The 1920s in Florida was a time of incredible excess, immense wealth, and precipitous collapse. The decade there produced the largest human migration in American history, far exceeding the settlement of the West, as millions flocked to the grand hotels and the new cities that rose rapidly from the teeming wetlands. The boom spawned a new subdivision civilization—and the most egregious large-scale assault on the environment in the name of “progress.” Nowhere was the glitz and froth of the Roaring Twenties more excessive than in Florida. Here was Vegas before there was a Vegas: gambling was condoned and so was drinking, since prohibition was not enforced. Tycoons, crooks, and celebrities arrived en masse to promote or exploit this new and dazzling American frontier in the sunshine. Yet, the import and deep impact of these historical events have never been explored thoroughly until now.
Today’s guest is Christopher Knowlton, author of Bubble in the Sun. He discusses the grand artistic and entrepreneurial visions behind Coral Gables, Boca Raton, Miami Beach, and other storied sites, as well as the darker side of the frenzy. For while giant fortunes were being made and lost and the nightlife raged more raucously than anywhere else, the pure beauty of the Everglades suffered wanton ruination and the workers, mostly black, who built and maintained the boom, endured grievous abuses.
Knowlton discusses the forces that made and wrecked Florida during the decade: the real estate moguls Carl Fisher, George Merrick, and Addison Mizner, and the once-in-a-century hurricane whose aftermath triggered the stock market crash.
Below is an AI-generated transcript complete with timecodes. This transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the podcast episode.
Scott Rank 0:12
Before you had to Tijuana, before you had Las Vegas, before you had Atlantic City, there was a place you wanted to go to for advice for alcohol for prostitution. That place in America was Florida. Florida was sort of the capital of the 1920s. That decade had the largest human migration in American history. Way more than In the West, where Americans flocked to hotels in new cities that sprang up practically overnight from the wetlands. Developers also made millions upon millions upon millions of dollars. And plenty of celebrities had second homes there at this time. This was the decade of prohibition, but drinking was condoned here, and so was gambling. But this building boom was so dramatic that when the bubble finally popped amid the great recession in the 2000s, were coupled By comparison, and it may have triggered the Great Depression. That’s the argument of Christopher Nolan. He’s the author of the new book bubble in the sun, the Florida boom of the 1920s and how it brought on the Great Depression. He’s a guest today and he argues that while huge fortunes were remade during this time, and the nightlife was better in Florida than anywhere else, the massive overbuilding the hurricane that hit Florida at the end of the 1920s triggered the stock market crash. So this is sort of a cautionary tale, and Chris argues that the bubble in Florida resembled the crash in 2008. The United States, but also resembles the overbuilding in mainland China and Hong Kong, where you Have Phantom buildings that no one lives in. There’s a lot of parallels with Florida in the 1920s to today. And there’s a lot to chew on in this episode. So I hope you enjoyed this discussion with Christopher Knowlton. Chris, welcome to the show.
Christopher Knowlton 2:11
Hi there, Scott. It’s good to be with you.
Scott Rank 2:13
Well, I’m very interested in talking about this with you, because this is a story that I knew absolutely nothing about. Let’s begin with the big picture and look at the thesis of your book, you say that Florida in the 1920s was a bellwether for the United States as a whole even back then. So how did you come across this aha moment that prompted you to write this book?
Christopher Knowlton 2:36
Right. Well, I have been writing books about investment frenzies. The last book was called the cattle kingdom. And it was about the history of the open range cattle era after the Civil War. And what I discovered in researching that was that that really was an investment boom and bust. I think comparable to what you saw. We the.com bubble, you know, in the 1990s, a lot of young men moving out to Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and starting cattle ranches. And it had all the same sort of typical boom-bust characteristics. And a lot of people just had never looked at it from that perspective from a sort of an economic and business perspective. So I thought, well, that’s a pretty good theme because we keep living through these investment frenzies. And there, they’re kind of characteristic of American life. Every generation lives through a few. So I went looking for another and I quickly came upon the great Florida land boom in the 1920s. I was familiar with, not deep and the more I dug into it, the more interesting it got, the more parallels I could see between Florida in the 1920s. And America today, which we can talk about. But you know, Florida, even back then was a bellwether for the larger nation as a whole. It’s in Florida that you See in that decade of the 20s, you see the country go from being predominantly rural to or at least about 5050, urban and rural. You see a lot of the trends of the 20s written large across America. So you have the frenzy of the roaring 20s that is writ large. I mean, nowhere does it sort of rage more than it does in the 20s with prohibition not being enforced, with gambling with wild speculation, no sex, booze, everything but rock and roll. It was kind of Vegas before there was a Vegas. So that sort of bellwether aspect is an integral part of the thesis of the book.
Scott Rank 4:42
I’m curious how this begins in the 1920s. My knowledge of Florida at this time is scattered. But what I came into this thinking is remembering on maps of the United States in the 19th century. The last final lonely holdout of the Spanish Empire in the United States is in Florida. I did an episode on malaria and until it’s wiped out in the 1940s and 1950s, with DDT, there are large parts of Florida that are swampland. And I think I read something somewhere that in parts of Florida you couldn’t even buy a life insurance policy because it was so bad. But it sounds like my perspective is a little bit skewed. So what was Florida before the 1920s? And what gets this boom going?
Christopher Knowlton 5:24
Well, I mean, you’re right at Florida up until really the turn of the century was the last American frontier and it was that way because it was so inaccessible. It was so swampy, so dense with mangrove forests, and there was really no transportation network. So what really kicks off the boom here in the 1920s is when Henry Flagler This is a few years before that builds the rail first railroad down the length of the state of Florida East Coast Railway, and he builds his resort hotels, his own resort hotels all the way down the coast. And opens it up to the sort of Gilded Age traveler of the day people like himself, it was really not for the average American back then. But it’s railroads and its roads that really make the whole thing work. And by the 1920s you have roads coming down as well as railroads and they are the infrastructure art of for the boom, they set it up for what really happens. Mosquitoes definitely a problem a big problem for the workers building these roads building these railroads, you know, have to protect themselves there. I’ve got descriptions of the various techniques they use to fight off the mosquitoes with, you know, with stink pots of smoke and sticking newspapers down, you know, their socks and, and creating, you know, make two mosquito netting, I mean, it was really horrendous working conditions, it changes by the 1920s. And by then you really have the infrastructure and it’s always roads. In railroads that make real estate its development itself possible.
Scott Rank 7:07
Once a railroad network is set up, and there is the infrastructure for hotels and other things, in addition to Flagler, who are these other developers, and how do they advertise Florida?
Christopher Knowlton 7:18
What was exciting for me was that I didn’t know too much about these guys. They’re four or five who were really quite prominent. And I think people living in Florida may know of some of them, but not perhaps all of them and they’re really remarkably colorful characters. So you have Carl Fisher in Miami Beach, who really single-handedly develops it and he was partially responsible for some of those roads. The Dixie Highway that came down Florida, and in Coral Gables, you had a guy named George Merrick who was highly idealistic and, and he wanted to build an ideal city for the American middle class as well as for the aristocracy and then have Addison Mize in Palm Beach who starts by building these extraordinary mansions for the wealthy of Palm Beach and then gets into development and takes on the building of Boca Raton in the north of the state, you have Davis, who’s pretty much of an acolyte of Carl Fisher and his approaches, which is dredging, dredging up land from mangrove swamps and bays to create an island and he creates a huge development in Tampa and later St. Augustine. These four guys could not be more different. But they are, they are remarkably entrepreneurial. They make extraordinary fortunes over the course of the decade, I mean, equivalent to 600 million to probably 1,000,000,003 and today’s dollars and they do that in five years. And then each of them proceeds to lose it all. They over-expand they miss the signals. Coming downturned, they’re guilty of hubris and greed. It’s really remarkable story they all come to rather macabre endings, which I document in the book bubble in the sun. And for example, one works themselves to death one drinks himself to death, one eats himself to death, and the other disappears out the porthole of a cruise ship and drowns at sea, probably a suicide. I won’t say what happens to which have to read the book to find that out, but it is really rather extraordinary how they all come to a fortunate and
Scott Rank 9:39
sounds like everyone is dying by each of the seven deadly sins. I don’t know if Kevin Spacey is the serial killer trying to mastermind the murders like in Seven, but that sounds a pretty solid tree fitting for Florida. This happens in the 1920s and at the beginning of prohibition, I’m thinking of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire how Atlantic City is also positioning itself to be this destination of vice? Is the same thing happening with Florida at this time? And how are these developers advertising the state? people outside?
Christopher Knowlton 10:14
Yeah, Scott, you’re right. It is a lot like Atlantic City even I think more so. You know, they’re Of course they’re selling sunshine. That’s probably the first and greatest appeal of Florida. They’re selling the beaches, but they’re also selling the fact that prohibition is not enforced. So, you know, if you’re looking for a place where you can go and you can drink, you could go down and you could, you know, liquor was distributed pretty freely in the hotels and the resorts down in Florida. Then, of course, there was sex they were selling sex they were putting crawfish or really was the great innovator here he put scantily clad new bile women in big color advertisements on billboards in Times Square. Advertising the weather, but it was well understood that he was advertising sex as well. So they were great promoters, Carl Fisher came up with terrific gags and gimmicks, what they call back then ballyhoo to sell the state and, you know, for example, he would have his publicist released photos of a golfer teeing off from the back of an elephant with the elephant, serving as the tee and holding the golf ball in its trunk, and just marvelous photos that were widely distributed. Now the 20s are the decade when you have mass media for the first time emerging in the form of radio. But you’ve also got color advertising, three-color advertising becomes a big thing. So magazines are glossy for the first time everything’s in color. Cars went from the black of the Model T two are the pastel colors of all the Oldsmobile and other cars and of the century. And these guys just took advantage of all of that of radio of advertising. They rolled out enormous campaigns for their development campaigns to, you know, on a scale that had never been seen before. So again, other things were happening like that around the country, but nothing quite on the scale that had happened in the 20s. In Florida.
Scott Rank 12:20
Were they successful? their advertising, it sounds like they’re trying to make themselves the Las Vegas or Tijuana. Did Florida become this in the imagination of America in the 1920s?
Christopher Knowlton 12:31
Oh, it absolutely did. I mean, there wasn’t a magazine in the country that didn’t pick up on this and start writing articles about it and offend the frenzy fed on itself. You had the developers, you know, putting real estate sales offices in major cities and tracking people down or busing them down to Florida and buses that you know, advertised the resort on the side of the bus, kind of like a moving Billboard and they managed to get people excited about this. was real estate prices were appreciating, it looked like the last great opportunity to get in on on the ground floor on the greatest real estate boom in history. And people, not just the wealthy but the average man were buying options on real estate or a piece of development. And people started flooding into the state. I mean, it was really the greatest land rush in American history looking for work as construction workers, or in the real estate trade as a real estate broker. It’s just amazing the inflow of people during that period.
Scott Rank 13:40
Can you give some examples of stories that you came across at the very height of the bubble of how absurd things were getting? In the last recession? You have the movie The Big Short, which shows somebody who owns five houses, that is I think a stripper or a gas station worker just trying to buy things on subprime mortgages and then sell them off. What were stories like that that stuck out to you of how absurd things were at the height of the bubble there?
Christopher Knowlton 14:06
Yeah. Well, for example, they would announce that a new segment of a bay about development was going to go on sale. And of course, they would hype that fact. And people were showing up in extraordinary numbers and literally throwing checks at the developers or, you know, their representatives in the sales offices, checks that were coming in don’t literally by the bowel full. I mean, they’d have to collect them by the powerful, and I mean, it was just that crazy. You’d have a piece of property that would be purchased for now 700,00 1 day and then three or four days later would be sold for triple that. It was really the biggest and craziest, you know, land frenzy we’ve ever had.
Scott Rank 14:56
Other things to when the frenzy is at its height. You mentioned that clash between road-building crews and the Everglades, where these new developments are springing up like crazy are clashing with the Florida topography. What happens there?
Christopher Knowlton 15:11
Yeah, that I would say is the important sub-theme, this whole book bubble in the sun. It’s really about how economic and environmental development and well being really have to go hand in hand. I think we can see that writ large today. But even back then, the short-sightedness when it came to road building and things like that, ultimately had big, big economic consequences when the environment kind of gave out. So for example, I talk on the fact I have a chapter about a third of the way through the book about the building of the Tamiami Trail, which was a road right straight through the middle of the Everglades. Trying to link tamp to Miami, which was going to be good, of course for real estate development and would allow tourists to travel across the state. Of course, what they ended up doing by building this road was building a mammoth dike right through the state’s great aquifer, the Everglades. And that was short-sighted, to put it mildly. Of course, it was a disaster for the wildlife, but it would end up leading to the kind of water shortages that Florida has today. Now, I have in the book as a kind of counterpart to the developers the story of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who people may have heard of, she was the great environmentalist of the of this period and you know, live to be 100 Nate so she became the great defender of the Everglades even she at the beginning was kind of pro roads and pro this road and didn’t understand how what the consequences would be. She came around. And I have a couple of chapters devoted to her and sort of the making of an activist if you will. And she participates to the extent she builds her own bungalow during this period and she sees what’s happening. She kind of gets religion about the importance of, you know, environmental responsibility. It’s not till 1947 that she writes her great book on the Everglades. And she lived to be 108 and receive a Presidential Medal of Honor before she dies. All the other developers have been dead for 50 or 60 years. So there’s some poetic justice to that.
Scott Rank 17:44
One other aspect of the story before we get to the fall. I know that there were a lot of celebrities who lived down there. I think john Rockefeller at the end of his life has a Florida State. Thomas Edison, I believe has something down thereafter Menlo Park. Was this the first sort of celebrity enclave in the United States sort of a precursor to Palm Springs that you’re aware of?
Christopher Knowlton 18:08
Yeah, well, it’s certainly a part and parcel of those. I mean, I think Hollywood had come into its own you can almost see Florida and California competing with each other economically and in terms of selling the sun and in terms of attracting the and exploiting the celebrities who are present during this era, but you certainly get everybody you can think of coming through Florida whether it’s the great you know, boxers of the era of the great football teams that this is the period when professional sports The 1920s is when professional sports really take off for the first time and you know, you’ve got Red Grange, you know, playing in Coral Gables. But you’ve also got Babe Ruth, you know, at the at a training camp in St. Petersburg and of course the media mob him and me Everybody is delighted to have Babe Ruth and Florida. You know, get that.
Christopher Knowlton 19:06
got everybody you can think of from musicians to you know Gloria Swanson, you know who were coming down and staying at the great hotels, the great resorts and of course, they’re encouraged to by the developers and probably comped for their drinks and alike, but it’s a unique situation.
Scott Rank 19:30
How does the bus begin? there any type of land speculation like this, it obviously can’t go on forever, is how much of it is just a natural endpoint of economics when something like this happens versus what the realtors were doing themselves and other factors?
Christopher Knowlton 19:49
Well, I think you have to lay a lot of the blame for what ultimately happened on these developers because they just kept pushing, they kept just kept expanding. They couldn’t really stop themselves. You know, I talked About how, you know, this land boom with, which is a nationwide land boom with Florida as the sort of the epicenter of it is probably, I think very likely what provided the dynamite and the detonator for what led us into the Great Recession. Now, you know, recessions and depressions are very complicated there’s probably no one single cause but this is very likely one of the real triggers here and I think its significance has really been overlooked. It wasn’t the stock market crash it’s rarely the stock market crash that causes a recession unless there’s a real monetary disruption as a result. So it’s, it’s this real estate, bubbles coming to an end date. They cause downturns that are twice as deep and you know, last twice as long and it always ends up affecting, you know, the common man Who doesn’t necessarily have his money in the stock market but very likely is bought a piece of real estate along the way. So what really caught the turn while I speculate that there are a number of things that you know, there is a great hurricane in 1926 that hits Miami Beach square in the face. And, you know, an awful lot of the construction was shoddy, as you would expect in you know, late in a frenzy like this. And people were unprepared for it. And devastation was really terrible. Two years later, another hurricane hits up near Palm Beach and causes a lot of flooding up there and a lot of African American farmworkers are drowned disastrously, they’re bought in many bodies never recovered. You know, it’s hard to sort of pinpoint think basically, I argue in the book that it just exhausted itself that everybody who could buy real estate had done so and at inflated prices and there just came to a point where people were trading options on real estate, instead of really investing in real estate, they were pure speculating in real estate. And normally, that’s when it all comes to a bad end.
Scott Rank 22:15
How does this lead to The Depression? I’m surprised that building boom in one particular state could have ripple effects throughout the entire US economy. So how do you link those two together?
Christopher Knowlton 22:26
Well, you know, as I say, this was such a big boom there were and it was national in scope. Even though the real estate was located in Florida, people from all around the country had invested in Florida. There were places in banks and Massachusetts in Ohio that were getting concerned about the posts that were being pulled out of the state and being invested in Florida on the same in Georgia. But what really created the contagion, you know, was, you know, it all came to such a sudden end and, you know, all the lumber that was flowing into this You know that it had actually gotten, you know, clogged up the railroads had to create an embargo, there was so much building material trying to get into the state all at once, and in 1926, they had them and you know, put up an embargo in place to try to sort it all out. And so all of that all those buildings, supplies, all that sort of came to an end and all of a sudden, and banks started to fail first and Florida then in Georgia, and you have that kind of contagion that you will always have when you have them, you know, a deflationary spiral, take hold. So I don’t think it’s surprising that, that it triggered the rest of the country to start to pull back. I had an awful lot of people who’d lost an awful lot of money a lot more than a lot of money in the great crash. So that’s, that’s the thesis.
Scott Rank 23:54
I have to ask about these developers. You mentioned earlier that one eats himself to death, one drink sometimes to death, others come to other ends? Is it they simply lost a lot of money in this bust? And that’s what triggered it. Were they involved in legal dealings or something else?
Christopher Knowlton 24:12
Well, a little bit of bone depends on the developer there. You know, there was one who started out George Merrick started out enormously idealistic and Ben principles. And when he saw that how much money he was going to lose, he committed fraud, he started to unload his properties onto the city of Coral Gables, which he also ran or was, you know, chairman of the county commission, and the city commission. So he sold real estate in effect to himself at inflated prices, raise the bonds to pay for this real estate. Those bonds, of course, would default wouldn’t be paid off until 1961. He did everything he could have saved himself, but it wasn’t enough. He would lose everything. He’d have to nervous break. downs, as a result, became an alcoholic for a time. He managed to pull his life back together at the end but never made anything back. And similar things happened with some of the other. It’s a very cautionary tale. It’s just hard to turn the spigot off. These guys were just started to believe their own publicity, which is what happened.
Scott Rank 25:25
What would Florida look like in let’s say 1930? After the bust happens? Is it empty buildings kind of like these cities that are built in China that have no inhabitants? Is it houses being sold at fire-sale prices? What does it look like?
Christopher Knowlton 25:41
Yeah, well, I have some description in the book at the end and it is something of a wasteland with what you know you drive down the length of the state you just see one after another of these resort developments with their abandoned golf courses and pavements starting to grow over the land. Post starting to lean and it’s, it’s really kind of an extraordinary site. And it would be years before they could sort out the liens on these properties and who owned what they’re all tied up in litigation. And you know, that’s what was happening across the country. And another reason why the depression lasted as long as it did, there was so much real estate out there that was, first of all worthless, but second of all tide and legal problems. And a lot of it was in you know, the ideal location where you’d want perhaps, to develop but you couldn’t sell it. Yeah, it looked like a real estate wasteland. I liked your analogy, though, with, with China becoming we’ve been waiting to see what’s going to happen to all those Phantom buildings on Mainland China that we know are sitting empty and abandoned. And now with all this chaos in Hong Kong, which historically has had some of the highest-priced real estate in the world, you wonder if Hong Kong won’t be the dynamite and the detonator there and bring down Not just Hong Kong, real estate values, but Mainland China as well. And now I gather, there are just trillions of dollars of bad debt out there. So if you were to ask me what’s going to be the next great real estate catastrophe, I don’t think it’ll necessarily be on American soil. It’ll probably be on Chinese soil.
Scott Rank 27:21
I was curious about that. I definitely see parallels with what you described in Florida and 2008. Do you think most of that has been left? And we’re mostly past that and what will happen next is overseas or could something like this happen in the United States in the future based on what you’re seeing?
Christopher Knowlton 27:40
Well, I think, let’s face it, history does repeat, at least economically, we’re sure to have other booms and busts in real estate and at the end of my book bubble in the sun, I talked about some of the uncanny similarities between what was happening in Florida in the 1920s teas and what you know what we see out there today and you know in this country. So for example, you know, you know, you look at the United States you see two affluent coasts separated by this sort of impoverished and agricultural interior. Well that’s that was Florida in the 1920s. You see inequitable wealth distribution talked about a lot in the press. Well, that was true in the 1920s. In the 1920s, you had rising xenophobia and racial intolerance. And you know, of course, the KKK was a great example of that. You had this dangerous over-reliance on laissez-faire economics. That is true. today. It can be argued, then you had a governance structure, you know, in Tallahassee in the 20s, where the bankers and the business people had incredible influence over domestic policy. That wasn’t a good thing. And then, you know, to kind of complete the analogy. You have leadership there. in Tallahassee, as you probably as I think we would agree we have today that was just indifferent to the fate of the environment and to society’s less fortunate. So an uncanny number of parallels with what we see out there today, and I remind the reader in the book that, you know, it didn’t end well in the 20s. And I think there’s a, you know, a genuine risk of history, repeating, you know, it’s, especially with the stock market now as elevated as it is maybe Real Estate’s not there yet, but the stock markets looking very pricey.
Scott Rank 29:45
One of the questions to tie this together, and it has to do with the legacies of this bubble bursting. There’s one thing I have in mind and it’s a little bit out of the left field. So you can veer this question in a different direction if need be. A listener asked me about The phenomena of the Florida man, if you’ve heard of this were newspaper headlines that say Florida man shoots a target and backyard hits neighbor. And there are all sorts of headlines as weird things that people do in Florida, Florida, for whatever reason seems to be the magnet of people doing weird things, people not really behaving in the right mind. And I don’t know if there’s any character of Florida that could be attributable to this thing that happened in the 1920s 1930s people acting by impulsing taking on more debt than they probably should have. And there are many legacies that you can see in the cultural imprint of Florida today. Do you see any kind of legacy in that vein or maybe other legacies left behind by this bubble? Any that you haven’t touched on that you’d like to?
Christopher Knowlton 30:49
Yeah, well, the Florida man, I think he really is the American man. I mean, you know, I’ve just been traveling around on a book tour, and I can tell you, there’s a lot of strange stuff It goes on everywhere. And there are a lot of interesting and eccentric people. My wife who’s British, and the British specialize and eccentrics sees plenty of that here as well. Yeah, of course in Florida, you know, makes the great copy when it comes to a lot of this eccentric stuff. But I think it really probably happens everywhere. But that isn’t to say that Florida isn’t, you know, unique in its own way. And I think what happened in Florida during this period is just absolutely, you know, fascinating from a human interest perspective. You know, you see all these great trends of the 20s. And, you know, you can argue that the 20s was the decade that really kind of defined contemporary America. And that’s when we became sports-obsessed, you know, and I talked, I mentioned the rise of the NFL and these, you know, professional sports like golf and tennis and now this is when we became sex obsessed with the advertisements, and we became debt-driven. This is the period when people started taking on home mortgages and installment credit for the first time That’s never stopped. I mean, even coming out of the Great Depression, people were still indebted if they hadn’t gone, you know, bankrupt. And that remains the case to this day. business. You know this is the period when business becomes the chief occupation and preoccupation of most Americans. I think that the 20s are just fascinating from that perspective. It’s really where we become kind of recognizably the America we are today. So it’s an era that merits some study. And, you know, here’s the book, I hope your readers will give it a try. That’s, I think, filled with great characters and a lot of fascinating economic history woven in, but it’s a pretty engrossing story, and certainly relevant for what’s going on today.
Scott Rank 32:47
Absolutely. Well, there’s a lot more to touch on that we weren’t able to get here. And if listeners want to check it out, the name of the book is Bubble in the Sun, the Florida boom of the 1920s and how it brought on the Great Depression. Christopher, thank you for joining us.
Christopher Knowlton 33:01
Thank you, Scott.
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