THE LIFESTYLES OF young men and women in the 1920s were as shocking to their Victorian-era parents as the 1960s "hippie" generation was to Americans who came of age during World War Two and as "Generation Next" is to parents who grew up in the 1970s. Each succeeding generation seems to be no exception. In reaction to uncontrollable forces around them – war, science, society – young people everywhere sought answers in places once considered unthinkable, both morally and physically. Ellen Welles Page, a young woman writing in Outlook Magazine in 1922, tried to explain why this was:
Most of us, under the present system of modern education, are further advanced and more thoroughly developed mentally, physically, and vocationally than were our parents at our age. … We have learned to take for granted conveniences, and many luxuries, which not so many years ago were as yet undreamed of. [But] the war tore away our spiritual foundations and challenged our faith. We are struggling to regain our equilibrium. … The emotions are frequently in a state of upheaval, struggling with one another for supremacy.
In their attempt to come to terms with their place in this new world, young people began acting out – trying to test their new boundaries with more and more outrageous forms of behavior. Wilder music, faster cars and shorter skirts were just a few symptoms of this strange postwar era called The Jazz Age. In the words of an unidentified coed, quoted in Sunset in 1926, "To me the Jazz Age signifies an age of freedom in thought and action. The average young person of today is not bound by the strict conventions which governed the actions of previous generations."
FLAPPERS & JAZZ BABIES
In Flaming Youth, Walter Fabian's best-selling novel about American young people, readers were introduced to a whole new breed of women: saucy, outspoken bombshells with short skirts, shorter hair and plenty of "It." "It" was nothing more than sex appeal – something women were not supposed to exhibit. In the 1920s, any girl who possessed "It" was called a Flapper. Flappers and Jazz Babies generally disdained convention and did as they pleased. Though many cartoonists portrayed the Flapper as ditzy, empty-headed and shallow, most were educated young women who were dealing with the disillusionment of postwar America and trying to forge their own paths in a new society. As such, cutting or “bobbing” the hair was considered a symbol of freedom as were short skirts and the absence of corsets.
Gradually, the Flapper look entered mainstream America. Single and married women in the cities and the country came to enjoy the comfort and ease of the new styles. The Flapper's signature hairstyle was given even more legitimacy in the late 1920s when First Lady Grace Coolidge cut off her long hair and adopted a short style. Mrs. Coolidge could hardly be called a Flapper, but her willingness to adopt the new styles gave other women the courage to move forward.
Flappers who liked dancing and syncopated music were known as Jazz Babies. In the 1910s, musical theater provided Americans with many of their most popular songs. Written by the denizens of Tin Pan Alley – a district in New York City associated with musicians, composers, and publishers of popular music – such music usually premiered on the stage. Later, traveling theater and vaudeville troupes spread the songs throughout the land. Sheridan's Orpheum, Gem and Lotus theaters had weekly programs where comedic skits and tumbling acts were interspersed with “the Newest Musical Selections.”
The musical forms that most impacted the 1910s and '20s – ragtime, blues and jazz – rose from the African-American community and are recognized as distinctly original American art forms. Originally played in saloons and bawdy houses, ragtime was a worldwide craze for years. Blues music, much of it from the southern United States, was slower and more introspective. Both were immensely popular, but the music that accompanied the age of the Flapper and the Flaming Youth was jazz, Jazz, JAZZ!
Jazz was very different from any music that these young people's parents had ever listened to: loud and syncopated, featuring the sultry sounds of the saxophone. Unlike other popular music of the day, jazz was considered an evil influence on America's young people. With its offbeat rhythms and strange melodies, jazz was blamed for everything from drunkenness and deafness to an increase in unwed mothers. Anne Shaw Faulkner, National Music Chairman of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, wrote an article entitled "Does Jazz Put the Sin In Syncopation?" Published in Ladies' Home Journal in 1921, the article soundly condemned jazz music as "an unmitigated cacophony, a combination of disagreeable sounds in complicated discords, a willful ugliness and a deliberate vulgarity." She continued:
America is facing a most serious situation regarding its popular music. Welfare workers tell us that never in the history of our land have there been such immoral conditions among our young people, and in the surveys made by many organizations regarding these conditions, the blame is laid on jazz music … Never before have such outrageous dances been permitted in private as well as public ballrooms, and never has there been used for the accompaniment of the dance such a strange combination of tone and rhythm as that produced by the dance orchestras of today.
Despite such opinions (or maybe because of them), jazz was immensely popular. Dance bands around the country listened to the latest jazz recordings and bought the sheet music in order to learn the newest tunes for their small town audiences. In the Sheridan area, the Lucas Jazz Band, the Melody Sextette and the Harmony Girls played jazz – along with waltzes, fox trots and two-steps – nearly every night of the week at dance halls in Sheridan, Story and Buffalo. Central Hall, Marriburg Pavilion, the Blue Coat Dancing Palace, the Sheridan Inn, the Acme Amusement Hall, the Lodore Resort and the Peters Pavilion were just a few of the more popular dance halls. Strict rules of conduct were enforced at these halls, with tight embraces and kissing on the floor strictly prohibited.
If a band wasn't available, party planners didn't have to wring their hands in despair. Thanks to Thomas Alva Edison and the folks at the Victor Company, there was a relatively inexpensive source of music available to everyone: the phonograph. The first jazz album was recorded in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Soon after, all the top jazz and ragtime musicians recorded their music on 78 rpm records. These sold for mere pennies, making them available to all listeners, rich and poor, all across the country.
The wild rhythms of the Jazz Age brought dozens of new steps to the dance floors of America, including the Charleston, Black Bottom, Cubanola Glide and Tango Argentino, plus a host of shimmies, toddles and trots. For a while, animal dances were all the rage. While the Fox Trot was the most popular – and the only survivor – it was at one time joined by the Kangaroo Hop, Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug and Horse Trot.
Despite the popularity of the new dances, many people still favored the old standbys: the waltz, polka, two-step, schottische and reel. To accommodate dancers of all ages and tastes, both recording artists and performing groups included a wide variety of music in their repertoires. In many of the nation's smaller communities, where children could be seen dancing with octogenarians, such diversity on the part of the live performer was essential in order to ensure future bookings.
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1999 - December 2001
Detail from movie poster, 1916 (Private Collection)
State Historic Site