A Look at the Year of the Flapper in Milwaukee

In 1922, the Jazz Age arrived in Milwaukee wearing galoshes, sleeveless dresses and a bob – and she set off a moral panic. 

It began innocently enough, with a pair of galoshes.  

In a minor item with an accompanying photograph on the second page of the Feb. 1, 1922, Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet supplement, the city was told of the current trend for young ladies’ footwear – galoshes worn over silken hosiery. This was the look favored, it said, by “Miss Flapper.” However, the write-up was a bit out-of-step. The picture depicted a pair of neatly buckled shoes. Every girl in Milwaukee already knew that only a bush hound (one outside of the flapper clique, that is) would bother to buckle her galoshes. Any real barlow, beasel or biscuit (various classes of flappers) knew to leave their buckles undone. It was the free and easy way in what was quickly becoming a free and easy time.  

This was the first item of note on “Miss Flapper” in the Milwaukee papers in 1922, but it would not be the last. Passé by the back end of the decade and obliterated in spirit by the Great Depression, the trend passed quickly out of the popular consciousness of Milwaukee. But 100 years ago, Miss Flapper – her fashions, her music, her body, sexuality and soul – was at the center of one of the most contentious moral panics in recent memory.  


 

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A Milwaukee girl who turned 17 in 1922 – the age seemingly most prone to flapperism – had already witnessed two of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. She was about 12 when the U.S. entered the Great War – which would end up killing 20 million worldwide. She almost certainly had family of some sort in the fight and probably heard the grim daily updates on the situation “over there.” There were food shortages and lightless evenings meant to conserve materials and fuel for the war effort. And then came the Great Influenza – a pandemic that would take another 20 million lives – that hit Milwaukee just as the war was coming to an end in 1918. She was about 13 when the city shut down nearly all gathering places in the midst of a boom of 10,000 new cases of the flu per month. City schools closed, and churches were only open for funerals. Before it was over, 1,200 county residents were dead.  

The furious debate over women’s suffrage went back as far as she could remember, and she was about 14 when Wisconsin ratified the 19th Amendment. She was 15 when the country went dry and ever since had seen the new law treated as little more than an irritant. She had seen that life could be short, that the rules were only as rigid as the masses regarded them, and that her generation would be the first to fully realize freedoms decades in the making. 

The girl of this era, Linda Simon wrote in Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper, “seemed to be inventing a culture of her own – out of her parents’ control – which threatened marriage, the family, the workplace and, not least, propriety.”

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Open galoshes, short dresses worn loose around the waist, rouged cheeks and painted lips, bobbed hair, and stockings rolled down beneath the knee defined the Milwaukee flapper’s look in 1922. She probably smoked, didn’t frown on drinking, and her speech, if not outright vulgar, was pocked with so many bits of slang and cute phrases that few outside of the flapper set would be able to tell the difference. The concept of flapper fashions had been around the city since at least 1920, with stores advertising flapper dresses and hats, but it wasn’t until they began to defy social conventions that the city really took notice. “Nineteen-hundred and twenty-two,” the Journal wrote in May, “will go down in history as the year of the great flapper controversy.”  

It started with the flapper’s trademark bob haircut. The Journal wrote of one local mother who, after months of pestering from her teenage daughter, finally relented and allowed her to bob her hair. “Go over to the barbershop this afternoon and have it over with,” she said. “But you know I’ll cry my eyes out.”  

“Of course,” the daughter replied. “But it’s something every mother has to go through with, like childbirth.”  

But it was less the hair being bobbed that got Milwaukee’s attention than the place in which the hair was being bobbed. The trend had grown so great in 1922 that the few beauty shops in town that would allow girls to get bobs were overrun, and girls began dropping into barber shops – previously a man’s domain – and asking for cuts. So many flappers took to visiting barber shops that they began asking to reserve time in the chair in advance to avoid the dreary male conversation while they waited. And so was born the concept of haircuts by appointment in Milwaukee.  

So, too, were flappers invading the workplace. Flapperism came with a price tag – the clothes, the hats, the nightlife – and many girls who did not want to be thought a “pocket twister” (gold digger) or a “bun duster” (freeloader) were entering the workforce. It was estimated that as many as 5,700 flappers were employed in the city by 1922.   

Flappers were also asserting their rights in the workplace as romantic visitors. Turning the tradition of a man calling on a female partner at her place of work on its ear, Milwaukee flappers declared it their right to visit a fellow if they were “goofy” (in love) enough for him. “Why shouldn’t the girls call on the fellows?” a smitten flapper told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Why should we sit at home and wait for the boys to visit us? Ain’t we got no rights?”  

The city newspapers made a sport of trying to keep up with the latest in flapper fashion trends. Bells were favored by flappers early on in 1922, affixed to the fringes of their dresses and with a “tinkle [that] accommodates [her] promenade.” Milwaukee school officials felt differently and banned bells from acceptable student clothing. In May, oversized hair bows were declared to be the look of the summer.  By June, Detroit flappers had taken up pipe-smoking, although the trend had yet to reach Milwaukee. But local flappers had taken to replacing their more traditional jewelry with small metal rings featuring images of flappers.  At the same time, some Milwaukee flappers were swearing off rolled socks, once a staple of the look, for short hose that covered the knee. “Rolled socks are passé!” one girl told the Sentinel. “We kids don’t do that anymore!”   


WHILE COVERAGE OF FLAPPERISM in the city featured plenty of trifling matters, it was clear that the larger fixation on the flapper was sexual at its core. The Journal ran stories about flapper love triangles that ended in divorce, suicide or murder. With an article on such a case in Toledo, the paper ran a photo of the principals involved with the caption “Flapper Love versus True Love.” When the Sentinel sent an undercover reporter to a dance hall to eavesdrop on flappers, there was little mystery about what “flapper love” involved. The girls and young women there spoke openly about having multiple boyfriends and taking up with married men. They were cynical about romance but eager to see men spend their money. The reporter noted one instance in particular, in which a rakish-looking fellow with a half-grin leaned into the ear of a flapper and whispered something vulgar. While a girl of previous generations might have gasped or slapped the man, the flapper could not be so easily shocked. She merely got up and walked away. 

Photo courtesy of Alamy

Over a two-week period in April and May, the Journal ran a “Flapper Dictionary” series that highlighted after-hours pursuits. While the paper would print terms no more descriptive than “necking,” “spooning” and “petting,” the implications were clear. A “biscuit” was a flapper who liked to pet.  A “bell polisher” was a girl who liked to “linger in the vestibule” after a date.  A “lollygagger” was a bell polisher “addicted” to vestibule spooning.  A “love nester” was a flapper who showed up with a disheveled bob. 

“Did you know that they have ‘necking parties’ now?” one Milwaukee mother told the Journal. “I heard my Patty asking her chum if that new boy was a good necker and that if he wasn’t, she didn’t care about knowing him.”  

The article, another in a long line of panic pieces for 1922, allowed young Patty to elaborate. “We don’t care about boys unless they are good neckers. That’s always the first question. Who wants to play around with a holaholy [someone who refused to neck]? Pash stuff is old now – all that business of vamping the boys and getting them into a proper state of mind to do the petting. They know what’s expected of them by this time. … Romance is dead. Silly stuff. Sex is the only talk now.” 

The city was on high alert for public displays of affection throughout 1922. New rules were added to the code of conduct for Milwaukee’s beaches, demanding “gentlemanly behavior” and specifically outlawing “spooning.” Raids on petting parties in county parks were so common that one Milwaukee man conducted his own, posing as a police officer and demanding bribes to let the matter pass. He was eventually convicted of extorting a girl for $4. The upper part of the Milwaukee River was a particular hot spot for teenage love and was regularly patrolled at night by a Milwaukee Police boat nicknamed the “Killjoy.” Before the end of the year, the Common Council was seeking funds to upgrade the vessel’s engine to a more “covert” model.  

On one such Killjoy raid on the river, police busted a late-night “dancing” party of more than a dozen boys and girls dressed in swimwear and in possession of illegal liquor. “Police say,” the Journal wrote, “intoxicants were flowing from both bottles and a phonograph.” 


ALTHOUGH IT WAS NOT STATED, the intoxicating music was most likely jazz. Jazz music came to Milwaukee with the first wave of African American migration to the city. By the early 1920s, jazz bands could be heard at Downtown hotels and dance halls, country roadhouses and in the city’s growing African American neighborhood known as Bronzeville. By 1922, jazz was as essential a part of the flapper identity as sleeveless dresses or rouged cheeks. And it was far more terrifying to the moralist set than any fashion accessory.  

Early in 1922, the Journal described jazz as “decadent African rhythms moaned by saxophone” while dismissing it as “a panacea for nagging wives, Bolshevism and the sorrows resulting from the Volstead drought” – a reference to the Prohibition legislation. But when it became clear that jazz was the preferred form of dance music for the flapper and the “flippers,” “goofs” and “dew droppers” (varieties of boys who chased flappers) she attracted, the matter became more serious. “The sooner we get rid of jazz, the sooner we shall have the return of real national prosperity,” the paper editorialized. “To let boys or girls become jazz addicts is to excite in them sentiments that handicap and debase. It may even be to ensure soul wreckage.” 

If the language and dress of the flapper was prone to flirtations, what jazz inspired was downright pornographic. The flapper style of flowy dress was naturally suited to the fast-and-close mode of jazz hall dance. The corset – a literal barrier between the torso of a young woman and her partner’s hands – was not to be found in flapper dress, and the syncopations of jazz music beat at a pace sinfully near to that of sexual congress. “To respond, as is inevitable, to the musical anarchy, the sensational sounds, the tom-tom of modern jazz,” said a representative of the Federated Church Women of Milwaukee, “is to yield to close, improper positions and a series of fatuous squirmings and wrigglings and gyrations.” 

A Sentinel exposé on the conditions of the jazz halls frequented by flappers claimed that the music literally caused the body’s internal temperature to rise and, even when played outside of the dance hall, left girls too “worked up” emotionally to concentrate on more wholesome activities. “You can’t help it,” one girl told the paper. “You get a little close dancing and you want more. You pull out the hipper [flask] and work it till it’s empty. Between the music and the effects, a fellow is not quite himself.”  

But a more even-keeled examination of the flapper, this one by the Journal, got nearer to the heart of the panic over jazz and its young devotees. “Do I let the boys take liberties with me?” A flapper told the reporter. “Not so you can notice. I could tell one quick enough where to get off. But I do let some of them kiss me, of course.” The fear, it seemed, wasn’t so much in the flapper letting any intoxicants take over. It was in the control she was asserting over herself. “Why not?” the girl continued. “If you like boys, why not let them know it? Why not have a good time as you go along? There’ll be trouble enough later on.” 


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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