Edwardians Imagining a World in Which Women Voted… And Are Free to Act Like Men in Bars?

In November, while scrolling through Tumblr, I ran across this fascinating Edwardian image:

This 1908 image of women smoking and drinking was intended to be a horrifying glimpse of a post-suffrage future. Now it just looks like an awesome bar. they have fudge AND almonds - shit i need a new bar.
 Source

This 1908 image of women smoking and drinking was intended to be a horrifying glimpse of a post-suffrage future. Now it just looks like an awesome bar.” – Tumblr Caption

This artist has turned what would be a typical male scene in a typically masculine environment – men hanging about a bar – and inserted women in the place of men, replicating it down to their “masculine” attitudes, postures, and mannerisms. The idea was that women entering a traditionally male public sphere by voting would become masculine in other respects: a terrifying prospect for many. Women, smoking and gambling! Children being ignored! Men relegated to the “gentlemen’s parlor!”

Women’s rights activists in the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth had to contest popular misogynistic ideas that stated that any women in public spaces – making speeches to advocate for the vote, for instance – were sexually suspect (putting herself on display) or trying to take on a masculine role for which their frail female bodies weren’t suited. Women taking on masculine mannerisms were often mocked, which was likely the intention of this anti-suffragette image.

(Though that being said, women who did something praiseworthy, like exhibit bravery, were also often said to have favorable male attributes. Make up your mind, misogynists!)

What is it about this picture that resonates with me?  Perhaps it is the postures of these women: lounging against the bar, twisting in their seats, smoking with disgusted looks on their faces, ignoring the children who have somehow made it into the pub… But I especially like the confidence evident in their countenances. They look comfortable in this setting and with each other. This picture spoke to the societal fears of gender roles in upheaval: notice the “gentlemen’s parlor”? The artist was warning about the dangers of women getting the vote and overturning gender norms, but as a twenty-first century gal with an approving interest in Edwardian fashion, I can’t help but smile at these cool, confident women in a space of their own. (While I appreciate the rejection of popular Edwardian ideas about race, sex, and class, we in the twentieth century certainly need to bring Edwardian hats back into vogue!)

Note that they aren’t all young beautiful women; there are matronly types, older women, and what may even be a widow (wearing black with the veil on the left). These women are well-dressed and put together, fashionable,  and probably middle-class. This range of ages and body types would be expected of men in a bar, but to our modern eyes looks, well, odd. We are acculturated by, say, beer ads to thinking of bars as being replete with sexy young people, particularly young, slender women, but why shouldn’t matronly types equally enjoy this space?

One of my favourite figures is woman in the blue jacket smoking a cigar on the right. She appears to be examining a slip of paper coming from a (telegraph?) machine – possibly the “racing reports” described on the sign in the right hand corner of the image. Gambling ladies? How gauche! Note, too, the poster of the half-dressed boxer on the wall. I love these details – even more so because the artist likely held anti-suffrage views himself. (I’m assuming it’s a he, and I don’t think I’m wrong.)  I can just imagine him trying to think of shocking things for these masculine women to do.

What would have the world looked like had women held the “dominant” role in 1908? According to this picture: there would have been more free fudge and almonds in bars, certainly.

Edit: For interest’s sake and because my curiosity is never satisfied, I used this Googling technique to try to track down further information on the image, including the original artist Harry Grant Dart. This image may have first been uploaded on Reddit (click for on-point snarky commentary!) and reblogged on Tumblr from there.

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Sexism at Historic Sites: Should Women in Historical Costume Blacksmith?

It should not be too surprising for you to learn that sexism is present in historical parks. I mean, sexism is still present in 2013, shockingly enough. However, when your job as a costumed historical interpreter is to portray a woman in a time period before the emergence of the feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century, you will likely encounter a certain amount of sexism, inherent in the part, particularly when it comes to portraying women’s roles, women’s etiquette, and the treatment of women by men. The extent to which various historical parks insist upon their staff matching their behaviour to historical roles differs, but in many cases obvious portrayals of historical sexism is a given: e.g., female interpreters (doing first person interpretation, anyway) will not speak publicly as often as men, will more often be found “at home” or “on the farm” than in a workplace (though not always), will often be discouraged from walking the street without a male escort, and so on. Male interpreters may make disparaging remarks about a woman’s place in front of visitors, women may be required to do certain tasks that men wouldn’t do (e.g., serving food or cleaning up if they are visible to visitors), etc. Even programs involving, say, interpreters marching in support of women’s suffrage may also involve some costumed anti-suffrage “protesters”. 

However, in these cases, these actions are generally expected and, well, forgivable, as the people in costume are essentially actors playing a role. Agreeing to work in a living history museum generally means that those in costume knew what they were signing up for, and most parties know that what’s said in costume when in front of visitors is not a true expression of one’s opinion of a women’s place in the world. In fact, by portraying historical instances of gender inequality, costumed interpreters hope that they can educate visitors on the origins of sexism today and can unpack and even debunk concepts like “traditional womanhood”. (“Women have always worked outside of the home! No, I’m not going to wait for my husband to come home to chop this firewood. Hand me that ax.”) Addressed in a conscious manner, portrayals of historic examples of sexism society should be used to educate visitors, not make cheap jokes at the expense of women. 

This woman isn't oppressed enough, judging by this man's expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.
This woman isn’t oppressed enough, judging by this man’s expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.

Most of the male interpreters I have known, despite the act they put on in front of visitors, are some of the most progressive feminist allies I know. I have worked with colleagues who have felt bad about the “show” they put on for visitors and do all they can to make it up to us. For instance, after I served the gentlemen their tea (in my position as a lowly maid in the fort) for a program for the benefit of visitors, these men would make a point of rolling up their sleeves and doing all of the washing up in the employee-only areas, out of sight of visitors who may question why Fort Edmonton’s Chief Trader or Chief Factor was doing the dishes while the maid put her feet up. While the line between sexism as an act for the benefit of the audience and everyday sexism as encountered in the workplace can be a fine one that is crossed at times – even if it is an act, the psychological effects can still be similar – most male interpreters are conscious of these gender issues and try to make it clear that the historical views of a woman’s place are not their own. Having a respectful workplace is important, even when your workplace involves portraying historical examples of disrespect.

However, aside from the expected performance of historical sexism for the benefit and education of the visitor, there are other forms of sexism at play in historical parks. Namely: can or should female interpreters take on male roles, up to and including portraying men or performing historically male tasks? These issues are particularly important when it comes to positions that are considered prestigious, especially when it comes to job training and acquired skills. For example, at historical military forts such as Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, or the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where a great many interpreters are in military positions, is it acceptable to have a female interpreter don a man’s uniform and portray a man? I have heard that in some Civil War re-enactment circles there is some controversy over women wanting to participate more fully than in the “camp follower” or “nursing” positions. Need they limit themselves only to historical women soldiers who dressed up as men to fight for the cause? Or do too many people invoke the nebulous “it’s not historically accurate” “rule”? I’d welcome an inside view, from both the visitors and the men and women in costume! (Side note: one MA student at Carleton this year is writing her thesis on the subject of women soldiers at the Fortress of Louisbourg – I look forward to reading her work, as should you.)

While I am no expert on women in male military uniforms (though I have portrayed a (female) military nurse with the rank of Lieutenant), I can speak to my experience at Fort Edmonton Park. (Disclaimer: I am no longer an employee of Fort Edmonton Park, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect current park policy.) One of the skills I most like to brag about is my ability to drive vehicles from the 1920s. However, as far as I understand it, women interpreters on 1920s Street did not often drive the cars until relatively recently. Why not? Because it was thought to be “historically inaccurate” for a woman to get behind the wheel in 1920. Sorry ladies, but get in the passenger seat, because only men can drive automobiles.

Understandably, this policy would be likely to cause some tension in the workplace. There is a lot of prestige attached to driving such cars, and let’s be honest, it’s incredibly fun. Was it “fair” to exclude costumed interpreters from learning this valuable skill simply because of their gender? Now, in this case, there was a fairly simple solution: women interpreters (before my time), fed up with not being allowed to drive, did some digging in the library and the archives and found that yes, women did drive in Edmonton in the past. In fact, while still a minority, female drivers were not even that uncommon a sight in the 1920s in North America and Great Britain! (For example, Hazel Rutherford, daughter of Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first Premier and a very important figure in the early history of the University of Alberta, played chauffeur to her father for over thirty years in the early twentieth century, as he never learned how to drive.) The “historical accuracy” argument barring women from driving fell apart in the face of documentary evidence, and female interpreters were allowed to get behind the wheel at the park. As is generally the case with programs at Fort Edmonton Park, if an interpreter can prove that it happened in Edmonton during that time period, it’s generally acceptable to present to the public. (This is why the park does not show train robberies, gun fights, or other “Wild West” style performances, no matter how exciting to the public that may be, for the simple reason that as of yet they have not found any evidence of such things occurring in the Edmonton area.)

On a similar note, female interpreters were not allowed to participate in the York Boat arrival program in the fur trade era. (In summary, it involves a contingent of men with a York boat loaded with goods rowing down the river to be greeted by visitors on shore, a spectacle that further emphasizes interpretive themes of travel and trade.) Why weren’t women allowed in the boats at the park? Again, it’s historically inaccurate. The Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t want European women taking up valuable space in the boats that could go towards carrying more valuable cargo, and from the late 1600s through to the 1830s, white women were banned from fur trading posts and boats. This ban – which also generally encompassed missionaries and their wives, as they also were not considered profitable goods – was one of the reasons for the rise of “country marriages”, or unions between First Nations women and Euro-Canadian or Scottish company employees. Too bad, female interpreters: you can’t participate in the largest program of the season at Fort Edmonton Park, because we have few written records of women in boats.

The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton! Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.
The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton – with a lady on board. (From left to right: Tom Long (rowing), Joseph the carpenter and boat builder (steersman) and myself, Lauren Markewicz (waving).
Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.

There were further practical considerations to be had. The York Boat program requires all hands on deck; it’s one of the largest programs run by the park and requires about twelve or more people in costume to pull off: not only the rowers, the steersman, and the lookout on the boat, but it also at least one person on shore to direct and talk to visitors and one or two people to literally “hold down the fort”, as it can’t be left empty while the program down by the river is under way. As the fort rarely has more than ten paid interpreters present on any given day, plus potential volunteers, to even get enough people at the oars, supervisors and even interpreters from the other time periods would get into the costumes of labourers from the 1840s. In this context of staffing numbers, it was really difficult to justify having additional interpreters – women – as “dead weight” in the boats, and so often they were left on shore, unable to fully participate in what was often considered the biggest program of the year at the fort. Yes, women participated in after-hours rowing practice to fill the ranks of rowers, but could not be in the boats in that position in front of visitors because it was “too inaccurate.”

In this case, with some debate, women were allowed to participate, again by subverting the “historical accuracy” clause: instead of coming from the Hudson’s Bay at the end of a long journey, the boat was portrayed as coming from a different fort, Rocky Mountain House, along with its Chief Trader, John Edward Harriott, and Nancy Harriott, his mixed-blood wife (also the daughter of the Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton, John Rowand). In fact, changing the program to one of inter-fort travel instead of the return of the boat brigade from Hudson’s Bay made the optics of the program even more realistic; the park never had enough cargo to fill the boat to “accurately” portray the huge mounds of trade goods that would have been brought from the Bay. (By some accounts, these one ton York Boats could carry up to four tons of cargo!) However, it was just right for some inter-fort travel.

Mrs. Harriott Disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long dit "Pas de Cheveux" and Erik who had no potentially embarassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.
Mrs. Harriott disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long, dit “Pas de Cheveux”, and Erik, who had no potentially embarrassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.

In this case, the question of whether or not the park could allow women on the boats had a relative “easy” solution, simply by demonstrating through historical documentation that women would be on the boats in the past in certain contexts. The “it was really historically accurate!” card was waved to justify the change in policy. More often than not, interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park would rather do additional research to “prove” that women in the past did indeed do the things that interpreters in the present are banned from doing, challenging the supposed historical accuracy of that particular sexist ban rather than the concept of historical accuracy itself. There is good reason for this – as people trying to portray elements of Edmonton life in the past, they don’t want to challenge visitor expectations too much. They want to “accurately” interpret the past as much as possible, holding themselves up to an idealized standard. By subverting visitor expectations a little bit – by challenging the notions that “women didn’t drive in the 1920s!” or “no women were ever on HBC boats ever!” – but in a way that was “true to the past”, interpreters can use the supposed “inaccuracy” to further discussion of historical events instead of just shrugging and awkwardly explaining that what they’re doing isn’t completely “accurate” and missing out on a learning experience for the visitor.

Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.  Photograph of "Mr. Anderson" by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.
Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.
Photograph of “Mr. Anderson” by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.

However, what about positions that cannot be “proven” to be “historically accurate”? For example, the “Trade Store” in the fort is one of the most dynamic buildings in which to interpret fur trade history to visitors; it is full of excellent artifacts – furs and trade goods, as illustrated on the left – and allows for some very interesting conversation starters. In many ways it is the “heart” of the fort. However, technically, this is a post that would have been literally “manned” by a (literate) officer who would conduct trading. Would women be in the trade store by themselves? Probably not. (In fact, labourers like Mr. Anderson, pictured, may not have been in there either.) Interpreters don’t often comment on it; if asked, women often claim to be the Cree or Blackfoot interpreter or the wife of the interpreter, whose room is in the trade store, around the corner from the fireplace, out of view. In this case, men and women, who portray a range of socio-economic classes in the fort, all interpret to visitors in this location, for the simple reason that everyone should have a turn to staff the most popular building in the fort.

Then there is the issue of blacksmithing; historically, this was not a skilled trade that First Nations women in the West learned. (Remember, there were no white women at Fort Edmonton in 1846, only Cree and Métis.) Blacksmithing at the park is normally done by experienced volunteers, historical workers, or volunteers, who often teach male employees the basics: e.g., how to make nails, how to make a cloak pin, and so on. Visitors greatly enjoy seeing these men at work. But what about the female interpreters who want to give it a shot? As far as I understand it, this debate is still ongoing, in particular because there are also health and safety issues in play. Men in the fort were allowed to learn to blacksmith but they must wear appropriate footwear: steel toed boots. It isn’t terribly difficult to find black leather boots that look accurate enough for the 1840s to be worn while blacksmithing in costume, but the ladies of the fort are all interpreting First Nations or Métis people. Their costumes always involve mocassins and dresses, which are not ideal blacksmithing wear. Health and safety should always be a consideration, but is it waved as an excuse, leaving only men with the training to learn this fascinating skill?

However, if women are barred from learning historically male skills like blacksmithing because of health and safety issues, should men be barred from learning other skilled female tasks? Alternatively: if women aren’t allowed to blacksmith, should men learn how to do  beadwork? The women at the Fort all tend to quickly learn how to do plains-style beadwork on looms, embroider leather, or make beaded necklaces. In fact, considering the busy lives of these indigenous women historically, interpreters probably spend a bit too much time doing beadwork everyday, but it is a source of fascination for visitors as well as entertainment and pride for the staff, and opens up many fascinating conversations about trade goods, status, fashion, and skilled labour. I much preferred to be doing a skilled task when visitors approached me to speak, as opposed to waiting and twiddling one’s thumbs and “springing to life” when a visitor enters the room. You want to appear to have been going about your day when the visitor comes upon you, and asking about what you are doing is an ideal conversation starter. However, male interpreters at the fort really wanted to learn how to do beadwork as well, and in the years I was at the Fort it wasn’t uncommon for men to learn and be found at their bead loom, particularly during the slow hours. Nevertheless, the argument that it was historically accurate for men at the forts, particularly French Canadian or Orkney Islander employees, to do beadwork is a difficult one to make. Often these men would rely upon third person interpretation to explain how beading works instead of addressing visitors in-character while beading.

Yes, this is a lady's bike - note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt - and yes, I did cycle in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.
Yes, this is a lady’s bike – note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt – and yes, I did cycle with relative ease in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.

On the same note, there are a few other objects that should be reserved for the exclusive use of women but are not. With only a handful of accurate and working artifact bikes available on site, all but one of which have the low lady’s bar (to allow for riding while in skirts), is it acceptable for a man to use a lady’s bicycle? Especially if the visitors generally “won’t notice” the difference? Can you single these bikes out exclusively for lady’s use?

Why is it okay to be historically inaccurate in some ways but not in others? Is historical sexism an appropriate justification for modern sexism at historic sites? Need we kowtow to “historical accuracy”? Probably, to some extent, because if we deconstruct the concept too much then it may chip away at the very methodological foundations of living history museums.

Still, I’m not about to give up my historical driver’s license. And let’s be honest, if/when I return to the park, I’d love to give blacksmithing a try. Hey, it’s 2013: we have the right to vote and regularly wear trousers. Nothing can stop us now!

Definitions:

For the purposes of this blog post, I have defined sexism as, roughly, distinguishing between the sexes/genders in a way that is detrimental to one and giving advantage to the other: or, the elevation of one gender over another.

The concept of “historical accuracy” is very nebulous and contested, and I have mused upon it before in an overly-long blog post. Look out for a follow-up post some time in the new year.

Related Posts On Costumed Historical Interpretation and Fort Edmonton Park:

Beyond the Bob: 1920s Hairstyles for the Rapunzels Among Us

Listen: ♪ Shall I Have It Bobbed or Shingled? 

One of the first challenges I came across when preparing to work as a costumed historical interpreter on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park last summer was the issue of hairstyles. Namely, when you think of the 1920s, what pops into your head? Probably something like this:

Eatons Spring and Summer 1926, page 17. (Mail order catalogues always began with women’s fashion.) Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Known as the “bob”, this short hairstyle is iconic of the 1920s, a decade which saw dramatic changes in women’s fashion and attitude. As in nineteenth century dress reform movements, a woman’s fashion choices and outward appearance reflected but also affected the gender roles women would and could play. Called the “garçonne” or “boyish” look  (“garçonne” being a feminized version of the French term for “boy”), or what many of us today would call “flapper style”, the silhouette of the 1920s was very slender and almost rectangular, with lean bodies, flat chests and narrow hips. This shape was achieved not through corsetting but girdling, which could be just as restrictive. Short hairstyles, like the bob or the shingle, were a significant component of this boyish look. Ironically, the obvious use of makeup such as rouge, eyeliner, and bright red lipstick among women who were not ladies of the night or stage actors became almost socially acceptable… though as with any fashion trend, the visible use of makeup was still frowned upon by old fuddy-duddies worried about the moral degredation apparent in modern society. (“Kids these days!” – said older people in every generation ever.)  Youth culture was in, and nothing visually marked the dramatic change in ideas than the look of young women with short hair. Cutting one’s hair into a bob was more than a fashion statement; it was a statement about a woman’s attitude towards modernity and how they viewed their own body.

So bobs are iconic to the 1920s and of course I wanted to portray myself when in character as a modern Bright Young Thing at Fort Edmonton Park. I was provided with a lovely drop-waist dress in “modern” rayon fabric by our talented costumer, and got my dancing shoes and makeup. However, there was yet one problem to be overcome to complete my 1920s “look”: I have waist-length hair.

Shall I get it shingled or bobbed??  Photograph taken at the Selkirk Hotel on 1920s Steet at Fort Edmonton after work. The woman on the left was at the time an interpreter on 1885 street, with era-appropriate long hair. Observe me on the right: how could I possibly make that hairstyle fit the 1920s?
Shall I have it shingled or bobbed?! ♪
Photograph taken at the Selkirk Hotel on 1920s Steet at Fort Edmonton after work. The redheaded woman on the left  (with whom I was having a long-hair measuring competition – she won by a hair an inch) was at the time an interpreter on 1885 street, with era-appropriate long hair. Observe me on the right: how could I possibly tame that hair into a style accurate to the 1920s?

To put the finishing touches on my outfit, I would have to change my hairstyle dramatically. 1920s Street is in fact the only era portrayed at Fort Edmonton Park in which I have to hide the length of my hair instead of showing it off. Did I really want to chop it all off for work? No, not really. Maybe not ever. (Well, maybe to support cancer research or to create wigs for cancer patients.) I have been growing out my hair continuously since high school, and have only had the ends trimmed once or twice every few years since then. I am happy with it. It had taken a long time to get it to that length, and I like doing twists and braids and buns. I didn’t want to cut it short for what would only be a short period of time; come the autumn – and winter – I wanted my hair long again. Cutting it would cause me much anxiety and would change my fashion style and the framing of my face entirely.

But here’s the thing: my dilemma is not unique to historical interpreters. It was a struggle – sometimes mental, sometimes literal, with Victorian and Edwardian parents – that women in the past also went through. Women didn’t wake up in 1920 and go happily en masse to the hairdressers to have their hair put into bobs simply because it was the new fashion. It was far more controversial than that, particularly among the older generations. Until the 1920s, women had been raised for generations believing that short hair was a masculine trait and that real women wore their hair long. Then, they were suddenly faced with this new, extreme fashion of short hair. But was it just a passing trend? Would they look ridiculous the next year when it went out of style, after taking so drastic an action? If you cut your hair, that’s it. Going back is not as simple as parting your hair differently, or curling or straightening your hair instead, as had been the case with previous extremes in fashionable hairstyles. (I’m looking at you, awkward 1830s!) Cutting your hair is permanent and it can take years to grow your hair back to the length it once was. For women who had experienced almost nothing but variations on the theme of long hairstyles, choosing to cut your hair was a big step. There is no going back. So what do you do if you want to play it safe and keep your hair long? Can you still be a fashionable young woman?

Enter the forgotten long hairstyles of the 1920s: the nervous bob (AKA a Swaithed Hairstyle or faux bob) and Mary Pickford curls. Oh, yes, and why not the “earphone” hairstyle too? These women were doing the cinnamon bun hairstyle before Princess Leia made it cool. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s put braids and buns aside and discuss the main alternatives to bobbed hair in the 1920s – Mary Pickford curls and the nervous bob.

Mary Pickford - the girl with the curls. From "Coquette" (1929)? Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Mary Pickford – the girl with the curls. (Note: while wearing a short skirt and very fashionable shoes, she appears to be dressed as some sort of fairy – do not take this as proof of the popularity of lolita-style fashion in the 1920s!) Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

(Canadian born!) actor, writer, and producer Mary Pickford was famous for her long hair – she was “the girl with the curls.” In the 1910s and early 1920s, she was famous for roles that emphasized her youthfulness and innocence. With that, of course, came long hair, emulated by many a young woman, particularly in the first half of the decade. These were thick, heavy, and above all long ringlettes. When she cut her hair in the mid-1920s, it was headline news across the world – it even made the front page of the New York Times. It was probably one of the single most famous haircuts ever, and really speaks to the divisiveness and extremity that was the bobbed hairstyle.

'Sick of Cinderella' – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View, via Silent London)
“Sick of Cinderella” – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View, via Silent London)

Young women emulated Mary Pickford’s style well into the 1920s. Photographs of high school girls in Western Canada in 1928, for instance, show that well over half of the students wearing their hair in this way. However, the main reason that I didn’t do Mary Pickford curls on a daily basis is because they are a lot of work. It’s not that they can’t be done accurately in the twenty-first century – it’s definitely possible, just time-consuming. You can even use your current metal or ceramic hair curlers to achieve similar effects with less risk of damaging your hair than you would in the era you are emulating. Non-electric hair straighteners and curling irons have existed for ages. Hair irons were often literal clothes irons put on the stove and ironed on an ironing board, though metal irons and crimpers not dissimilar in design from modern ones were also used and heated on wood burning stoves as well. However, even the early electric ones in the 1920s could still fry the hair of the users. No thanks! Still, don’t be afraid to use modern electric hair straighteners in creating your Mary Pickford hairstyle – the fancy modern ceramic ones may not be period-appropriate, but the effects will be.

These curls can also be created in a different way, far less damaging for one’s hair, though too time-consuming for an impatient young thing like myself: through the use of rags. (Tutorials linked below in the “resources” section.) They work in essence like modern hair curlers and have been used for ages. (You may recall scenes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s works that show the characters creating the small curls popular during the Regency era this way.) It involves wetting the hair, rolling it up tightly with a small piece of fabric, and tying it off. Then, all one has to do is sleep and let it dry out overnight, and in the morning, when you take the rags out, you end up with ringlettes – the same scientific principle is the reason why one’s hair comes out of braids wavy or kinky. I have also done “rag curls” before, because ringlets were popular in the 1840s as well, “when” I previously worked at the park, but with my length of hair they take up to half an hour of prep time the night before and about ten or fifteen minutes in the morning… and I wasn’t a skilled enough hair dresser to make sure that they came out perfectly every time. If you mess up, there are no quick fixes, and I would often do a hasty bun if the ringlettes didn’t come out the way I wanted them to. However, rag curls are definitely feasible and easier than one might think.

Then there’s the issue of how representative Mary Pickford curls are of the 1920s period, related to issues of “historical accuracy”, which we’ve discussed before. Long hair, while accurate to the 1920s, particularly for young woman, even moreso for the first half of the decade, is just not what visitors expect. The year that I worked on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park, we had four costumed historical interpreters, several volunteers, a (male) historical worker, a roving troupe of drama people, and costumed game and ride attendants who were mostly limited to the Midway. On the street, there were therefore two full time female interpreters in costume, and so with our days off factored in, four days a week there could only be a single woman in 1920s costume on the street representing a city with a population in the tens of thousands. 1920s street is also the street closest to the entrance at the train station in the park, so we were often the first people in costume visitors see. Often, it is better to meet visitor’s expectations right away – so it’s obvious we’re in 1920s costumes – than to challenge visitor expectations right off the bat. 1920s = short hair in most people’s minds. If they’re looking at you from a distance, you want to be recognizable as an employee in costume. If we were in a large group of costumed interpreters, I would have considered doing the Mary Pickford curls in a nice contrast to the other interpreters in bobs. However, I was often alone (the only woman who lived in Edmonton in 1920, by all appearances!) and so I instead adopted the nervous bob or faux bob as my daily hairstyle. Despite the fact that Mary Pickford curls were still quite popular among young women even until the mid-to-late 1920s, historical representativeness was still a valid concern for us at the park. In my case, I was playing into visitor expectations – but only halfway. Instead of bobbing my hair with a pair of scissors, I could use my hair as a jumping off point for just how explosively controversial bobbed hair actually was. It’s stealth interpretation.

I may be getting ahead of myself. What is a nervous bob, exactly? Women who didn’t want to cut their hair – or who were forbidden from doing so by their parents, employers, or social expectations – could simulate the effects of short hair with gratuitous use of hair pins. For that reason, they are also known colloquially, at least where I’m from in North America, as “bobby pins.” (I blew the minds of many visitors with this simple fact.) It was sometimes called the “nervous” bob because those who wore it were considered too “nervous” to cut their hair into a “real” bob – though I am uncertain of how popular this term was, or if the hairstyle had a proper name at the time. In simple terms, it involves brushing out your hair, folding or curling it underneath itself, and securing it with bobby pins to create the illusion of short hair. There are numerous ways of doing so. One of my fellow costumed interpreters would curl her hair into ringlettes and pin them individually up and under, giving her hair a wavy look, which was also very fashionable in the 1920s. Her hair was just past shoulder length, but my hair, which is almost waist-length, would pull itself out of that hairstyle due to its sheer weight. I know because we tried.

I had two techniques that I found relatively simple, which became my daily hair styling staples. In one, I would braid my hair loosely and tuck the long part underneath the base, pinning it in place with large bobby pins after evening it out to hide the bulk. I would also put my hair in a low ponytail (secured by an inaccurate brown or black elastic to match my hair colour), and twist it until it folded into a bun (my usual technique), which would then be tucked underneath itself so that the hair closest to my skull covered it. This may be difficult to visualize, so to that end, I have included a photoset of what my hair generally looked like. Also included is a photograph of a nervous bob as done by another interpreter on 1920s street. In this photoset, my hairstyle is the result of a loose side braid, folded back and forth and pinned underneath my unbraided hair, creating the illusion of a short hairstyle, particularly when viewed from the front:

Caveat: as previously mentioned, my hair goes down to my waist. I have probably the maximum advisable length of hair to try to stuff into a nervous bob. This hairstyle actually works even better if you have mid- or shoulder-length hair, as it is likely to look far less bulky and more natural than my own when I dress my hair in this way. Furthermore, my hair is not layered. Layered hair may make nervous bobs and other up-dos more difficult to do, as I have found that the ends tend to flip out of areas you want to control more tightly.

Drawbacks to nervous bobs:

  • Real bobbed hairstyles take almost zero time to style in the morning, if done well. Brushing takes almost no time. Nervous bobs, even with practice, can still take at least five or ten minutes to do.
  • Your hair does not disappear. It sounds like an obvious observation, but it means that you still have the bulk of your hair on the nape of your neck, which can be hot in the summertime and can make it difficult to wear a stylish cloche hat. Luckily for me, it was also fashionable to wear hats with the brims low on one’s forehead with one’s nose ever so slightly in the air, so I didn’t have to try to fit the bulky part of my hairstyle under the hat’s brim.
  • You must take care to secure your hair well before doing any strenuous activity, such as dancing the night away doing the Charleston with a real Sheik. You don’t want it popping out in the middle of a dance!

Advantages to nervous bobs:

  • You can look reasonably fashionable without annoying your more conservative (read: nineteenth-century) family members and colleagues! Remember, until the late twenties Western society as a whole viewed women with short hair as morally suspect. A professional nurse, for example, could still be fired in the 1920s if she decided to bob her hair (even if her uniform involved a whimple which covered her hair). If you were trying to look mature and professional so you could keep one of the few employment opportunities open to women in the 1920s, it probably wasn’t advisable to cut your hair short. Unless you were, say, a glamorous newspaper writer who wrote columns on fashion and the modern woman. Then it was a good career move.
  • They keep your hair versatile. For the modern (read: twenty-first century woman), you can play at having short hair one day, then decide to go for a Gibson Girl topknot the next, or wear your hair down and loose for the bohemian look the day after. Long hair, I find, is far more versatile than short or mid-length hair when it comes to hairstyles. For so much of our history, women have worn their long hair in any number of ways. The possibilities are almost limitless if you have the right length of hair. Retro and steampunk looks are “in”; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to new hairstyles. Why limit yourself by chopping off the majority of your hair?

One final disclaimer: I am not a professional hairdresser or hair stylist. My experience solely comes from historical research (I have found photographic hairstyle tutorials from as early as 1911!) and practice, practice, practice. If you spend five days a week for four and a half months dressing your hair in this way, you learn a thing or two if only so you don’t have to redo your hair every hour as it falls out. (That’s valuable time you could have spent practicing your driving skills in 1920s vehicles! Am I right, ladies?) What works for me and my hair may not work for you and yours.  For example, I almost always dress my hair when it’s damp (I don’t use a blow drier), which I find gives it weight and promotes smoothness (I often have a bit of frizz if I dress my hair when it’s put in an up do when dry) and prevents my preferred hairstyle from sliding around as I pin it. Having damp hair makes my hairstyles more stable. I have no idea if it is advisable to dress your hair while very damp – I have not yet asked a professional hair dresser – but in my case it works really well, allowing me to avoid using hair products, or “lotions and potions” as my mother calls them. I did not use hairspray in any of these photographs, but for some it may be useful in securing the hair in place. The best piece of advice I can give you is to practice dressing your hair in its new hairstyle when you’re in no rush, so you can see how your hair sits. Everyone is of course a special unique snowflake; your hair will hold differently depending on the length and thickness of your hair, the size of your bobby pins, how damp your hair is when it goes in… any number of factors. Practice makes perfect!

A Hello Girl at the Alberta Government Telephone Office on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park. (Incidentally, I wasn't a pretend operator: that machine actually connects 15 working phones within the park!)
A Hello Girl sporting a nervous bob at the Alberta Government Telephone Office on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park. Interestingly, the photograph behind my head depicts operators from the 1920s in Edmonton… who upon closer inspection also have faux-bobs like myself. Visit Fort Edmonton yourself to investigate my claim!  Furthermore it should be noted, I wasn’t a pretend operator: that machine actually connects 15 working phones within the park! (No, I will never stop plugging the park. It is a magical place full of history and wonder.)

Resources for 1920s fashion and style:

  • Smithsonian.com series on the development of fashion in the 1910s and 1920s: The History of the Flapper, Part 1: A Call for FreedomPart 2: Makeup Makes a Bold EntrancePart 3: The Rectangular Silhouette, and finally Part 4: Emboldened By the Bob. See also: The Rebellious Roll Garters
  • Photo Detective series on the many varieties of bobbed hair.
  • An extensive online collection of Canadian Mail Order Catalogues is available for viewing in PDF format via Library and Archives Canada. This is an incredible resource for those interested in historical fashions and material culture. They are also key word searchable. You’d be amazed at what you can find in these catalogues. Exercise instructions and music on records from the 1920s! Early deodorant brands like Odorono! And of course amazing fashion styles – they always begin with women’s fashions.
  • In case my instructions weren’t very easy to visualize, here are a few Youtube tutorials that may come in handy: a rag curl tutorial (for those attempting traditional Regency curls or the Mary Pickford look, or, alternatively, have broken hair curling irons) and a finger wave tutorial.
  • Further 1920s long hair tutorials, including faux finger waves. Bonus: silent-film style instruction cards in their videos.
  • Mary Pickford biography via Library and Archives Canada.
  • Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’ via Silent London.
  • Why I Have Not Bobbed Mine” by Mary Pickford in which she justifies convincingly the advantages of long hair. This page also includes stories from other women with bobbed hair, either for or against, but always acknowledging that it was no easy decision to go forward with shorn locks.
  • The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada’s collection of historical sound recordings, which include popular songs from the 1920s. For example, why not check out Yes! We Have No Bananas? and of course Shall I Have It Bobbed Or Shingled? Many if not all are downloadable, so coupled with the music that industrious people have uploaded onto Youtube, you now have a soundtrack for your 1920s themed dance party!
  • Speaking of which: Charleston tutorials on Youtube! (Uh, I may have gone overboard in this set of links? You’re not complaining, are you?)
    • Here’s a historical tutorial (beginning at about 1:00, after the demo) from the time period, in which they go through the steps in slow motion. Also includes a video of a couple dancing the Charleston on top of a taxi cab. Shenanigans!
    • Dance Move Fridays: The Charletson: honestly, I find these guys a little bit annoying: they say that the Charleston is from the 1940s! Shock and horror! But they admit that they’re not historians, just dancing fiends. Nevertheless, their tutorial is very clear and they do have some sweet moves. Edit: wait, I take back my first comment. They grow on you, particularly as yous see how much fun they’re having dancing.
    • How To Charleston: this woman is very methodical in teaching a variety of moves, going from the basic butterfly knees (yes, from the 1920s! And considered obscene at the time!) to the more complicated steps. She doesn’t quite manage the full twist in the step in the end (not like in the Dance Move Fridays guys do), but I find that her video was very helpful in letting me know where I should be putting my weight as I do that step.
    • How to Charleston 1920s style – Lesson 1 (Solo Charleston):  this dapper man hints at the many varieties of Charleston moves, and teaches the solo Charleston as well as partnered versions of the dance.
    • Honestly, there are so many dancing tutorials on youtube. I feel like that’s almost the site’s true calling. You can spend hours going through various videos. Happy dancing, fashionable ladies!

Making Public History

Or, How to Teach Six Year Old Girls About the Suffrage Movement

Making Public History

People  often underestimate children. They underestimate their capacity to understand things about the past. Yes, 1990 was ages ago. (“I wasn’t even born yet!” One said. “It was a GOOGLEPLEX ago,” said another who liked big words.) 1970 was even longer ago. 1913? That was when the dinosaurs lived. 

But there are plenty of things that they can understand, and quite well at that. This evening, I  volunteered to come in to speak with a group of Sparks. (Incidentally, this photo contains a fraction of those who were there – imagine twenty-five little girls in pink and blue running around – no wonder I look a little bit frazzled.) I was initially invited to come in on International Women’s Day (the invitation came from “Rainbow Spark”, whose alter ego is a serious business history professor at Carleton University, and one of my teachers.), but it happened to fall on the week before the Underhill Colloquium, where I was already beholden to present my research, finish off my research, move furniture, and so on, we arranged for me to come in this week instead. Regardless. How do you explain the infinitely complex women’s suffrage movement to twenty-five six year olds? Do you begin with Seneca Falls, 1848? With the rabble-rousing suffragettes throwing bricks in Britain? Hunger strikers against President Wilson? When?

First off, forget dates. It is interesting to get them to speculate on when they think that women got the right to vote. Through consensus, they decided that it must have been 1970. But really, dates aren’t what you want them to get out of this.

Step One: get a costume. Or some sort of visual aid, like photographs. Personally, I prefer the costume route, not because of the inherent associations with childhood (which I question), but because it’s so much easier to interpret the past to them when you can use your own body and clothing as a prop. It promotes interest – who is this strange person? After being introduced (as “Hazel”, a special guest), one of the girls asked me about what I was wearing. I led in with the “in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother”, which is an easier thing for them to grasp than a date or a number of years. I had them compare what I was wearing to what they were wearing. A lot of them fixated on the small detail of my hatpin. They were mightily impressed that I couldn’t shake off my hat with it in. I also asked them about why they thought I was wearing something like this, and it wasn’t just because I was “oldey-timey”. I had seen them doing cartwheels and playing tag earlier, and I asked them – do you think that I can do things like that in this dress? There was a unanimous “no”.

Step Two: ask them questions. Lots of questions. Don’t lecture. Give them information in small pieces, leading them along. Why do you think I wear this? What do you think I learned in school? (Rainbow Spark pointed out that a lot of them went to a school in an older building that still had signs for the girls and boys sections – why did they separate everyone?) And then of course – what does my sash say? What does “votes” mean? I actually got a very coherent answer from the hive mind. (Rinse and repeat Step Two throughout the session. Never forget Step Two.)

Step Three: Put the girls in another person’s shoes. Get them to think about what you’re trying to say, and get them to relate to it, emotionally. After having “voting” explained, we had a mock vote, on what kind of ice cream we would theoretically have for dinner. The initial vote was split pretty well, about 16-11, chocolate:vanilla. Then, I said that only the people wearing blue could vote in the next round. We got a very different result. Then, only those wearing pink had the vote. I could have also done leaders-only, what color socks/hair, if they wore glasses, etc. I asked them how it felt, not to be able to vote, to choose. Then I dropped the bombshell – a hundred years ago, in 1913, women were not allowed to vote.

Step Four: Discuss, always asking questions. Let them talk. I asked them why they thought people didn’t want women voting (and they all commented on how strange the notion was). Earlier, before I was introduced, they had been discussing cookie-selling safety, which included never crossing the street unless you were with an adult. One girl had piped up “unless you are an adult”. I told them that a hundred years ago, sometimes even women who were adults were not allowed to cross the street or go for walks without an adult – a man. (A bit of an oversimplification, but it was common for women to be escorted everywhere). We had them, again, speculate on when women did get the right to vote. It was difficult when I was asked by the Spark leader – well, when did women get the right to vote? Not an easy question to answer. My response? “It’s complicated.” First women in Manitoba in provincial elections in 1916, then, Saskatchewan and Alberta, then eventually BC and Ontario, federally after the war… and finally Quebec in 1940. I didn’t bombard them with dates. I listed a few provinces, but they understood that it didn’t happen all at once. At that age (at many ages), they don’t care about dates. History isn’t about dates. It’s about experiences, about the sequence, not the exact dates or the politicians who made it happen. I think of history as, well, a story, with many different subplots. I just gave them a hint at one of them.

Step Five: reinforce. They played games later on, but they got to vote on which game to choose. They chose Simon Says, and Rainbow Owl made it “Oldey-Timey Simon Says” – “Simon Says put on your long skirt,” “Simon Says put your hair in a bun,” “Simon Says put in your hatpin,” etc., and they acted it out. They got to draw pictures – of me in my dress, hat and sash, and then on the reverse, they got to draw a modern day women. A few gave the latter blue or purple hair. We duly inspected them, and pronounced them masterpieces.

Yes, I don’t know how much sank in. Yes, I was honest with them at the very end, when they asked me about my age. I said that I had two answers: 23 and 123. How could this be? I am a student who likes to talk about the “olden days”. And then I impressed upon them how much fun learning history was. Hey, you get to dress up and teach people about it. How much fun is that? (And read books. Lots and lots of books.)