Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What was a flapper, anyway?

by Alice Askins, Site Manager of Rose Hill Mansion

The Geneva Daily Times of the early 1920s suggested a few possible origins for the term flapper. 

Why is a flapper? [sic]  Who knows?  Well, why is she called a flapper? Now, that's different.   In . . . a story published 12 years ago, Harry Leon Wilson . . . called the little dumpling girl to whom ‘Our Hero, Bunker Bean,’ found himself married, the ‘flapper.’   . . . When asked recently why he called his . . . girl a flapper, Mr. Wilson said he didn't exactly know.  ‘I heard the term first in England, l believe," he said.  "Over 18 years ago the little, plump chorus girl was called a flapper . . . flapper originated . . . in the English chorus” (December 21, 1921).
Yes, many times we've wondered, why they call the young ladies flappers.  In the spring time, summer time, and fall there does not seem much reason for giving them this cognomen.  . . . Then we saw how they wore their galoshes [unbuckled and flapping]” (January 21, 1922).  

Flappers Resembled Ducklings
The term "flapper," as applied to young girls of a certain type, is not modern, as most people suppose, but is really close on two centuries old.  Early in the seventeen hundreds growing-up girls were first called "flappers" from a fancied resemblance to the young ducks, neither fledging nor grown-up, but dashing about with a good deal of noise and flapping of wings” (July 28, 1922).

Singer and dancer Josephine Baker in a very flapper-ish ensemble.

Wikipedia, however, suggests that these theories were actually mistaken.  According to the article on Wikipedia, flapper was actually a slang word in England for prostitute that dates to the 1600s.  As early as 1631 ”flap” referred to a young prostitute.  By the 1890s flapper was popular slang for both a very young prostitute and any lively mid-teenage girl.   Based on early 20th century college and theatrical slang in England and the United States, flapper came to mean a lively and flirtatious young woman by the early 20th century (Wikipedia article on the flapper). 

By 1920, the term had taken on the meaning we associate with it today.  As one critic put it,  "the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations” (Wikipedia article on the flapper).    Clearly, not all women in the 1920s were flappers.  The flapper followed the extremes of fashion and flouted convention.  For example, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby was a flapper.

The flapper emerged after the cataclysm of World War I, and seems to have become a symbol of everything people disliked about the modern world.  She wore makeup, and applied it publicly, which conservatives found scandalous.  She wore less clothing than western women had for centuries.  If she was corseted at all, she wore elastic undergarments instead of heavy cotton and whalebone.  Her legs were more visible than ever.  When hem lines were their highest in 1926, they hit just below the knee, and stockings were sheer and flesh-colored.  She rejected old standards of female beauty and behavior.  Instead of exaggerating her female curves, she wanted to look boyish.  Her hair was cut short.   She smoked, drank, and swore, which had been male prerogatives.     She was widely assumed to be sexually aggressive and promiscuous.  Some clothing historians speculate that young women were, in a sense, trying to replace the young men who never came home from the war.  Flappers certainly seemed to lay claim to male freedom.  At the time, many people found all of this appalling.

Boyshform elastic undergarment ad.  

The Daily Times talked a lot about flappers - most of the time, disparagingly.  The paper recounts a story from Indianapolis, expressing surprise when a flapper demonstrated that she had a kind heart.   “THE FLAPPER IS PASSING,” claimed the Times hopefully, in May 1922:   ”She Doesn't Make a Good Wife, Therefore Her Day Is Done. “  When Bishop Edwin H. Hughes of Boston spoke to the First Methodist Church in Geneva, he stated “I have . . . not much [patience] with the super-flapper.  If she should walk the streets of Jerusalem with her face spotted red and white, the people would cry, as they did for the leper - unclean! unclean!   . . . In God’s name get back to God, lest some awful thing overtake America.” 

In June 1922, the Times reported:

Barbershop, Once Haven for Man, Now Catering to Flapper Patrons

. . . investigation by a Times reporter has disclosed that . . . the modern flapper has invaded what was once  . . . a sanctuary for the male of the species alone – the barbershop.  And the shops are cleaning house and installing fancy window curtains in her honor.   She walks right in, so Geneva barbers state, hangs her hat on the brass hooks, gives a preliminary look in the mirror, and waits for the call “next.”     . . . The worst of the whole matter, according to one prehistoric customer, is the gradual decline of the old cuspidors.  They have been moved clear back to the rear wall  . . . Local flappers haven't gone so far as to adopt the general custom of smoking in public yet  . . .   Business is picking up, but the old timers cannot help but feel twinges of regret.”

The Times sometimes, though, tried to be even-handed:  “THE POOR FLAPPER . . . gets credit—or is it dis-credit—-for a lot of things for which she really is not to blame.  To be true [sic] she allows only the lower buckle of her galoshes to have any responsibility, but she didn't originate the style.  It originated at Cornell” [February 28, 1922].

Cartoon by John Held, Jr. of a woman getting her hair bobbed.  Held always drew flapper skirts exaggeratedly short.

And sometimes, the paper reported other voices in the debate:

“Bishop Thomas F. Gailor  . . . Says Woman of Today Is No Different from the Woman of Grandmother’s Day

New York March 4 [1922].  Bishop Thomas F. Gailor, head of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, today took up the cudgel for the flapper.   . . .   According to Bishop Gailor, women had reformers "het up" over the things they did to their faces and the way they wore their skirts, even in the days when Methusaleh was a boy.   . . . Speaking of the flapper, the church leader said:  ‘It is silly to charge mere kids with deep, dark immoral emotions and motives.  There is nothing wicked about a girl who bobs her hair.  If she wants to do it, why shouldn't she?  Perhaps it is more becoming to her than long hair.  . . .  I never worry about the foibles of the young.  Girls rouge and wear short skirts because it is fashion.  People are like sheep about following fashion.  Young people are particularly so.  When I was in college it was a fad for a time for the boys to wear mustaches and we all wore them.  Then some one cut his off and we all followed suit.    . . . The world is not any worse now than it used to be.  Its morals are not degenerating.   . . . We couldn’t come out of four years of war without feeling upset.  The whole world is nervous and restless, but there's no danger of its going to ruin.   I always plead with the Christians of today to exercise more tolerance, more charity in judging their fellow men.   . . .’”

Though the debate continued, by the mid-1930s flapper was outmoded slang.  It may be that in the depths of the Great Depression, other worries took precedence. 

Do you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or go to www.genevahistoricalsociety.com. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

History of Christmas

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

Roman Feast, by Roberto Bompiani. Image courtesy the Getty.

Although Christmas marks an event that occurred 2000 years ago, Christmas as Americans celebrate it today is a relatively recent invention. The origins of the modern Christmas celebration are not found in the Bible, so much as in pagan religious traditions and 19th-century American middle class values. Midwinter celebrations have been part of many cultures around the world and portions of these celebrations have been incorporated into the celebration of Christmas. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, in honor of the god of agriculture and the harvest, in December. The celebration included the reversal of the social order, with masters waiting on servants, and eating, drinking and raucous behavior. The Christian church did not institute Christmas as a holiday until the fourth century and probably chose December 25 in an effort to Christianize these popular pagan celebrations. As a result, pagan traditions of disorder and misrule continued, with the poor expecting food and drink at the expense of the rich and threatening mischief if refused.

Traditions of wassail and mistletoe stem from pagan religious rites that predate Christianity.

Because of these pagan traditions of disorder and the lack of biblical evidence for Christmas, the Puritans and other Calvinists rejected the celebration of the holiday in the 17th century. Christmas was even outlawed in parts of colonial New England. While some (Anglican) Southerners celebrated the holiday with church, dinner, dancing and visiting, it was not widely celebrated in the North until the mid-19th century. In Geneva, businesses were still routinely open on Christmas Day during the 1800s, and as late as 1900, the post office and some shops had open hours on the 25th.

Thomas Nast’s 1863 view of Santa Claus created the image Americans have used ever since.

By the early 1800s Christmas had become a concern to the Protestant middle class, particularly in New York City, where the holiday resembled the modern Mardi Gras or Halloween. Class conflict and poverty in the rapidly growing city made the traditional reversal of roles more problematic. During the holiday season lower class New Yorkers, especially the poor and young, engaged in drunken rioting, theft and assault. Threatened by the disorder, wealthy New Yorkers like Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore intentionally tried to remake Christmas as a family-centered holiday using literature. Reinterpreting the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas, Moore’s 1822 poem “The Night Before Christmas” virtually invented the American Santa Claus. Stories in Irving’s Sketchbook popularized a peaceful and harmonious Christmas celebration. Merchants and ministers alike soon embraced this child-centered holiday involving gifts and goodwill. The growth of consumerism, the Victorian focus on children, and Americans’ desire to create their own traditions, all contributed to the adoption of this reinvented Christmas holiday.

The 19th-century family surrounding the Christmas Tree.
When Phineas Prouty Jr. and his wife Adelaide lived in the Prouty-Chew House from 1855 to 1891, Christmas centered on their children. Several diary entries describe the household celebrations during the early years of their marriage with their young daughters Milly and Allie.

“Oh the excitement and wonder of this morning! The tea set! The doll! The candy! Nuts! & cornucopias!! Little Sister has her arms full of pretty things and looks wild at all this noise and frolic. This afternoon I made a Christmas tree and Mill had a private tea party.”
-Adelaide Prouty, December 25, 1859

By the 1860s Christmas was well established and closely resembled today’s holiday, right down to complaints about commercialism. For more about the invention of the American Christmas read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Prohibition: The Real Story (Or Close to It)

John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

The term “Prohibition” brings up many images: flappers, garter flasks, speakeasies, and mobsters. Like many historical words, it conjures up few facts – alcohol was outlawed, no one could get it, and you had to buy it from mobsters, right?

Not really. In the words of one person who lived through Prohibition, “If you couldn’t get a drink, you weren’t really trying.” How could this be?

For starters, most laws annoy the citizens who don’t agree with them (and that can be many people).  Laws are often vague and full of loopholes. Federal laws often saddle the states with enforcement with little or no funding, whether or not the states agree to it. All these factors applied to the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

The 18th Amendment stated that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” The amendment was ratified by all states but Connecticut and Rhode Island (although New Jersey didn’t ratify until 1922!), certified January 16, 1919, and went into law one year later. The Volstead Act established powers and punishments for enforcing Prohibition. It allowed using alcohol for religious rituals, industry and science, and medicinal purposes (prescribed by a doctor and carrying a special label), and it didn’t outlaw possession. A revised version of the act allowed for making up to 200 gallons of intoxicating fruit juice (hard cider and wine) a year for home consumption.

Since possession wasn’t illegal, drinkers stocked up on alcohol right up to January 17, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect. Consumption and sharing with friends was still legal, as long as it wasn’t sold. There were doctors who wrote prescriptions for medicinal liquor, and the number of “churches” and “clergy” – outside of denominations with strict rules - rose sharply after 1920. (The Internet didn’t create “become a minister” or “start your own church”.)  Finally, home production was the biggest loophole for a city like Geneva, in the heart of grape country with Italian immigrants who knew how to make wine.

There were a variety of ways to get a drink. The late Dr. Robert Doran was a Hobart student at the beginning of Prohibition, and shared his memories in a column for the Finger Lakes Times. Frank Mellen ran the Seneca Café and continued to serve and sell alcohol during Prohibition. Dr. Doran’s friends would buy brandied wine from Frank for parties; it had been produced by local wineries, stockpiled, and was available for several years.

Many businesses, like the Seneca Café, continued to serve alcohol even after being arrested more than once. The short-lived Mullan-Gage Act called for strict enforcement of Prohibition in New York. However, the law had little impact; statewide, there were thousands of arrests but only six convictions and no jail time. It was repealed in 1923 and enforcement was left to Federal agents.

Barrels from the raid of a beermaking operation were stored at City Hall as evidence.

A person could make his own wine (up to about 1,000 bottles a year); wineries that had converted to making juice would sell barrels with instructions for winemaking. In Geneva, you could leave the job to Italian immigrants who were more experienced and buy wine from them. There were a number of speakeasies – illegal bars – where you could get a beer or a shot of liquor, maybe some food. Their locations were known around town but not documented, so we don’t have a lot of information about them.

This is merely the tip of the ice cube in the highball glass. The 1920s changed music, fashion, and popular culture, and attempting to halt the drinking of alcohol had much to do with it.

Did you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or go to www.genevahistoricalsociety.com

Friday, December 13, 2013

Clubs, Associations, Organizations: Networking in the 1920s

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

Elks' Club

There was a commercial that had the tag line “you’ve come a long way, baby” which some folks might think applies to the way people network now versus the 1920s.  Networking now is done on “social sites” like Facebook, LinkedIn, Pintrest or Twitter (to name a few).  We put our photos up on-line using Shutterfly, Flickr, or SmugMug.  We can talk to each other “face to face” via Facetime or Skype and if you don’t mind the lag in time it is almost like being in the same room. 

However, in the 1920s networking really meant being in the same room and participating in verbal conversations.  Many people (men especially) belonged to fraternal or service organizations.  Often these organizations or clubs used rituals to bind their members together.  Organizations like the Masons, Foresters, Fraternal Order of Eagles, Knights of Columbus, the Elks, the Moose, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Kiwanis Club competed with Masonic Lodges, Eastern Star, military groups, religious and ethnic organizations for members.  Add organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, Business Women’s Club, and various book groups, art clubs and sewing circles and America was a country of “joiners.”

The 1925 Geneva City Directory lists 48 societies, associations, organizations, and military groups, religious and benevolent organizations.  The book clubs, art clubs, and sewing circles are not even mentioned and their inclusion would certainly make the number much higher.  Both men and women could be out socializing at clubs or meetings every night of the week if they were so inclined.

Iroquois Club

Many joined service organizations like Zonta, Rotary, Kiwanis, or Lions.  Some opted for fraternal organizations such as Masons, Elks, Moose, Eagles, or  D.A.R.  The basic difference between the two groups was fraternal groups looked out for the welfare of their members while service groups worked at making a difference in their neighborhoods and communities.

Many of them began as all white male organizations and gradually added women and minorities so that many of these groups are very integrated today.  But, some groups such as Masons (all male) and Zonta (all female) are still sexually segregated.  Some groups remain staunchly one ethnicity even if the “rule” is unspoken.

In the 1920s two service groups started chapters in Geneva.  The Geneva Kiwanis Club organized on May 27, 1921 with 53 charter members and the Geneva Zonta Club organized on May 1, 1929 with 12 charter members.  Kiwanis International is a group that works to serve children and Zonta International is an organization of executives and leaders who advocate the advancement of women.  These two service organizations joined a collection of established clubs in Geneva that included Elks, Odd Fellows, Masons, Macabees, Woodsmen and many more.  In the days before, television, computers, and digital social networks these organizations were how you were entertained, met people with similar interests, established business connections and got to know your neighbors. Many fraternal organizations, like Modern Woodsmen of America, were founded with the idea of helping their “brethren” in times of illness and death, much like insurance.  They were not the same as service groups like Rotary, which were founded to help their community, members and non-members alike.

Masonic Temple
Today, many of these clubs and organizations are gone or merged due to lack of interest on the part of the public.  Some groups like the Masons, Rotary, Geneva Women’s Club, and Fortnightly Club continue to be well attended and some communities are more supportive of service organizations, private clubs and fraternal organizations than others.

In our archive there is no directory comparable to the 1925 Geneva Directory that lists all the cubs, associations and organizations, but the yellow pages of the 2013-14 Verizon directory list 14 clubs only 4 of which are in Geneva.  There are other organizations whose meetings circulate among member’s homes and so do not have a phone number or address to list, but you can see that the number of groups has dropped drastically from the 48 listed in 1925. 

I have nostalgic feelings for those days when family life revolved around personal interaction with friends and acquaintances, but there are a lot of positive things to be said about the new social media sites too.  Where else do I get to see photos of my niece’s Halloween costume 10 minutes after she puts it together, or a friend’s new born baby, or my other friend’s new puppy just minutes after it comes home?  How else can I get a tour of my friend’s home in Kansas without flying out there and have it narrated by him at the same time?  One way or other humans find a way to communicate and socialize; however, it often changes with each generation.  Enjoy networking!  It binds communities together!

Did you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or visit  

Monday, December 9, 2013

ROC the Day

On December 11 local Geneva nonprofits will be participating in ROC the Day.  Organized by the United Way of Greater Rochester, ROC the Day is a 24-hour, online event that provides individuals an opportunity to support nonprofit organizations in the Great Rochester area.   The concept is simple, on December 11 go to www.roctheday.org and fill a “shopping cart” with the charities you wish to support.  Last year ROC the Day raised over $875,000 for Rochester area nonprofits. 

This year, Geneva nonprofits are collaborating together.   Between 9 am and 6 pm on December 11 we invite community members to the Smith Opera House to see the great work being done by Geneva nonprofits, enjoy free entertainment and refreshments, and donate-on site.   Participating nonprofits are 

Boys and Girls Club of Geneva/ Geneva Community Center
Child & Family Resources
Family Counseling Service of the Finger Lakes  
Foundation for the Geneva Public Library
Geneva Center of Concern/Geneva Food Pantry
Geneva Community Lunch Program
Geneva Community Projects: Geneva Dog Park
Geneva Family YMCA
Geneva General Day Care
Geneva Historical Society
Geneva Reads
Geneva Theatre Guild
Literacy Volunteers of Ontario-Yates
Lockland School
The Smith Opera House
Success for Geneva’s Children
Thrive to Survive

Whether it’s at the Smith Opera House or www.roctheday.org, on December 11 please consider becoming a ROCstar and make a difference right here in Geneva.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Here We Come A-Wassailing...

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen,
Love and joy come to you
And to your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year

 On Saturday, December 7 the 45th Annual Wassail Bowl and Sale is being held in the Presbyterian Church, 24 Park Place in Geneva, from 10 am to 2 pm.  This is a great opportunity to get fresh wreaths and greens, baked goods, and gifts for the holiday season.  The proceeds all benefit the Geneva Historical Society.  Wassail will also be available for tasting.  This begs the question - what is wassail?

Though the exact origins of wassail is unknown, in England it was an Anglo-Saxon  greeting (“waes hail”) meaning “be in good health.”  This simple greeting gradually evolved into a call and response toast. One person started the toast (usually the most esteemed guest) by raising a communal bowl and shouting “was hail” to the person next to them and that person would answer “drinc hail.”  The bowl would be passed around with each person taking their turn in the call and response.  What were people drinking?  A mixture of mulled ale or mead, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg topped with crab apples and slices of toast.  This beverage became known as wassail and it was served in a huge bowl known as the wassail bowl.   

In time wassail became associated with Christmas and particularly the Twelfth Night.  By the 1600s wassailing had also changed from an indoor activity to an outdoor activity.    On the Twelfth Night, or January 5, groups of people would travel from house to house singing songs and offering to share the contents of their wassail bowl for a small fee. Wassailing would continue into the 1800s. 

To encourage fertility, farmers also wassailed their animals and crops, particularly apple orchards.  Singing, toasting to the trees health, placing cider soaked bread into the branches or splashing the trees with cider were all done to ward off evil spirits and ensure a fruitful harvest.

To taste this piece history, join us at the Wassail Bowl and Sale.