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The 1920s Lifestyle


this section is divided into 2 parts:


Activities & Trends
Attitudes & everyday life

Products, Careers, Fun
Consumer products, technology, common jobs, hobbies, recreation, phonographs & radios


Activities & Trends

modern romance

Our attitudes about love, dating and sexual relations changed dramatically during the 1920s. The strict moral code of the Victorian era couldn't compete with sexy movie stars, bootleg liquor and the lure of the automobile.

In the old days, men courted the women they hoped to marry. This was done at home, in the parlor or on the front porch, in full view of the parents. In the 1920s, the automobile provided freedom and privacy for young couples, and the concept of dating was born.

Popular date locations included dance halls, speakeasies, restaurants, the backseats of cars and especially darkened moviehouses.

Getting a date (or better yet, getting several requests for the same night) was seen as a personal triumph. Dating many people was considered the best way to meet the "right person."

In the 1920s, all those stories about jazz babies and "petting parties" were probably true. Pre-marital sex was more common than most people realized. In a 1928 survey, 25 percent of all married American men and women admitted to at least one adulterous love affair.

----- modern marriage

The marriage experience also changed in the 1920s. In the 1800s, the Victorian attitude favored separate smoked their cigars and drank their brandy with other men, and women socialized only with other women.

The ideal marriage of the 1920s was a companionate marriage. The perfect couple did things together, had shared interests and socialized with other couples.

Relaxed attitudes about sex also played a part in changing our attitudes about marriage. Although it was still illegal to distribute or use birth control devices in many areas, doctors and health care workers continued to prescribe them, and more and more women were using them. Now that pregnancy could be avoided, women were finding that they enjoyed sex. When they stopped treating it as an obligation, women became true sexual partners for their husbands.

Flirting in the parlor
--Norman Rockwell, 1923



before the 1920s
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. By 1915, coast-to-coast calling was possible and most towns had a local telephone franchise.

the central exchange office
Each telephone subscriber was connected to the nearest central exchange office, which was named after the town or street where it was located. Your individual subscriber number could range from one to five digits.

"Hello, Central? Number 36, please"
If an operator connected the calls within your exchange, you had a manual exchange. You signaled her by turning the crank on a big wall telephone, or by picking up the receiver and clicking the switchhook on a candlestick phone. Your phone didn't have a dial, because phone numbers were given to the operator verbally. When you made a call, you gave her the subscriber number and any party line extensions. In towns with several exchanges, you also mentioned the central office name.

party lines
If you couldn't afford your own phone, you shared a party line with your neighbors. Up to 12 parties shared a single subscriber number, which was followed by either a party letter (J, R, M or W), a ring code (one long, two short, etc), or a combination of both. In the 1920s, half of all homes in the Midwest and up to 60 percent of homes in the city were on a party line.

Party lines built a sense of community. During blizzards, housebound families often used the party line to entertain each other with songs and jokes to pass the time.

"Hello, Sarah? Get me Doc Johnson, quick!"
Even though everyone had a number, the operator in a small town usually knew everybody. You could ask for your party by name.

Hello Girls
Telephone operators were often called "Hello Girls." They did much more than simply connect calls. They also summoned doctors, rang fire alarms, made wake-up calls and reminded housewives to take bread out of the oven. Some operators even babysat over the phone when the mother left the receiver off the hook next to her baby's cradle.

long distance
All out-of-town calls were placed by the operator. You gave her the city and state, the exchange or central office name, and the subscriber number. If it was going to take a long time to make the connection, the operator called you back when your call was ready. Otherwise, you could wait on the line while the connection was made.

automatic exchanges
If you could dial local numbers yourself, you had an automatic exchange. Automatic switching boards were invented in the 1890s, but were only used by a handful of independent phone companies before the Bell Telephone Company began installing them in 1919.

By 1925, the number of Bell Telephone exchanges that had converted to automatic reached 12 percent. Party line subscribers received their own individual numbers and everyone was given a phone with a dial.

exchange names
After dial conversion, automatic exchanges chose to keep their central office names rather than switch to numerical prefixes. It was actually believed that callers would have difficulty remembering seven digits! The first three letters of the name were capitalized and were dialed before the subscriber number. If two neighboring exchanges shared the same letters or numbers, one of them adopted a new name. The central office name became known as the exchange name.

Before too long, it became apparent that using the three-letter exchange names was too limiting. Many towns began to adopt two-letter exchange names, which were sometimes followed by a number. This expanded the field of available phone numbers.

When you made a call within your exchange, dialing the complete exchange name usually wasn't necessary. As usual, out-of-town callers needed to use the full exchange name.

In automatic exchanges, an electronic tone was heard when you picked up the receiver. This was the dial tone, indicating that the line was free and ready to use. It replaced the familiar "number, please?" spoken by operators in manual exchanges.

new phones
For automatic exchanges, dials were added to wall phones and desktop candlestick phones. In 1924, the monophone was introduced. This was the first "handset" phone, in which the mouthpiece and speaker were placed together in a hand-held receiver.

typical phone numbers in the 1920s:
manual exchange:
-------phone 129
-------Harrisburg 36
-------Bedford 247
party line:
-------Smallville 1603-W-2
-------Bedford 236-J
-------Farmtown 38-J2
-------Oakwood 364-2
-------Darien 10 F 12
automatic exchanges & exchange names:
-------HARrisburg 36
-------SPRing 258
-------PEnnsylvania 6-5000
-------KEnwood 237
local numbers within an exchange:


bringing up baby
Women first began to have their babies in hospitals around 1900. By the 1920s, it was becoming more common, although more than half of all births still took place at home.

For decades, people had viewed hospitals as filthy places, to be avoided at all costs. Now they were coming to regard them as modern centers of sanitary science. Americans in the 1920s were obsessed with doing things the modern, scientific, sanitary way, and they were realizing that a hospital was perhaps the best place to have a baby.

Having a pain-free delivery was also modern and scientific. Women who had their babies in hospitals were given morphine, scopolamine, ether and chloroform to "knock them out" during delivery. Natural childbirth was for poor people and immigrants!

Despite the increase in hospital births, a majority of women still had their babies at home. Usually they were attended by a midwife, although it was becoming more common to have a doctor present. The bedroom was prepared ahead of time and stocked with everything that would be needed when the big moment came.

Helpful booklets for parents-to-be were published by insurance companies, magazines and baby food companies. The image to the left is from a booklet published by the Lydia Pinkham Company, which made patent medicines until the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act banned them.

Bottle feeding and breast feeding were hot topics during the 1920s. Bottle feeding was winning the debate, thanks to the increased availability of pasteurized milk. Young women regarded it as the modern, scientific thing to do. Breast feeding was also for poor people and immigrants!


school reform
During the 1800s, the quality of our public schools changed very little. Things began to improve in the 1910s when society came to regard education as a neccessity rather than a luxury.

The public school system adopted some new ideas in the 1910s. They included more public kindergartens, a statewide standardized curriculum, the first junior high schools and the first educational films.

When America entered World War I in 1917, recruits were given intelligence tests, and the results were shocking. School reform kicked into high gear. Standards for teachers were raised and the typical school year was increased to nine months.

compulsory education
Between 1852 and 1918, all 48 states enacted a compulsory education law. Depending on where you lived, the legal dropout age in 1928 was 14 or 15 (8 states), 16 (30 states), 17 (5 states) or 18 (5 states).

The rules were very complicated. A student could leave school before the compulsory age if he had reached the minimum exemption age, or if he had a valid work permit and had attained the minimum level of schooling. The guidelines were different for each state.

the "common school"
A common school was a public school housing grades one through eight. In the few districts where it was offered, kindergarten was also taught in the common school. In town, a typical school had one or two grades per room, a playground, and perhaps a gymnasium and organized gym classes. In the country, kids attended a one-room rural school.

the one-room school
In the 1920s, consolidated school districts were very rare. Most kids who lived in the country attended a rural one-room school.

Grades one through eight were taught in the same room by the same teacher. Each grade sat in a separate row. While one grade was in front reciting their lessons, the other grades were at their desks engaged in quiet work, which was known as seatwork.

There were no gymnasiums or formal gym classes, but pupils got plenty of exercise during two 15-minute recesses and an hour-long lunch period. Baseball, ice skating, snowball fights and hide-and-seek were popular activities.

The "library" consisted of several bookshelves along the wall. The school probably had a piano or organ, in addition to an Edison music machine and lots of records. In the back, a potbellied stove kept the room warm in the winter, and coats were hung up in the cloakroom.

The outhouse (three-holer) was where you took care of life's little neccessities!

Plays and box socials made things fun, and the end of the school year was celebrated with a picnic.

school days

high school
Although the first public high school was built in 1821, high schools weren't really common until the 1870s. Attendance was generally restricted to the upper classes until the 1910s, when the "high school movement" began. Our modern offices and factories needed skilled labor, and we realized that the best way to achieve this was to provide a secondary-school education for everyone.

In 1910, just 10 percent of the population graduated from high school. The poor results of the 1917 army intelligence tests highlighted the need for a high school education.

Before school consolidation was common, high schools were few and far between. In the 1920s, more than 80 percent of the school districts in America did not have a high school. Between the 1900s and the 1920s, each state passed free tuition laws to aid families who lived in districts without a high school. Parents no longer had to pay tuition if they sent their child to a district with a high school.

Graduation rates gradually increased....up to 20 percent in 1922, and up to 29 percent in 1930.

high school coursework & extras
In addition to academic classes, high schools prepared teenagers for the world of work. Classes were offered in typing, shorthand, drafting, machine work, accounting and agriculture. Many people were threatened by the role science was playing in our lives, which resulted in some states banning the teaching of Darwinian evolution.

For after-school fun, you could join the yearbook staff, the debate team, the glee club or the basketball team. In my town, basketball was so popular that the high school had two teams.

Tennessee Anti-Evolution Statute
Slates & Copybooks
The Old Rural School As I Remember It


most popular
baby names
of 1925

the "new woman"
Wild young women in the 1920s were known as flappers. It was considered stylish for young women to wear their galoshes unbuckled, and the flapping sound they made provided the origin of the name. Flappers wore short dresses, silk stockings rolled down below the knee and no corsets! They wore rouge, plucked their eyebrows, bobbed their hair and wrapped their bosoms up tightly to achieve a boyish silhouette. They danced the Charleston, drove automobiles, smoked cigarettes in public and engaged in heavy petting with the boys.

young men
Wild young men wore straw hats, raccoon coats and wide trousers known as Oxford bags. They bought secondhand Model Ts and painted them with all sorts of slogans and slang phrases.

The phrases on this jalopy are:
-don't give up, it'll run
-soft shoulder
-oh you kid
-this way out

other 1920s car phrases:
-standing room only
-abandon all hope ye who enter here
-use can opener
-open all night
-this side up
-beware: Old Faithful spouts every 5 minutes
(near radiator)
-Joe sent me
-23 Skiddoo

let's roar!
The 1900s and 1910s were a time of social reforms, patriotism and the sacrifices of the war years. When the 1920s came around, the war was over and people were ready to let loose and have some fun!

Silly fads and novelty songs were all the rage. Most fads were designed to see just how much we were willing to put up with....swallowing goldfish, sitting on flagpoles, entering dance marathons and running in cross-country races known as bunion derbies. For the record, "Shipwreck" Kelly sat on his flagpole for 23 days and seven hours.

flaming youth

Young people were becoming a force to be reckoned with in the 1920s. The youth of our nation were having a grand old time. This was especially true for college students.

Prohibition went into effect in 1920. For the next 13 years, the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal. Did this stop young people from drinking? No, indeed! In addition to the speakeasies and roadhouses, you could get your bathtub gin, hooch and giggle water at college fraternity parties.

*get hot!
*it's the cat's meow!
*23 Skiddoo!
--getting out while the getting is good
*it's the bee's knees!
*oh you kid!
*sweet patootie
--a cute girl
*Joe Brooks --a sharp-dressed guy
*a shiek and his sheba --a stylish, fun couple
*lubricated, embalmed, ossified --drunk
*snugglepup --sweetheart who likes to cuddle
*it's the snake's toenails!
*jazzed, piffed, squiffy --drunk
*says you!
*so's your old man!

Young people used very colorful slang phrases in the 1920s!

Jazz-Age Slang

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