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The More Things Change…

Things have changed a lot in my lifetime, so imagine how much things have changed in the last hundred years. Turns out, for all the computers, internet, rap music, women’s lib and online porn of our time, the answer just might be “not as much as you’d expect.” Or at least that was my takeaway from my most recent read, Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells. It was a book I picked up at a dollar store recently, a compilation of articles from Vanity Fair magazine in the early-20th Century.

Vanity Fair at the time seemed to be one of several eclectic magazines which published serious articles, short stories, poetry and I believe photography, though that aspect was missing from the paperback. The book presents a selection of all of the above that were published between 1914 – 1936. As such it gives an interesting time capsule look back from the time of my grandparents. It features some big names, before they were big names – the first published works by Dorothy Parker, essays from Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. Cocteau can be found in the pages within as well as DH Lawrence, pondering “Do Women Change?”. Of course the current events dictate a fair bit of the content – Leacock ponders somberly on the human cost of World War I (to them, just “the Great War”) ; several stories chronicle the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression.

Now, I will say that humorous senses were a little different back then. Some of the articles clearly meant to be laugh-enducing satires like Pooh-creator AA Milne’s “Autobiography” left me bored and a bit weary rather than rolling on the floor guffawing. Likewise Dorothy Parker’s series of poems (“Actresses – A Hate Song”, “Our Office – A Hate Song”) and her short story about why she chose to remain single left me thinking she was a great * cranky self-centered person who might possibly rhyme with ‘witch’ * rather than a tremendous wit. But for all that, the one thing which stood out to me was how seemingly current some of the topics were a hundred years later.

In our age of the War on Drugs, British poet Arthur Symons ruminated on the effects of hash and opium on one’s senses. Several stories looked at how to get around prohibition when alcohol was taboo. Those who figure that “Women’s Lib” started with the Pill and burning bras in the ’60s might be surprised to read the Anne O’Hagan story from 1915 entitled “New York Women Who Earn $50 000 A Year”, a description of the many women she knew making that amount or more annually (in excess of half a million dollars in our money) stressing how women don’t have to rely upon men for their keep. And of course, there’s fashion. Sure, women in 1920 didn’t dress precisely like today’s gal-on-the-go, but the changing fashions and in particular the length of skirts was an issue as far back as 1923 – the writer liked the short skirts (which one might guess would be quite modest by today’s standards) – “what the feller in the streets wants is legs” he comments, but he noted how the industry seemed to change the in vogue style from year to year forcing ladies to buy more clothes. Sound familiar?

Likewise, the Wall Street crash led several of their writers to question the wisdom of the “system”, noting among other things bankers always make themselves rich even when their firms bankrupt the masses and how those playing the stock market who get rich point to their acumen and intelligence while those who went broke blame “bad luck.” Not unlike columns we would have read only a dozen years back. Another man tells the story of being an Afghan fitting into American society, something he accomplished but with a stumbling block or two along the way.

Of course a few things are different. There are articles about the wonder of the new form of entertainment known as “moving pictures” and a long essay on that new kids fad, Jazz music, “the only distinct and original idiom (Americans) have”. Even there though, one imagines a twenty-something kid from the city today might write a similar piece about Rap.

I didn’t find the book to be all that entertaining, yet I did read through it though with interest. It presented a good look at life a century back and left me thinking “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In today’s climate, I can’t make up my mind as to whether that is comforting or terrifying.

11 Replies to “The More Things Change…”

  1. It does sound like things were of course different but the same. The end result seem to be the same…it’s the way around to get to that result that changes. You mentioned at the first about online porn…we had porn…but it was a quick look in magazines or videos from brothers or friend’s dads that we snuck around and found.

    Dorthy Parker could keep her own with the wits at the time… yea was known to be a negative person but I read she had depression. She does sound modern with many of her poems and quotes.

    I love the twenties…that was the sixties of the time. Clara Bow and Babe Ruth…I loved that time.

    Flappers were pretty wild…going to speakeasys and being wild like today except with no cameras. Babe Ruth visiting houses of….uh…ill repute but the reporters keeping to themselves and not printing it. The Babe would be on TMZ every day in todays world.

    The excesses were there… but not just as much in the open.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. all true… oh yeah, there was an article on Babe Ruth in there too, sort of highlighting how he was not only the best ballplayer around, he was pretty much the first real “celebrity” player who everyone knew far and wide regardless of if they were baseball fans or not. For sure though, few of the big names of the first half of the 20th Century, from Babe to the ‘Rat PAck” even to the age of JFK could have survived these days acting the way they did… social media would crucify them and the mainstream media would work to uncover every “scandal” not hide it.
      You’re right though, the 20s were quite a time of radical change, it seemed, then the Depression and dust bowl and all put an end to that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hate that about our society… You (mostly well known people) cannot have a private life anymore…I don’t see it as “freedom of the press” either…I see some of it as stalking. Lady Di is one example…

        Those people can be jackals… I know I might be strange but I could care less about the private life of Drew Barrymore..unless I was part of it LOL.

        If the depression would not have happened…you have to wonder what the 20s would have led to…that is an interesting question. The 50s could have been the sixties…you never know.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. another of those interesting “What ifs” to ponder… of course the war changed things utterly too, although it’s possible that if the depression hadn’t occurred maybe WW2 might have been avoided anyway. tough to know, but I think it seems like there’s always a reaction to any action – the 20s were liberal and scandalous in many minds, so that ushered in a new conservatism, much like the 60s and 70s brought Reaganism and the “Moral Majority.” Wish politicians would understand that extreme positions, left or right only cause a huge backlash and set back your cause…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes Extreme any way is not a good thing. Just use common sense… but that usually is not the case. Yes you are right…the war maybe could have been avoided without the depression…we will never know but it makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. to me, even living in Canada much of my life, two things really “changed everything” – Watergate, and 9-11. The latter is kind of obvious, but Watergate perhaps not so much. But I think it was when the public, by and large became completely cynical about politicians and stopped putting them on a pedestal, and simultaneously it was when the media began to look for dirt on the prez and other high-ranking officials instead of look for ways to cover it up for them. I bet there were a whole lot of “Monica Lewinsky”s in the White House long before Clinton, many of them maybe not so willing as she was, but the networks and newspapers would never have given her a platform in the 50s or 60s.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Watergate…yes that kind of stuff went on before but…Nixon was caught…and lied…and lied…and doubled down and lied.. and yes…it affected everything down the line.
        Kennedy had very good looking Lewinsky’s…running about.
        I also think you could add Vietnam to the list…that changed the view of wars dramatically.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. could be…Vietnam was perhaps a little more of a game-changer here than in Canada or elsewhere but it certainly did have an impact, and it maybe tied into the Watergate in that enough Americans were tired of, or skeptical of, Vietnam that it made them distrustful of government … so when Nixon screwed up, they and the press were willing to take him to task. A decade earlier they might have let it pass

        Liked by 1 person

      7. You are right…the press stopped playing nice and started to report more…though since then I think they go too far at times.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. yep, there’s a difference between reporting and being unnecessarily intrusive. If your favorite movie star goes and gives a speech at a Nazi rally, that’s news. If she, or he, goes to the Piggly Wiggly in sweats and muddy shoes, who cares?

        Liked by 1 person

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