Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the American flapper of the 1920s did not begin life as an invention of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even before the end of the First World War, and fully two years before Fitzgerald published his first novel, the press had already noticed a certain tendency among girls in their late teens, and bestowed on them the name of ‘flappers’. It referred to their perceived lack of a serious purpose in life: without any long-term objective, they just flapped.
To be more specific, these girls were charged with irresponsibility and immodesty: they cared too much about their personal appearance and too little about the consequences of their actions. Or, putting it another way, they were high-spirited young people doing what high-spirited young people have always done, and getting the kind of reaction that older and supposedly wiser people have always reserved for exuberant youth.
Even so, it was only towards the end of 1921 that American popular culture started to construe ‘flapperism’ as a significant social problem, and began to posit its likely causes and cure. Social commentators speculated that there had been a change in parenting practices in the years after 1900. An Arkansas judge summed it up efficiently in a conference speech about flappers that he gave in 1926:
‘The difference between the youth of one age and youth of another in manners and behaviors is largely a matter of spanking. A generation that has been well spanked is less turbulent and easier to live with than one that has not been spanked.’
The girls coming to maturity around 1920 were dubbed ‘the Unspanked Generation’. And that, it was proposed, was the explanation for their becoming flappers. So the solution was obvious.
‘Spank ’em!’ declared Nancy Astor, the American eccentric who had been elected Britain’s first female Member of Parliament a few years earlier. Throughout 1922, similar calls rang through the media, continuing intermittently almost until the end of the decade.
According to one newspaper humorist in 1928, ‘Probably the reason a good many flappers want what they want instead of what they need is because a good spanking so often heads the list of the things they need.’ This wry exchange from the end of 1927 embodies essentially the same joke:
CLARK: I don’t know what to give that flapper daughter of mine for Christmas.
LEWIS: Why don’t you give her something she really needs?
CLARK: I am afraid she wouldn’t like a spanking!
Some journalists were moved to verse. In 1921, the Washington Times scribe F. J. Schwab offered a limerick entitled ‘The Naughty Flapper’:
There was once a saucy young flapper
Who dared her mother to slapper;
Then her daddy yanked ’er
Over his knee and spanked ’er
Good and hard with an old bell clapper.
The following year, Roy K. Moulton, whose work was syndicated, penned a slicker, wittier poem entitled ‘Spank, Mother, Spank With Care’:
A New Jersey mother, a scrapper,
Is raising a boisterous child.
The mother says she is a flapper
Who travels around with the wild.
So, mamma has picked out a shingle,
And now she informs the whole world
She is going to make one flapper tingle.
This judgment she grimly has hurled.
‘When girls hang around with cake-eaters
And show an abundance of nerve
With flat-wheelers, lizards and cheaters,
A spanking is what they deserve.’
So hisses this parent, commanding,
This old-fashioned home autocrat,
And Rosie will eat her meals standing
For quite a long time after that.
And so this stern parent, in passion,
May bring an old remedy back.
The whole country take up the fashion
And echo the New Jersey whack.
Take warning in time, young cake-eaters;
Take warning, O fatuous simp,
For next time you happen to meet her,
Your flapper may flap – with a limp.
Then there was ‘Sunday Morning Breakfast’, a syndicated newspaper column by Roe Fulkerson (1870-1949) that ran for the best part of the decade, presenting vignettes of prandial family conversations, particularly between a father and his daughter, generally referred to as ‘the flapper’ although in early installments her name is established as Lucy. Their relationship is regularly punctuated with threats of spanking, of which the most extended example features in a 1922 edition in which Lucy comes to the table unconventionally dressed, and Father tells her, ‘If you ever go to church in riding breeches, I will take advantage of the convenience of the costume and spank you heartily! What has got into youngsters these days anyway?’
What’s got into youngsters, explains ‘the flapper’, is a desire for thrills, and she seems to class being spanked as a very big thrill indeed:
‘The idea of going to church in riding breeches is not the least diminished by your threat to spank me, because it might get into the newspapers and on the first page and there might be a big headline, ‘Indignant Father Spanks Flapper for Church Going in Breeches’ and that would be thrillage! The sub-head would tell of the interview with the preacher and various members of the vestry and I would get a big thrill out of that, too. Let’s put it, Pops, and you spank me on the church steps! Are you game?’
Father’s response is to up the offer by threatening to do it ‘in the seclusion of the cellar’ instead: no fifteen minutes of fame for flapper Lucy.
Fulkerson had put his finger on one of the newspaper trends of the year: many an editor across the nation found good copy in stories of flapper spanking. In February, a Brooklyn father put his flapper daughter across his knee and spanked her with a hairbrush for wearing lipstick. In May, Frances Vanore, a 17-year-old blonde from New Jersey, bobbed her hair in defiance of parental orders and likewise wound up over her father’s lap; the spanking that followed was so vigorous and noisy that the neighbors phoned the police to report a riot. (Spanking, however, was legal, so no arrests were made.) Meanwhile in Chicago, a more pusillanimous father decided it was so important that his flapper daughter should be soundly spanked that he wired his wife to come home from Florida to do it.
In June, the Washington Times ran a cartoon by Vernon S. Snow illustrating the essence of the confrontation that was taking place in American households:
One week later, a reader wrote in to protest: her mother had seen the toon and had gotten ideas, in consequence of which the young lady signed herself ‘A Sore Flapper’.
‘A spanking crusade is spreading over the country,’ declared a syndicated story that August. ‘She who gets spanked is the flapper. The parents have been advised from a good many sources that spanking will cure the evil which seems to worry so any well-meaning middle-aged ladies who do not look particularly chic in flapper garments and bobbed hair.’
It’s worth pausing to register the streak of sardonic irony there, and the hint that the maternal reprisals might in part have arisen from sublimated jealousy. For an awful lot of it wasn’t about anything particularly ‘evil’, just the way youngsters chose to dress and enjoy themselves, combined with the fact that they didn’t see any good reason why their elders should lay down the law about such matters.
For instance, flapper spanking incidents sometimes concerned modern trends in dancing, either literally or figuratively. In the winter of 1924, a Florida father forbade his daughter to dance the fashionable shimmy, then caught her doing it again and spanked her – unjustly, since it turned out that she was shivering, not shimmying. And in June 1928, a Brooklyn flapper was caught wearing a too-abbreviated bathing costume and spanked by her mother while still swimsuited; and her wildly kicking legs were described as giving ‘an excellent exhibition of the Charleston’.
But the biggest bone of contention was how the flappers looked and dressed: smart, bobbed hair in contrast with the flowing ringlets of a decade earlier; rouged cheeks and painted lips; unprecedentedly short skirts that (as one wag put it) ‘end where they should begin’; and, above all, stockings worn rolled down, rather than held up with garters. Rolled stockings were considered especially indecent because they showed off a girl’s knees, which helps to explain what happened to the 17-year-old flapper Mary Bell of Omaha in July 1925.
This was the month of the notorious Tennessee evolution trial, later dramatized in Inherit the Wind. One incident that didn’t make it into the 1955 play and 1960 movie was what flapper Mary did up in Nebraska: she had her knees painted, one with the face of the pro-evolution attorney Clarence Darrow and the other with one of his ancestors.
(The press later claimed her left knee bore a portrait of Darrow’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan; after all, as the pro-creation lawyer he was busy making a monkey out of himself, as anyone who’s seen Inherit the Wind will know.)
Mary planned to show off her tibia-top topicality at a dance that night, but didn’t get to attend it: when she got home, her parents took one look at her ‘evolution knees’ and reacted in a predictably parental manner, whereupon Mary was soundly spanked, then sent to bed after some vigorous knee-scrubbing.
You have to remember that, little more than a decade earlier, a skirt was considered daringly short if it revealed even a lady’s ankles: fashion had gone so far so quickly that it wasn’t only ultra-conservative bigots who were liable to be shocked by what the flappers were wearing, and showing. In 1925, it was even mooted that, if skirts were going to get any shorter, then underwear needed to become a lot less minimal. Here’s flapper actress Sally O’Neil modeling the proposed new style:
But the older generation did acknowledge that the decade’s looser, simpler styles had certain advantages, comparable to those found with the miniskirts of two generations later: ‘The thin clothes the girlies are wearing now would make spanking wonderfully effective,’ wrote a commentator in 1922. And the similarities didn’t end there. In 1927, when flapperism had spread as far as Romania, skirts had grown so short that girls were walking around Bucharest with their panties visible – at least until several of them were pursued and spanked by indignant mobs!
Other clothing choices also caused occasional flurries of disapproval. In 1922, there was heated debate over the wearing, or not, of knickers. That is, of course, knickers in the American sense of the word, with no implication of flappers daringly ‘going commando’; for the benefit of British readers, the garment at issue was knickerbocker breeches of a kind that were then more commonly worn by young boys. The subject found its way into the broader debate over whether shopgirl flappers should be allowed to dress as they pleased, with the ‘con’ side advancing an argument that was almost baroque in its improbability. A bob-haired salesgirl in knickers was not only at risk of being mistaken for the opposite sex; it was also proposed, in all apparent seriousness, that a hapless flapper might end up wrongfully getting a public paternal spanking on the shop floor, if a customer father should mistake her for his own errant son! It’s an utterly absurd scenario that’s a sure sign of an ulterior motive: whoever thought it up was obviously a lot more interested in the idea of the flapper being spanked than in any kind of plausible reason why that might happen.
Back at ‘Sunday Morning Breakfast’, this time in 1925, the flapper daughter protests, ‘I am penalized because of my youthful exuberance and girlish health.’ She has just been warned about wearing shorts: ‘If I ever see you in those Boy Scout trousers with your knees showing again I will spank you on the spot.’ So it’s hard not to feel she has some right on her side. But sometimes matters were much, much more serious. And that brings us to the so-called ‘Flapper Bandit’, 20-year-old Celia Cooney.
She was involved in a series of armed robberies in New York, and her case touched America’s conscience when she came to trial in 1924, ten years before the not dissimilar story of Bonnie and Clyde. One person claiming to be a mother wrote in to suggest a suitable penalty:
‘What she needs and badly needs is a real good old-fashioned spanking. I mean it in all seriousness. Let her be taken in private by one of our able-bodied policewomen with full authority to put the girl over her knee and spank her soundly, not to shame her, but to give her something to remember that will guide her in her future conduct. I feel fully capable and I would rather enjoy administering such a spanking myself.’
With that last sentence, the suspected ulterior motive rears its head again, but if the letter was genuine, then it illustrates how some people were unable to differentiate between youthful high spirits and full-blown criminality – though the judge wasn’t among them, and Celia Cooney got something rather worse than a sound spanking. (She was eventually released from prison in 1931.) The trajectory from flapper to felon was a new version of a familiar kind of cautionary tale that had been circulating for centuries, and that cast the flappers’ trivial misdemeanors in a more serious light. Somebody needed to act, before it was too late…
In 1922, reports began to circulate that a town in New Jersey had appointed a new civic official on a par with the dog catcher: the public ‘flapper spanker’. Roy K. Moulton was inspired to write another of his poems, ‘The New Official’:
They have got a flapper slapper
In a staid New Jersey Town;
As a spanker this official
Is in line for much renown.
But his business is so rushing
That the job has lost its charm,
For the first day he went at it
He ’most paralysed his arm.
Now he wants assistant spankers
Who can bend a wicked knee,
For the flappers are as num’rous
As the sands along the sea.
But which ‘staid New Jersey town’? It was never named, so the story resists verification and may well be nothing more than an urban legend. But whether it’s fact or fiction, the point is that it articulates a widespread sense that parents were failing in their task of controlling their wayward daughters, and that it was up to public institutions to take a hand. And that is exactly what some judges did.
Early in 1922, Chicago flapper Mildred Richards started throwing popcorn in a movie house. Unsurprisingly, she was thrown out. Not unpredictably, she was prosecuted for disorderliness. But her nemesis came when she turned up at the courthouse wearing rolled stockings, which had recently been made illegal in Chicago. We don’t know what happened to her as a result of the rowdyism, but in the matter of the stockings, the judge sentenced her to the following:
This wasn’t an isolated piece of judicial capriciousness. In April the same year, a Kansas flapper was found in a man’s bedroom and hauled up before a police court accused of indiscreet behavior; the judge sentenced her to be spanked by her father. (The man got six months.) In the spring of 1925, an 18-year-old Boston flapper was sentenced to a year in jail, but the judge commuted it to a spanking every morning for three months, to be administered by a policewoman.
At around the same time, a Wisconsin flapper was convicted of shoplifting and she too was sentenced to a series of daily spankings, only in her case without any bottom-saving jail-time alternative. The judicial system was, it seems, convinced of the efficacy of this kind of low-level intervention.
But the law is as inconsistent as the public attitudes it exists to express. For every flapper who found herself sentenced to a banal and undignified punishment, there was another prosecution brought by a daughter against her mother or father for spanking her, often leading to a conviction for battery. Let our example be the case of 16-year-old Lorene Jones of Kansas.
One evening in 1928, she took an unauthorized trip in the family motor car, eventually getting home at 4 a.m. Questioned by her mother, she refused to say where she had been, whereupon Mom put her across her knee and spanked her on the bare bottom with a wooden coat-hanger. Almost, but not quite, like this newspaper illustration of the incident:
Lorene sued her for assault. Mom loudly insisted that she was justified in giving her daughter a good spanking, and offered to rebut the claims of cruelty by staging a reenactment in public. She also declared that, if the courts disagreed with her, she would allow Lorene to spank her. That idea was quickly forgotten when she was found guilty and fined $100. The judge added that daughters should be spanked when appropriate (and what was more, he personally knew no fewer than 150 girls ‘who needed a good spanking’), but the use of the coat-hanger was beyond what might be considered reasonable. Mom loudly refused to pay, and was sentenced to 100 days in jail. A single night was enough to weaken her resolve, and she was released on the strict condition that any future spankings for Lorene must be administered by hand. And so they were: Lorene was so abashed by the shame she had brought on her family through the newspaper coverage that she asked her mother to give her what she now felt she deserved – and Mom obliged with a good, sound spanking!
There’s a subtle but striking change of atmosphere in this story from relatively late in the decade: the flappers are coming to concede the parents’ side of the argument. The long flapper craze was burning itself out: it had pretty much gone even before American spirits were decisively dampened by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. But the change probably came about for reasons that were a little more complex than claimed by the legendary advice columnist Dorothy Dix (1861-1951) in a piece she ran not long after the Lorene Jones case. ‘From all over this land of the free and home of the downtrodden parent,’ she wrote, ‘have come letters testifying to the value of spanking as a solution of the wild modern daughter problem.’ In one town, a group of 25 mothers had even formed a ‘Spanking Club’ and started putting the hairbrush to systematic use on the rear ends of their flapper offspring. ‘Instead of our daughters resenting the spanking and being angry at us,’ one of them told Miss Dix, ‘they are more affectionate and considerate, and for the first time in their lives really respect us.’
For Dorothy Dix, it was all testament to a phenomenon that gave her a headline for her article: ‘The Magical Effect of Spanking’. But spanking for flappers had been routinely recommended, and frequently put into practice, since at least 1922.
So maybe this ‘magical effect’ just had a six-year delay built in…