Printable version
Back to index

"Freak Show" begins in February or March of 1928. That means all the things you think of when you think of the 1920s were in full force, but were only about a year and a half from crashing to a halt when the Great Depression hit in 1929. But I doubt this yarn will span a year and a half. (I have an ongoing yarn that started at the end of 1995, and, even with a few skips of days, weeks, and months, less than 2 years game time have passed). Even if we were to get to 1929 and beyond, your character probably won't be thinking that far ahead, or expect anything bad to happen in the future.

That said, this is not at all a faithful rendition of what the 1920s were really like. For one thing, it's an alternate universe, so slight anachronisms are to be expected.

Wink wink.

And for another thing, I don't think anyone alive today (with the possible exception of people who were young adults or older in the 1920s) would be able to play a role-play in keeping perfectly with the time period. So the main idea is to have fun, but don't bring in obvious inaccuracies.

Still, please read this so that you can have at least a vague idea of where I'm coming from, and the world your character is living in.

Characteristics of the 1920s of "Freak Show":

(These characteristics are probably not entirely accurate, but as long as we all stick with them for the purposes of the yarn, we will be fine. ^_^ But if you know I'm totally wrong about something, don't hesitate to let me know.)


Men (and women) dressed more formally in the 1920s, in general. Obviously, no T-shirts and jeans. Well, jeans had been invented for miners in California, so I guess an eccentric character who came from there might have a pair....and undershirts were basically T-shirts, so I guess someone could wear them--and would be considered a weirdo, probably indecent.

By this period, most clothing in urban areas was purchased ready-made from retail outlets, although the very wealthy would likely have clothes custom-tailored, and catalogs sold fabric for people who wished to make sew from patterns.

People would probably be dressing warmly, and much of my knowledge is gleaned from a summer catalog (plus, I am from Arizona!), so make sure you modify it a bit. Coats might not be amiss for characters, given that this yarn begins in winter (or early spring), when it's rather chilly in the New York area.

If you need a visual to figure out what your character might wear, please check out The Costumer's Manifesto: Bernard-Hewitt & Co. Summer 1928 Apparel Sale Catalog. It's got hundreds of different articles of clothing, and with any luck, will give you some good ideas.

More info: American Cultural History - Decade 1920-1929
The Costumer's Manifesto: Bernard-Hewitt & Co. Summer 1928 Apparel Sale Catalog INCREDIBLY useful, with lots of pictures. Much of this clothing information was gleaned from that catalog.

Female clothing:

Everyone can probably imagine the quintessential short-skirted "flapper" costume (which, of course, not all women wore in the 1920s). But if you have a female, she doesn't have to be a flapper or have bobbed (short) hair. However, most women wore garments without much of a waist (or a very low one) and kept their hair short, possibly permed. Even less fashion-conscious women wore their hair up at this time, and probably considered cutting it. (If you really want a long-haired character, though, she could probably hide her hair under a "cloche" (bell-shaped) hat, because most women seemed to be wearing those as well...).

While most women (particularly urban women) wore flapper-style dresses, many shunned the flapper lifestyle. They might dress like flappers but refuse to drink, smoke, wear make-up, or go out with lots of men.

In the summer, bold colors of all sorts seemed to be popular for women. Black, red, green, navy, "golden brown," tan, and gray were all common, and lavender, peach, pink, and even white were also used. However, winter clothes were darker.

Typical dresses were extremely low-waisted, possibly sleeveless (though that might be less likely in winter, aside from formal dresses), and the skirts occasionally flared out at the bottom (well below the waist). They were usually ornamented with some kind of florettes or lace or other design. If a summer dress was long-sleeved, the sleeves were often (but not always, by any means) poofed, ending in a tighter cuff at the wrist. (Winter dresses, perhaps, might have been made of heavier fabric, which would make a "poof" more difficult.) Dresses might be made of patterned fabric, or a straight color, but usually there would be some kind of ornamentation on the dress, with a sash often tied well below the waist, or a built-in waistband (which restrained nothing) at the same place. Dresses usually did not usually have pockets, athough some did. A woman would likely possess a "pocketbook" to hold anything she needed to carry with her. The average hemline seemed to be slightly below the knee.

Younger women and girls seemed to have dresses much like those adults wore. Very small girls (and from the looks of it, maybe baby boys) might have a dress with a high waist, or no waist at all, which flared from the sleeves down, and probably stopped at the knees.

Women's coats seemed to have gigantic collars, and seemed to be about knee-length, though serious winter coats may have been longer, and were likely made of fur. There were only a few summer coats to look at in the catalog, and it is doubtful that they were very warm.

Almost every fashionable woman wore a hat at least sometimes. These were usually bell-shaped and quite tight-fitting, with the brim flared out just a bit. Straw hats and even things that looked a bit like bonnets followed this bell-shaped, even if their brims were fairly wide. A "sport hat" listed in the catalog doesn't have much of a brim, and has a "large ring" hanging off the side. Hats seemed to come in as many colors as dresses did.

The closest thing to female "work clothes" in the catalog I went through was a "riding habit," which consisted of an undershirt, and a kind of plaidish short-sleeved double-breasted jacket overtop, with baggy knickers. This outfit was supposed to be good for outdoor activities such as landscaping, and was probably the strangest article of clothing I saw in the catalog.

Women seemed to wear slips or chemises under their dresses. These were waistless tube-like garments which started at the chest and ended around the knees, and had fairly narrow straps attached to hold them on. They were often lacy or patterned. Women's union suits were much like the slips, only sewn into long shorts on the bottom half. There were no buttons on the front of women's union suits. Bloomers looked a lot like satin or rayon knickers, though they were gathered well above the knee. A woman might wear a "hip reducing corslette" to give herself the ideal boyish 1920s figure.

The pictured lingere and nightgowns looked rather like fancier, brighter slips. More conservative nightgowns had sleeves and looked more like lacy dresses.

Pantyhose as we know it did not exist. Silk stockings, however, did, and were called "hose." They went up well above the knees, and they were rolled around garters, stretchy (?) bands that rested above the woman's knee. They had a seam in the back and might be patterned. (The nicer hose actually cost as much as $1.98, which was more than many of the dresses in the catalogue, and also more expensive than some of the shoes!)

Women could wear pumps which looked rather like our shoes of today, but many other types of shoes were popular. A woman might wear heeled shoes with small straps, or women's oxfords (which might lace or not). Shoes might lace or buckle, or just slip on. Two-toned shoes (usually black patent leather and either tan leather or white kidskin) were fairly common. Shoes, then, could be black, brown, or even white, and were often ornamented with bows or even peacock feathers.

Women's wristwatches existed, although they were fairly expensive (the one in the catalogue is $5.98, more costly than the vast majority of the catalog's dresses). Wristwatches usually had rectangular faces, not round ones.

Lots of women wore make-up such as lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, eye shadow, and powder, or even nail polish.

More info: Timeline of Costume (BIG page, but LOTS of pictures)
The 1920's Experience: Flapper Style

1920's Costumes selected from the Theatre UAF Antique Costume Collection
History of the Flapper - Part 2

Male clothing:

Long-sleeved, button-up shirts were the norm (even in the summer). Almost all shirts (except work shirts) seemed to be worn with neckties or bow ties. Shirts seem to have generally been long-sleeved, usually with one pocket on the wearer's left side, but occasionally with two or no pockets.

Summer shirts might be white or sometimes powder blue, lavender, green, or pink. Shirts might have vertical stripes; these shirts would often be white, or maybe another color, with stripes in colors rather like the ones listed above. Or, shirts might have a kind of criss-cross pattern, or another light pattern. They tended to be made of broadcloth, silk, a blend containing rayon, or madras.

Winter clothing was probably darker.

Neckties were fairly short, never touching the belt. Patterns or stripes in any direction were common.

"Jazz pants" were popular. In these, pant cuffs were wider, and pants had, you know, cuffs, as well as creases up the front. All pants had button-flies. "Jazz pants" might come in gray, dark gray, powder blue, navy blue, grayish blue, blue, brown, tan, or some mixture woven from more than one of those colors. No black pants were listed in the summer catalog, but maybe they were worn in winter.

Jackets were single or double-breasted, with wide shoulders, and tapered a little at the waist. A matching vest might be worn under a jacket. Jackets in the catalog were always sold with matching pants, which were always the same color as the jacket except in one instance, where the pants were a lighter cashmere.

"Raccoon coats" were quite popular for winter wear. Check here to see some examples of what the fur might have looked like, though they are mostly women's coats (poor raccoons!). They might be flat gray, or even in vertical stripes.

Shoes might lace, button, or even slip on. Black (or tan or brown) leather Oxfords and similar shoes seem to have been the norm. Men's shows might also be made of black patent leather. (So-called "sandals" looked much like regular shoes with a few slits in the sides!) Shoes with a black and white pattern on them also existed.

All the men's dress socks in the catalog were called "hose," as they were silk socks which looked about the same as women's sport socks.

Fancy men's belts might have as many as three buckles, lined up one on top of the other. Men's pocketwatches were not rare; the watch would ideally have a chain to go with it which might clip to the pocket. But wristwatches, though less accurate, were becoming more popular than pocketwatches, despite the fact that they were more expensive than cheaper pocketwatches.

Dress hats looked somewhat like a fedora (and were often made of felt, so they could be folded into a suitcase). Something they called a sombrero (!) was also listed, and a newsboy-like hat was pictured on one young man.

Under their clothes, men seemed to wear "union suits," or one-piece button-up underwear, with no sleeves, and pants that went down almost to the knees. Buttons started at the top of the suit and went all the way down the front to the crotch.

Men would probably wear "athletic suits" for sporting events (a set of baggy shorts and what looks somewhat like a tank top). Golf attire was a sweater and knickers, with perhaps plaid "hose" and some shoes. Work clothes might be khaki pants styled like more fashionable pants, or even a pair of overalls.

Younger boys might have sailor suits or even a cowboy or Indian suit. Short pants that stopped around the knee were common. But older boys would likely have clothing which looked much like what adults would wear, though he might have knickers instead of long pants.

Gillette Safety Razors existed, and all the men in the catalog were completely clean-shaven. Straight hair and slicked-back hair were popular, as evidenced by the various hair-straighteners and tonics to make a man's hair lay flat.

More info: The 1920's Experience: Men's Style


Surely few people actually participated in most of these things, but flagpole sitting, dance marathons, and such were supposedly "the cat's meow." Mah-jongg had been quite popular in the mid-20s, but that fad quickly passed. Miniature golf, however, was starting to catch on.

Slang terms can be found at American Cultural History - Decade 1920-1929 and General Slang Terms. Not everyone was using these terms, so your character doesn't have to.

Dancing and live music were popular too, as well as music on records (see "Technology").

More info: Duus' 1920s & '30s Real Audio Page (Real Audio music!)


While many new inventions have come about since the 1920s, many of the luxuries we take for granted have today existed in a more rudimentary form. People could listen to music on a phonograph, could hear news, music, or dramas broadcast on the radio, could telephone a friend, could see a comedy or drama at the movie theater, and could even drive a car or take a photograph of a loved one.

Phonographs were still in use. They looked sort of like record players, with perhaps horn on the end to amplify the music. Many were still hand-cranked, but some were powered by electricity.

The telephone existed, and telephones in urban settings usually had rotary dials so people could call a destination without speaking to an operator. The dial tone noise was probably lower-pitched than ours is today. Many households still had "party lines," such that two or four households shared one phone line. If your neighbor was on the phone, you couldn't dial or receive calls yourself.

You could buy a Kodak Brownie camera for $1.25, which made pictures 1 5/8" x 2 1/2". There were also more expensive Kodak cameras which took better photographs. Many people took their own black-and-white photographs, at home, or while on a trip.

I would guess that most (probably all) of the upper-middle-class homes in New York City had electricity. Products like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators were becoming more common (though they were probably a lot more expensive than they are today), and electric lighting, too, was widespread.

Running water and indoor plumbing were widespread in the cities, at least, even in immigrant tenement apartments, where laws passed in the late 19th century forced landlords to put in toilets, water, and even windows.


Movies were all in black-and-white in the 1920s. But talking movies started in 1927 (most of you have probably had the title "The Jazz Singer" drilled into your minds from history classes as the first full-length film which had dialogue synched with the movie, though some sources insist that "Don Juan" was the first). Silent films persisted until about 1929, it seems, but they were quickly overtaken by "talkies."

More info on silent movies: The Silents Majority

The radio played music, dramas, and commercials, though the speakers weren't as good/loud as ours are today. I believe the networks CBS and NBC both existed by this time (in radio form, of course).

The automobile, subway trains, and trolleys allowed urban dwellers to escape the city on the weekends. Many went to amusement parks (which themselves were often constructed by train companies hoping to direct more traffic to their rails during the otherwise slow weekends!) or the beach to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.


The automobile was widespread and affordable to many. Throughout much of the 1920s, companies like Ford and General Motors were in strong competition with each other, so the prices of cars decreased drastically. (In 1925, a Ford Model T Roadster could be purchased for $290 !) Some cars even had a top speed of 70 miles per hour. Even though one would have to travel dirt roads to see much of the country, automobiles made the world a much smaller and more easily accessible place to many Americans.

To travel from New York to California would take 13 days. There were over 300,000 miles of paved road in the country.

More info: Automobiles of the 1920s, American Cultural History - Decade 1920-1929

Someone who lived in the city and couldn't afford an automobile could take the subway for about five cents and travel anywhere in the city, or even to the beach.

Airplanes had previously been used in stunts and "barn-storming" dare-devil acts, but in 1926, barn-storming was effectively outlawed. But pilots continued to perform more legitimate stunts like trying to fly across the Atlantic, as well as skywriting.

By the end of the 1920s, "Air Mail" became the fastest way to send letters. Perhaps a few rich people traveled via airplane, but that wasn't particularly common. The way to get across the ocean would be by boat.

More info: The 1920's Experience: Inventions: Airplane

Standard of living:

The average income was $1236, which roughly translates to $5 a day. Teachers made an average of $970 a year. The population of the United States was a bit above 100,000,000. Only 6% of the population was illiterate.

Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but certainly not widely used until much later. So, many kinds of infections which are not dangerous today might have seriously sickened or killed people back then. That's probably one of the reasons the average life expectancy for either sex in the 1920s was under 55 years of age. (Some people, however, lived well beyond this age. And some of this low life expectancy was probably due to the high infant mortality rate.)

The average age for first marriage in 1920 was 24.6 for men and 21.2 for women. On average, a mother's first child was born when she was 23. 18% of couples married in 1920 eventually divorced. (24% of those married in 1930 divorced.)

More info: American Cultural History - Decade 1920-1929
Classroom Handouts: The Changing Status of Women


Women finally won the right to vote nationally in 1920. Women of this era were more commonly in the work force than their mothers, though it seems a married woman's first obligation was still supposed to be to her husband and children. Richer women, however, seem to have been allowed a period of frivolity before settling down. All women could drive, and a married woman might drive her family to their respective engagements. I doubt any households (except the rather wealthy) would have more than one vehicle, although the 1920s really were a period of conspicuous consumption.

On that topic, credit cards existed! Of course, they were printed cards that stated something like "Rick J. Barker has good credit at Phil's Drugstore." I assume when Rick "charged" something, the clerk would write it down and Rick would pay it back later. People maxed out their credit cards back then too.

More people lived in the cities than in rural areas. New York state was over 75% urban.

Limits on immigration to the US were imposed (to keep out "undesirable" immigrants), but the Harlem Renaissance also took place, where some Black writers and artists embraced their ethnicity.

Alcohol was illegal in the United States, but secret bars ("speakeasys") still served it. Gangsters helped sneak the alcohol into this country. (I think my dad knew someone who brought in liquor from Canada during Prohibition because the money was so good!) People could brew their own alcoholic beverages as well, or rich people sometimes smuggled in wine from their trips to Europe. At any rate, people were still drinking a lot.

Socially, most people see the 1920s as a relaxing of previous sexual norms. Though supposedly large groups of young people would get together to "pet," surely that was not as common as history textbooks claim. Still, young men and women were allowed more freedom than their parents had been given.

More info: The Roaring Twenties or the Boring Twenties?
The Roaring Twenties


Calvin Coolidge (who became President upon Warren Harding's 1923 death, and who was re-elected in 1924) was President, though Herbert Hoover was elected in late 1928.

Most Americans probably weren't very concerned with world affairs. The United States and much of Europe seemed to have the idea that the end of World War I and various treaties they were working on, plus the League of Nations, would prevent any more wars from occurring. Some domestic events took place in this period but none seemed particularly significant for our purposes. If you want a taste of relevant events, go to 1920-1929 World History.


And thus ends my not-so-little primer on everything I know and have learned about the 1920s.

Want more?

The Roaring Twenties or the Boring Twenties? Two essays, each making a different argument. The latter essay helps keep everything in perspective.
The 1920's Looks like a school project, but it's not bad.
Technology Timeline: 1752 - 1990 Gives a pretty good idea of what existed and what didn't.
The Roaring Twenties Events and social trends outside the cosmopolitan.
The Roaring Twenties Another creative site name, this one with a bunch of material. I assume some of it's worthwhile.


And even more!

The Spanish Influenza hit America in 1918 (during World War I) killing around 500,000 people in this country alone. Most of those who got sick went from being healthy to dead in a matter of a day or two. Though history has, strangely, largely forgotten this epidemic, I can't imagine that it wouldn't still be in people's minds, ten years later.

FALCON LAIR - THE RUDOLPH VALENTINO HOMEPAGE Libby has more than a little crush on the man, though he died in 1926. This is just a splendid site.

Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese film star who made up to $2,000,000 a year in the 1920s (an absurdly large amount of money).

Silent Era: The silent film website Oh, what can I say?



Printable version (not all links there)

Back to the Freak Show page