CARTOONING THE ROARING TWENTIES
Part One: January 1920 - December 1922
THE DECADE that has entered American mythology yclept "the roaring twenties" was created, it is sometimes alleged, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a novelist, and John Held, Jr., a cartoonist. Gratifying as it may be to partisans of the literary and graphic arts to fancy that the social temper of a distinctive period of U.S. history could be brought into being through the power of the pen, life did not really imitate art any more readily in the twenties than it does now. It's true that Fitzgerald's 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise, captured the spirit of disillusioned ennui and impertinent disregard for convention that infected the joy-riding Younger Generation in post-World War I America. And it's true that Held's drawings of spindle-shanked flappers and bell-bottomed shieks of a few years later became the iconography of what Fitzgerald had christened the Jazz Age. But the 1920s did not roar because of the ministrations of either the novelist or the cartoonist. In the beginning, in fact, it wasn't a roar at all that distinguished the period: it was a hum.
A quiet hum at first— quiet but persistent. A hum that grew in volume until it became a steady drone and then, finally, a thunderous rumble. It was the sound of business enterprise, of manufacturing and commerce. It was the sound of twentieth century America.
The U.S. had been on the threshold of a mass production, mass consumption economy before World War I; wartime production and its aftermath pushed the country through the portal. The war effort had enlarged and speeded up production capacities for manufactured goods and for food, which the U.S. supplied to European nations as well as itself. By the end of the hostilities, Americans were producing more than they could easily consume. Initially, this circumstance resulted in a short depression. But then the canny American businessman mustered the salesman and the advertising man "to break down consumer resistance" (in the phrase of the day), to cajole the consumer into consuming.
Advertisers met the challenge with better design, more lavish page spreads, and more of every kind of advertising— stimulating the growth of newspapers and magazines, and providing a livelihood for legions of commercial artists and writers. Ads were no longer merely announcements: they were enticements, veritable seductions. And the good-natured, happy-go-lucky peddler of yore became a wholly predatory creature. As his managers put it, "It's not enough to be an order-taker anymore: you've got to be a salesman." And an increase in installment plan buying aided and abetted the advertiser and the salesman in their endeavors.
The fabled prosperity of the twenties stemmed entirely from the successful efforts of the sales forces of every industry to move goods rapidly from the end of the ever-rolling assembly line by creating a waiting public eager to buy. And prosperity characterized the twenties more comprehensively than any of the other accouterments of the Age— jazz, short skirts, hip flasks, contentious youth, bathtub gin, gangster warfare, or the emergence of radio as a national anodyne. The unparalleled affluence of the times was the bedrock upon which a fun-loving populace built their soaring pleasure palace of frivolity.
All of this merchantile hue and cry was aflame with feelings of patriotic dedication left over from the War years. What was good for business was good for prosperity, and what was good for prosperity was good for the country. Business and patriotism were thus allied in noble purpose. And the grossest materialistic ambition was the offspring of the conception.
The signal of business success was profit, and its symbol was the possession of money and the things it could buy. So money was perforce worshipped. The measure of a successful business became the measure of all success, and, by an extension of the same logic, business was venerated with a new, almost pious, devotion. One of the best-selling non-fiction books of the mid-twenties was Bruce Barton's The Man Nobody Knows. Jesus, Barton proclaimed, was not only the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem, but he was a great business executive. In forging a world-conquering organization from a nucleus of twelve common men ("at the bottom ranks of business"), Jesus proved himself "the founder of modern business." And so was the public at large reassured that the new national religion of America was entirely right and proper.
In short, the twenties saw the modern age take definitive form— an age dominated by advertising, mass production, consumer economics, business enterprise, standardization, mass communications and entertainment, and electrical appliances of every description. All of these facets of modern life had been taking shape before and during World War I. And by the early 1920s, they had emerged enough to give glittering substance to an entirely new way of life.
The country was becoming a nation of city-dwellers; the sometimes leisured pace of rural living was being replaced by the constant bustle of urban industry (both personal and commercial). Life in almost every respect was different than it had been before the War, and the contrast between the present and the past was sharper than it had ever been in the history of mankind. The difference was nowhere more evident than in the female half of the population.
THE FLAPPER OF THE 1920S was as different from her mother in 1905 as a strut down a runway from a stroll in the park. To begin with, the woman of the twenties looked different. She had short hair. And she had begun to use cosmetics, once deemed the exclusive (and immoral) right of "painted ladies" of the evening and the streets. And she dressed differently. In 1913, a woman's complete costume required about 19-1/2 yards of material; in 1928, about 7 yards. During the intervening 15 years, women had achieved increasing social mobility, moving out of the home and into the market place and the speakeasy, participating to a far greater extent in the economic and social life of the times.
Their activities no longer confined to the home, women found the old styles of dress physically restrictive in many of their new endeavors. So the materials used for women's clothing became lighter, and skirts became shorter. Because the revolution in feminine attire was led by the Younger Generation, the clothes were also sexier. Hemlines began climbing after the War and continued to do so steadily until 1927 when skirts never reached any lower than the knee. There hemlines stayed until the end of the decade.
Knees were not the only evidence of the new feminine presence in the public eye. Women were more and more in other public places, too. Although few of the women of the Younger Generation threw themselves into politics as a result of getting the vote in 1920, women's suffrage had an important psychological effect upon women. It declared them men's equals. It consolidated legally the vocational roles women had won by default during the War when they had demonstrated they could do men's work in factories and all manner of businesses while their men were off in the trenches of the European conflict.
After the War, their vocational prospects no longer confined to teaching and to social and clerical work, women poured into every kind of occupation. Changed political and social conventions had lifted former roadblocks, but women's invasion of the job market was made possible by the invention, manufacture, and sale in vast quantity of modern conveniences for the home that freed women from the full-time drudgery of housework.
With many more jobs open to them than ever before, women enjoyed a new independence--freedom from economic bondage to parents or husbands. And with economic freedom came freedom from parental and husbandly authority, too. Women, who, two decades earlier, had been seen as the guardians and exemplars of morality— the constant thread, the pattern in the moral fabric— were now as free to live (and to sin) as men. And women were quick to join men in living (and in sinning), brandishing (in public!) that scandalous emblem of their emancipation, the smoldering cigarette.
The rebelliousness that animated the early years of the decade drew young men and young women together in a common cause. They pursued the good life and good times together— completely unchaperoned, as befitted their new freedom. For the Younger Generation, the ultimate symbol of their new state was the automobile— particularly the enclosed automobile: it represented the last phase of their liberation, the ultimate escape from parental supervision. And the automobile enabled them to go when and where they wished and to do as they pleased when they got there.
AND WHEN PROHIBITION closed saloon doors, the consquent advent of the speakeasy opened another door for women. Social drinking became a universally accepted recreation for both sexes. The saloon had been an almost exclusively male haunt; the speakeasy was enthusiastically co-educational. "Under the new regime," as one wag put it, "not only the drinks were mixed but the company as well." And in mixed company, the Younger Generation shed all the taboos of their elders as they alternatively necked and talked the nights away. Science and religion and sex were the usual conversation topics.
Not everyone rejoiced in the new-found freedoms of the decade. The Older Generation was usually baffled and frequently outraged by the shennanigans of Flaming Youth on every hand. But their disapproval was a mere clucking tongue compared to the repressive aura of Prohibition that glowered over the land.
Oddly, the country wheeled into the 1920s behind a brace of Constitutional Amendments that seemed almost contradictory in spirit: yoked to the one that let in the fresh air of opportunity by freeing women from the slavery of their sex was the one that dimmed the light of individual liberty by prohibiting the manufacture and sale (but not, strangely, the consumption) of intoxicating beverages for recreational purposes. Women first voted in the Presidential Election of 1920; the country had gone dry at midnight on January 16 of the same year.
Chief among the forces promoting Prohibition was the Anti-Saloon League, which had spent decades lobbying for its cause. Symbolic of the League's stance was political cartoonist Rollin Kirby's Mr. Dry, whose funereal attire and pinched and scowling visage caricatured the restrictive nature of the movement. Mr. Dry's history was as long as the League's: his antecedents were cartoonist Joseph Keppler's Old Man Prohibition (c. 1869) and a similar figure that had depicted William Lloyd Garrison and the ultra-abolutionists of the pre-Civil War period. Kirby revived the gaunt and spectral figure, and it was widely imitated by his fellow cartoonists, becoming as ubiquitous an icon of the Age as Held's flappers.
In dubbing their foe Demon Rum, the proponents of Prohibition revealed the essentially religious inspiration of their movement. Organized religion during the twenties was beset by the emerging prestige of science and the habits of scientific thought fostered by the discipline. Those who resisted the advance of rational thinking and insisted on the literal truth of every word in the Bible began in 1921 to call themselves Fundamentalists; those who sought to reconcile their beliefs with the progress of science by interpreting the Bible according to scientific knowledge were called Modernists.
Regardless of the position one took, religion was very much in the air: religious debate on these questions enlivened the social scene among the Younger Generation, and religious convictions of one sort or another prompted Mr. Dry and his prudish minions to oppose many aspects of modern life that they deemed as damaging to the soul as alcohol— dancing, anything hinting at human sexuality, certain kinds of music and certain books, tobacco, certain movies, the new style of feminine dress, nudity even in art, gambling, card-playing of all kinds, laughter, and (or so it seemed) all other manifestations of people having a good time.
The threat of censorship was rampant throughout the twenties in almost every phase of human endeavor. And many cities enacted Blue Laws that preserved the sanctity of the Sabbath by preventing stores from doing business on Sundays and prohibiting dancing and all other forms of recreation that day.
It is difficult to imagine a more perfectly mismatched set of social forces than those represented by the self-indulgent and mutinous Flaming Youth of the twenties and by the self-righteous champions of moralistic rectitude fired with religious purpose: the latter opposed every act of the former as flagrant licentiousness; the former ridiculed the latter and baited their foe with ever more shocking conduct.
It is no wonder the twenties roared. Quite apart from the all-night din of the seemingly endless parties of the Age, there was the sound of the Young contending against repression, their rebellion seemingly sanctified by the wholesale flaunting of Prohibition they saw on every hand.
THE CARTOONS at hand, although few in number, book capture something of the flavor of American life in the twenties. But while the cartoons reflect the tenor of the times, the image we see in them is not a mirror image— not a copy but a refraction, an image distorted by the attitudes of the times towards contemporary events.
Women, for instance, are not depicted in these cartoons as responsible citizens newly enfranchised. Instead, they seem vain, fickle, trivial, not just a little dizzy, and wholly incapable of any rational thought or practical enterprise unless it involves snaring a man or spending money or personal grooming. This is not an accurate portrayal of real women at the time (except, perhaps, for the flapper, who studiously cultivated precisely the public personna I've just described). But it is a reflection of the times: women are ridiculed and made to seem silly and inconsequential precisely because they were suddenly more visible in society. As new arrivals, they are held up for examination: the stereotypes of ages are juxtaposed against this new visibility, and the comedy arises because the stereotypes are so obviously unsuited for the new social role that women had taken on.
The stereotypes are unkind as well as false, but they were typical of much of the thinking that prevailed then (and in this collection, many of the portraits of dingy females are drawn by women— Barksdale Rogers, Alice Harvey [no relation], and Ethel Plummer). But they reflect not only the prejudice of their time: they reflect the new fact about women, too. In previous times, women were not so frequently seen in cartoons— probably because they were not so much in evidence in the social life of those times.
This sampling also represents the state of the art of magazine cartooning in the early 1920s. The modern single-panel single-speaker cartoon in which the caption explains the picture and the picture adds meaning to the caption had not yet fully evolved from the humorous illustration of the nineteenth century in which the comedy resides in a “conversation” taking place beneath the picture. In fact, many of the cartoons here are little more than illustrated comic dialogue or verbal word-play: the pictures create the setting and tell us who is speaking, but they add little or no meaning to the words that run underneath in the so-called "He-She" formula of the day. Still, there are occasional cartoons of the modern sort in which words and pictures blend to create a comic meaning that neither evokes when standing alone by itself.
Interestingly, the much-touted role of The New Yorker magazine in the evolution of the modern panel cartoon is shown herein to be ill-founded. (See also Harv’s Hindsight for October 2004.) The cartoon with the single-speaker caption was clearly not invented by Harold Ross and his artists and writers at The New Yorker: Ross's magazine was founded in 1925, but the single-speaker caption cartoon is much in evidence earlier in the decade, as you will soon see, even if it is not yet the prevalent form of the panel cartoon.
The cartoons here were first published in the humor magazine Life between January 1920 and December 1922. The criteria by which I made my selection is both scientific and (probably) eccentric. I picked cartoons whose gags are topical, revealing something about their times; but I also picked some cartoons whose comedy seemed to me timeless— and others because their satirical thrust was astonishingly contemporary still, more than ninety years later. Some cartoons I picked simply to show how old some jokes are.
I tried to include a sample of the work of the cartoonists regularly published in Life, but I also tended to pick more cartoons by some cartoonists than by others simply because I liked their drawings better. I chose a couple cartoons by R.M. Crosby (whose signature— a squiggle that is virtually indecipherable) because of his exquisitely fragile way of modeling female faces, for instance. And I picked a number of cartoons with pretty girls in them partly to show the rapid change in female fashions through the years, partly because women were, as I've said, a significant presence in this period in ways they hadn't been before— and partly for the same reason those cartoons were probably published in the first place: because pretty women are nice to look at (and in these cartoons the women are clearly intended to be looked at more than laughed at).
Overriding all these considerations was one other: Was the cartoon funny? In this connection, I was often influenced by the form of the cartoon: I was inclined to pick cartoons in which the sense of the words depended upon understanding the picture and vice versa over those that were merely illustrated verbal jokes. I haven’t eliminated all of the latter by this criteria (nor did I want to), but the consequence of my disposition is that this collection is doubtless more "modern" because of this bias of mine than the original source is.
There are other ways in which this exhibit is not truly representational. There were proportionally far more cartoons about cuddly dogs and cute kids in the pages of the old Life than there are here. There are enough here to suggest one of the abiding comic interests of those days— but not enough, I hope, to surfeit interest. Finally, confined to the contents of Life because no other magazines of the period (College Humor, Judge) were readily available to me, this selection is scarcely comprehensive. There were cartoonists of the 1920s whose work never appeared in Life. But even if this collection falls short of being encyclopedic, it is still representational insofar as it shows in general the kind of cartoon being published in the twenties and, in specific, the work of certain of the period's most popular cartoonists.
Some of those cartoonists made greater names for themselves later with newspaper comic strips than they had with panel cartoons: Russ Westover went on to do Tillie the Toiler (starting in 1921); Carl Anderson, Henry (1934); R.B. Fuller, Oaky Doaks (1935); and Percy Crosby, whose rambunctious and street-wise Skippy would begin in Life (in March 1923; about which, more in Part Two in this series) before finding definitive form in a strip (which began in June 1925) but whose advent is heralded herein by a couple mischievous kid cartoons.
Some of the cartoonists are more widely remembered today as illustrators: James Montgomery Flagg (who had been a well-known illustrator and man-about-town in New York since early in the century and who later tried to disown his dabbling in cartooning) and A.B. Frost.
Other familiar names in these pages include Charles Dana Gibson, who had set the fashion for feminine beauty with his Gibson Girl in the 1890s and who became President (publisher) of Life in April 1920; the great Gluyas Williams, whose starkly simple but wonderfully expressive black-and-white masterpieces began appearing in Life in 1919; and Harrison Cady, who earned his niche in American letters by illustrating the children's books of Thornton Burgess (since about 1913).
The best known of the cartoonists of the twenties is very nearly missing from this selection. John Held, Jr. sold his first drawing to Life in about 1904 when he was 15 years old; he had mailed the cartoon in from Salt Lake City, his birthplace. He came to New York in 1910 and sold drawings periodically to various magazines throughout the teens. But no Held cartoons appeared in Life for all of 1920. His first Life appearance of the decade was in the issue for January 20, 1921— illustrations for a poem. Still, he was not a frequent contributor to the magazine until the middle of the decade; by then, his flappers had become the apotheosis of stylish femininity.
Held may be almost missing, but one of the best cartoonists of the previous generation is amply represented here. If a cartoonist is defined simply as a person who draws funny pictures, then Thomas S. Sullivant is the epitome of the breed. His work, signed T.S. Sulliant in slanted caps, had been appearing in Life since 1891— comic caricatures of Irishmen, laborers, animals, farmers, mythological beings, and Biblical characters. Of Sullivant's drawings more than any other during the first quarter of the century it can be said he drew funny— genuinely hilarious pictures in and of themselves, without captions. We laugh at his drawings regardless of the words beneath them.
In his animal cartoons, he achieved a modern verbal-visual blend: without the pictures, the captions aren't at all funny; and although the pictures are funny by themselves, they are funnier in harness with their captions. And Sullivant's Biblical cartoons are subtle attacks on Fundamentalism: pretending to accept the Old Testament accounts as literal truth, Sullivant then reads between the lines and shows how it must've been back then if the Biblical tales are construed as actual history.
In contrast to Held and Sullivant, many of the cartoonists represented herein are probably unknown to the casual student of cartooning history even though they enjoyed considerable reputation among their contemporaries. Robert L. Dickey, for example, was widely appreciated at the time for his full-age graphic narratives featuring the anthropomorphic antics of appealing dogs. Less realistic still but not yet cartoony in style are the airy drawings of Ethel Plummer and the delicate sketches of Alice Harvey.
The festivities begin immediately below. In order to suggest the progress of the times and the evolution of the art, the cartoons are reprinted here in approximately the chronological order of their initial publication: first the cartoons from 1920, then 1921, finally 1922.
Subsequent entries in this series will cover the rest of the decade from hum to roar, providing not only a comic chronicle of the Age but a historical record of the flowering of the panel cartoon as an art form.