Making Friends and Finding Love in 1900-1929

From Ballroom Contributor Cam Reid
10 October 2023

Join us as we explore the history of companionship and discover how people made friends, fell in love, and found one another throughout the last century.

How do people communicate with each other?

      World War I begins in 1914 when Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. The war lasts for six years and eventually results in millions of casualties. It’s the first modern war, as they say, and it changes the landscape of popular culture and society in a number of profound ways. Letters are still a front-running form of communication during the first part of the twentieth century, and the postal service undergoes great changes under the demands of this difficult time. Women work as mail carriers in cities for the first time, and the Postal Service tries out early versions of Airmail services. In 1917, the U.S. Censorship Board begins regulating and censoring mail, as well as cable, telegraph, and telephone communication 1. This is also really the beginning of widespread device connectivity. This time period is thought of as the “Tele-Net of Things”, and it’s an early predecessor to the modern “Internet of Things”. Telegraphs and telephones connect people around the globe in an intricate network for the first time. At first, a lot of this technology is developed and used specifically to suit wartime needs, but after the war is over, phone lines go up all around the country and the telephone makes it way into the American home2.

      This is also when photography, especially war photography, starts to play a significant role in news media, as cameras become sleeker and more efficient to use. With this change, people start to question the ethics of staged photographs, as photographers were known to recreate events in order to take images after the fact. Posing for a photograph was one thing, but passing off a staged photograph as journalistic content causes trouble for a lot of people during the First World War3.

How do people hang out?

      In 1919, the 18th amendment of the Constitution is ratified and the production and sale of alcohol is made federally illegal. This follows a long and harsh political campaign spearheaded by religious leaders from the late nineteenth century. Some women’s rights campaigns supported temperance, too, as a measure to prevent domestic violence. However, the 18th amendment would be repealed just 14 years later in December, 19334. Needless to say, the early twentieth century is an interesting time to be meeting people through nightlife.

      Speakeasies, or secret, underground and illegal bars and nightclubs, emerge quickly thereafter. There might’ve been up to 100,000 speakeasies in NYC. They would be hidden in all kinds of buildings, including funeral homes, coffee shops, and stores. The location is kept on the DL, and you often had to know some secret password or way in. If you know where one was and you could get in, you might be ordering a very early cocktail. “Cocktail” was at first like a secret code word for a drink mixed with alcohol, though now it’s a common term. This is when people first got into mixing drinks with juice or soda, partially to be more subtle in the eyes of the law, partially to stretch the product (alcohol) more thinly, and partially to cover up the taste of impurities in bootleg alcohol.

      Some liquor was stockpiled by wealthy people when the 18th amendment was first announced, but often, 1920’s bootleg liquor is brewed in peoples’ homes, or manufactured and distributed via organized crime, which is on the rise at the time. Many people working in alcohol-related growing, brewing, and bottling lose their jobs at the start of Prohibition, so instead they turn to organized crime as an alternative social network. Ultimately, prohibition doesn’t cure the social ails it promised to cure and it failed as a political experiment, but the impact on systems of social connectivity endure5.

      At the same time, people are excited to be back home from World War I. Though there was a lot of injury and suffering after the war, it is also a time to celebrate for many. “Flappers” come into fashion around this time, and indeed, new styles of dance and dress take off in the 1920s. Some women cut their hair short and wear short skirts, and men take to more modern suits and coats, sublimating some of the Victorian influence of the late 19th century. Organized dance events are an important part of social culture, and Iconic dance styles like the Charleston, the Fox Trot, the Shimmy, and the Brazilian Samba all become popular. Some of these dance trends, like the Charleston, came from beloved Broadway shows, while others like the Shimmy arose from nightclubs and African-American dance scenes6. The 1910s and 20s were also an exciting time in poetry and literature, with famous writers such as Virignia Woolf, Franz Kafkha, Agatha Christie, E. E. Cummings, and F Scott Fitzgerald making their careers during this time.

A Queer Reading of the Roaring 20’s and Iconic Duos

      The “Roaring” 1920s is a really interesting time period in American history. There was a significant social undercurrent that emphasized personal freedom over government control that openly worked against governing bodies and allowed people to experiment with social order and niceties. So, it feels like a natural time for a queer reading.

      For most readers and historians, it’ll be already well understood that gay people were socially organized during this time. Drag balls begin in Harlem, NYC as early as 1896, and they reach a temporary peak in popularity during the 1920s7. Some of the first bars and clubs in big cities cater to gay people and lesbians, though often secretly or informally. A West Village club known as “Eve’s Hangout” had a policy in 1925 of “men are admitted, but not welcome”8. Did you know that there were underground gay newspapers during this time as well? They would have secret, semi-anonymous subscription lists, and they would circulate news, events, and obituaries.

      In our last blog, I shared a list of famous friends and a list of favorite couples. Well, the Roaring 20’s were such a dynamic period, and one that has been so heavily mystified, adored, and lamented by history, and one that is so positively queer that for this blog, I have combined the friends and couples lists into a singular, Iconic Duos list. You’ll see why.

  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Despite both being married for most of their lives, Woolf and Sackville-West had a loving relationship that historians have followed through letters and diary entries. Woolf’s novel Orlando is said to have a main character modeled after Sackville-West, and the novel has been famously referred to as the most “charming love letter in literature” by Nigel Nicolson9.
  • Jay Gatsby and Nick Carrway. This fictional duo is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. You might know this novel from your tenth grade literature class, but you also might know it as one of the great early twentieth century literary explorations of gender and sexuality. The Great Gatsby is often thought of as a queer novel, and scholars point to Nick’s relationship with Jay as a clear indicator of queer themes in the text10.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The writer of The Great Gatsby was also known as part of a famous pair, in fact, one of the most celebrated and iconic duos of the 1910s and 20s and pioneers of the modernist movement in America. Fitzgerald and Hemingway maintained a close friendship through the years, and inspired many aspects of each other’s novels. Both authors have had their sexualities and their relationship scrutinized since they were alive and working, but regardless of what rumors you believe, the two were obviously emotionally intimate and contributed to each other’s creative work significantly11.
  • Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein was a famous American poet, and Pablo Picasso is one of the most celebrated Spanish painters of the early twentieth century. Stein moved to Paris as a young artist, where she met Picasso. The pair were good friends, and Picasso famously painted portraits of Stein on multiple occasions12.
  • Harry and Bess Houdini. Harry Houdini was a well-known skeptic of the supernatural. He regularly debunked people who claimed to be psychic mediums giving seances. When Harry died in 1926, he gave his wife, Bess, a secret codeword that he would communicate to her if she were to ever hear from him in the afterlife, to help her avoid scammer mediums. She held a seance on Halloween each year for ten years. She never heard the code word from her husband, and eventually gave up trying, saying, “ten years is long enough to wait for one man13.”
  • Gertrude Stein” by Pablo Picasso. 1905-6. Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    “Gertrude Stein” by Pablo Picasso. 1905-6. Via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.14

          If you would like to learn more about this topic, check out these sources, and the others listed in the footnotes:

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