Makeup in Silent Movies

220px-ChaneyPhantomoftheOperaYou’ve seen silent movies where the actors had pasty white faces, dark black lipstick, and looked positively ghoulish. And it wasn’t even a horror flick! Why was makeup so bad back then? Why didn’t they use a more natural look?

A combination of lighting factors, film types, and makeup availability made movie makeup tricky. First, the type of black-and-white film in general use before the mid-1920s made blues register white and reds and yellows register black. So a cloudy blue sky would look solid white; blue eyes would look eerily white; red lipstick would look black. Second, faces without makeup appeared dark or dirty on film, so actors used a whitening material called whiteface (like blackface, which was burnt cork, was used to make them look like caricatures of African Americans). Think of clowns and mimes, but lighter. Mary Pickford is credited with being one of the first stars to use makeup in a more natural manner, but even she, with beautiful skin, resorted to whiteface for the camera. Pickford curls

Throughout most of the silent picture decades, actors and actresses–even stars–applied their own makeup, so you see a good deal of variation. Much of the makeup had to be developed and mixed by the actor. There was little in the way of commercially available makeup. Makeup experts were gradually introduced into the film industry, at first for extras who didn’t know what to do, and later for the stars as their skills grew.


Published in: on April 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm  Comments (3)  

What to call a toilet?

170px-Old_toilet_with_elevated_cistern_and_chainOne of the challenges in writing about the 1920s in first person is finding the correct vocabulary–no modern words that weren’t used at that time are allowed! For example, I can’t use the word “teenager” because it wasn’t in use until the 1940s, or the word “date” (as in “I went on a date”) because that word hadn’t come into use yet, or the word “Model T” to describe that popular car (I call it a Ford or a flivver, or if I’m being less brand-specific, a motorcar).

2938308_f520A problem I faced early on was what to call a bathroom, especially when the three-part bathroom (sink, toilet, and tub) was not in wide use during the Twenties. The three-part bathroom was rapidly becoming the norm, but it wasn’t yet. Showers were something only the wealthy had. And multiple bathrooms in a single house was highly unusual. In Jessie’s house–an old farmhouse in Hollywood converted to a rental for five young women–a toilet was added under the staircase and a bathing room with a tub was added at the end of the upstairs hall. In SILENT MURDERS, coming out in September, I describe a boarding house where the toilet is on one end of the hall and the tub on the other end. So what word to use? Was “toilet” commonly used then? No. 

According to Merritt Ierley in an article on the history of bathrooms in American Heritage magazine (May-June 1999), only about half of the homes in America had what we consider a normal bathroom, that is, a room with the sink, toilet, and tub & shower. Evidently the word “water closet” was widely used when referencing the toilet. So I’ve made sure to use that term in my series whenever it comes up, which isn’t often, but to me, it’s a critical detail that I want to get right. The other word I can use is “lavatory,” which could mean a room with washing facilities only (tub and sink) or a three-part bathroom. 

Published in: on March 15, 2014 at 8:16 am  Comments (8)  
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Kleenex–a product of the Twenties

imagesOnce upon a time, everyone carried handkerchiefs. Usually linen, sometimes cotton, often decorative and white. Ladies carried delicate lacy ones, gentlemen carried large monogrammed ones, children carried ones printed with juvenile or educational images.

In 1924, Kleenex came out with tissue paper squares that they marketed to women as makeup removers. The description provided to the patent office was “absorbent pads or sheets for removing cold cream.” Ads encouraged women to be like the movie stars, and remove your makeup with cold cream and Kleenex tissues. According to the official Kleenex site, the first magazine ad appeared in 1925 in Ladies Home Journal touting “the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars.” Soon, ads were in all the major women’s magazines like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Redbook. 

In 1926, executives discovered that more people were using the tissues as disposable handkerchiefs than for makeup, and they adjusted their advertising accordingly. In 1929 colored tissues were introduced; in 1930, printed tissues; and in 1932, the pocket pack. 

This is good to know, but the characters in my Roaring Twenties series, which takes place in 1924 and 1925, must still use handkerchiefs. I could write a scene where a woman removing her cold cream with a disposable tissue, but I’m not inspired by that idea . . . 

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 7:56 am  Comments (5)  
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A Chat with Brooks Wachtel of Hollywood

Part of the fun of research is getting to talk to interesting people.

imagesAn old college friend put me in contact with Mr. Brooks Wachtel of Hollywood, a writer/producer/director who has written or produced many documentaries for the History Channel and over 85 episodes of dramatic television, shows such as Fox’s live-action Young Hercules, the animated PBS hit “Liberty’s Kids,” and lots of Saturday morning action shows: Heavy Gear, Static, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, Robo-Cop, Silver Surfer, The Avengers, Mortal Kombat, The Mask, Beast Machines: Transformers, Godzilla, Gargoyles, Wing Commander Academy. For younger viewers, he has penned many episodes of the pre-school hit, Clifford the Big Red Dog.

The reason I wanted to talk with him was to take advantage of his vast knowledge of film history. He gave me lots of information, some of which I’ll be incorporating into book #3 of the Roaring Twenties series, Renting Silence. Things like the sort of film used in the Twenties as orthochromatic was being replaced by the better, more expensive panchromatic, which gave a truer gray range. With orthochromatic film, props and things that were actually red would film very dar while blues would go lighter, so much so that blue-eyed people seemed to have white eyes. Not a good feature. This influenced the choice of costumes, props, and even actors, of course. 

And while I already knew that silent movies were very noisy to make, with grinding cameras, shouts from the director, ongoing conversations, music from the studio musicians who were “playing the mood,” and hammering from the adjacent stage, I did not know that some studios set up bleachers and charged admission, and those audiences could be quite noisy too. All in all, an interesting conversation with Mr. Wachtel. 

Published in: on April 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm  Comments (2)  

The Invention of the Bathroom

page05Hard to believe (for me, anyway), but the Roaring Twenties was the decade that saw the introduction of the bathroom as we know it today. 

Today a typical residential bathroom combines three elements: a sink, a toilet, and bathing facilities. But throughout all history, until the twentieth century, those three had been separate. The toilet or outhouse was outside the dwelling, the washstand was in the bedroom, and bathing was usually accomplished in the bedroom or kitchen. There was a good deal of resistance to combining these–after all, since the earliest civilizations, man had tried hard to keep human waste at a distance from the living quarters. The invention of primitive flush toilets changed everything, but many people could not, at first, fathom putting cleansing functions in the same room as smelly, dirty, dangerous human waste. Initially, the indoor toilet was housed by itself in a separate room called a water closet. In fact, in many countries I’ve visited, it still is. Some have speculated that the reason for combining these elements in one room was for convenience of plumbing–it was cheaper to combine the fixtures that used running water. Tub, sink, and toilet were usually white porcelain, which was considered more sanitary. 

$(KGrHqZHJDoFDER9fCVbBQyJ)vj,g!~~60_3The “modern” bathroom starts to appear in America in wealthy homes in the early years of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t really spread to middle-class houses until the Twenties. Existing houses were renovated over the years. Often an indoor water closet would be installed first, crammed in under the stairs or in a hall closet. Or a bedroom might be turned into a bathroom with all three elements. New houses could include a modern bathroom, usually at one end of the upstairs hall near the bedrooms. Pricier houses included a separate toilet in the basement for the servants to use.

I’ve been careful with my passing mentions of bathrooms in my Roaring Twenties mysteries. In the third one, RENTING SILENCE, set in 1925, I describe a boarding house where a murder takes place, and it has separate facilities for the residents. I picked up some of the details from a novel, Hollywood Girl, written in 1927 by Beatrice Burton. Here is the relevant snippet from my mystery:

“There are four units on each floor,” the landlady continued as we climbed to the third floor, “each with two rooms, a parlor and a bedroom. But first, let me show you the bathing room.” We turned down the hall and walked to the door at the end. “Here is the bathtub that you would share with only three other young ladies. This other tub is for your laundry. And you see there are plenty of hooks for your clothing and towels. A colored girl comes every Friday to clean the public rooms, but residents are expected to wash the bathtub themselves after each use.” A washboard hung on a nail beside the tub, and there were several boxes of laundry soap on the shelf above it. Two shelves on the opposite wall contained a jumble of bottles and boxes of geranium bath salts, rose toilet water, lemon shampoo, and dusting powder with a pale blue puff tucked into the top.

“At the other end of the hall,” she continued, “is the water closet. It has a large window too, like this one, for the fire escape, and so the rooms are always fresh.” A door across the hall opened. A bottle-blond head stuck out, took one look at Mrs. DeWitt and the stranger and ducked back into her room. Ignoring the interruption, Mrs. DeWitt opened the door to Lila Walker’s rooms.


Blown-Glass Fisherman’s Floats from Japan

What on earth do these old, blown-glass, Japanese fisherman’s floats have to do with the Roaring Twenties? I’m so glad you asked!

Japanese fishermen used to use these blown-glass spheres to float their nets. (The Japanese weren’t the only ones, but they are the only ones that relate to my mystery, so excuse me if I focus on them.) Today fishermen use Styrofoam or something equally horrid, but in the old days, they used globes made of crudely blown glass. There was always a rough pontil mark on one side. Inevitably some of these floats would escape and float away, sometimes across the ocean to America, where beachcombers would find them washed ashore. They came in different sizes, but the color was almost always green or blue-green.

My Roaring Twenties mystery, The Impersonator, due to be published next year, takes place in part along the coast of Oregon, where the missing heiress used to walk after a storm to look for agates and the rare glass float. The floats play a modest part in the plot.

I own a few myself, since my grandparents were Army people who lived in Japan for several years during the Occupation in the late Forties. They brought several home with them when they returned in 1949. My grandmother put them in with her plants for decoration, so I did that with my characters. I think they’d make a nice cover image, and I’ll suggest that to the publisher when they get around to designing the cover.

Published in: on October 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Air Conditioning Debut

It’s a little known fact that Willis Carrier invented air conditioning not to cool people but to cool factories, to reduce humidity in factories where it was preventing machines from working properly. Only later did the idea of cooling human beings catch on.

The first public place to install “refrigeration,” as it was known, was the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, a movie theater whose advertisements boasted that the new system allowed “the manufacturing of ideal weather.” Here is an eyewitness account of the summer day in 1925 when the new Rivoli Theatre showed its first movie to an audience cooled by Carrier’s invention.

“. . . Typical of show business, the opening of the Rivoli was widely advertised and its air conditioning system heralded along Broadway. Long before the doors opened, people lined up at the box office – curious about ‘cool comfort’ as offered by the managers. It was like a World Series crowd waiting for bleacher seats. They were not only curious, but skeptical-all of the women and some of the men had fans-a standard accessory of that day. 

Patrons line up to enter the
Rivoli Theater

Among the spectators was Adolph Zukor. I recall how quiet and reserved he was when he walked in and took a seat in the balcony. Zukor may have come from California, but he was there to be shown!

Final adjustments delayed us in starting up the machine, so that the doors opened before the air conditioning system was turned on. The people poured in, filled all the seats, and stood seven deep in the back of the theater. We had more than we had bargained for and were plenty worried. From the wings we watched in dismay as two thousand fans fluttered. We felt that Mr. Zukor was watching the people instead of the picture-and saw all those waving fans!

It takes time to pull down the temperature in a quickly filled theater on a hot day, and a still longer time for a packed house. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. Only a few chronic fanners persisted, but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them ‘cold’ and breathed a great sigh of relief.

We then went into the lobby and waited for Mr. Zukor to come downstairs. When he saw us, he did not wait for us to ask his opinion. He said tersely, ‘Yes, the people are going to like it.'”

Adolph Zukor, at about the age he was when he attended the first air-conditioned movie screening in 1925

Adolph Zukor makes an appearance in my second novel, Silver Screen Murders. Now that I know about his attendance at this event, I can work it into the story for my third, which I am currently writing. It takes place in the spring of 1925, and this air conditioning event took place in the summer, so the time frame is a little off. Maybe I’ll have him talking about it, planning to attend to see how the new invention works. 

La Grande Station

La Grande Station in 1897

In my Roaring Twenties mysteries, I stick close to the facts, and so whenever my characters travel, I put them at the right train station if at all possible. Since much of my story is set in Hollywood, I researched one of the main passenger stations in Los Angeles, La Grande, where the Santa Fe line stopped on its way to and from Chicago. 

The train going toward Chicago was called the Chicagoan; the same train coming back west was called the Kansas Cityan. It took about 3 days to make the trip in the Twenties. That’s a long time to sit on a hot train–remember, no air conditioning, so the windows would be open and loads of dust would be blowing in, covering everything and everyone. There were toilet rooms with sinks but no way to take a bath or shower. Still, few complained, since many people alive in the Twenties could remember their parents or grandparents coming West in a wagon train. 

I was thrilled to find this picture of La Grande station. This is how it looked when my characters used it. The place was torn down long ago. 

Published in: on April 21, 2012 at 8:56 am  Comments (2)  
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The Price of Cars

I’m not a car person (their color is about the only thing I notice about cars), so when I need to use a car in my novels, I have to do some work to ascertain which make and model is appropriate and whether or not that particular vehicle would have been available to my character. Was a car like that sold in her region? (A French import might have been available in New York in the Twenties but not in Iowa, for example.) And if it were available, could my character have afforded it? So I’ve looked into the prices of cars. Oddly enough, while the price of almost everything goes up over the decades, the price of cars falls dramatically.

For example, the Ford Model T cost $1200 in 1909. Five years later, it cost $490 (or about $11,000 in today’s money). By 1921, the same car was $310, or roughly $4,000 in today’s money. Why the big drop? The car didn’t change much over those years, but the real savings comes from Ford’s increasing efficiency at his factory. His wanted to produce a car that average Americans could afford, and by the Roaring Twenties, he had.  So I was comfortable having my character buy a Ford in 1924–it didn’t cost her all that much. 

By the way, it wasn’t Ford but General Motors that introduced the concept of buying cars on credit, with General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) in 1919. Instead of paying cash, you could finance through GMAC, bypassing the banks. Sales boomed for GM, as by 1926, 75% of all car buyers were using credit to purchase their cars. 

Published in: on March 31, 2012 at 6:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Street Signs in the Roaring Twenties

     According to an article in this week’s New York Times, the first center line came in 1911 in Michigan. The first electric traffic signal was in 1915 in Cleveland. The first proper stop sign , also 1915, appeared in Detroit. It wasn’t the 8-sided red sign we’re all used to; it was square with black letters on a white background. 

     In 1923 the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments thought up some recommendations about street signs, their colors, their shapes. They recommended a Stop sign with 8 sides, but their color of choice was yellow.

     The red sign didn’t come along until 1954. Red had been the preferred color much earlier (after all, stop lights are red), but a good, reflective red paint did not exist until the early Fifties. A non-reflective yellow, on the other hand, could be seen better at night. 

     So I’ve had to be careful in my novel, set in 1925, not to mention red stop signs. In fact, considering how slowly ideas spread back then, I’ve concluded that there were few stop signs at all in the mid-Twenties, expect perhaps in the larger cities. 

Published in: on December 24, 2011 at 9:04 am  Comments (1)  
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