In the 1920s, a new woman was born. She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties. She was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper.
FLAPPERS were northern, urban, single, young, middle-class women. Many held steady jobs in the changing American economy. The clerking jobs that blossomed in the Gilded Age were more numerous than ever. Increasing phone usage required more and more operators. The consumer-oriented economy of the 1920s saw a burgeoning number of department stores. Women were needed on the sales floor to relate to the most precious customers — other women. But the flapper was not all work and no play.
Ironically, more young women consumed alcohol in the decade it was illegal than ever before. Smoking, another activity previously reserved for men, became popular among flappers. With the political field leveled by the Nineteenth Amendment, women sought to eliminate social double standards.
The term "flapper" first appeared in Great Britain after World War I. It was there used to describe young girls, still somewhat awkward in movement who had not yet entered womanhood. Authors such F. Scott Fitzgerald and artists such as John Held Jr. first used the term to the U.S., half reflecting and half creating the image and style of the flapper. Fitzgerald described the ideal flapper as "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen." Held accentuated the flapper image by drawing young girls wearing unbuckled galoshes that would make a "flapping" noise when walking.
The 1920s was the Jazz Age and one of the most popular past-times for flappers was dancing. Dances such as the Charleston, Black Bottom, and the Shimmy were considered "wild" by older generations.
As described in the May 1920 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, flappers "trot like foxes, limp like lame ducks, one-step like cripples, and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transform the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam."
Famous Flappers included movie stars, actresses and other celebrities. The names of Famous Flappers included Clara Bow, Coco Chanel, Joan Crawford, Colleen Moore, Barbara Stanwyck, Bebe Daniels, Norma Talmadge, Theda Bara, Norma Shearer, Louise Brooks, Anita Loos and Gilda Gray "the Shimmy Queen".
Despite the youthful enthusiasm for flapper style, some people felt threatened by it. When hemlines began to rise, several states made laws charging fines to women wearing skirts with hemlines more than three inches above the ankle, and many employers fired women who bobbed their hair. However, in the excitement and gaiety that followed the end of World War I in 1918, the movement toward a freer fashion could not be stopped by those who valued the old ways. It took the stock market crash of 1929 to bring the era of the flapper to a sudden end. Almost overnight, the arrival of an economic depression brought a serious tone to society. Women's hemlines dropped again, and the carefree age of the flapper was over.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931.
Andrist, Ralph K., ed. The American Heritage: History of the 20's & 30's. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1970.
Baughman, Judith S., ed. American Decades: 1920-1929. New York: Manly, Inc., 1996.
Bliven, Bruce. "Flapper Jane." The New Republic 44 (Sept. 9, 1925): 65-67.
Douglas, George H. Women of the 20s. Saybrook Publishers, 1986.
Fass, Paula S. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920's. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Hall, G. Stanley. "Flapper Americana Novissima." Atlantic Monthly 129 (June 1922): 771-780.
Hatton, Jackie. "Flappers." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 2000.
Page, Ellen Welles. "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents." Outlook 132 (Dec. 6, 1922): 607.
Saunders, W. O. "Me and My Flapper Daughters." The American Magazine 104 (Aug. 1927): 27, 121.