Welcome to the 1920s
enter at the speakeasy door for essays
by Laura Mazzuca Toops
A n O v e r v i e w
Why the ‘20s, Laura, you weirdo?
Granted, the interest waxed and waned over the years. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I went on to a sullen teenhood that was virtually indistinguishable from my peers, although I still secretly loved silent movies and hot jazz. My later years included excursions into punkdom and New Wave, although I’m proud to say I managed to sidestep disco completely with a mid-to-late-‘70s Harold Lloyd obsession.
Today, the Internet enables me to indulge my passion for the era like never before. I meet and greet cyberspace Bix Beiderbecke fans, buy vintage clothing on ebay, and submit ‘20s-tinged short stories to online literary magazines via e-mail. In short, technology is the bee’s knees.
This frisson between a far-distant past and my own real memories drives home the fact that my favorite era is literally getting more distant as every second ticks past (although quantum physics gives hope that maybe an echo of the times is still playing somewhere Out There).
Oh, yeah, I got so excited talking about myself that I almost forgot. Well, that’s easy: Like I said, the '20s had it all. Art, sex, fashion, sex, music, crime, sex, incredible beauty and talent - and did I mention sex?
Let’s take it element by element.
Fashion. The Lost Generation, fueled by bathtub gin, frantically practiced free love throughout the ‘20s, in large part because everybody looked so goddamned good. Piercings were for women’s earlobes, goatees for Sigmund Freud, shaved heads for Erich von Stroheim, and tattoos for Popeye. (The nursing home aides of tomorrow will cringe at the sight of faded tattoos on the flabby asses of today’s Brittanys and Zachs as they’re turned over to change their rubber sheets.) Men would put on a collar and tie to go to the drugstore for those newly-available Trojans; your average flapper donned hat and gloves to hit the A&P. Women’s clothes were characterized by beautiful lines, rich fabrics, and embellishments like beadwork, embroidery and lace on everything. Functional, yes - no more corsets or multiple layers of petticoats - but still fun. Men looked just as good - in classic three-piece suits, formal attire and even in the sportswear of the day. No hideous lime-green-and-pink or boring Tommy Hilfiger on the golf course, but elegant plus-four knickers, Fair Isle sweaters, two-toned shoes. No wonder fornication was a national pastime.
Sex. Oh, yes, you knew we’d get around to it, although it ties into every other category, too. Flaming youth knew enough about sex to be dangerous, but not so much that they were blasé about it. Trojan introduced cheap rubbers, Margaret Sanger was promoting the diaphragm, and in those lovely pre-AIDS days, the worst that could happen was syph (although Al Capone might beg to differ). The conservative pundits of the day blamed the boom of promiscuity on post-War cynicism, the availability of birth control, and the proliferation of the automobile, which afforded lovers more privacy than ever before. Keep in mind these were the same pundits who thought that Prohibition would make America a better place.
Crime. Crime. Should crime be put in a category of what made the ‘20s great? Oh, yeah. In the ‘60s, people who smoked pot and dropped acid (after 1965 or so) were breaking the law. In the ‘20s, Prohibition made everyone a criminal, from Capone himself, right on down to your Uncle Otto who brewed beer in his basement. This stupid law flung average Americans into the arms of organized crime, whose Bugsys and Hymies and Deanies made the whole merry-go-round spin -- not only with the booze, but the broads and the ponies and the boys in the band. But Prohibition wasn’t the only crime story of the era; there were some great crimes of passion, too. University of Chicago brainiacs Loeb and Leopold planned (and bungled) “the perfect crime,” and husband-slayer Ruth Snyder became the first woman to fry in the electric chair.
Incredible beauty and talent. A quick viewing of the Maury Povich Show is proof that today pretty much any schmuck can have his fifteen minutes of fame. In the ‘20s, most of the ones who got theirs deserved it. “Overnight sensation” Buster Keaton, who got into films later in his career, literally spent his entire life preparing for it, from infancy on, in vaudeville. Mary Pickford was no ringleted simp, but a hard-headed businesswoman who was running her own film company (along with husband Doug Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith) at a time when most women stayed at home. Ben Hecht, who hit it big with his play The Front Page, spent his formative years grubbing out a living and learning his writing chops as a Chicago beat reporter. Sure, there was the inevitable eye candy that made it big - “Peaches” Browning, the Anna Nicole Smith of her day, who married and divorced a millionaire and went on to a lackluster career in vaude, comes to mind. But there was little of the mean-spirited badgering that personifies much of today’s popular culture (hats off to Maury again). No tattoos, either.
The downside. Before you fire off a mean e-mail, here’s the caveat. Of course, the ‘20s weren’t Utopia, because there ain’t such a thing. Yes, there was racism and lynchings and the public parading of the Klan; ethnic prejudice, the railroading of Sacco and Vanzetti, the common usage of words like spade and wop and kike; corrupt public officials, and a wide gap between rich and poor. But on the flip side of racism, there was the Harlem Renaissance and a burgeoning black film industry in cities like Chicago and New York; ethnic enclaves in most big cities that were safe havens for immigrants to assimilate and still retain their home country’s culture; idealistic labor and feminist movements that eventually helped bring about the 40-hour work week and equal rights that we enjoy today.
1920s Related Websites
The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society
All written content ©2016 Laura Mazzuca Toops
(unless otherwise indicated)
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Header image and bottom sidebar: details from Florine Stettheimer’s 1929 painting, The Cathedrals of Broadway, courtesy of WikiArt, the Visual Art Encyclopedia. All other images on this page are in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This page updated August 3, 2016