I don’t know about you, but for me a typical visit to the hair salon results in about $120 tab and that’s before I start adding on tips and the products I’m convinced I need to have. But a visit to the hair salon wasn’t always that way. Oh no. Back in the 1920s, a gal could go for a day of pampering for less than the than price of today’s Grande latte—and I’m talking for the works: hair, nails—maybe even a permanent marcel wave that was so popular back then.
They were called beauty parlors—remember those? And the average cost of a shampoo was 15 cents . If you wanted a haircut, it was a whopping 75 cents. A permanent wave which was all the rage back in the day would set you back $1.50 and you could get out the door with a manicure for 50 cents.
Men had it good back then too. In fact, men led the way in personal grooming and long before there were beauty parlors, men had their barbershops. Most barbershops were anchored in hotels and it was a luxury for men to pop in for a shave and haircut—possibly even a bath. They walked out beautifully coiffed for under $2.00. The barbershop was a man’s haven and off limits to women until young gals showed up demanding to have their hair bobbed—but that’s a whole separate blog!
But back to men and women and grooming, and ultimately to vanity. It’s nothing new. Both sex had the same concerns back in the Twenties that we have today. Men were just as fearful of going bald and sought out snake oil treatments and magical elixirs, even metal helmet contraptions guaranteed to regrow hair. Women purchased anti-aging concoctions like Pussy Willow Face Powder to lighten their skin tone and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
Honesty, it seems to me that when it comes to female pampering and manscaping, the only thing that’s changed between the Roaring ‘20s and now is the price!
The expression cooking with gas was a popular saying during the 1920s but when you stop to think about it, a gas stove was a relatively new invention in the ‘20s and as I was soon to learn, the kitchen was no place for the faint of heart. Perhaps that inspired another expression: "If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".
Allow me to elaborate. One of the many things I found fascinating while conducting research for my novel, DOLLFACE, were the domestic challenges facing the average wife and homemaker. For example, according to the website www.1920-30.com, they explain that most women were trapped in their kitchens for 44 hours a week. This was the amount of time these women devoted to cooking and cleaning. That was a full time job and doesn’t begin to touch upon the time spent doing the laundry (including washing diapers by hand) and cleaning the rest of the house. It’s amazing they ever had the time or energy to make babies, let alone, more babies.
Someone had to give these women a hand and it didn’t take long before innovation stepped in to help. It came in the odd form of canned goods and processed foods. Also according to www.1920-30.com and Bon Appetit Magazine, such classic processed foods as Wonder Bread, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Wheaties, Welch’s Grape Jelly and the ever versatile Velveeta cheese all made their debuts in the American home during the 1920s.
They were welcomed items to be sure, but perhaps a bit perplexing. How was the modern housewife and mother to cope with these new food options? Very simply, she turned to Mrs. Wilson’s Cookbook. Published in 1920, Mrs. Wilson was their answer to Julia Child, teaching them how to incorporate these new processed foods into their family meals that would in turn shave hours off their kitchen duties. Now that’s what they called cooking with gas!
When you think of bad boys, they didn’t get any “badder” than Al Capone and Hymie Weiss. In fact, Hymie Weiss was so bad that even Capone was scared of him. And yet, in reality these original bad boys were indeed really just a bunch of boys. During the Roaring ‘20s, the average age of a gangster was probably twenty-five and most of them were gunned down before their thirtieth birthdays.
Everyone knows that Prohibition was a colossal flop that did more to accelerate the consumption of alcohol than curb it. But it was also a breeding ground of opportunity for young street thugs, safe crackers and petty thieves. Practically overnight these kids went from scuffed up boots and soft caps to doubled-breasted suits and fedoras. They suddenly found themselves with money, power and broads. Girls everywhere chucked their corsets, defiantly bobbed their hair and flocked to these dashing young men who were just as forbidden as the hooch they were bootlegging. Hence, we had the birth of the bad boy.
These twenty-somethings ruled the streets of Chicago and elsewhere during a sexy, albeit violent decade. Capone was just a pup when we ran Chicago and his sidekick, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, was three years his junior. Hymie Weiss ran the rival North Side Gang until Capone executed him in front of Holy Name Cathedral at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci took over and lasted until the age of 29 when he was gunned down.
While doing research for my novel, DOLLFACE I constantly had to remind myself that these charismatic, virile men were really just kids who were products of the times. And sure, you could argue that we have our powerful youngsters today, but c’mon, they’re hardly bad boys. I mean seriously, who would you bet on in the ring, Zuckerberg or Capone?
Last night, after an impromptu happy hour session with friends, I stumbled home, turned on the TV and happily found myself in the midst of HBO's Boardwalk Empire Marathon. It was a little after 8PM and I had nine more hours of mayhem awaiting me in Atlantic City.
For those of you not familiar with Boardwalk Empire, it's the HBO series set during Prohibition and takes place primarily in Atlantic City. It was created by the folks who brought us The Sopranos and that right there should tell you pretty much what you need to know. Yes, it's violent which was true to the time. Yes, it's filled with rich, one-of-a-kind characters and yes, it is addictive, which explains why I was up until 5AM watching. And for the record--I've seen every episode at least two or three times before.
Little credit has been given to the true originator of the series who in my opinion is Nelson Johnson whose book, Boardwalk Empire: High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City served as the inspiration for the show. His portrayal of the real Enoch L. Johnson evolved into the show's main character, Nucky Thompson, played to perfection by Steve Buscemi.
The new season kicks off on September 16 and there's a lot of speculation about what will and won't happen, much of it centering around the demise of the beloved character, Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) at the end of last season. If you go their Facebook page along with the 1.1 million other fans, a lot of people seem to think Jimmy's coming back. As terrific as the writing is--and it is amazing--I don't see how they could pull this off without it being one of those dreadfully contrived dream sequences. Please, I beg of you Terence Winter (writer & creator) don't jump the shark!
Jimmy was a great character and he will be missed but there's so much that I'm looking forward to in the new series. It's opens in 1923 and for all my research it would appear that this is when the Roaring '20s and we know it really began to take hold. I'm expecting to see the women in cloche haits with bobbed hair and more flappers. I think we're going to see more flash in the flashiness of Nucky and Chalky White (if that's possible). I also think there's going to be more focus on New York and Chicago. At the close of last season Nelson Van Adlen, the twisted probation agent played by Michael Shannon fled Atlantic City for Chicago and I think he's going to join forces with Capone and Torrio. Just my predictions, we'll all have to tune into HBO on September 16 to fine out for sure!
I'm thrilled to announce that my new novel, Dollface, will be published next fall by NAL, a division of Penguin. When someone asks what's the book about I could borrow a line from my friend, John Paulett and just say "About 400 pages", or I could give them the elevator pitch: Dollface is a Roaring '20s novel about a young flapper who falls in love with two mobsters from rival gangs during Prohibition Chicago.
I started working on this book over eight years ago, before I sold my first novel, before there was a Boardwalk Empire or Ken Burns had produced Prohibition, even before they decided to remake The Great Gatsby. As far a I knew, the 1920s wasn't on anyone's radar back in 2003 or 2004 when I started working on Dollface but now, thank god, it appears that people can't get enough of that bygone era. From the fashion runways, to Oscar-winners like The Artist, to bestsellers like The Chaperone, there's a renewed interest in the Roaring '20s. I know of several other books set in that time period as well so I think I'll be in good company.
And of course with a new book, my first foray into a adult historical fiction, comes lots of change. A real departure from my YA novel, Every Crooked Pot, Dollface calls for a new take on things. So in the weeks and months ahead I'll be redesigning my website (www.reneerosen.com) and redirecting the focus of my blogs. I'll always have something to say about writing and publishing but there's so much to share about the Roaring '20s, about Chicago's notorious and lesser known gangsters. They were a fascinating lot. Believe me when I say you couldn't make up characters like Dion O'Banion, Hymie Weiss and Vincent Drucci.
So stick around for changes. They're coming just as soon as I can get 'em in the works!