A new book argues that the flapper wasn’t just a Jazz Age ornament; she was Modernity itself
In researching a book on the 1920s flapper—the notorious character type who bobbed her hair, smoked cigarettes, drank gin, sported short skirts, and passed her evenings in steamy jazz clubs, where she danced in a shockingly immodest fashion with a revolving cast of male suitors—I was surprised to discover how familiar America’s Jazz Age seems to the modern eye.
In late 1924 the husband-and-wife sociologist team of Robert and Helen Lynd embarked for Muncie, Indiana, where they began a yearlong study of a “typical” American city. What they found could easily describe the typical American suburb in 2006. Teenagers were in the thrall of fashion and celebrity. Young girls fought with their mothers over the length of their skirts and the amount of makeup applied to their faces. Boys argued with their fathers over the use of the family car.
Public culture in the 1920s was suffused with sexual imagery, as ordinary Midwesterners rushed to buy up real-life glossies like True Confessions , Telling Tales , True Story , and Flapper Experiences , which ran stories with such lurid headlines as indolent kisses and the primitive lover (“She wanted a caveman husband”). Advertisements featuring scantily dressed Egyptian women guaranteed the “beauty secret of Cleopatra hidden in every cake” of Palmolive soap. Popular songs of the era included “Hot Lips,” “I Need Lovin’,” and “Burning Kisses.”
In effect, the 1920s heralded America’s entry into the modern era. It was the first decade when the nation came under the full influence of advertising, consumer culture, movies, and radio. In a new world that was defined more by the city than the farm, Americans responded with enthusiasm to the promise of abundance and leisure. Their new watchword was fun; their new goal, fulfillment; their new obsession, sex.
If fun was the watchword of the younger generation, so was choice. Living in a world increasingly dominated by magazine ads for makeup, furniture, and clothing, many Americans began applying the idea of the free market in surprising contexts. A news item dated August 1923 brilliantly captured the tensions that the country’s new consumer dogma could inspire.
“This little city of Somerset [Pennsylvania] has been somersaulted into a style class war,” reported The New York Times , “with the bobbed hair, lip-stick flappers arrayed on one side and their sisters of long tresses and silkless stockings on the other.” When the local high school PTA convened to endorse a new dress code that would bar silk stockings, short skirts, bobbed hair, and sleeveless dresses, the flapper contingent defiantly broke into the meeting and chanted:
These young, self-styled flappers weren’t just trying to have fun; they were asserting their right to make personal choices.
If the flapper was the envy of teenage girls everywhere, to others she was a scourge of good character and morals. “Concern —and consternation—about the flapper are general,” observed a popular newspaper columnist of the day. “She disports herself flagrantly in the public eye, and there is no keeping her out of grown-up company or conversation. Roughly, the world is divided into those who delight in her, those who fear her and those who try pathetically to take her as a matter of course.”
The U.S. Secretary of Labor decried the “flippancy of the cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking flapper.” A Harvard psychologist reported that flappers possessed the “lowest degree of intelligence” and posed “a hopeless problem for educators.” In 1929 the Florida legislature even considered banning use of the term flapper , so infamous was her character.
In effect, the flapper was a magnet for both abuse and adulation because she incarnated the tensions of her age. No one better understood the social revolution that was afoot than Bruce Bliven of The New Republic . In 1925 Bliven informed his readers that “women have highly resolved that they are just as good as men and intend to be treated so. They don’t mean to have any more unwanted children. They do not intend to be debarred from any profession or occupation which they choose to enter… . If they should elect to go naked nothing is more certain than that naked they will go, while from the sidelines to which he has been relegated mere man is vouchsafed permission only to pipe a feeble Hurrah!”
To which Bliven concluded: “Hurrah!”