Recently, I was chatting with a customer at work about Dashiell Hammett books and the wonderfully vintage covers adorning the copies we carry. Having never read Hammett’s work, I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation, although the customer did a good job of convincing me I ought to at least read The Maltese Falcon, as it was published in 1930 and is his most well-known book. This is a fairly regular customer who has witnessed my love of history first-hand on multiple occasions. As he left with his small stack of books, another customer asked for some book suggestions (actually, he asked which books I would recommend for someone who doesn’t like the books that are currently popular), and I immediately pulled out some Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Sorry, fellas, these are my go-to authors for anyone looking for a classic, well-written story. But this customer didn’t like them – he wanted contemporary work, just not popular contemporary work. I explained that I don’t read books published after about 1965 (unless they’re quick, guilty-pleasure type books, which we don’t really carry, poetry or post-modern Canadian stuff, or young adult), and for that comment, I got the look of dumb amazement. What’s so great about old books, he wanted to know. Those writers used too many big words that nobody understands, their plots moved too slowly, the characters aren’t believable. If nothing else, there’s always the historical appreciation aspect – you know, jumping into a book that was written in 1930 and feeling as if you’ve somehow managed to travel back in time. He didn’t understand the pull of history. And that’s OK, not everybody shares this love affair, and it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard that question – what’s so great about history? It’s a fairly common occurrence in my life, people questioning this obsession (it happened a lot while I was taking classes here for my Master’s – apparently it’s inappropriate to announce your love of history to a class full of English majors).
So, what’s so great about history? That’s like asking a computer technician what’s so great about computers versus typewriters. My love affair with history does not extend very far back (I’m picky about my lovers), nor does it extend to other places. I’m very much a North American historian, and my lover of choice is the period from 1920 (or so) ‘til 1945 (unless we’re talking military history, in which case we’re having a menage a tois between me, WW2, and Vietnam). Right now, I have tunnel vision for the 1930s. The ‘20s were great for women’s lib – shorter skirts, sleeveless dresses, androgynous looks, public drinking (oh my!), and more emphasis on fun (there’s a reason it was called the Jazz age). But the 1930s signalled a return to femininity (read: curves and softer hairstyles), simple clothing made from whatever was easily obtainable (rather than those daring Flapper dresses of the previous decade), sensible shoes, and women in the workforce. Ok, so that last thing was really out of necessity, but it was still a good stepping stone for us. Unlike the glitz and glam of the Roaring Twenties, the “Dirty Thirties” were about conserving and making do with what you had. This was also the decade of “talking pictures” (movies with sound), home radios, and the very first superhero. Dance-a-thons were all the rage and often lasted for days (not just hours), with the grand prize generally being cash, and food staples were affordable and locally-produced.
For me, there are two main draws to this decade: 1) beauty was attainable (but not necessarily a prerequisite for anything), and 2) very little was discarded.
First, the beauty thing. Ok, yes, I’m a feminist so beauty isn’t necessarily important, and it really has no definition. A lot of that comes from the world I grew up in. Every time we turn on the TV or glance at a magazine, we’re bombarded with ads for slimming pills and diet regimens and hair products and makeup products and feminine hygiene products – each one guaranteed to be better than the one before, if only in appearance. We’re told we need to slim down and shape up and wear this brand or we won’t be desirable, and that if we can’t or won’t stop eating, well, there’s a pill/injection/shape-wear/surgery for that. And, above all, we must, we must, we must increase our bust! We’re told thinness equals beauty, and fat girls are inherently unattractive (except as sex objects of last resort), and that curves belong on roads, not hips. Body hair is for men and women are required to not only shave our armpits and legs, but to “landscape” our lady parts in order to attract a mate. And those hairs on your upper lip? Better get them waxed or zapped or bleached before someone sees! It’s all a bit too much, don’t you think? I used to buy into the ads and TV commercials, believing each new concoction would somehow magically transform me into the stunning beauty I was supposed to be. I had hair products and lotions and exercise routines (more like torture routines), and makeup galore, but all it did was make me feel worse about myself. Clearly, if I needed all that junk and then some, there must be something wrong with my unruly body, and there didn’t seem to be a sure-fire cure.
Yes, in the ‘30s, women aspired to look like Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford, but nobody rushed out for plastic surgery and replacement parts. There was no such thing as ugliness in the ‘30s. Even the big stars, like Greta Garbo, looked like normal people in the morning, only there were no photographers hiding outside their Hollywood condos to snap pictures before they had a chance to put their faces on. These stars became famous not because of some innate beauty, but because they had personality. Beauty could be painted on. With a bit of makeup and some pin curls, anyone could look beautiful. And curves? Everyone wanted them. No man wanted a waife for his wife – how could a 90-pound string bean survive childbirth? Or work her ass off keeping a house or farm running? True, some women wore makeshift corsets to reign in those excess inches and enhance their curves – but not to make them look like sticks. During the Depression, a little excess weight meant you were one of the lucky few who could afford three meals a day, not that you were undesirable. And because all women were considered beautiful, men didn’t wait around in hopes that a better-looking girl would happen by. Of course, back then, before reliable/affordable birth control, there was no such thing as “try before you buy” – you married her or you didn’t get far enough to see what she hid under her knickers.
The other attraction for me is the reduced waste. Almost everything could be re-purposed – feed bags made great material for dresses, newspaper could be crumpled up for window washing or used as gift wrap or insulation inside winter boots, old shirts could be turned into baby diapers, which would eventually become rags, which could be used for cleaning or feminine hygiene (yes, women made their own pads and tampons out of whatever was available). Even something as simple as a compact was not disposable. Now, when the powder runs out, we just walk off to the nearest Shoppers Drug Mart and drop $12 on a new Cover Girl compact, chucking the old case in the trash. But back then, you kept the case (which was usually ornate and cast in metal or porcelain) and just replaced the pressed powder for a few cents. If your winter coat ripped, you sewed the tear instead of buying a whole new jacket. Same goes for shoes – they were re-soled rather than tossed out. Even pens. Think about that one. Pens could be re-filled with fresh ink! As someone who writes a lot, I’m constantly buying boxes of those cheap disposable Bic pens. And sure, with an average cost of 35 cents per pen, it may not seem like a huge expense, but it adds up over time – both monetarily and environmentally. All those dead pens are resting in a landfill somewhere, contributing to our waste culture. I would much rather spend $20 on a good solid writing tool and then continue refilling the ink for the next 20 years. I used to do this with my old manual typewriter (by the time electronic typewriters came out, manufacturers caught on to our cost-cutting secrets): when the ribbon ran through, I reversed the spool so I could type using the other side. That had more to do with the fact that I couldn’t find new ribbon for that particular model (it was the ‘90s, and I was searching for ribbon for a typewriter from the ‘50s), but it worked out pretty well and I got a good few years’ use out of that single ribbon.
There are so many things that we buy without even thinking about. Replace the old with something newer, shinier, better. We carelessly break dishes and then replace them (rather than learning to be gentle with our possessions), we buy new shoes the minute the old pair gets a little scuffed, we cram our closets full of clothes in the latest style and then never wear the older pieces, we throw out so much stuff. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of living like that. I’m sick of waste, and I’m tired of media messages telling me I’m not pretty enough or thin enough or that my boobs aren’t big enough – enough for what?? Who gets to decide this crap? My body is just fine the way it is, thank you very much. And when it isn’t, a little makeup and a few bobby pins go a long way. The possibilities are endless, but one thing’s for sure: I don’t need to live up to someone else’s idea of (disposable) beauty.