Cara Langston


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The Forgotten Women of the 1920s

My WIP is a piece of historical fiction set in 1925 Chicago. “Great!” you may be thinking. “I love flappers and gangsters! When it’s published, I’ll definitely read it and give you a 5-star review!” Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but although flappers and gangsters do make appearances, my main character is neither. She is married. She would not be a flapper. And I’m tired of researching 1920s women and having to wade through the immense love of flapper culture to find what I want.

Nearly 100 years later, I hardly need to explain what a flapper is. We love them! There are fringed Halloween costumes, Gatsby parties and weddings (can I please be invited to one?), tutorials for flapper finger curls on Pinterest, and more. If you know a bit about the early 20th century, it’s easy to understand why we hold such a fascination. Flappers were some of the first precursors to modern 21st century women–those who seized their independence from gender norms, who eschewed the strict conventionality of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

But flappers were a significant minority during this time period, limited mainly to young women in urban cities. Women who were older, married, poorer, and/or religious (thus the average American woman) were living a little more conservatively in the 1920s. Many followed the standard marriage/child rearing convention. Many were working, learning, and lobbying for social justice. This post is a tribute to those women who weren’t considered flappers.

 

Pallas Athene Literary Society, 1927

Pallas Athene Literary Society, 1927

Armor & Co., 1926

Armor & Co., 1926

Office, 1923

Office scene, 1923

Massachusetts police women, 1927

Meeting of Massachusetts police women, 1927

League of Women Voters, 1926

League of Women Voters, 1926

MSU Rifle Team, 1923

MSU Rifle Team, 1923

National Woman's Party, 1926

National Woman’s Party, 1926

Southern Railway Ladies' Car, 1926

Southern Railway Ladies’ Car, 1926

 

End note: I do not hold any judgement against flappers, and I’m sure many of them were also working and learning and lobbying, et cetera.


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Early 20th Century Anachronisms

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing can be a pain in the ass. Sure, it’s rewarding and sometimes the thought, “I can get some writing done today,” is the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. But writing as a whole can be very difficult. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me on that. And if you’re writing historical fiction, add another layer of complexity, because in addition to developing your characters, creating a thrilling plot, making it unpredictable and original, you also have to veer away from anachronisms.

I have two novels, one set in 1941-1943 and one in 1925, and I’ll venture to say that the early 20th century is both one of the easiest and most difficult periods to write about. It’s easy in that it’s modern, there’s a plethora of information, and you can still find first-hand accounts on the time period. But it can also be the most difficult because you begin to assume modernity as you write.  I find myself assuming various everyday terminology/products existed, when in fact they didn’t.

Catching anachronisms in my work is the primary reason I have such a weird Google search history. So what if I’m looking at the Wikipedia page for popsicles? I need to know when they existed!

People who lived before 1950 had telephones, escalators, automobiles, cameras, and boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese! But do you know what they didn’t have?

  • Teenagers – Though the word technically existed in the 1940s, it wasn’t widely used until the 1950. Think bobbysoxers and Gidget. Before that, they were known as adolescents or youths. [Insert “The New Girl” Schmidt meme here]
  • Rosemary – Do you want your pre-1950 character to be an avid gardener? Why wouldn’t she have the most awesome herb garden ever, with sage and rosemary and thyme? I can think of some delicious recipes she can make! I just discovered this last week and it really made me angry, but although the herbs were widely used in colonial times, they completely lost their popularity until a resurgence the 1960s. In fact, if you look at any cookbooks from the 1920s, there are almost no spices in the recipes. The horror!
  • Sunscreen – In the 21st century, sunscreen has become part of our daily routine, at least for those of us young women who want to avoid wrinkles for as long as possible. But sunscreen wasn’t invented until the 1920s, and even though there were some commercial brands sold during World War II and the late 1940s, usage didn’t become widespread until much later.
  • Girlfriends & boyfriends – As much as I loathe this term as an adult, it’s an apt description for youthful romantic partners. But like “teenager” it wasn’t really used much until the 1950s. Before that, you have to use words like “beau” which almost feels too old-fashioned (picture Gone With The Wind) for the 1940s.
  • Markers – The felt-tipped writing utensil used by children and adults everywhere to draw mustaches on photographs was originally patented in 1910. But they weren’t commonplace until the late 1950s. Alas, my 1925 character cannot mark out words in a document using a marker; she has to use a fountain pen, which seems like really messy work.
  • Fleece – People from an older generation might know this, but for those of born in the 1980s, fleece has always existed! It’s ingrained in our being! But it turns out the synthetic material that makes a lot of our robes, slippers, and scarves wasn’t invented until 1979. Don’t let your 1940s character wear a fleece robe, like I tried to do in a first draft somewhere.

I’m sure there are plenty of others, but these are the six I’ve found during my writing endeavors that I could easily recall. Maybe I’ll update with more as I discover them!


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Q&A with Pittsburgh Historical Fiction Examiner

Kayla Posner was kind enough to reach out and ask me to answer several historical-fiction-related questions for the Pittsburgh Historical Fiction Examiner. A ton of authors have answered a similar survey, but it still made me feel pretty legitimate. 🙂

Link to full article here.

Cara Langston, author of “Battle Hymns” answers 10 questions about her favorite time period in history, her favorite figures from history, and the age old question of coffee or tea.

1. If you could go back in time and be any figure from history, who would it be?

Amelia Earhart. She traveled to so many places and did so many exciting things! Plus, my husband has turned me into a bit of an aviation geek. But can I stop being her just before she disappears?

2. What year in history would you have liked to live in?

As much as I love the idea of experiencing Colonial America or Regency England, I am fully aware of how terrible life usually was for women back then, so I’m going to choose a more modern time. I’d pick the late 1910s in America and be a suffragette!

3. You’re having a dinner party and you can invite 5 people from history, who would they be?

Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and the Duchess of Cambridge (she’s a historical person in the making).

4. What castle from the past or present would you like to live in?

Neuschwanstein. I’ve never been to Germany, but the surrounding mountains look gorgeous in photos.

5. Two fellow historical fiction authors you’d like to go on a history themed tour of the world with?

Diana Gabaldon (I read all 8 “Outlander” books this summer, so that story is still at the front of my thoughts) and, for my love of the English monarchy, Philippa Gregory. She must know almost everything after writing so many books!

6. Who was more dashing and interesting, King Henry VIII of England or King Louis XIV of France?

I have to admit I’m not very familiar with King Louis XIV of France… I had to Google him to remember which Louis he was! So he’s obviously not my answer. I suppose King Henry VIII of England, then, if only because I enjoyed watching Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character in “The Tudors.”

7. Which of the six wives of King Henry VIII is your favorite?

Anne of Cleves, because I can trace my genealogy back to the Von Kleves, and I have to support my 14th great grand aunt!

8. English monarchy or French monarchy?

English monarchy. I haven’t read enough about the French monarchy. Maybe I should start!

9. What three novels could you read over and over?

“Les Miserables”,” Gone With The Wind”, and “Night”.

10. Tea or coffee when writing?

Both! Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and while we’re at it, red wine in the evenings.