A compiled reference and fact guide to writing fic for the 1920s.
[US-oriented] Find the follow-up guide some people asked for on the 1930s here!
SLANG | CLOTHING | HISTORIC EVENTS & PEOPLE | THEATER, FILM & RADIO | QUICK FACTS | LGBT & MINORITIES | LINKS | DOCUMENTARIES ONLINE | CITES
Please note that I have written very little of this myself, except for fanfic-specific notes. All information has been collected from around the internet so that we, as fic writers, can have a one-stop post for the majority of the "quick" facts for '20s era writing, as well as links to both further reading and viewing. All places I have collected from are noted and linked at the bottom of this post.
While I cannot take credit for the majority of this information, I did do the HTML formatting, proofing, organization, and information gathering, so please do not repost this list in full and credit yourself for these aspects. You may, however, repost it and credit me for the HTML formatting etc. so long as you keep my sources at the bottom of the post (though I would prefer you just link back to the post). Reposting small portions needs no credit to myself for formatting.
-ski, -avous: these are two suffixes (derived from Russian and French, respectively) used in flapper parlance to “dress up” normal words. The suffix could be added to any word. There was only one hard and fast rule: if you responded to a question containing a suffix, you had to use the same part of speech somehow. Example: “Would you like a drink-avous?” “No thanks, I’m on the wagon-avous.” “The sun-ski is so bright!” “Put on a hat-ski.”
Abe's Cabe: five-dollar bill
ace: one-dollar bill
all wet: incorrect
And how!: I strongly agree!
ankle: to walk, i.e. "Let's ankle!"
apple sauce: flattery, nonsense, i.e. "Aw, applesauce!"
Attaboy!: well done!; also, Attagirl!
baby: sweetheart; also denotes something of high value or respect
baby grand: heavily built man
baby vamp: an attractive or popular female [student]
balled up: confused, messed up
Bank's closed.: no kissing or making out ie. "Sorry, mac, bank's closed."
barrel house: illegal distillery
bearcat: a hot-blooded or fiery girl
beat it: scram, get lost
beat one's gums: idle chatter
bee's knees: terrific; a fad expression. Dozens of "animal anatomy" variations existed: elephant's eyebrows, gnat's whistle, eel's hips, etc.
beef: a complaint or to complain
beeswax: business [student]
bell bottom: a sailor
belt: a drink of liquor
berries: (1) perfect (2) money
big cheese: important person
big six: a strong man; from auto advertising, for the new and powerful six cylinder engines
bimbo: a tough guy
bird: general term for a man or woman, sometimes meaning "odd," i.e. "What a funny old bird."
blotto (1930 at the latest): drunk, especially to an extreme
blow: (1) a crazy party (2) to leave
bohunk: a derogatory name for an Eastern European immigrant; out of use by 1930, except in certain anti-immigrant circles, like the KKK
bootleg: illegal liquor
breezer (1925): a convertible car
brown plaid: Scotch whiskey
bug-eyed Betty (1927): an unattractive girl [student]
bull: (1) a policeman or law-enforcement official, including FBI. (2) nonsense, bullshit (3) to chat idly, to exaggerate
bump off: to kill
bum's rush, the: ejection by force from an establishment
bunny (1925): a term of endearment applied to the lost, confused, etc; often coupled with "poor little"
bus: any old or worn out car
busthead: homemade liquor
bushwa: a euphemism for "bullshit"
Butt me: I'll take a cigarette
cake-eater: a lady's man
caper: a criminal act or robbery
cat's meow: great; also "cat's pajamas" and "cat's whiskers"
cash: a kiss
Cash or check?: Do we kiss now or later?
cast a kitten/have kittens: to have a fit. Used in both humorous and serious situations. i.e. "Stop tickling me or I'll cast a kitten!"
celestial: derogatory slang for Chinese or East Asians
chassis (1930): the female body
cheaters: eye glasses
check: kiss me later
chewing gum: double-speak, or ambiguous talk
Chicago typewriter: Thompson sub-machine gun
choice bit of calico: attractive female [student]
chopper: a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, due to the damage its heavy .45 caliber rounds did to the human body
chunk of lead: an unattractive female [student]
clam: a dollar
coffin varnish: bootleg liquor, often poisonous
copacetic: excellent, all in order
crasher: a person who attends a party uninvited
cuddler: one who likes to make out
daddy: a young woman's boyfriend or lover, especially if he's rich
daddy-o: a term of address; strictly an African-American term
dame: a female; did not gain widespread use until the 1930's
dapper: a Flapper's dad
darb: a great person or thing, i.e. "That movie was darb."
dead soldier: an empty beer bottle
deb: a debutant
dewdropper: a young man who sleeps all day and doesn't have a job
dick: a private investigator; coined around 1900, the term finds major recognition in the '20s
dinge: a derogatory term for an African-American; out of use by 1930
doll: an attractive woman
dolled up: dressed up
don't know from nothing: doesn't have any information
don't take any wooden nickels: don't do anything stupid
dope: drugs, esp. cocaine or opium.
double-cross: to cheat, stab in the back
drugstore cowboy: a well-dressed man who loiters in public areas trying to pick up women
dry up: shut up, get lost
ducky: very good
dumb Dora: an absolute idiot, a dumbbell, especially a woman [flapper]
edge: intoxication, a buzz. i.e. "I've got an edge."
egg: a person who lives the big life
Ethel: an effeminate male.
face stretcher: an old woman trying to look young
fag: a cigarette; also, starting around 1920, a homosexual.
fella: fellow; as common in its day as "man," "dude," or "guy" is today, i.e. "That John sure is a swell fella."
fire extinguisher: a chaperone
fish: (1) a college freshman (2) a first timer in prison
flat tire: a bore
flivver: a Model T; after 1928, could mean any broken down car
floorflusher: an insatiable dancer
flour lover: a girl with too much face powder
fly boy: a glamorous term for an aviator
For crying out loud!: same usage as today
four-flusher: a person who feigns wealth while mooching off others
futz: a euphemism for "fuck;" i.e. "Don't futz around."
gams (1930): legs
gatecrasher: see "crasher"
gay: happy or lively; no connection to homosexuality; see "fag"
Get Hot! Get Hot!: encouragement for a hot dancer doing his or her thing
get-up (1930): an outfit
get a wiggle on: get a move on, get going
get in a lather: get worked up, angry
giggle water: booze
gigolo: dancing partner
gimp: cripple; one who walks with a limp; gangster Dion O’Bannion was called Gimpy due to his noticeable limp
gin mill: a seller of hard liquor; a cheap speakeasy
glad rags: "going out on the town" clothes
go chase yourself: get lost, scram.
gold-digger (1925): a woman who pursues men for their money
goods, the: (1) the right material, or a person who has it (2) the facts, the truth, i.e. "Make sure the cops don't get the goods on you."
goof: (1) a stupid or bumbling person, (2) a boyfriend [flapper]
goofy: in love
hair of the dog (1925): a shot of alcohol
half seas over: drunk; also "half under"
handcuff: engagement ring
hard-boiled: a tough person, i.e: "He sure is hard-boiled!"
harp: an Irishman
hayburner: (1) a gas guzzling car (2) a horse one loses money on
heavy sugar (1929): a lot of money
heebie-jeebies (1926): "the shakes," named after a hit song
heeler: a poor dancer
high hat: a snob
hip to the jive: cool, trendy
hit on all sixes: to perform 100 per cent; as "hitting on all six cylinders;" perhaps a more common variation in these days of four cylinder engines was "hit on all fours;" also see "big six".
hood (late 20s): hoodlum
hooey: bullshit, nonsense; very popular from 1925 to 1930, used somewhat thereafter
hop: (1) opiate or marijuana (2) a teen party or dance
hope chest: pack of cigarettes
hopped up: under the influence of drugs
horse linament: bootleg liquor
Hot dawg!: Great!; also: "Hot socks!"
hot sketch: a card or cut-up
"I have to go see a man about a dog.": "I've got to leave now," often meaning to go buy whiskey
icy mitt: rejection
Indian hop: marijuana
iron (1925): a motorcycle, among motorcycle enthusiasts
iron one’s shoelaces: to go to the restroom
ish kabibble (1925): a retort meaning "I should care," from the name of a musician in the Kay Kayser Orchestra
Jake: great, i.e. "Everything's Jake."
jalopy: a dumpy old car
Jane: any female
jeepers creepers: "Jesus Christ!"
jerk soda: to dispense soda from a tap; thus, "soda jerk"
jigaboo: a derogatory term for an African-American
jitney: a car employed as a private bus; fare was usually five cents, ergo the alternate nickname of "nickel"
Joe Brooks: a perfectly dressed person; student
john: a toilet
jorum of skee: a drink of hard liquor
juice joint: a speakeasy
kike: a derogatory term for a Jewish person
killjoy: a solemn person
knock up: to make pregnant
know one's onions: to know one's business or what one is talking about
lay off: cut the crap
left holding the bag: (1) to be cheated out of one's fair share (2) to be blamed for something
let George do it: a work evading phrase
level with me: be honest
limey: a British soldier or citizen; from World War I
line: a false story, as in "to feed one a line"
live wire: a lively person
lollapalooza (1930): a humdinger
lollygagger: (1) a young man who enjoys making out (2) an idle person
manacle: wedding ring
Mick: a derogatory term for Irishmen
milquetoast (1924): a very timid person; from the comic book character Casper Milquetoast, a hen-pecked male
mind your potatoes: mind your own business
mooch: to leave
moonshine: homemade whiskey
mop: a handkerchief
Mrs. Grundy: a prude or kill-joy
mulligan: Irish cop
munitions: face powder
neck: to kiss passionately; what would today be called "French kissing"
necker: a girl who wraps her arms around her boyfriend's neck
nifty: great, excellent
noodle juice: tea
"Not so good!": "I personally disapprove."
"Now you're on the trolley!": "Now you've got it!".
ofay: a commonly used Black expression for Whites
off one's nuts: crazy
"Oh yeah!": "I doubt it!"
old boy: a male term of address, used in conversation with other males as a way to denote acceptance in a social environment; also: "old man" or "old fruit"
Oliver Twist: a skilled dancer
on a toot: a drinking binge
on the lam: fleeing from police
on the level: legitimate, honest
on the up and up: on the level
orchid: an expensive item
owl: a person who's out late
palooka: (1) a below-average or average boxer (2) a social outsider; from the comic strip character Joe Palooka, who came from humble ethnic roots
panic: to produce a big reaction from one's audience
panther piss/sweat (1925): homemade whiskey
pen yen: opium
percolate: (1) to boil over (2) as of 1925, to run smoothly; "perk"
pet: like necking (see above), only moreso; making out
petting pantry: movie theater
petting party: one or more couples making out in a room or auto
phonus balonus: nonsense
piker: (1) a cheapskate (2) a coward
pill: (1) a teacher (2) an unlikable person (3) cigarette
pinch: to arrest
pinched: to be arrested
pipe down: stop talking
prom-trotter: a student who attends all school social functions
pos-i-lute-ly: affirmative, also "pos-i-tive-ly"
pull a Daniel Boone: to vomit
punch the bag: small talk
putting on the ritz: after the Ritz Hotel in Paris (and its namesake Caesar Ritz); doing something in high style; also, "ritzy"
quiff: a slut or cheap prostitute
rag-a-muffin: a dirty or disheveled individual
rain pitchforks: a downpour
razz: to make fun of
Real McCoy: a genuine item
regular: normal, typical, average
Reuben: an unsophisticated country bumpkin; also, "rube"
Rhatz!: "How disappointing!" [flapper]
rotgut: bootleg liquor
rub: a student dance party
rubes: money or dollars
rummy: a drunken bum
sap: a fool, an idiot; very common term in the 20s
sawbuck: ten-dollar bill
says you: a reaction of disbelief
screaming meemies: the shakes
screw: get lost, get out, etc.; occasionally, in pre 1930 talkies (such as The Broadway Melody) screw is used to tell a character to leave: one film features the line "Go on, go on--screw!"
screwy: crazy; "You're screwy!"
sheba: one's girlfriend
sheik: one's boyfriend
shine box: a bar or club for black patrons
shiv: a knife
simolean: a dollar
sinker: a doughnut
sitting pretty: in a prime position
skee: Scotch whiskey
skirt: an attractive female
smarty: a cute flapper
smoke-eater: a smoker
smudger: a close dancer
snort: a drink of liquor
sockdollager: an action having a great impact
so's your old man: a reply of irritation
spade: yet another derogatory term for an African-American
speakeasy: a bar selling illegal liquor
spill: to talk
spoon: to neck, or at least talk of love
static: (1) empty talk (2) conflicting opinion
strike-me-dead: bootleg liquor
struggle: modern dance
stuck on: in love [student]
sugar daddy: older boyfriend who showers girlfriend with gifts in exchange for sex
swanky: (1) good (2) elegant
swell: (1) good (2) a high class person
take someone for a ride: to take someone to a deserted location and murder them
teenager: not a common term until 1930; before then, the term was "young adults."
tell it to Sweeney: tell it to someone who'll believe it
three-letter man: homosexual
Tin Pan Alley: the center of the music industry in New York City, located between 48th and 52nd Streets
tomato: a "ripe" female
torpedo: a hired thug or hitman
trip for biscuits: wild goose chase
upchuck: to vomit
vamp: (1) a seducer of men, an aggressive flirt (2) to seduce
water-proof: a face that doesn't require make-up
wet blanket: see Killjoy
white lightning: bootleg liquor
wife: dorm roommate [student]
"What's eating you?": "What's wrong?"
whoopee: wild fun
Woof! Woof!: ridicule
"You slay me!": "That's funny!"
Alternate '20s slang page
A note on using slang:
When used correctly, slang of the time can enhance a story and make it feel more real. The two most common mistakes I see when writing for different eras are using too much language from the time, and not using enough. Remember: They're meant to lend believability, not to run the show. One good rule to follow is that if you see a slang term and are unsure of how to use it in a sentence, just don't use it. If your readers need a dictionary attached to the end of the fic for reference, you've probably used too much slang.
On the other side of things, using no terms of the time can make it harder for your readers to immerse themselves into a story. Think about how we use slang today. How often it pops up in conversations and how it's used, and compare it to the slang of the era you're writing in as a basis for judging how much and when to use it.
Men: Clothing for men became a bit more conservative in the 1920s. Trousers widened to as wide as 24 inches at the bottoms. Underwear grew in width and length and were called 'plus fours'. White linen was popular during the summer, and during the winter the raccoon coat was popular, especially with the college men. The slouch hat was made of felt and could be rolled up and packed into a suitcase. A wool suit was only $15.85. Garters were 40 cents. Cigarettes were 10 cents a pack.
Women: By 1921 the longer skirt was back, some long and uneven at the bottom. The short skirt was popular by 1925. This period was called the Flapper Age. No bosom, no waistline, and hair nearly hidden under a cloche hat. This decade began the present hey-day for the manufacturing of cosmetics. Powder, lipstick, rouge, eyebrow pencil, eye shadow, colored nails --they had it all!
1920s makeup underwent many changes. Manufacturers made advances in makeup formulas, packaging and color choice. Social attitudes toward makeup changed dramatically. No longer was it hidden away in women's underwear drawers and applied in secret. Instead, women carried it in their purses and applied lipstick at the dinner table.
This period also marked the spread of ready-to-wear fashion. More women were wage earners and did not want to spend time on fittings. The status symbol aspect of fashion was losing its importance as class distinctions were becoming blurred. Inexpensive fashion became available. America moved ahead of other countries in mass production of contemporary style clothing for women. America even produced several designers of this fashion including Jane Derby.
HISTORIC EVENTS & PEOPLE
Thanks to Henry Ford and mass production, one could buy a Ford for $290. The Volstead Act became effective Jan 16, 1920 and made the sale of a drink containing as much as one half-ounce of alcohol unlawful. This one unsuccessful act brought about much of the flavor of the Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties as we know them. This was a period of prohibition and intolerance, speakeasies, flappers, gangsters, and crime. Hooch was supplied by Dutch Schultz and Al Capone. The prohibition, in fact, caused consumption of alcohol to rise drastically, also resulting in a higher number of alcohol-related deaths.
The Nineteenth Amendment had passed the previous year, allowing women the right to vote in national elections. At the beginning of the decade, the US was paralyzed by the grip of the red scare. Racial tensions were high and quotas were set for immigrants coming into America. The Klan was very active during this period. The decade was a wonderful one for all of the arts and literature in America. Technology grew and the country seemed to shrink as popularity of automobiles, radios, and movies exploded.
Buying on credit or installments was an outcome of the industrial age. In the fall of 1929, the New York Stock Exchange was more active than it had ever been. Economists predicted a permanent high plateau. By October 24, 1929, Black Thursday, the stock market crashed and panic broke out, banks closed, and the nation stayed in this depression through the end of the twenties and most of the thirties.
Presidents in the decade:
1913-1920 Woodrow Wilson | 1921-1923 Warren G. Harding | 1923-1928 Calvin Coolidge | 1928-1932 Herbert Hoover
THEATER, FILM & RADIO
The silent screen stars included the chic Rudolph Valentino, and the sexy Clara Bow. Rudy Vallee sang through his megaphone. The first talking picture, Don Juan, starring John Barrymore premiered on Broadway in 1926; this made movies big business. The first Oscars were given in 1927 and the first Oscar movie was a Paramount Picture, Wings. Emil Jennings and Janet Gaynor won best acting awards.
Broadway reached an all time peak. Gershwin was hot with An American in Paris, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein created Show Boat starring Helen Morgan. Fred and Adele Astaire opened in Funny Face. There were 268 plays offered in New York City in the year 1927. This compared with 50-60 in the 1970s.
Radio networks began during this decade; David Sarnoff's NBC and William Paley's CBS both went on the air. Billboard Magazine published its first charts in 1928. Bing Crosby and other crooner singing stars aided their sales with their live and recorded radio performances.
The 1920s also saw the rise in popularity of various new styles of recorded music. Jazz became the most popular form of music for young people and the flapper culture. Famous jazz performers and singers from the 1920s include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe "King" Oliver, James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson, Frankie Trumbauer, Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke, and Bing Crosby. The development of urban and city blues also began in the 1920s with performers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. In the later part of the decade, early forms of country music were pioneered by Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Vernon Dalhart, Charlie Poole, and others.
- 106,521,537 people in the United States.
- 2,132,000 unemployed; unemployment 5.2%.
- Life expectancy: Male 53.6, Female 54.6.
- 343.000 in military (down from 1,172,601 in 1919).
- Average annual earnings $1236; Teacher's salary $970.
- Dow Jones High 100; Low 67.
- Illiteracy rate reached a new low of 6% of the population.
- Gangland crime included murder, swindles, racketeering.
- It took 13 days to reach California from New York. There were 387,000 miles of paved road.
- Games included mah-jongg, Ouija boards, and crossword puzzles.
- Endurance races of all sorts gained popularity and included marathons and flagpole sitting.
- Dance marathons began in 1923 and quickly became the rage.
- Harry Houdini was the great escape artist of the 1920s.
- American baseball and other sports were very popular.
- The Miss America contest began in Atlantic City in 1921. Margaret Gorman, 16 years old, was the first winner with measurements of 30-25-32.
- Dance crazes included the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Shimmy.
- First Transatlantic flight: Charles Lindbergh, James Doolittle first one-day.
- Air flying companies outbid the railroads for transporting the mail (1926).
- Business travelers took to the skies on scheduled coast to coast flights.
- Women vote for the first time in a national election (1920).
- Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debate evolution.
- Ku Klux Klan is active in the south and midwest. Burnings multiply.
- Admiral Byrd: Flew over the North and South Poles during the 20s.
- Stock Market Crashed: October 24, 1929, bank closed; panic on Wall Street.
LGBT & MINORITIES
- 1920 – The word gay is used for the first time in reference to homosexuality.
- 1921 – In England an attempt to make lesbianism illegal for the first time in Britain's history fails.
- 1922 – A new criminal code comes into force in the USSR officially decriminalizing homosexual acts.
- 1923 – The word fag is first used in print in reference to gays in Nels Anderson's The Hobo: "Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit."
- 1924 – The first homosexual rights organization in America is founded by Henry Gerber in Chicago — The Society for Human Rights. The group exists for a few months before disbanding under police pressure. Panama, Paraguay and Peru legalize homosexuality.
- 1926 – The New York Times is the first major publication to use the word "homosexuality".
- 1927 - Karol Szymanowski, Poland's openly gay composer, is appointed chief of Poland's state-owned national music school, the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy.
- 1928 – The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is published in the UK and later in the United States. This sparks great legal controversy and brings the topic of homosexuality to public conversation.
- 1929 – On May 22, Katharine Lee Bates, author of America the Beautiful dies. On October 16, a Reichstag Committee votes to repeal Paragraph 175; the Nazis' rise to power prevents the implementation of the vote.
In urban areas, minorities were treated with more equality than they had been accustomed to previously. This was reflected in some of the films of the decade. Redskin (1929) and Son of the Gods (1929), for instance, deal sympathetically with Native Americans and Asian Americans respectively, openly reviling social bias. On the stage and in movies, black and white players appeared together for the first time.
It became possible to go to nightclubs and see whites and minorities dancing and eating together. Even popular songs poked fun at the new social acceptance of homosexuality. One of these songs had the title "Masculine Women, Feminine Men."
The relative liberalism of the decade is demonstrated by the fact that the actor William Haines, regularly named in newspapers and magazines as the #1 male box-office draw, openly lived in a gay relationship with his partner, Jimmie Shields. Other popular gay actors/actresses of the decade included Alla Nazimova and Ramón Novarro.
In 1927, Mae West wrote a play about homosexuality called The Drag, and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box-office success. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue, and was also an early advocate of gay rights. With the return of conservatism in the 1930s, the public grew intolerant of homosexuality, and gay actors were forced to choose between retiring or agreeing to hide their sexuality.
1920-30 This site covers just about every aspect of the '20s. It's really great and has a lot of info (especially in the fashion aspect) straight from old magazines and the like.
Illinois Trail - 1920s: Excellent coverage of the decade, from speakeasies to politics.
1920s timeline: News arranged chronologically; very helpful.
American History from 1860 to the present: Web Guide for this period.
The Roaring '20s & the Flapper Culture
1920s Fashion Summary
American Memory Project: By the Library of Congress, digitized library of photographs
1920s in Fashion
Roaring Twenties Online Concert: Hear it weekly via your computer or radio.
Fads & Fashion
Arts of the '20s: All of the arts of the 1920s.
1920s Makeup Guide
1920s Makeup and Beauty Guide Also has guides for other decades!
Consumer Prices During the 1920s
1920s Fashions Including Prices
1920s Food and Groceries Prices
Prohibition Documentary - 3:10
Prohibition and the Mafia - 26:00 One | Two | Three
The 1920s Documentary - 12:22
Beautiful Flapper (1920s Fashion Movie) - 2:19
The "Roaring" 1920s - 6:47
To Live in the 1920s - 5:56 ['20s footage of different aspects set to time-appropriate music.]
Cotton Club Dancers Bust Some Moves - 1:56 [Note that this particular scene was not filmed at the Cotton Club; it is just where the dancers are from. More on the Cotton Club.]
Flappers of the 1920s - 4:16
Driving Around New York City (1928) - 5:11 [More for comedic value, but it's pretty neat --and funny.]
1920s: What The Future Will Look Like - 5:39 [Future predictions from the 1920s]
The Internet Guide to Jazz Age Slang
American Cultural History 1920 - 1929
LGBT History on Wikipedia
The Roaring Twenties on Wikipedia
*Note that Wikipedia is not an ironclad source and can, at times, be wrong.
Find the follow-up guide some people asked for on the 1930s here!