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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

Q.:Why the ‘20s, Laura, you weirdo?
A.:Are you kidding me?
You mean, why NOT the ‘20s?

        You can have your ‘60s (been there, done them, remember them, so I obviously wasn't old enough to have really enjoyed them) - the ‘20s had it all (see below).

        I admit I’m a bit of an aberration: I’ve been fascinated with the 1920s (and to a lesser degree, the overlapping decades on either end) literally since babyhood. One of my first memories is of playing in my crib, making puppets of my hands and pretending they were Laurel and Hardy. I didn’t play cars, I played Model-T; I didn’t play dress-up, I wore the white satin underslip from my First Communion dress as a flapper gown.

        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.

        Being a ‘20s fan for this long does bring its moments of deja-vu, a double-nostalgia element that’s involved in many of my favorite things. For instance, back in the ‘70s at the height of the disco era, I listened to Paul Whiteman music on LPs. Today, listening to the same music on CD, I’m not only nostalgic for a time I never knew, but for a time I actually lived through. I remember seeing Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece “Greed” at Chicago’s Facets Multimedia, back when it was all folding chairs and bag people and Gerald Ford was fodder for bits on an actually funny “Saturday Night Live”; today, Facets is strictly high-class, and “Greed” is available on DVD. In 1980, at the dawn of the Reagan era, I met Gloria Swanson at the Chicago Film Festival in the old Biograph theater; today, the world is a duller place with both the Biograph and Gloria gone.

        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).

        That’s why I’ve created this Web page - to reach some of you “wonderful people out there in the dark” who might share my passion, or better yet, tip off someone who isn’t really familiar with this wonderful era and its beautiful, talented people. So relax, grab a glass of your favorite hooch*, light up a fag*, and come on along for the ride. There’s plenty of room in the rumble seat.

        A caveat: This Web site expresses the opinion of Laura Mazzuca Toops and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. No animals were harmed in its production. Don’t steal anything here to use on a term paper, because you’ll probably flunk.

Q.: OK, now answer the question.
Why the ‘20s?

A.: 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.
   1  Art.  Cubism and Dadaism and modernism of all sorts flowered during the ‘20s. Cinema was shedding its baby fat and becoming a legitimate art form, although there was still plenty of room for silliness like Mack Sennett and Cecil B. DeMille. Ragtime had morphed into hot jazz, personified by guys like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis were giving shape to the modern novel, at a wonderful time when editors and publishers actually cared about nurturing new talent. Composers like Ravel and Stravinsky were turning the traditional “serious” musical world on its ear. Best of all, people went out of their houses to experience all this wonderful stuff. Radio was still in its infancy, records couldn’t beat the live stuff, and movie screening rooms, like air conditioning, were only for the biggest cinema stars. Best of all, there was no television, except for occasional experimental broadcasts of test patterns and a cartoon image of Felix that Wonderful Cat, beamed weekly from somewhere in Newark, New Jersey and watched by virtually no one.

   2  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.

   3  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.

   4  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.

   5  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.

   6  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 Essays

this is Welcome to the 1920s

Bix Beiderbecke

Harold Lloyd

Red Nichols

Clara Bow

1920s Related Websites

The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society

Phil Pospychala Presents
A Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke

‘20s hot jazz expert and Bixophile.
His annual “Tribute to Bix” features musicians
from around the world. He also likes beer.

300 content rich, illustrated pages of Fashion History, Costume History, Clothing, Fashions and Social History.

Jazz Institute of Chicago

The Red Hot Jazz Archive
Good basic primer on everyone who was anyone in early jazz.

The West End Jazz Band
Authentic sweet and hot music from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Their Hudson Lake CD is tuneful and evocative!

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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