The Flappers of REH’s Day

And while we’re on the subject, why should anyone be down on the flapper? Who is? but a lot of venerable hypocrites who raise a yell when they see a girl doing honestly and openly what they did secretly and evilly? Bah! This blatting about the sanctity of the American home makes me tired. Listen to the words of a bird who knows: love marriages! Bunk. Out of one hundred marriages, five people, I mean men, marry for love. Ten marry to spite some other girl. Fifty marry for money, no, I’ll say thirty. The rest all marry to satisfy their lust. That means men. Most women marry for love, but not all. Some marry for the same reasons most men do. I dont suppose youll believe this. But that wont alter statistics.

Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, June 8th, 1923

Flappers were with-it young women whose heyday was the Roaring Twenties, at which time Robert E. Howard was in his teens and early twenties. Their dress and conduct scandalized their elders. Flappers wore their hemlines short, about one inch below the knee, and their underwear scant; the teddy and step-ins appeared about that time. They wore makeup. They smoked. They drank, and Prohibition be damned. Not only did they share young men’s hip flasks, they often had hip flasks of their own. They bobbed their hair. They attended parties unchaperoned and drove about in cars with college men. (The typical college man’s car was a stripped-down Ford adorned with slogans like “Chicken, Here’s Your Roost,” “Four Wheels, No Brakes,” and “This Car’s Like the Mayflower – Many a Little Puritan has Come Across In It.”) They danced the Charleston and the Black Bottom, which could not be done in corsets. Their depraved behavior had few limits.

(In passing, ten or a dozen years before, when the tango appeared in England and North America, it had made the blue-noses shudder. A hundred years before, when the waltz came in, that one threatened utter moral collapse among the young. What?  Men and women holding one another while they danced?)

The mass-produced automobile brought huge changes in young people’s courting and dating habits by itself. It meant mobility, including social mobility. It meant being able to get out of your own neighborhood and go somewhere anonymous, quickly and with ease. And World War One had slaughtered millions of young men. The ones that were left were at a premium with young women. Wait until you were married?  Why?  When you couldn’t be sure of getting married?  And young men who’d been to the war and come back had a big motivation to live while they could.

Young women during 1914-18 had entered the work force in huge numbers out of necessity, and they too had found an existence outside “church, kids and kitchen”. Amelia Earhart was an example of the new symbol for girls. Besides millions of young people, war had killed the old certainties and the old values. The hellish influenza pandemic of 1918 had killed millions more world-wide, and added to the “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” attitude that widely prevailed.

Makeup was considered shocking. The Mrs. Grundys still called it “painting.” Smoking … well, it was a time when only a certain kind of girl  smoked. Bobbed hair and flat chests (they were in, the Gibson Girl S-curve figure was passe) were disgraceful and unfeminine.

Flappers flicker and flap and flirt,
Hip flasks flame and flash and fly,
Gay tints glimmer beneath each skirt –
Stocking tops go not that high.
Silks and satins take the eye,
Flimsy fabrics that cling and stay
Molding the contours daintily –
But where are the drawers of yesterday?

Step-ins, bloomers and panties all,
Combinations hold brief sway –
Not less easily do they fall –
But where are the drawers of yesterday?

–Robert E. Howard

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Female fashion and wanton adornment was a big issue back in the 14th century. Despite the wars, torture, rape, the black plague, endemic treason among the nobles, and kings as a rule being moral degenerates, a constant topic for ranting sermons was the vanity of women. They were assured by celibate (sometimes) priests with straight faces and loud voices that every follicle they had ever plucked on their hairline or eyebrows would have red-hot needles thrust into it by demons for eternity, once the ladies arrived in hell, as they surely would.

Robert E. Howard was informed enough about the Middle Ages to be aware of the above. And all his fans know he was seldom on the side of conformity. Nor did he have patience with hypocrisy or phony pretense. His verse “A Great Man Speaks” gives us the ruminations of a statue of some big-time politician or whatnot as he gazes over the park. There is a drunkard passed out among the flowers, and the Great Man is wishing he was alive, not a statue, so that he could glug the drunk’s whiskey bottle. A pretty girl passes, and he wishes he was alive, not a statue, so that he could get his hands under her skirt. To hell with the puff jobs his admirers give out.

“They set me up on high, a marble saint,
As if to guard the virtue of the park,
My flanks are gaunt, my gaze is cold and stark,
For I must look the part the liars paint.
They’ve cleansed my history of fleshy taint.
The elders bid the younger people mark
How virtuous I gleam against the dark  –
Could I but speak I’d make the bastards faint.”

Fathers, of course, took their daughters’ virtue seriously back then. Trifling with it could still get your arse shot off, and the never-darken-my-door bit happened often enough. They meant it, too. For the genuine flavor of those times, look through a copy of the autobiographical Belles on Their Toes, by brother-and-sister team Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. It’s breezy, warm and rambunctious. (The hilarious scene where the large group of siblings, it was a big family, catch a peeping tom and reduce him to gibbering pleas as he’s trapped up a tree, is beyond price.)  But the girls were young and full of beans in a free-and-easy time, and their father Frank Gilbreth Senior didn’t like it, especially when his daughters wanted to be with-it.

There were disputes, heated ones, about makeup and underwear, and Frank Senior was inclined to thump the table and bluster. He threatened to put his daughters in a convent if they didn’t toe the line, although they knew he wasn’t even close to meaning it. “The one with the ten-foot wall, or the one with the twelve-foot wall?” Ernestine asks pertly, when he accuses her of wearing makeup. (She wasn’t.)

Dad Gilbreth was appalled by modern underwear when Ernestine bought a couple of teddies home. She figured that as the oldest it was up to her to pioneer the revolution and weather the storm. “I don’t want to be a sneak,” she announced, “so I’m showing you these now. If you won’t let me wear them here I’ll change into them on the way to school. I’m not going to be the only girl there with long underwear that has a flap in the back!  It’s disgusting.”

“It’s not as disgusting as having no back to the underwear to sew a flap on!” her father roared. “I can’t believe every girl at your school wears these teddy-bear, or bare-teddy, things. If that’s all the underwear women have on nowadays, no wonder you read about all those crimes and love-nests, like that New Brunswick preacher and the choir-singer …”

That would be the Hall-Mills murder case of 1922. Edward Hall, an Episcopal priest, and Eleanor Mills, a member of his choir, were found shot dead in a New Jersey field.  The main suspects, Hall’s wife and her brothers, were tried in 1926 but acquitted. Nothing eclipsed the case until the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. Robert E. Howard was possibly thinking of that double murder when he penned another of his caustic verses on spurious superficial morals, “The Choir Girl”.

“I have a saintly voice, the people say;
With Elder Blank I send the music winging –
I smile, and compliment him on his singing –
By God, I’d rather hear a jackass bray.
I nod and smile to all the pious sisters –
I wish their rears were stung with seven blisters.
That youthful minister, so straight and slim –
I’d trade my soul for one long night with him.”

Harking back to Belles on Their Toes, Ernestine assured her father she was not drawing the long bow. “Come to school and see.”  He blushed and backed down. In the end he grumbled, “The bare-teddies and six o’clock stockings are OK, I guess, but I’ll have no painted women in this house.”  His daughters told him that everybody used makeup these days, and didn’t call it painting any more. He barked, “I don’t care what they call it.”

For the times, Frank Gilbreth was actually quite liberal and advanced. At least, he was proud of his wife for being an industrial engineer and career woman, (in the 1920s, mind) and all his kids adored him. There were twelve, which means Lillian Moller Gilbreth must have been the sort of superwoman you don’t think exists outside wish-fulfilling novels. Both of them were quirky, affectionate people if the book is halfway right. But like the temple priests in ancient Sumeria, they thought there was no more res-pect for tradition and decency and the world was going to hell.

The Gilbreth girls could be reactionary, too. When their parents yielded on bobbed hair, and Lillian took all five to the salon, the hairdresser asked in all innocence, “What about you, Mrs. Gilbreth?”  Well. Her daughters clouded up and rained all over the parade. “No sir!  You don’t touch a hair of her head. The idea!”

Lillian was tickled to have the situation reversed, and pretended to consider the notion. “I don’t know, girls,” said she, smiling sweetly. “It might look very chic. What do you think?”

“I think it would be disgraceful,” declared Anne – the second oldest, as I remember. “After all, a mother’s a mother, not a silly flapper.”

“Just my daughters today, then,” said Lillian. “I guess five bobbed-hair bandits in the family should be enough.”

Bathing suits became an issue for the Gilbreth girls too. A two-piece swimsuit then didn’t mean a bikini. The first piece was heavy wool that covered a girl from neck to knee. It wasn’t considered enough for decency. The second piece was a sort of massive, enveloping cape. Long black stockings too. The one-piece suit that appeared in the 1920s consisted of a long top combined with shorts. Legs and arms were exposed. Anne called her mother’s bathing suit a “sea anchor”.

There was more to worry about then, for those who observed it, than petting parties, jazz and blues, too much mobility, or even Al Capone. There was the Red scare, the National Origins Act of 1924, which restricted immigration on precisely the basis it said (and sadly was favored by Howard and Lovecraft) and the exponential rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had broadened its horizons from lynching and shooting blacks to keep them from voting; its hate now included Catholics, Jews, and foreign immigrants in general. Membership was probably five million across the nation, at a conservative estimate, and included plenty of respectable middle class men, doctors, lawyers and ministers. The Klan didn’t like bootlegging, motion pictures, city folks or any kind of religion but Protestant fundamentalism. It was, naturally, all for strict moral conduct and family values.

The flapper was a lewd menace.

The quintessential novel of the flapper era was The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire and former World War One soldier obsessed with Daisy Buchanan, lives in a mansion and throws extravagant parties. It turns out that his fortune, far from being respectable “old money,” was made bootlegging, and even his name is phony. His passion for Daisy turns out to be delusional too. The woman he has been desperately trying to impress for years is flighty and selfish enough to let him take the blame for a motor car fatality when in fact she was the one driving. Another character, a married man who is himself unfaithful, still explodes in righteous rage when he finds his wife is cheating too. A couple of murders result.

The moral vigilantes of the time should have lived until now. Not that anything is being done now that wasn’t done then. As another Robert, Bob Heinlein, wrote, “Most of our current moral decline can be summed up in one sentence. What used to be covered up is now being talked about.”  I may as well let REH have the last word here:

Ye ancient, honest, olde farmer ye-speaks. “The young people of terday air simply awful. Haint got no decentcy ner nuthin’ … these here one-piece bathin’ suits, and dancin’, and all. Some gals axually read novels! And goin’ bathin’. When I was young folks didnt bathe atall. An’ gamblin’. Taint no harm to bet on hoss-races and play euchre cause I’ve did both myself. But I considers it right-down sinful to play poker and bet on automobeel-races. And drinkin’ … the young men and young women nowadays is right-down scandalous … Well, times aint like they used to be and all the young men and young women is goin’ to hell especially the young women.”

Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, July 30th, 1923