May 18, 2009
May 19, 1922
Right off the bat I have to admit the fact that — to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck — what I don’t know about San Francisco in the 1920s is a lot.
I did know that all sorts of great Prohibition and gangster stuff must have gone on, though, so I started leafing through a couple of 1922 editions of the Chronicle looking for stories.
And was immediately distracted by the flappers.
You know, flappers.
A little ’20s background …
Alright. After the unspeakable horrors of World War I, the prudish moral strictures of the Victorian era were pretty much destroyed. “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” became the guiding principle of the Roaring Twenties which followed — not just for the men who’d survived the carnage, but for a generation of young women as well.
Jazz appeared. Corsets vanished. Hemlines rose, and hair was bobbed. Women had gone to work and won the right to vote. Women smoked, women danced, and — Prohibition be damned — women drank moonshine out of hip flasks. Sit in the parlor and wait for a suitor to call? You’ve got to be kidding. It was the advent of the “modern American woman”, and — you might say — American modernity in general.
Flappers in the newspapers
So. The war ended in 1918, Prohibition began the following year, and by 1922 — the year in which these papers were published — the word “flapper” already appears in half a dozen different articles.
Amidst pieces with names like “Peggy’s Paragraphs: Home Sewing Week” and “Movie Men Linked in Liquor Plot” appear stories portraying flappers as an already-accepted element of society, right alongside others characterizing these girls as a menace.
Here’s one, covering a talk by an Adventist preacher: “Jazz, Flapper and Easy Divorce called Ulcers”. A few pages later, a cutesy-pie story about a High Society benefit boxing match takes the opposite approach: “Powdered Noses and Busted Beaks at Carnival; Flappers Thrilled by Boxers’ Pretty Tights.”
I think I’ll just read parts of two other stories that struck my fancy, and hope that they add bits of 1920s sparkle to the mosaic of history that we’re assembling at Sparkletack.
First, a piece about a San Franciscan meeting his immigrating sister at the Ferry Building. Not quite sure how this qualified as news, but — even though it reveals a certain American parochialism — it is kind of cute.
German Flapper Outflaps American Variety â€“â€“ and Her Brother is Flabbergasted
Her Kind May Have Been Side Inspiration for “Berlin or Bust”
When Miss Elsie Glissman of Hamburg arrived at the Ferry Building yesterday to become a permanent resident of San Francisco, the personnel of the Traveler’s Aid Society who met her, discovered for the first time why soldiers of the United States have been making such a battle for the last three years for assignment to duty with the army of occupation in Germany.
Also they learned that the doughboy’s “Berlin or Bust” slogan of 1918 came from more than a desire to capture the Kaiser.
Figure on Powell Street
Miss Glissman is 22 years old. She has never been in America before, but you can take it from the Traveler’s Aid people that in looks and dress she can stroll down Powell street any day and “knock ‘em cold.”
Her brother, John Glissman, long a resident of this city, and who hadn’t seen his sister for eight years, had an idea that she’d appear at the Ferry building severely dressed, with a long skirt and all that sort of thing, and with her hair drawn back, also severely. Also Miss Elsie would, in John’s opinion, be rather helpless, not being able to speak English.
It takes a lot to flabbergast a San Franciscan, but John was properly flabbergasted when the prettiest girl he’s seen in months, wearing the most up-to-date American clothes, short skirts and all, silken hose, patent leather slippers and a hat that looked like Fifth Avenue, New York, threw herself in his arms, called him “brother” in good English, and in equally good English told him she’d had a delightful trip across the continent.San Francisco Chronicle — 5.19.1922
Speaking of Fifth Avenue, here’s a hilarious piece about de-flapperization that must have been swiped by the Chron from some New York City paper. The paragraph describing prototypical flapper style is especially priceless.
Big Business Banishes the Flapper
When the Flapper smashed all the traditions in sight and tinkered a bit with the prevailing moralities a great many people smiled indulgently.
True, she had to stand a series of hot shots from conservative pulpits, not to mention a few shrill cries of protest from social workers, old-fashioned mothers and modest young men who were afraid of being corrupted.
But on the whole, she got away with it. It was not until she began to interfere with the sacred institution of business efficiency that she got hers.
Now it looks as if Big Business may banish the Flapper. She will at least be made non-existent during working hours if the present movement for de-flappering female employees of business houses gets very far.
Why the Boy Lingered
The movement was first noticed in Newark NJ. A fond mother was wont to send her son to make deposits at the bank. After a while he began to consume much more time in the operation than the mother considered necessary. She investigated and found that he had all his business dealings with a young woman that mother considered illegally attractive.
Everything about the young woman had a modern — and if the truth must be known — a provocative slant. Her hair was bobbed, her hidden ears were hung with jade earrings, her low-cut waist allowed certain exciting revelations, and suggested even more. And as she walked toward the back of her cage a pair of low-cut, flat-heeled sport shoes with champagne-colored legs springing out of them, came into view. Even in the way she checked the deposit slips was an insouciance suggestive of a new age and new ideas.
The circumstance was duly reported to officials of the bank — The Fidelity Trust Company — whereupon the head of the institution paused in his consideration of foreign exchange, outstanding loans, etc., etc., and gave a thought to the feminine personnel of his establishment. The result was the issuance of the following order:
“A rule is herein adopted regarding requirements in dress for employees holding positions in the bank. I’ll skip what the boys had to wear — here’s what the girls were required to put on: “The dress (he refers to some specific pattern), sold in all stores at a cost of $5, must be worn and must be provided by the employees, in either blue, black or brown, and sleeves must not be shortened above the elbow. The dress must not be worn higher than twelve inches from the ground. “
This order caused all the indignation that might have been expected. In the first place the girl workers resented the charge that exposed biceps and dimpled knees militated against efficiency. The girl whose get-up started the investigation contended that she couldn’t be held responsible for the wandering brain of some weak-witted mother’s boy.
“These low-hipped gobbies never worry me,” she said. “I keep my cash straight and my decimal points in order. Furthermore, if some dumbbell starts hanging onto the cage I tell him to move on. They don’t block traffic outside my cell. Why, then, should they be starting all this plain-jane-and-no-nonsense business? They’ll be putting us in gunnysacks with nothing but our hands sticking out the next thing you know.”
The article goes on to worry about the cost of the outfits, and to speculate about a time when women’s business attire would become as standardized as men’s, and then wraps it up with the following:
… Big Business has apparently decided that the Flapper must go. Whether she will finally disappear, not only from business offices but from the parks, promenades and places where two or three are gathered for jubilation, remains to be seen.San Francisco Chronicle — 5.21.1922
Oddly enough, Big Business actually did end up eradicating the Flapper — not in the way that the old men intended, of course — but by bringing on the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.