What was a flapper, anyway?

December 31st, 2013

by Alice Askins, Site Manager of Rose Hill Mansion

The Geneva Daily Times of the early 1920s suggested a few possible origins for the term flapper. 
Why is a flapper? [sic]  Who knows?  Well, why is she called a flapper? Now, that’s different.   In . . . a story published 12 years ago, Harry Leon Wilson . . . called the little dumpling girl to whom ‘Our Hero, Bunker Bean,’ found himself married, the ‘flapper.’   . . . When asked recently why he called his . . . girl a flapper, Mr. Wilson said he didn’t exactly know.  ‘I heard the term first in England, l believe,” he said.  “Over 18 years ago the little, plump chorus girl was called a flapper . . . flapper originated . . . in the English chorus” (December 21, 1921).
Yes, many times we’ve wondered, why they call the young ladies flappers.  In the spring time, summer time, and fall there does not seem much reason for giving them this cognomen.  . . . Then we saw how they wore their galoshes [unbuckled and flapping]” (January 21, 1922).  
Flappers Resembled Ducklings
The term “flapper,” as applied to young girls of a certain type, is not modern, as most people suppose, but is really close on two centuries old.  Early in the seventeen hundreds growing-up girls were first called “flappers” from a fancied resemblance to the young ducks, neither fledging nor grown-up, but dashing about with a good deal of noise and flapping of wings” (July 28, 1922).
Singer and dancer Josephine Baker in a very flapper-ish ensemble.
Wikipedia, however, suggests that these theories were actually mistaken.  According to the article on Wikipedia, flapper was actually a slang word in Englandfor prostitute that dates to the 1600s.  As early as 1631 ”flap”referred to a young prostitute.  By the 1890s flapper was popular slang for both a very young prostitute and any lively mid-teenage girl.   Based on early 20th century college and theatrical slang in England and the United States, flapper came to mean a lively and flirtatious young woman by the early 20th century (Wikipedia article on the flapper). 
By 1920, the term had taken on the meaning we associate with it today.  As one critic put it,  “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations” (Wikipedia article on the flapper).    Clearly, not all women in the 1920s were flappers.  The flapper followed the extremes of fashion and flouted convention.  For example, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby was a flapper.

The flapper emerged after the cataclysm of World War I, and seems to have become a symbol of everything people disliked about the modern world.  She wore makeup, and applied it publicly, which conservatives found scandalous.  She wore less clothing than western women had for centuries.  If she was corseted at all, she wore elastic undergarments instead of heavy cotton and whalebone.  Her legs were more visible than ever.  When hem lines were their highest in 1926, they hit just below the knee, and stockings were sheer and flesh-colored.  She rejected old standards of female beauty and behavior.  Instead of exaggerating her female curves, she wanted to look boyish.  Her hair was cut short.   She smoked, drank, and swore, which had been male prerogatives.     She was widely assumed to be sexually aggressive and promiscuous.  Some clothing historians speculate that young women were, in a sense, trying to replace the young men who never came home from the war.  Flappers certainly seemed to lay claim to male freedom.  At the time, many people found all of this appalling.

Boyshform elastic undergarment ad.  

The Daily Times talked a lot about flappers – most of the time, disparagingly.  The paper recounts a story from Indianapolis, expressing surprise when a flapper demonstrated that she had a kind heart.   “THE FLAPPER IS PASSING,” claimed the Timeshopefully, in May 1922:   ”She Doesn’t Make a Good Wife, Therefore Her Day Is Done. “  When Bishop Edwin H. Hughes of Boston spoke to the First MethodistChurch in Geneva, he stated “I have . . . not much [patience] with the super-flapper.  If she should walk the streets of Jerusalem with her face spotted red and white, the people would cry, as they did for the leper – unclean! unclean!   . . . In God’s name get back to God, lest some awful thing overtake America.” 

In June 1922, the Times reported:
Barbershop, Once Haven for Man, Now Catering to Flapper Patrons
. . . investigation by a Times reporter has disclosed that . . . the modern flapper has invaded what was once  . . . a sanctuary for the male of the species alone – the barbershop.  And the shops are cleaning house and installing fancy window curtains in her honor.   She walks right in, so Genevabarbers state, hangs her hat on the brass hooks, gives a preliminary look in the mirror, and waits for the call “next.”     . . . The worst of the whole matter, according to one prehistoric customer, is the gradual decline of the old cuspidors.  They have been moved clear back to the rear wall  . . . Local flappers haven’t gone so far as to adopt the general custom of smoking in public yet  . . .   Business is picking up, but the old timers cannot help but feel twinges of regret.”
The Times sometimes, though, tried to be even-handed:  “THE POOR FLAPPER . . . gets credit—or is it dis-credit—-for a lot of things for which she really is not to blame.  To be true [sic] she allows only the lower buckle of her galoshes to have any responsibility, but she didn’t originate the style.  It originated at Cornell” [February 28, 1922].
Cartoon by John Held, Jr. of a woman getting her hair bobbed.  Held always drew flapper skirts exaggeratedly short.
And sometimes, the paper reported other voices in the debate:
“Bishop Thomas F. Gailor  . . . Says Woman of Today Is No Different from the Woman of Grandmother’s Day
New York March 4 [1922].  Bishop Thomas F. Gailor, head of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, today took up the cudgel for the flapper.   . . .   According to Bishop Gailor, women had reformers “het up” over the things they did to their faces and the way they wore their skirts, even in the days when Methusaleh was a boy.   . . . Speaking of the flapper, the church leader said:  ‘It is silly to charge mere kids with deep, dark immoral emotions and motives.  There is nothing wicked about a girl who bobs her hair.  If she wants to do it, why shouldn’t she?  Perhaps it is more becoming to her than long hair.  . . .  I never worry about the foibles of the young.  Girls rouge and wear short skirts because it is fashion.  People are like sheep about following fashion.  Young people are particularly so.  When I was in college it was a fad for a time for the boys to wear mustaches and we all wore them.  Then some one cut his off and we all followed suit.    . . . The world is not any worse now than it used to be.  Its morals are not degenerating.   . . . We couldn’t come out of four years of war without feeling upset.  The whole world is nervous and restless, but there’s no danger of its going to ruin.   I always plead with the Christians of today to exercise more tolerance, more charity in judging their fellow men.   . . .’”
Though the debate continued, by the mid-1930s flapper was outmoded slang.  It may be that in the depths of the Great Depression, other worries took precedence. 
Do you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or go to 
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2 responses to “What was a flapper, anyway?”

  1. Catherine says:

    Thank you for the history of the word flapper

  2. Kottu Sekhar says:

    The flappers were distinct and unconventional in many ways. Though it was a passing phase – it faded as quickly as it burst on the scene – it gave a huge fillip to the cause of women empowerment. It was indeed an exciting dimension of the roaring 1920s.

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