Written by Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs historic-site interpreter Valerie Kauffman as a companion to the National Women’s History Month programming that is taking place at the Johnson Victrola Museum during March 2018.
“What a tomato!” “That dame’s a looker!” Chick, kitten, moll, doll, ankle and bim were just some of the expressions that were part of the new vernacular that sprang up in the 1920s to refer to a woman. Why so many? Well, it was an era of colossal changes and women were becoming hard for society to define.
The ’20s has been called the decade of the “New Woman.” In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed giving women the right to vote, and the still unratified Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1923 with the objective of ending the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment and other matters.
After World War I concluded, acceptance of wage-earning jobs for young unmarried women grew. They expanded beyond employment as domestic helpers and teachers into work in offices, retail shops, department stores, factories, and even in corporations and politics. By 1930, one in four women held a paying job. They became college professors, entrepreneurs, archaeologists, pilots, public speakers and writers. Of the nine Pulitzer Prizes awarded for fiction in the 1920s, five went to female novelists.
Show business teamed with female dancers and singers, especially those with experience in vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies. For reasons that may ultimately defy analysis, the biggest stars in vaudeville, and consequently the highest paid ones, were the female singing singles, or singing comediennes. In the early 20th century, female vaudeville stars were the richest independent women in the country. Hitch that up to the legislative initiatives of the ’20s and options for modern women broke wide open.
Bright young things of the 1920s wanted music that made them feel happy and snappy—music that motivated them to get up and dance instead of just sitting and watching. Big bands, ragtime, blues—and a fast upbeat style called jazz—were emerging. The radio and the phonograph encouraged folks to sing about their loves and have fun doing the Charleston, foxtrot, black bottom and the shimmy. Over 190,000 phonographs were sold nationwide in 1923, and within six years, sales reached $5 million.
Moreover, in the business world, the 1920s was all about raking in the cabbage! Marketing was the key to commercial success, and record corporations like the Victor Talking Machine Company, headed by Eldridge R. Johnson, knew that well enough. Hiring women from vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies with exclusive recording contracts was marketing gold.
Aileen Stanley began her career in vaudeville and in cabarets as a team with her brother Stanley. In 1920, she ventured out on her own and was a hit in New York in the revue show “Silks and Satins.” She also made the first of her many recordings that same year. The majority of her records in the ’20s were for Victor. She was paid a weekly salary and royalties for the sale of her records. Some of the songs that she recorded were “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle,” “The Broadway Blues,” “I’m a Lonesome Crybaby,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody to Love,” and the Irving Berlin compositions “Home Again Blues” and “All By Myself.” Between 1922 and 1924, and again in the late ’20s, Victor produced a popular series of records pairing Stanley with singer Billy Murray. The series included “In My Heart, On My Mind, All Day Long,” “Oh! You Beautiful Baby,” and “I’ll Stand Beneath Your Window Tonight and Whistle.” Off and on through the 1920s, Stanley and Murray recorded 29 sides together, exclusively for Victor.
Nora Bayes was a very self-assured performer and businesswoman. She was no dumb Dora. Confident in her growing popularity, Bayes challenged the authority of theater managers and producers. During her career with the Ziegfeld Follies, she at one time commanded a salary of $2,500 per week. After America entered World War I, Bayes became involved with morale-boosting activities for the military. George M. Cohan asked that she be the first to record a performance of his patriotic song “Over There.” This recording was released in 1917 and became an international hit. Bayes recorded for both Victor and Columbia Records during the late teens and early ’20s. Lenora Goldberg changed her name to Nora Bayes to suit her Irish repertoire. Most of the songs that she recorded for Victor were Irish ballads like “That Irish Mother of Mine,” “Laddie Boy,” and “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly.” Of course, she recorded “Over There” for Victor as well as “The Greatest Battle Song of All” which was a morale-boosting melody.
The incomparable Fanny Brice surely fits the bill in burlesque, the Follies, records, radio, theater and film. Honk, honk, this gal was not a flat tire! She was considered to be one of the greatest comediennes on Broadway. She recorded nearly two dozen record sides for Victor and several for Columbia. In the 1921 Follies, she was featured singing “My Man” which became both a big hit and her signature song. She was a posthumous recipient of a Grammy Hall of Fame award for her 1921 recording of “My Man.” A couple of her other Victor songs were “Second Hand Rose” and the “Sewing Machine Song.” Some of her comedy routines were recorded including parts one and two of “Mrs. Cohen at the Beach.” She was portrayed by Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl” on Broadway in 1964 and in the film adaptation of the musical in 1968.
Promoted as the “Queen of the Blues,” Marion Harris was the first white female singer to record jazz and blues featuring material by black songwriters. She was a popular vaudeville performer playing many engagements at the Palace in New York during the 1920s. Record companies sought her out to record for them and she recorded into the 1930s with over 130 recordings to her credit. She had the clout to make and break her contracts. Harris’ many Victor recordings included “Paradise Blues,” “My Syncopated Melody Man,” “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” “After You’ve Gone,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much” and “Jazz Baby.”
The ”New Women” were changed forever through political policies, advertisements, books, films, records, radio, newspapers and magazines by the way they were portrayed and how the world perceived them. The ladies of the 1920s were all different and no longer fit a mold. This decade was a grand time of change for women both mentally and physically. They were able to break away from the confines of society that men bound them to for so long, and the results of this shift are still evident in our society today as we look forward to the 2020s.