Roaring Twenties: The Most Fascinating Decade in American History by Mary Miley
After 35 years as a historian and nonfiction writer, I find myself slipping into the imaginative world of fiction this September with my first novel, a mystery titled The Impersonator, set in the Roaring Twenties. My publisher, St. Martin’s Minotaur, plans to bring out the second in the series next year, and I’m currently putting the finishing touches on #3. The Impersonator,is the story of a struggling young vaudeville performer who is persuaded to impersonate a missing heiress and gets caught up in a scam that thrusts her deep into the Roaring Twenties world of gangsters, bootleggers, and murder. I hope it is as much fun to read as it was to write!
So why set a mystery in the 1920s? Because it is the most fascinating decade in American history. There are so many reasons for this that it would take thousands of words to touch on them all, so let’s just go with a few of the “female” issues.
When people say “women’s lib” they think of the 60s, but in my opinion, women made far greater gains in the 20s. Most obviously, they got equality at the ballot box after nearly a century of effort. Opportunities for higher education for women expanded significantly during this decade, as did jobs outside the home. Secretaries and typists, telephone operators, department store sales clerks provided salaries for women who had no such opportunities in previous decades. Middle class housewives were released from much of the drudgery of housework with the introduction of vacuum cleaners, washing machines, electric irons, and toasters. Liberation from the corset and bustle brought new freedom. The beaded flapper dress is the icon for this period, but even daywear adopted straight, sleek lines and shorter hems. The most shocking bit of liberation was the bobbed hair—its moral implications brought disapproval and even hostility. Long hair had been a woman’s “crowing glory” for centuries, and the idea was tied into her virtue and respectability. Before the 20s, most women lived their entire lives without cutting their hair. Girls wore their hair loose and long (or in braids), then pinned up in various styles when they became women. But short? Never.
So when the first few young women started cutting off their long tresses during the Great War (1914-1918), it shocked people silly. The “bob,” a blunt cut level with the ear lobes, with or without bangs, became a statement of youth throwing off the moral restrictions of society. It was closely tied to the wearing of short skirts, going around with men un-chaperoned, smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails, dancing lewd dances like the Charleston, and general immorality. Preachers preached against it. Women who worked with the public, such as teachers, department store workers, and office girls, were fired for coming to work with bobbed hair. Romances broke up. (Fun fact: Bobs also led to the invention of bobbie pins.)
Before the 20s, makeup was something only harlots wore. Silent movie actresses changed this attitude, and makeup became commercially available in 1927 through the efforts of a Hollywood makeup artist from Poland named Maximilian Faktorowicz. Never heard of him? Sure you have—his Americanized name is Max Factor.
One of the most scandalous aspects of the 20s was the propensity for daring young women (flappers) to go out to speakeasies, restaurants, and parties without a chaperone, where they could drink, smoke cigarettes, and dance all the immoral fad dances. It wasn’t called dating yet, but it caught on. Chaperones were never seen again.
A man no longer had to court the Woman of his Dreams in her home, under the watchful eye of her parents. Men and women almost never drank together until the 20s. Women left the dining room table and went into another room, while men had drinks and smokes and rejoined the ladies when they were through. It was universal pretense that women didn’t drink or smoke. But with the advent of the speakeasy, men and women started sharing the same space at parties. The saloon, once an all-male bastion, was declared illegal. It’s illegal replacement, the speakeasy, was open to all. Private gatherings, which had previously meant dinner parties or balls, morphed into stand-up drinking occasions called “cocktail parties” that often included no food beyond nibbles. Men and women, married and single, gathered outside their home to drink cocktails, dance to the phonograph, and flirt.
I love the20s, the decade of radio, vaudeville, silent movies, prohibition, gangsters, jazz, Model Ts, and, yes, sliced bread and miniature golf. Nothing changed more in the 20s than women’s lives, and it’s fun working the details into my stories.
What’s your favorite decade?
Mary Miley is the winner of the 2012 Minotaur Books / Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. She worked at Colonial Williamsburg, taught American history at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years, and has published extensively in history and travel. The Impersonator is her first novel. Miley lives in Richmond, Virginia. Order your own copy of The Impersonator here.
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