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.