Was everyone a flapper in the 1920s?

Manners were changing in the 1920s, but did everyone act like a flapper?  Or did people prefer the old-fashioned advice of the late 1800s, codified by Mary Elisabeth Wilson Sherwood in Etiquette, The American Code of Manners and hundreds of other nineteenth century etiquette books? In reality, both were practiced depending on one’s age, location, and situation. New social customs are not adopted by everyone at the same time, or for the same reasons.

The conflicting views of proper etiquette in the 1920s are demonstrated by Lorelei Lee, a flapper and the main character in the 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos. Lorelei pretends to follow the “old” manners when they best suit her purpose, but she is really living the free life of a flapper.

To Lorelei, etiquette was something a girl with working class background like herself used to get ahead in life. A similar attitude was outlined in Lillian Eichler’s Book of Etiquette (1921). Chapter 2, entitled “Etiquette’s Reward” is excerpted below and summarizes Lorelei’s goal. Eichler was just eighteen when she published her etiquette advice, blending the old and the new attitudes.

 Everyone loves to mingle with cultured, well-bred people; with brilliant and celebrated individuals. Everyone loves to attend elaborate social functions where the gay gowns of beautiful women are only less charming and impressive than their faultless manners. But it is not everyone who can be admitted to these inner portals of good society.

It is a well-known truth that manners rather than wealth decide social rank. A man may be fabulously wealthy, but if he does not know how to act, how to dress and speak, he will not be respected. American society has rules of its own, and those who are not willing to learn these laws are shunned, banished. Etiquette is the wall which divides the cultured from the uncultured, which keeps the ill-bred out of the circles where they would be awkward and uncomfortable, and where they would undoubtedly cause mortification to others.

On the other hand, to know these rules of good conduct is to be admitted to the highest circles of society. To know that one is correct banishes at once all uncertainty, all embarrassment. And one mingles with perfectly-mannered people, calm in the assurance that one knows just what is correct, and that no matter what happens one can do or say nothing to reflect on one’s breeding. p. 13

Flappers in Novels

By the way, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady  is hilarious – read it!  The 1953 movie with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell was based on a 1949 musical, based on the novel. The movie is good, but it is set in the 1950s and VERY different from the novel set in the 1920s.

 1925 novel of the life of flappers
“Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” – 1925 novel of the life of flappers

Read more:

Coslovi, Marina, “Why Blondes Need Manners? ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and the Uses of Etiquette” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Spring 2011), pp. 109-129. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43050925

Gentlemen Prefer Blonds Comic Strip

Image credit: “Man seated at piano, surrounded by group of glamorous girls (flappers), Washington, D.C”. , October 8.1923.  Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002697164/

Header Image: “Man seated at piano, surrounded by group of glamorous girls (flappers), Washington, D.C,” 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Advertising Ephemera: Primary Sources for the Classroom


1929 Advertising as a primary source
Letter from the Natural Body Brace Company, 1929

What are ephemera?  Ephemera are everyday documents that are usually discarded – tickets, calendars, advertisements, cards, etc. Ephemera are excellent primary sources for the classroom! These items can help tell the story of an individual or a family. These primary sources also tell a larger story about the history of hobbies, leisure, advertising, or about changes in technology and communications. Below are a couple of examples from my collection. This letter and brochure were use for direct mail marketing in 1929. I also have the original envelope with stamps and postmark.

Ephemera as a Classroom Primary Source

How can these throwaway items from the past be used in the classroom? Students could compare and contrast how items were advertised and marketed in the 1920s and today (changes in technology) and analyze the claims made by advertisers about their products (techniques of marketing and persuasion). Note that addresses in the 1920s were much simpler – students can research the history of the postal service in the United States and when and how zip codes were introduced, and how electronic communications are changing the way we live today.

Start your ephemera primary source collection today!
For more about ephemera – see the following:
The Ephemera Society of America
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera at the Library of Congress