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American Heritage MagazineFebruary/March 2006    Volume 57, Issue 1
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Oh, You Kid!

A new book argues that the flapper wasn’t just a Jazz Age ornament; she was Modernity itself

In researching a book on the 1920s flapper—the notorious character type who bobbed her hair, smoked cigarettes, drank gin, sported short skirts, and passed her evenings in steamy jazz clubs, where she danced in a shockingly immodest fashion with a revolving cast of male suitors—I was surprised to discover how familiar America’s Jazz Age seems to the modern eye.

In late 1924 the husband-and-wife sociologist team of Robert and Helen Lynd embarked for Muncie, Indiana, where they began a yearlong study of a “typical” American city. What they found could easily describe the typical American suburb in 2006. Teenagers were in the thrall of fashion and celebrity. Young girls fought with their mothers over the length of their skirts and the amount of makeup applied to their faces. Boys argued with their fathers over the use of the family car.

Public culture in the 1920s was suffused with sexual imagery, as ordinary Midwesterners rushed to buy up real-life glossies like True Confessions, Telling Tales, True Story, and Flapper Experiences, which ran stories with such lurid headlines as indolent kisses and the primitive lover (“She wanted a caveman husband”). Advertisements featuring scantily dressed Egyptian women guaranteed the “beauty secret of Cleopatra hidden in every cake” of Palmolive soap. Popular songs of the era included “Hot Lips,” “I Need Lovin’,” and “Burning Kisses.”

In effect, the 1920s heralded America’s entry into the modern era. It was the first decade when the nation came under the full influence of advertising, consumer culture, movies, and radio. In a new world that was defined more by the city than the farm, Americans responded with enthusiasm to the promise of abundance and leisure. Their new watchword was fun; their new goal, fulfillment; their new obsession, sex.

If fun was the watchword of the younger generation, so was choice. Living in a world increasingly dominated by magazine ads for makeup, furniture, and clothing, many Americans began applying the idea of the free market in surprising contexts. A news item dated August 1923 brilliantly captured the tensions that the country’s new consumer dogma could inspire.

“This little city of Somerset [Pennsylvania] has been somersaulted into a style class war,” reported The New York Times, “with the bobbed hair, lip-stick flappers arrayed on one side and their sisters of long tresses and silkless stockings on the other.” When the local high school PTA convened to endorse a new dress code that would bar silk stockings, short skirts, bobbed hair, and sleeveless dresses, the flapper contingent defiantly broke into the meeting and chanted:

I can show my shoulders,
I can show my knees,
I’m a free-born American,
And can show what I please.

These young, self-styled flappers weren’t just trying to have fun; they were asserting their right to make personal choices.

If the flapper was the envy of teenage girls everywhere, to others she was a scourge of good character and morals. “Concern —and consternation—about the flapper are general,” observed a popular newspaper columnist of the day. “She disports herself flagrantly in the public eye, and there is no keeping her out of grown-up company or conversation. Roughly, the world is divided into those who delight in her, those who fear her and those who try pathetically to take her as a matter of course.”

The U.S. Secretary of Labor decried the “flippancy of the cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking flapper.” A Harvard psychologist reported that flappers possessed the “lowest degree of intelligence” and posed “a hopeless problem for educators.” In 1929 the Florida legislature even considered banning use of the term flapper, so infamous was her character.

In effect, the flapper was a magnet for both abuse and adulation because she incarnated the tensions of her age. No one better understood the social revolution that was afoot than Bruce Bliven of The New Republic. In 1925 Bliven informed his readers that “women have highly resolved that they are just as good as men and intend to be treated so. They don’t mean to have any more unwanted children. They do not intend to be debarred from any profession or occupation which they choose to enter… . If they should elect to go naked nothing is more certain than that naked they will go, while from the sidelines to which he has been relegated mere man is vouchsafed permission only to pipe a feeble Hurrah!”

To which Bliven concluded: “Hurrah!”

Joshua Zeitz’s Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern has just been published by Crown.


 

Why Do We Say That?

“Hooker”

A 1950 book depicts a well-dressed courtesan.
A 1950 book depicts a well-dressed courtesan.

This past October the residents of Hooker Lane, in the tony Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Connecticut, made headlines when 9 of the 11 homeowners on the 1,580-foot-long dead end—or “cul-de-sac,” in real estate-ese—petitioned the town’s board of selectmen to change the name of their street to Stonebrook Lane.

Hooker is a good old Connecticut family name, though the name of the lane apparently came from the maiden name of the wife of the man who developed the area in the 1960s rather than from Rev. Thomas Hooker, a founder of Hartford in 1636. But Hooker Lane’s residents got tired of the snickering that generally greeted them whenever they had to give anyone their address. “‘You live on Prostitute Street,’ that’s typical,” 12-year-old Brendan O’Connor told The New York Times.

The sense of hooker as “prostitute” often has been associated with Gen. Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker, who commanded the Army of the Potomac for five months in 1863. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson of one President and great-grandson of another, reinforced this notion when he described Hooker’s headquarters as “a place where no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go … a combination of bar-room and brothel.” Citing this quote, Shelby Foote gave Fighting Joe credit for the word’s sexual sense in The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), the second of his three-volume history of the conflict.

The sexual meaning of hooker predates the Civil War, however. John Russell Bartlett defined hooker as “a strumpet, a sailor’s trull” in the 1859 edition of his Dictionary of Americanisms. Still earlier is a bit of man-to-man advice from 1845: “If he comes by way of Norfolk, he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French’s hotel” (quoted in Norman E. Eliason’s Tarheel Talk: An Historical Study of the English Language in North Carolina, published in 1956).

This leaves the term’s origin a bit of a mystery. Bartlett thought it came from Corlears Hook, a section of New York City’s Lower East Side noted for “houses of ill-fame frequented by sailors.” Others guess that it is a spinoff from the British slang use of hooker to refer either to a petty thief (also called an angler) who used a stick with a hook to sneak goods away from their owners or to a boat (from the Dutch hoecker-schip), originally a fishing vessel and later any boat. Most likely, though, is that it derives from the way prostitutes attract clients. Henry Mayhew quoted an English streetwalker in 1857: “I’ve hooked many a man by showing him an ankle on a wet day” (London Labour and the London Poor).

But General Hooker does not get away scot-free. Today the section of Washington, D.C., bounded by Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Fifteenth Street NW is called the Federal Triangle (the huge Ronald Reagan federal office building is located there). In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, this was the capital’s red-light district, and it was known as Hooker’s Division on account of the many prostitutes who lived and worked in what census records of 1870 and 1880 listed as “female boarding houses.”

So Hooker may not have been directly responsible for hooker, but he certainly helped popularize it.

—Hugh Rawson


 

Play It Again, Sam

A superb performance enjoys an encore half a century later

Play It Again, Sam

Samuel Barber, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1910, began composing music when he was seven, and as a juvenile opera singer he revealed a predilection for writing for voice. He studied voice at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where he was a member of the conservatory’s very first class, and he continued to hone his baritone in Vienna. After returning home, he sang on NBC radio and recorded Dover Beach, one of his own vocal compositions.

Now a new compact disc from Bridge Records showcases the 28-year-old Samuel Barber’s singing. He elegantly interprets six folk songs and six Lieder with the lyric sensibility that would characterize his composing. His tone is rich, the timbre simply beautiful. The recording also includes a later concert with the stellar soprano Leontyne Price. At 26 she took a night off from her role as Bess in a Porgy and Bess revival and premiered Barber’s Hermit Songs as well as giving radiant performances of other songs of his. Barber himself accompanied her on the piano.

The 80-minute CD is the fruit of an agreement that for the last 10 years has enabled Bridge to issue previously unreleased musical material archived at the Library of Congress. It begins with the 1953 Price plus Barber concert, which was held in the library’s Coolidge Auditorium, and then segues to Barber accompanying himself on piano during a 1938 Curtis Institute recital.

Leontyne Price & Samuel Barber: Historic Performances is volume 19 in the Bridge Library of Congress series. Several albums in the series spotlight the Budapest String Quartet, which played more than 450 concerts over 22 years as the library’s quartet in residence. One disc captures the American mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani performing at Aaron Copland’s eighty-first birthday concert in 1981, and another presents a 1940 appearance of the Golden Gate Quartet with Josh White.

For more information, peruse the label’s catalogue online at www.bridgerecords.com, or call Bridge Records at 914-654-9270.

—David Lander


 

The Buyable Past

Zippo lighters

A well-preserved promotional lighter from around 1960
A well-preserved promotional lighter from around 1960
(Zippo Manufacturing Company)

An early advertising campaign for the Zippo, which George G. Blaisdell began producing in 1933 in Bradford, Pennsylvania, featured a young lady lighting a cigarette while leaning into a wind so strong it molded her dress to her body. Later ads made a stronger case for “matchless performance,” including one about Sgt. John Nappi’s Zippo, which flared faithfully throughout a 1969 typhoon on Okinawa. Another told how Marineland of Florida’s chief diver, Tom DeVoe, accidentally dropped his Zippo into a tank of aggressive giant sea turtles, who “chewed, slammed, mauled and battered” it. The factory fixed it for free, as it has done with every broken one ever returned to Bradford, where Zippos are still made.

An engraved wartime souvenir.
An engraved wartime souvenir.
(Zippo Manufacturing Company)

Reliable windproof operation and durability made Zippos essential equipment for GIs in World War II. Beginning in the 1950s, another company’s ad campaign made the Zippo image as indelible as a tattoo. The Marlboro man, the most famous advertising character of his era, used one. The scores of movie stars who have ignited Zippos on the screen started with the Marx Brothers (though by that time the similarly named Zeppo had retired from the act).

One ad headlined “278 Movies. 0 Facelifts” hammered home a remarkable point: Zippos that have survived the ravages of time are nearly identical to those made today. Just 2 of the lighter’s 22 original parts have been modified.

A railroad insignia, circa 1940.
A railroad insignia, circa 1940.
(Zippo Manufacturing Company)

More than 400,000 varieties of Zippos have been produced, and their longevity has helped keep prices for many vintage examples under $25. Models that saw service in Vietnam fall into a special collecting category and are frequently engraved with owners’ names, tour-of-duty dates, maps, military insignias, even pithy bits of wisdom (“Fighter by Day / Lover by Night / Drunkard by Choice / Army by Mistake,” one reads). These tend to sell for around $200, but a few fetch upward of $350. Highly select examples from the 1930s and 1940s can command prices above $500, according to Russell E. Lewis, a writer on collectibles who monitored nearly 9,000 Zippo sales on eBay during a 30-day period in 2003.

—David Lander


Resources

Lewis’s book Zippo Lighters: An Identification and Price Guide, a 2004 Krause Publications paperback that sells for $25, is one of a handful of volumes covering the subject. The Zippo Manufacturing Company Web site (www.zippo.com) features information on vintage pieces, and www.zippogallery.com showcases a variety of older models that would enhance collections of military material, advertising memorabilia, and sporting art as well as those devoted exclusively to Zippos.


 

Midway’s Terrible Toll

Despite America’s triumph, mistakes doomed nearly an entire navy unit

Every military triumph also contains tragedy—think of the thousands of men who weren’t moving inland at the end of June 6, 1944—and the Battle of Midway, decisive as any victory ever gained by American arms, holds one that Alvin Kernan feels should be better remembered.

Kernan’s new book, The Unknown Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the American Torpedo Squadrons (Yale, 181 pages, $26.00), has elements of autobiography—during the fight he was a member of Torpedo Squadron Six aboard the carrier Enterprise—but his aim is to tell about a series of bad choices and mistakes that stretched back across years and ended in a needless slaughter of our airmen. The ingredients ranged from poor training to class friction, from flawed equipment to equally flawed theories of how to deploy it.

Four U.S. torpedo groups fought at Midway in 1942, writes Kernan. “They went in, separately, one squadron after another, on the morning of June 4, and in all, 51 planes tried to hit the Japanese ships with torpedoes that day. Only 7 landed back at base. This comes to an aircraft loss rate of over 86 percent. Out of 128 pilots and crew who were in the torpedo planes that day, 29 survived, and 99 died. And not one torpedo exploded against the hull of a Japanese ship.”

That record is, as Kernan says, “known and honored,” but his book assembles “all the pieces for the first time to reveal the total picture and expose the cover-up that concealed what actually happened.” This he does with eloquence and economy, telling a complex story with such clarity, verve, and brevity that you can easily read it in a single sitting—and almost certainly will.


 
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