Times of the early 1920s suggested a few possible origins for the term
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
believe," he said. "Over 18
years ago the little, plump chorus girl was called a flapper . . . flapper
originated . . . in the English chorus” (December 21,
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
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 England and the , flapper came to mean
a lively and flirtatious young woman by the early 20th century (Wikipedia article on the flapper). United States
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.
|Boyshform elastic undergarment ad.|
The Daily Times talked a lot about flappers - most of the time, disparagingly. The paper recounts a story from
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
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.” Geneva
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].
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
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.