The American Flapper through Media
The American flapper, a “new woman”, a change in society, oftentimes overlooked inside history. The flapper did not provide any legal change for women, did not gain them more political rights in her time. She did something else entirely. The American flapper held change in the role of women, the appearance of women, and the way women were looked at inside society. Their power was in their style, their actions, and the culture time period they lived in. When it comes to teaching the flapper, she many times will be brushed over and not paid enough attention. Inside this paper, I will explain a way to place the flapper inside the social studies classroom that will be engaging for the students.
The flapper emerged during a time in American history where much of society and culture was undergoing change. Historians Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber wrote “According to many historians, the Jazz Age marked the birth of Modern America” (Drowne & Huber, 2004). Meaning that during this time considered “the Jazz Age” is what truly began what many consider to be modern American, many of our modern themes came about and can be traced to begin with this time period in America. This time period in American history was one of change, prosperity, and modernization. Many people look here and can see the beginning of the modern times Americans would soon enjoy. So, what exactly happened in this time? A positive aspect of the 20s was the consumer culture. In 1922 the economy had a reboot due to consumer goods being manufactured in industries (Drowne & Huber, 2004). This made products faster, easier, and cheaper. More people would be able to afford a top since it was mass produced by machines. One major reason for consumer goods spreading quickly inside America was through the new media. “Consumer goods revolution fueled the nation’s flourishing economy and increasing reliance on new technologies and mass media transformed the daily lives of ordinary Americans” (Drowne & Huber, 2004). The media was able to influence the lives of Americans across states, classes, and genders aiding in influencing this new consumer culture. People began to use the media and technology to grasp what consumer goods they should purchase during this time period. All of this would be useful information to provide for students to prepare them for the flapper and why the media plays a role in her fame. If the students come into the lesson I explain later one, with a background of the consumer culture and the new media outlets for Americans, it can make learning about the flapper better.
Who was the American flapper? Historian Joshua Zeitz provided a description of the flapper in Flapper. He states “… the notorious character type who bobbed her hair, smoked cigarettes, drank gin, sported short skirts, and passed her evenings in the steamy jazz clubs, where she danced in a shockingly immodest fashion” (Zeitz, 2006). Inside this activity, I am not trying to convince them of who the flapper is or what she is trying to gain, but more so how she became a household name inside America during the 1920s. After taking the time to explain the 1920s, it is time to begin the flapper movement.
As a way to engage the students and allow them to move about the classroom, you can create a station activity. This would be a group activity but their review will be independent to see each student’s understanding of the material. Throughout the research done around the American flapper, I have been able to find numerous sources from the time period that can help express the flapper. The goal of this activity is to allow the students to engage with the primary sources and develop their own interpretations. Another goal would be for the students to see how the media during this time could change an opinion of a subject, for them to see bias using the flapper as an example. At the end of the lesson, the students should be able to explain the various types of media sources during the 1920s allowed ideas, opinions, and themes to spread throughout America.
You can add more sources if you deem necessary but for my lesson I have two newspaper sources and three magazine covers from LIFE. Day One will be the introduction to the 1920s and the mass media (as discussed above). For the review and to check for understanding, they will have a brief response to compare the primary sources they interacted with and explain how those sources depicted the flapper and what influence these would have on the American people then. If it is an honors class, it would be useful to also add for them to describe how these sources affect Americans today in comparison to the 1920s.
The first newspaper was from the Library of Congress. It was a fashion page that describes the latest trends in dressing, shoes, and hats. A famous actress Clara Bow who portrays a flapper in the film “IT” in 1927 is shown modeling her own hat. It was labeled “the latest for girls” (Evening Star, 1927). The second newspaper was NYS Historic Newspaper. This paper as well was centered on Clara Bow but instead of her fashion, it was her movie “IT” (The Massena Observer, 1927), showing the times the movie was playing at and the theater it was located in. It allowed Americans to find the film easier by simply reading the paper. As well, this paper promotes the film to the people and could influence a person to attend the theater that day. With these two newspapers, it allows the students to interact with the primary source material on their own and come to understand the type of sources written about the flapper during this time.
The three magazine covers by John Held can be found in numerous books such as Carolyn Kitch’s The Girl on the Magazine Cover; The origins of visual stereotypes in American Mass Media. However, these images can also be discovered on the web. The first one “The Sweet Girl Graduate” depicts the flapper with a cap on her head and diploma in her hand. This expresses the view that the American flapper was educated to some degree. It allows the students a different perspective on the flapper from simply the fashion and actress inside the newspaper.
The next magazine cover was labeled “Sitting Pretty”. This picture shows a flapper and dog both sitting. It expressed the dress, appearance and appeal of the flapper to the students. The newspaper did not do a great job at seeing the flapper since it was more grain like, whereas this cartoon makes it more clear. It helps to show just another aspect of the flapper that would be displayed to the American public.
The final magazine to look into was titled “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks”. This image shows a young flapper dancing with an older man. They both appear to be enjoying their time and having fun. During this Jazz Age, there was music and dancing, this image helped bring that to life. Part of the flapper was going out and having a good time, so to fully understand this flapper, they would need this side as well.
For the setup of the lesson. I would create the five stations. Have the desk preorganized with the primary source already at the table, however it would be hidden inside a folder and they would be told not to touch it yet to keep them from being distracted. Then I would start with a Do Now. Personally, I would begin with asking the students what is a flapper. It would be interesting to see what they do and do not know about this term. Then, pass out the paper they will be using for the activity. The first section on their paper will be filled with questions from the 1920s review. I would have, define the consumer culture, what mass media is, and why this period is considered “Modern America”. This way, as they continue through the stations they can reference if needed and can use this after watching the film. Then, after the review, they can begin their stations. They would be given questions to answer at each station. What type of source are you looking at? When was the source created? What is the source attempting to convey or show the reader? How do you think this influenced a person’s view on the flapper? Depending how long the block is would determine how much time they are given at each station. Allow roughly 10 minutes to briefly go over what they learned and their opinions on the primary sources. I would bring up bias at this point in the lesson.
Overall, the students should be able to use the primary sources and develop their own understanding of how media affected Americans during this time. The students would use the flapper to better understand the media and the power it could have over this time period. As stated before, the flapper is commonly overlooked. However, she can be used to not only show the changing of women inside society and creating a modern woman, but the flapper can also show them how the media played a role inside the lives of Americans.
Drowne, K., and Huber, P. (2004), The 1920s: American Pop Culture Through History 3-28.
Evening Star. [volume], (Washington D.C.) September 23, 1927, page 22, Image 22. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1927-09-23/ed-1/seq-22/
Kitch, C. (2001), The Girl on the Magazine Cover; The origins of visual stereotypes in American Mass Media, 121-135.
The Massena observer. (Massena, St. Lawrence County, N.Y.) June 2, 1927. Page 12, Image 12. http://nyhistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn84031311/1927-06-02/ed-1/seq-12/