics set up in Harlem, the number of tuberculosis deaths in 1930 was a quarter the number of deaths in 1900.

If you’re curious about your NYC ancestors’ health in the 1920s, you can search:

Death records, such as death certificates, which could include a cause of death, as well as life details like occupation

New York Birth, Marriage & Death collection, which include both government and church records

U.S.,Newspapers.com Obituary Index, 1800s-current, for insights not only into how your ancestors may have passed but into the lives they lived

Mass Consumption and the Cost of Living

The Industrial Revolution that began in the 19th century and ended in the 1920s provided Americans with a panoply of new products to purchase and enjoy. At the same time the expansion of credit helped middle-class Americans buy consumer goods in unprecedented amounts.

Between the end of World War I and the end of the 1920s, for example, more than a half a million new motor vehicles hit the streets of New York City.

A parked Dusenberg car, which was a luxury car, in the 1920s
The combination of the Industrial Revolution of previous decades and the advent of personal credit contributed to increased consumption in the 1920s, with the automobile being one of the most conspicuous items.

The overall cost of living for an average family in New York City in 1926 was $1,659 a year, or $31.92 a week (about $483 per week today).

The largest expense was food ($11.94 per week), followed by housing ($7.40 a week).

A subway ride that year cost five cents, the price when the subway opened in 1904, and the price until fares rose to ten cents in 1948.

If you’re curious about your family’s lifestyle in NYC in 1920, these records could give you some clues:

1920 U.S. Census, with details like profession and whether a home was rented or owned, mortgaged or free

1930 U.S. Census, provides clues about the previous decade, with details like value of a person’s home or the amount of rent paid each month

U.S. Wills and Probates, which could reveal if your ancestor had fared better than average economically, based on what they passed on to heirs


Many people today remember the Roaring 20s as an era of newfound prosperity, and New Yorkers, for the most part, shared in that bounty. Unemployment in New York City in the 1920s remained under 7 percent while income per person grew 30 percent over that time.

By 1929, for instance, bricklayers and iron-workers in Manhattan earned $77 a week (~$1,200 today). Carpenters and plumbers earned $66 a week.

Left: two workers atop a brick wall, working in NYC. Right: two workers, two shipyard workers
1920s New York offered a wealth of jobs, with about 36 percent of workers in trade or transportation, like these construction and shipyward workers

In the 1920s, New York City was one of the country’s largest factory centers. It produced 1/12th of the entire country’s manufacturing output, and by the 1920s, more than 200 shipping companies located along New York’s frenetic waterfront were handling almost half of the country’s international trade.

In 1920, about 36% of working New Yorkers, about 1 million people, labored in trade or transportation. Manufacturing accounted for 31% of jobs, while 13% of jobs were clerical and 10% were domestic jobs.

Find out what your NYC ancestors were doing for a living in the 1920s by searching:

1920 U.S. Census, for details about their occupation at the start of the 1920s

1925 New York State Census, for details about New York residents such as age and occupation in 1925

New York, U.S., City Directories for a list of citizens, their addresses, and occupational information

For those with ancestors who may have been on the wrong side of Prohibition, Ancestry has records for New York prisons, including Sing Sing

Much has changed in New York since the 1920s. Alcohol, illegal during the time due to Prohibition, now flows freely again. Manufacturing has largely gone overseas. Babe Ruth has faded into a sports legend.

But other elements of life in New York City remain recognizable, family migrations first and foremost. For that reason, New York City remains a crossroads for individuals first arriving in this country and for their descendants long afterwards who seek to retrace those first tentative steps of their ancestors on the streets around Broadway.


What Was  Your Family Up to in the 1920s? 

Many Americans have family connections to New York in the 1920s, either passing through on their way in to the United States or settling down before later generations moved westward.

Login to Ancestry® or try Ancestry® for 14 days free and rediscover the life your forebearers lived in New York City—and beyond—a century ago.





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