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Flapper culture took over Milwaukee during the Roaring '20s

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Alamy Stock Photo
Eagles Club Gals Circa 1928

When you think about the 1920s, what comes to mind? It might be prohibition or mobsters, but regardless the era is now associated with partying, decadence, and a laissez-faire attitude. And for that, we can thank flappers: the female-led youth culture, which prized sexual freedom and independence that had some fearing for the moral conscience of our society.

It's once again the roaring '20s here in Milwaukee, and it already shares a lot of similarities with its 20th-century counterpart: political turmoil, a rollercoaster economy, and a deadly pandemic that just killed thousands of people.

"By the time the early '20s came around, you've got a set of young people who've really been through a lot for not being very old," says writer and historian Matthew Prigge.

Prigge wrote about flapper culture and the 1920s in Milwaukee in a piece for this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.

He says the emergence of women as consumers and controllers of their own destiny is what really characterized the '20s.

"Flapper culture involved going out. Going out to speakeasies, roadhouses they called them at the time. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, using vulgar language, and even asserting some authority over their own sexuality," says Prigge.

Niday Picture Library
Alamy Stock Photo

Consequently, young women asserting authority over their sexuality led to the emergence of modern dating, which garnered a lot of pushback during this era.

For example, Prigge recounts that in Milwaukee during this time, it was common for young people to have "petting parties" in parks and near the river. He says "petting parties" consisted of kids hanging out while drinking and "necking," as they would call it back then.

Of course, this was met with backlash as well. Prigge says the Milwaukee Police Department purchased speedboats to use on the Milwaukee River to patrol the "petting parties" taking place nearby.

"There was an official response from the city. Even city beaches were more heavily patrolled in this era to basically keep young men and women from getting too comfortable together in public," says Prigge.

But Prigge says the main takeaway from the '20s and flapper culture is that it was the emergence of the first youth culture nationally and in the city.

"You see it in other youth movements and youth trends over time, when it first comes out it's sort of different and it's very scary and there's a lot of alarmism around it. But over time, it just sort of gets adapted into a wider culture and then the fear elements kind of drop out so if it has a legacy, that would be it today."

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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