You can’t talk about the Roaring Twenties without mentioning “flappers,” those modern young women who wore their skirts short, their hair bobbed, and their lips red, who smoked cigarettes, danced in jazz clubs, flattened their breasts, went out unchaperoned, and flouted the Prohibition laws by swilling martinis in speakeasies. I got to wondering, just what—and when—did the word “flapper” come into play?
Turns out, its origins are British. A flapper was what one called a young bird learning to fly, flapping its wings. At some point—and the earliest known use seems to have been in 1912—it started to mean an impetuous teenage girl. (And in some circles, it was slang for prostitute.) It had nothing to do, as yet, with the Roaring Twenties behavior.
In 1920, the term crossed the Atlantic in the form of a movie titled “The Flapper.” It starred Olive Thomas, a beautiful silent movie actress and the wife of Jack Pickford who died of poisoning in Paris under suspicious circumstances. (See http://www.francesfarmersrevenge.com/stuff/archive/oldnews/olivethomas.htm for details.) In this comedy, Olive plays a 16-year-old girl who runs away from boarding school and gets into a world of trouble. So it seems to me, in 1920, the word still held its British meaning: impetuous teenage girl.
It quickly slipped into a new meaning as the Roaring Twenties progressed; by the early 1920s the word referred to a particular sort of young woman, those who adopted the clothing fashions and behavior described above.