Henry Creamer (Little-Known Today, Well-Known in the 1920s) Resurfaces Last Night

Last night, I attended a wonderful musical event at the Library of Virginia that featured two groups who played and sang music from the Prohibition era. The musicians gave some historical background and told little stories about the original singers and composers, then played their pieces. So were funny, some were hokey, and the talent was terrific.

One of the songwriters mentioned Henry (Hank) Creamer, an African-American lyricist and vaudeville performer well known in his day. Coincidentally, I mention him in passing in the first of my Roaring Twenties mystery series, THE IMPERSONATOR, so I was familiar with the man. What I didn’t know was that Creamer was born right here in Richmond, VA–a nice surprise for me. One of his most famous songs was “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (1922), which was still popular in 1939 when it was included in a dance numbers in Fred Astaire’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. 

Here’s the passage from THE IMPERSONATOR that mentions Creamer. Jessie is speaking to the man she’s just danced with. 

“What’s the matter?” I asked finally. “Aren’t you going to tell me how pretty my frock is?”

“Like everyone else? You can’t need that many compliments. I’ll tell you that your shoes are delightful, but I’ll wager your feet will be killing you by dinner. How can you dance in such high heels?”

The band began playing “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”

“Oh, that is one of my favorite jazz tunes!” I said.

“Hmmm, yes. Sadly, this is not a jazz band, and I’m afraid poor Hank Creamer wouldn’t recognize his own song if he were here tonight.”

I laughed. “You’re right, this is awful. Let’s sit.” We moved to the nearest table and I couldn’t resist saying, “As a matter of fact, I know Hank. He’s written a number of popular songs and is a talented song-and-dance man himself.”

“He’s a friend of yours?”

“I haven’t run into him in a while, but yes, we’ve shared billing a few times.”

“But I—but, I thought he was colored?”

“He is.”

“Oh my god,” he said, clearly horrified. “How very . . . interesting.”

 

Published in: on May 6, 2017 at 9:32 am  Comments (1)  
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Hand-Painted Knees

On July 21, 1925, the same day as the St. Petersburg, FL, newspaper headlines featured the John Scopes trial (he was found guilty of teaching evolution in a Kentucky science class), there was also an article on the latest flapper fad: painted knees.

6ade6db95341a66ac19572a3a7d2534a“What is more appealing to the eye than a hand-painted knee? The answer, of course, is two hand-painted knees. And the world may expect from now on to see Flapperia’s dimpled knees exhibiting a painted pansy or a bleeding heart, or any other design of their choice.

This painting of the epidermis in the region of milady’s knees is predicted and advocated by Mrs. Ruth J. Maurer, beauty culture expert who has brought the question up for the approval of 500 beauty specialists meeting in Chicago. ‘It is an odd and beautiful fashion,’ Mrs. Maurer declares. ‘Hand-painted pictures on the knees are intriguing. Some of the designs are simple, some elaborate. Some girls prefer a flower or a group of blossoms of startling colors. Others like a portrait or a little landscape.”

I have my doubts as to how popular this was . . . I found only one image online that showed painted knees (and these, as you can see, are actually painted shins). Still, I think I’ll make a brief mention of this in the mystery I’m currently writing. Nothing big, maybe just a line where Jessie notices someone in New York with painted knees. If it happened anywhere, it would have happened in New York!

Here are some photos readers submitted:

1926 flapper

1926 flapper

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Published in: on August 20, 2016 at 8:09 am  Comments (9)  
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Sneak a Drink!

During the 13 years that Prohibition laws were on the books, inventive Americans developed many ways to sneak a drink. Let’s look at a few: 

Walking sticks enjoyed a surge in popularity after men found they could conceal a good deal of alcohol inside a hollowed out stick with a screw top.

Walking sticks enjoyed a surge in popularity after men found they could conceal a good deal of alcohol inside a hollowed out stick with a screw top.

 

Ladies could take advantage of their high heels to insert a flask that carried enough for at least one drink.

Ladies could take advantage of their high heels to insert a flask that carried enough for at least one drink.

 

And the ever popular garter flask suited many flappers.

And the ever popular garter flask suited many flappers.

 

The easiest concealment was probably a bulky coat. This woman seems to be wearing enough liquor for a party!

The easiest concealment was probably a bulky coat. This woman seems to be wearing enough liquor for a party!

 

This woman is ready for a big evening out.

This young lady is ready for a big evening out.

 

A coat could cover a lot.

The right coat could cover a lot of hooch.

 

What I learned in Florida

I was in Florida this week on a mini-vacation to Captiva, an island off the Gulf Coast near Naples and Fort Myers. While there, we visited the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island–kayaked through the mangroves with a guide full of information, hiked a couple of short trails, and rode the scenic, 4-mile road through the preserve. At their information center, they have an excellent, small exhibit and that is where I learned something I can use in my Roaring Twenties books.

d52d3dda22180fc6bbe0cf16777ce55aBy the early 1900s, demand for plumes for ladies’  hats had almost wiped out rookeries along Florida’s coasts (not to mention other areas of the country). Birds were slaughtered by the millions for their feathers which were used to decorate ladies’ hats all over the world. One example: “In 1902, the London market sold 1,608 packets of plumes which required killing 190,000 egrets.” Then came the Roaring Twenties and a sea change. What happened?

The bob. That new, shocking, short haircut that swept through America (and much of the Western world) in the late 1910s and 1920s created a demand for cloche hats. Heavily plumed hats were no longer the fashion, and the demand for birds’ plumes plummeted. The bob contributed mightily to the preservation of birds all over the world.

Check out these “before and after” illustrations from Sears catalogues from the 1910s and 1924.

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Bernice Bobs Her Hair

MV5BMTU0ODM3NDYwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQxMzcyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_I recently got this short (48 minutes) movie from Netflix, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” filmed in 1976 and starring Shelly Duvall. It is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and, like much of this other work, concerns rich people in the 1920s. Bernice is visiting her cousin Marjorie for the social summer. Bernice is an old-fashioned girl–dull–all she can talk about is the weather. The boys don’t want to dance with her at parties. Marjorie complains to her mother that Bernice is ruining her summer. Bernice overhears and asks Marjorie to help her become popular. 

“I could do it in 2 days,” says Marjorie, and she starts with conversation skills. Primed to be more outgoing, Bernice announces at a party that she is going to bob her hair. This is a shocking idea. No one thinks she’s serious. But when she is goaded into it by Marjorie, who has become jealous of her cousin’s newfound popularity. Everyone troupes down to the barber shop to see if she will do something this daring. 

The barber is shocked at the request, saying he’s never cut a woman’s hair. No surprise there–no one back then has been trained to cut a woman’s hair. Women didn’t cut their hair. But he does it, rather badly. And the consequences backfire on Marjorie. Reminds me of “Mean Girls.” 

Good, short flick. Fitzgerald skewers the manners of the idle rich, feminine competition, and gives us a surprise ending. It was published in 1920, when bobbed hair was really quite scandalous. Long hair, a woman’s “crowning glory,” represented virtue and respectability; bobbed hair was synonymous with sin and immorality. By 1925, enough women had bobbed their hair so that it wasn’t quite as horrifying, but at the time this story takes place, Bernice was doing something few women dared. Interestingly, Fitzgerald seems to disapprove as well, because Bernice turns out much less attractive after she bobs her hair and the boys all lose interest. 

If you’d rather read the short story than watch it, click here.

Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 5:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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Have a bite of the Roaring Twenties–try a Charleston Chew.

250px-CharlestonChewEvery so often, I have to do a book signing. This involves sitting at a table at a book store for three or four hours, hoping customers will stop by to chat and maybe buy a book. To make the process more interesting for book store customers, I usually bring show-and-tell: my 2 beaded flapper dresses from 1925, my (empty) bottle of poison that my killer used to murder a couple people, antique vaudeville programs, and a 1929 doctor’s prescription for alcohol (legal booze). Talking about these helps pass the time. 

I recently decided I needed something to give away, so I had some bookmarks printed and did a quick bit of research into candies that were popular in the Roaring Twenties. There are several that are still around–and still popular–today, but I chose Charleston Chews, largely because the name evokes the era–the Charleston was the signature dance of the decade. I had a local candy store order a large quantity of bite-size Charleston Chews for me and am ready to set them out at my next event! 

Other candies were popular in the Twenties: Butterfingers, candy canes, and Clark Bars, for example. I mention Clark Bars in SILENT MURDERS when Carl Delaney, the cop who likes Jessie, hands her one after she’s been arrested and says they gave them to him in France during the Great War. (I can’t write World War I because it wasn’t called that until after World War II happened.) But Clark Bars don’t have the verbal tie-in to the Twenties that Charleston Chews have, so I went with those. Maybe, if the Charleston Chews are popular, I’ll buy some Clark Bars and give out both . . . 

Charleston  Chews were introduced in 1922, and since my books take place in 1925 and 1926, they come from the right era. I plan to mention them in my next book. They are chewy, as you might expect from the name, and made of nougat coated in chocolate. 

Published in: on September 13, 2014 at 7:34 am  Comments (5)  

Downton Abbey Fan? See Winterthur Museum’s Upcoming Exhibit

thumbnail.phpA little more than 3 months from now, Delaware’s Winterthur Museum will host a traveling exhibit featuring costumes from the popular series, Downton Abbey. See it yourself from

March 1, 2014–January 4, 2015.

 Most fall into the late 1910s and early 1920s and so will delight those who love–as I do–the Roaring Twenties. I learned about this upcoming exhibit when I was in Delaware a few weeks ago as a guest of a museum conference held in Historic Odessa. Representatives from many museums in the state attended, and the ones from Winterthur were excited to be hosting this 2014 exhibit. If you live within striking distance of Winterthur, you may want to plan a trip for 2014 to see this special array of early 20th-century clothing styles.

“Costumes of Downton Abbey is an original exhibition of exquisite designs from the award-winning television series. Approximately 40 historically inspired costumes from the television show will be displayed and supplemented by photographs and vignettes inspired by the fictional program and by real life at Winterthur. Visitors will have a chance to step into and experience the world of Downton Abbey® and the contrasting world of Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont and his contemporaries in the first half of the 20th century. In addition, Winterthur will host a wide range of lectures, workshops, and exciting events for adults and families focusing on entertaining and country house life in Britain and the United States.

A co-production of Carnival Films and Masterpiece, Downton Abbey depicts life in an aristocratic household of the fictional Earl and Countess of Grantham and is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed period dramas ever produced. It has won a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries and seven Emmys including a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries. It was the most watched television series in both the UK and the U.S. and became the most successful British costume drama series since the 1981 television serial Brideshead Revisited. By the third series, it had become one of the most widely watched television shows in the world. The Guinness World Records recognized Downton Abbey as the most critically acclaimed English-language television series of 2011.”

Crossword Puzzles–a Twenties Phenomenon

         Yep, I didn’t know it either, but it’s true. The first crossword puzzle is generally considered to have been this one, from 1913, but the idea didn’t catch on until the Twenties. In 1921, the N Y Public Library reported, “The latest craze to strike libraries is the crossword puzzle,”–but they weren’t happy about it. Those crossword fanatics hogged the dictionaries! What really drove the fad was the book of crossword puzzles that Simon & Schuster published in 1924. By the next year, nine New York newspapers and fourteen others across the country were carrying crosswords.

The Twenties was a decade devoted to fads, most of which came and went in the blink of an eye. Everyone assumed that these controversial new puzzles (were they a waste of time? the spawn of Satan? an intellectual stimulant?) were just another short-lived fad. The New York Times noted, “Fortunately, the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast and in a few months it will be forgotten.” That newspaper would not give in and publish its own crossword puzzle until 1942 when, presumably, they were quite sure it wasn’t a passing fancy.

 
Published in: on December 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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Men and Women Drinking Together?? How Shocking!

Before Prohibition, men and women almost never drank together. Most consumed alcoholic beverages–even those who didn’t think they were drinking were downing copious amounts of patent medicine which was largely made of alcohol–but they didn’t drink together. Men left the dining room table and congregated for drinks and smokes in  another room, rejoining the ladies when they were through. It was universal pretense that women didn’t drink. 

But with the advent of the speakeasy and the beginning of women’s liberation in the Roaring Twenties, men and women started sharing the same space at parties. The saloon, once an all-male bastion, was declared illegal. It’s replacement, the illegal speakeasy, was open to all. Private gatherings, which had previously meant dinner parties, morphed into stand-up drinking occasions called cocktail parties that often didn’t include any food beyond nibbles. Men and women, married and single, gathered outside their home to drink cocktails, dance to the phonograph, and flirt. “Nobody stays home anymore,” said novelist Willa Cather in 1924. 

So I make sure that, in my Roaring Twenties mysteries, Jessie (my main character) visits speakeasies and mingles with men. It doesn’t always turn out well. Like when she is looking for information about a certain suspect and gets attacked by a drunken lout. Here’s an excerpt:

Henry scanned the room, his eyes passing over me without a flicker of recognition, and when he saw that none of the larger tables was empty, he approached the center one and emptied it with a scram motion of his thumb. Henry and his associates called to the bartender for drinks. The guy knew what to bring without being told. Ah, the advantages of regular patronage.

They were loud, but not loud enough for me to make out more than the stray word or two. Curious, I nursed my drink and watched from the wings. Henry sat facing me from the far side of the table, tipping back on his chair legs, smoking one cigarette after another as he tossed off snide remarks that were received with raucous laughter by his minions. David was the only one not laughing. I had a profile view of him as he leaned forward from the edge of his seat, his hands clasped around a mug of ale, staring glumly at the foam.

As I watched, he said something to Henry, who frowned, took out his wallet, and handed him several bills. David pocketed the money and stood up, made a curt farewell, and disappeared up the stairs.

Which, now that I’d gotten what I came for, was exactly what I needed to do. I motioned to the bartender that I was leaving, and fished through my purse for a dollar. Suddenly there was a tough standing over me.

Markie’s was obviously not the first bar he’d seen this evening. He swayed a little, and his words were slurred, but he was not yet blotto. I realized with dismay that he was one of Henry’s party.

“Ev’ning, dollface. What’s a looker like you sitting all alone for? Come join us and I’ll buy you a glass of bubbly.” His friends were watching, all of them, to see what luck he would have. I wasn’t overly concerned. The light was dim and my costume, wig, and makeup were good enough that I would feel comfortable speaking directly to Henry without fear he would recognize me. Still, Shakespeare had it right, discretion is the better part of valor.

“Thank you, but I need to meet my husband at the theater in a few minutes.” I folded the dollar under my glass and stood.

“Husband, eh? Well, now, that’s one lucky man, that husband,” he sneered, grabbing my arm with his rough fingers. “I think he should spread his luck around a little, eh dollface?” I twisted away from his grasp as I threw what was left of my drink in his face. He sputtered with rage.

I crossed the room toward the stairs, weaving through several patrons. The boozehound shoved them aside as he followed. Suddenly he crashed to the floor, tripped by an outstretched foot that a gentleman at another table had kindly extended on my behalf. He sprawled messily, and I made my escape into the night.

Markie’s was two blocks from the main strip, and the street was quiet. The cold air tasted fresh and clean after the thick smoke in the bar. The corners were dark—no streetlights in this part of town. No place for a girl alone, I thought, heading toward an intersection where a gaslight beckoned. Behind me, the door to Markie’s slammed shut. A glance over my shoulder told me my suitor had been down but not out.

Anger at his humiliation trumped inebriation. I bolted for the gaslight but my ridiculous shoes slowed me down, and before I could put any distance between us, he was on me. He snatched at me and got a handful of rabbit stole which I immediately released, but not soon enough to avoid being slung into the gutter, tearing a hole in my dress with my knee. I swung backward hard with my elbow, hoping to hit something vulnerable. I heard him scream, but oddly enough, my arm hit only air.

Someone had lifted the goon off me and a familiar voice drawled, “This man bothering you, lady?”

Published in: on July 14, 2012 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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Miniature Golf Explodes during the Twenties

Sure, miniature golf existed before the Twenties, in a few places where golf courses offered a smaller version for ladies. These were on grass, like the real thing, and involved playing with a putter and perhaps a short driver. It was called various things: garden golf, par 3, and pitch and putt.

But what we think of today as miniature golf, with the fake grass carpet and fanciful props, began in the Twenties when a golf fanatic named Thomas Fairbairn developed artificial green that made it possible to put a miniature course just about anywhere, including rooftops. (One source claims there were more than 150 rooftop courses in New York City by the end of the Twenties.)

Mary Pickford dedicated a Wilshire miniature golf course in Hollywood in the Twenties. Maybe it looked like this one in Rochester, NY, that claims to be the oldest miniature golf course in America. It was designed in 1929 and opened in 1930. I guess they were able to prove it, because it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. 

Published in: on May 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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