"Youth demanded simple clothes instead of those fussy, elaborate styles of the 1900's" began the copy of a 1929 advertisement for Ivory Soap. [Click on image for a larger version in which the text is easily readable.] "Youth has taken the artificiality out of American taste." Gone are the "stately mid-Victorian dinners and cotillions!" In their place youth has put "informal suppers and tea-dances." The illustration hammers the contrast home. The "thoroughly modern woman of cultivated taste" differs from her counterpart of the 1900s not only in dress and hair style but in attitude. She stands looking squarely forward, hands in pockets at her hips. The woman of the 1900s stands sideways, gazing down at a flower. Her life was fussy and artificial, totally unlike the modern woman who engages in "a thousand-and-one activities."
This message had little to do with the product, despite the best efforts of the copywriters at the J. Walter Thompson agency. [This and the other advertisements here come from the Ad*Access Archive at Duke University.] Typically, soap ads featured pictures of the product. Instead of merely praising its "royally lavish" lather, ads would show the lather and the look of deep satisfaction on the face of the woman using it. Here, however, the illustration concentrates on clothing, hair styles, and body language. Why? The simplest explanation is that the agency, and the manufacturer, believed that "Youth" would sell. And not just soap. By the late twenties, advertisements for all sorts of products, emphasized not just the "slim, natural grace" of young women but also their sophistication and "cultivated taste." They annointed the "modern young woman" as the arbiter of taste and of behavior. In so doing, the advertisers were acclaiming a deep shift in American culture. In 1920, after all, the "modern young woman" was the "flapper." Far from being seen as "de-bunking" clothes and living, she inspired endless expressions of concern. Something very important had changed.
Below are several ads from a 1929 campaign for Modess sanitary napkins. J. Walter Thompson gave the campaign a name, "Modernizing Mother, and numbered the "episodes." Perhaps the idea was that the consumer would collect the entire set. [For larger versions, in which the text is readable, click on the images.]
Episode One set the overall theme. "Mother, don't be quaint." "Millions of daughters," the copy began, "are teasing mothers back to youthslamming doors on the quaint ways of the nineties. One by one the foolish old drudgeries and discomforts pass." Life, under the leadership of these daughters was becoming "easier, more pleasantsensibly modern." In episode two, the "modern daughter" has coaxed her mother up onto the ski slopes. The daughter, confident, fearless, happy, "sane of outlook, wholesome" leads the way. Not just mother, but "the world" is having a "hard time" keeping up. "She will not tolerate the traditions and drudgeries that kept her mother in bondage." Each episode followed the same format. The "modern" daughter liberated her mother from the "drudgeries" of the past by teaching her the latest dance steps, or replacing her cotton nightie with silk pajamas, or taking her for a jaunt in a plane. Mother looks a bit frightened or unwilling in several but gamely goes along. She is, she recognizes, a product of those "old-fashioned ways" which "cannot withstand the merry onslaught of the modern girl," as episode nine put it. The daughter's triumph is complete:
Her enthusiasm is so sane and contagious, she is so everlastingly right in refusing the drudgeries and repressions of her mother's girlhood that the whole world is approving her gay philosophy which demands the best and nothing but the best.
Or, as episode eight contends:
Life is so much more fun when one is not afraid. It is her happy couragethe zest with which she welcomes every new delightful freedom which is the charm of the modern girl. What mother can bear to stay in the drab shadows of middle life when such a daughter is beckoning her back to youth.
Youthwhich will not tolerate senseless drudgery, the slavery of old-fashioned ways.
As with the Ivory advertisement, the "Modernizing Mother" campaign worked by contrast. On the side of youth was fearlessness, enthusiasm, zest. In contrast was her mother's girlhood, one of drudgery (a word which appeared in each of the episodes), slavery, and tradition. The modern daughter was "so everlastingly right" in welcoming "every new delightful freedom." In the Victorian past a woman was a slave to "old-fashioned ways." Better by far to put aside the "repressions" of the 1890s and adopt the "gay philosophy" of the "modern" young woman. "Don't Fuss, Mother, This Isn't So Fast."
One need only set this ad campaign against the worried reactions to the "flapper" earlier in the decade to see the depth and breadth of the change in the culture. Consider "Step on it, Mother. This isn't the Polka." Anne Shaw Faulkner, head of the Music Department of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, expressed some of the initial outrage at the way the younger generation was dancing in an article in The Ladies' Home Journal of August 1921 called "Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?":
Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.
There is always a revolutionary period of the breaking down of old conventions and customs which follows after every great war; and this rebellion against existing conditions is to be noticed in all life to-day. Unrest, the desire to break the shackles of old ideas and forms are abroad. So it is no wonder that young people should have become so imbued with this spirit that they should express it in every phase of their daily lives. The question is whether this tendency should be demonstrated in jazz that expression of protest against law and order, that bolshevik element of license striving for expression in music.
. . . .
Dancing to Mozart minuets, Strauss waltzes and Sousa two-steps certainly never led to the corset-check room, which now holds sway in hotels, clubs and dance halls. Never would one of the biggest fraternities of a great college then have thought it necessary to print on the cards of invitation to the "Junior Prom" that "a corset check room will be provided." Nor would the girl who wore corsets in those days have been dubbed "old ironsides" and left a disconsolate wallflower in a corner of the ballroom. Now boys and girls of good families brazenly frequent the lowest dives in order to learn new dance steps. Now many jazz dances have words accompanying them which would then never have been allowed to go through the mail. Such music has become an influence for evil.
Nor did one have to be an official of the General Federation of Women's Clubs to disapprove. Dorothy Parker, poet, short story writer, wit, described:
The Playful flapper here we see,
The fairest of the fair.
She's not what Grandma used to be,
You might say, au contraire.
Her girlish ways may make a stir,
Her manners cause a scene,
But there is no more harm in her
Than in a submarine.
She nightly knocks for many a goal
The usual dancing men.
Her speed is great,
But her control Is something else again.
All spotlights focus on her pranks.
All tongues her prowess herald.
For which she well may render thanks
To God and Scott Fitzgerald.
Her golden rule is plain enough
Just get them young and treat them rough.
Yet, by the end of the decade, advertisements treated the matter as settled. The flapper had become the "modern young woman," whose "gay philosophy" shared with Nietzsche's a repudiation of "traditional" or "old-fashioned" ideas as forms of slavery. One can hardly imagine very many contemporary readers of "Modernizing Mother" caught the allusion to Nietzsche. A much higher percentage would have recognized in the use of "repression" a reference to Freud. But all were supposed to respond to the notion of a "sensible freedom." And all were to appreciate the daughter's essential goodness in sharing her freedom with her formerly repressed mother. There is, in the ad campaign, no explicit reference to sexuality. That had been at the heart of the controversy over the "flapper." But, look again at "Don't Fuss, Mother, This Isn't So Fast." In the parlance of the day, a girl who was "fast," broke the sexual rules. She not only flirted and petted. She went further. Mothers and daughters had for years argued about whether wearing skirts at the knee, rolling stockings below the knee, taking off your corset at a dance, smoking cigarettes, using rouge and lipstick made the daughter look "fast." How many of those daughters had said "Don't Fuss, Mother"? What they wanted to do wasn't "so fast."
How had this profound change taken place?1 What had occasioned the collapse of "old-fashioned" ideas? We approach this topic in several ways.
- One is by looking at the "commodification of fantasy" in the 1920s.
- Another, related approach examines the emergence of an Ethos of Consumption.
- We also analyze the crisis of evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s. Since much of the "old fashioned" and "repressive" traditions the "modern young woman" rejected came from this religious orientation, it makes sense to look at the "Declension of American Revivalism" and at "The Scopes Trial, Fundamentalism, and the 'Acids of Modernity."
- We also seek to understand some of the sources of the rise of the "modern woman" in the 1920s in terms of ongoing changes in gender relationships and of the impact of World War I.