The Lure of Absinthe

This green alcoholic beverage has had a colorful career since its debut in the late 18th century. Flavored with wormwood, fennel, anise, and other herbs, the beverage has a bitter, licorice flavor and a high alcoholic content. Drinking it was supposed to bring on hallucinations. 


Absinthe reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the Roaring Twenties in Paris, where the bohemian population of writers and artists made it their trademark beverage in spite of it being illegal. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway are associated with absinthe. 

There were several ways to consume the drink, but the most famous one involves placing a sugar lump on a slotted spoon held over a glass of absinthe, then pouring ice water over the sugar cube. The beverage turns milky. 

Many countries banned the production of absinthe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries because it was believed to be more dangerous than other alcoholic beverages. After this was disproved–it has no hallucinogenic effects after all–it gradually became legal. In 2007, it became legal in the United States, so you can buy it if you like. Personally, I can’t stand licorice-flavored drinks like pastis, ouzo, pernod, or anisette, so I’ll pass. 

The Return of the Cloche Hat

The NY Times has reported several times in the past few months on the fashion trend toward cloche hats. Today another article appeared, so I thought I’d share it.

Come Hither, Sighed Her Hat

As “The Artist,” the black-and-white silent film set in late 1920s Hollywood, gathers Oscar chatter, the Jazz Age fashion of that time is having a moment in real time. Cloche hats, the toppers the ingénue Peppy Miller (charmingly played by Bérénice Bejo) wears on her rise to stardom, were all over Ralph Lauren’s romantic spring runway as well as at Marc Jacobs. “There’s a mystery to the cloche,” said Mark Bridges, the costume designer of “The Artist.” “They sort of half hide the face and are coy.” Bridges used period styles to frame Bejo’s face, but these cloches are available now — for warmth and a little hat flirting.

For example, here’s Ralph Lauren’s latest, obviously inspired by the fashions of the Roaring Twenties. 

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 9:20 pm  Comments (6)  
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King Tut Craze

     In 1922, Howard Carter broke into an untouched Egyptian tomb that turned out to belong to the boy ruler, King Tutankhamen. Little did he know he was setting off a stylistic frenzy throughout the Western World. Why does this impact my vaudeville mystery story set in the Roaring Twenties? Simple. The King Tut craze affected style at all levels, from clothing to furniture to architecture. Many of the theaters that were built during the Twenties boasted King Tut features. The most famous is probably Grauman’s Egyptian Theater built in 1922, pictured here. Interestingly, the opulent faux-Egyptian style building, complete with hieroglyphics and palm trees, was actually constructed just before Howard Carter discovered the famous tomb. In fact, it opened two weeks before the big discovery. But the search for King Tut’s tomb had been going on for some years and public interest was high. It was, shall we say, perfect timing for Grauman to open his theater just as the discovery was making headlines across the Western world.

     Other, smaller theaters in other, smaller cities across the country sprang up in the King Tut style. Not many are still around. I use one of them in my mystery.  

Here She Comes! Miss America!

Beauty contests didn’t begin in the Roaring Twenties, but they became popular during that decade. (The actual origins of beauty pageants can  probably be found in old European festivals where a symbolic Queen and her court are chosen to reign over the tournament or throughout the holiday. The queen was naturally the prettiest–or wealthiest–girl around!)

The Miss America contest began at the start of the Twenties, in 1921 in Atlantic City. At first, it was a publicity stunt meant to bring attention to the beach in Atlantic City. Not many girls entered. A high school junior won and was named “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” the bathing suit strut being pretty much the only event. The title “Miss America” didn’t exist until the following year.  

Beauty pageants flourished across the country. Hollywood’s version was the WAMPAS Baby Stars. Each year, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers selected a dozen promising young starlets–hence the designation “baby stars”–to promote Hollywood and the movies in general. It was a coveted award, because it brought invitations to social events and auditions for plum roles. All the young ladies were beautiful–an average-looking actress, regardless of talent, wasn’t something Hollywood wanted in those years.  

Published in: on October 29, 2011 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Big Secret: Mary Pickford’s Fake Curls

The famous curls of silent screen megastar Mary Pickford were real–at least, most of them. The big secret? She also had 18 false curls that she could add to her own when hers got limp or she needed more volume. They were made of real hair and she paid $50 a piece for them–about $200-300 in today’s money, depending on the year she purchased them. 

Early in her career, Mary Pickford told her fans (honestly) that her hair was light brown, and that it had been blond as a child. But in the black and white films of the 1910s and 1920s, it photographed lighter and she was usually described as a blond. Often she was backlit, giving her a golden halo effect. At last she succumbed to her reputation and dyed her hair with peroxide to make it more blond. 

Her fans were horrified when she finally bobbed her hair in 1928. It made front page news all over the country, and of course, a feature in Photoplay:


Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Silliest Fad Ever

Of all the Twenties fads, surely the stupidest was flagpole sitting. 

It started when someone dared stunt actor “Shipwreck” Kelly to sit on a flagpole in 1924. He did. He lasted 13 hours. Others glommed on to the idea and the record grew longer. Finally in 1929, Kelly decided to reclaim his record and sat on a flagpole for 49 days in Atlantic City, NJ. The next year, the Great Depression started and people lost interest in such pointless things.

Published in: on May 1, 2011 at 8:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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Just What is a Cake Walk?

The Cakewalk was popular in the Twenties—and in other decades before and after. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “a black American entertainment having a cake as prize for the most accomplished steps and figures in walking; a stage dance developed from walking steps and figures typically involving a high prance with backward tilt; an easy task.” 

The Cakewalk seems to have begun in the days of slavery, when black folks strutted along in a fanciful manner in imitation of formal white dancing. Supposedly the name comes from the custom of the master awarding a cake to the couple who put on the best performance. The dance came back around in the twentieth century when white folks started to imitate the black version.

Below are a few short clips of cakewalks in the early twentieth century, featuring both black and white dancers. Who’s imitating whom? By now, it’s hard to tell.

And here are some more great images:

Published in: on April 3, 2011 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Clara Bow Shows How To Use Makeup

How did women use makeup in the Roaring Twenties? Let’s let Clara Bow, the silent film star known as the “It Girl,” show us.

First, many women, if not most, didn’t use any makeup at all. Those who did were usually younger women, sometimes termed “flappers” for their modern ways. Clara Bow was their model and one of the most copied women of her time. 

Bright red lipstick turned an ordinary mouth into a small, pretty pout, with a bow outline on the top lip. (Clara Bow was certainly playing on her name with that look!)

Eyebrows were plucked thin and arched or sometimes plucked completely and drawn on with pencil. Eyes were dramatically dark, with eyeliner all around the eye and thick curled lashes heavily brushed with mascara. In this picture,  you can really see her eyebrows clearly.

Rouge wasn’t that prominent. It was more of an eyes-and-mouth look.









Dance Marathons

I have spent far more time researching fad dances than I should, considering how seldom I mention a dance in my novel, but it’s a compelling topic and too much fun to leave. One more post to share with you about dancing, and I promise, I’ll move on to something else in the next post!

Most of the fad dances of the early twentieth century originated in the African-American community. Some, like the Lindy Hop and the Fox Trot, were named for people, aviator Charles Lindberg and vaudeville dancer Harry Fox, for example, but many had suggestive names–like the Mess-around, the Black Bottom, the Bump, the Bunny Hug, and the Shimmy–that scandalized polite society. Flappers and their partners could pick up the latest dance at a dance hall. The most famous one, the Savoy, was in Harlem and served the public, black and white together (omigod!), from 1926 to 1958. (Most were segregated.) Dance marathons became all the rage.

Animal Dances

Dance fads brought new moves to the lively Ragtime tunes of the early 1900s and to Roaring Twenties jazz. In the ‘Teens and Twenties, a series of dances known as the Animal Dances swept the country, often from west to east since some were invented in San Francisco. Others had African-American origins.

The Bunny Hug was particularly scandalous. It was usually danced to slower music and featured grinding moves like the ones seen today on the dance floor. Even the faster dances involved close contact and so were considered indecent by most. Some clubs banned them. Some people were fined for dancing so erotically. The Vatican denounced one dance–the the Turkey Trot–thereby providing a huge boost to its popularity.

The Horse Trot featured a high kick, a difficult move for ladies with the dresses of the day, which may be why it faded before the Twenties. The Grizzly Bear and the Kangaroo Hop had their fans too.  The Fox Trot outlived them all.