The Way We WereFebruary 1, 2007 By: American Salon Staff American Salon
Hair combs were key to keeping the 'do in place. These pronged accessories had been in vogue for decades but took on renewed popularity during this era. This was due in part to innovations in the production of celluloid, one of the earliest plastics. The process of creating a bendable material from reconstituted pulverized wood and paper (cellulose) had taken dozens of time-consuming steps. The manufacturing process was streamlined around this time, production soared and prices dropped. Best of all, celluloid could be made in a variety of colors and decorated with faux gems.
By 1910, hair began to deflate once more. It would only be a few decades, however, that fashion could manage to keep over-sized hairstyles down.
Consumers and Citizens
With the dawn of a new era came bigger department stores, looser morals and stronger women. Ah, yes . . . the 20 th century!
Most of us think that frivolous spending, booze-soaked soirees and improper behavior started after World War I. They were called the Roaring '20s, right? Wrong. Most historians agree that a relaxing of the rules of decorum started around the turn of the century. During the first decade of the 20th century, Americans were redefining codes of conduct, as women asserted themselves as consumers and citizens.
Lord & Taylor in New York City was one of the first department stores.
By 1900, the modern department store had emerged as an economic, social and cultural institution, and most cities had more than one. Stores weren't simply places to shop, but also places to socialize, to work and to see the vast array of mass-produced goods now available. Some larger stores offered everything from pet stores and hair salons to bakeries and tailoring services. Women were the target audience, and they actively embraced their new role as consumers. While urbanization was a key theme of the era, most women still lived in small towns or rural environments. For these women, mail-order catalogs from Montgomery Ward or Sears enabled them to participate in all of the material promises of the 20th century.
Newspaper editors and religious leaders feared for the morality of these consuming women. They most often complained that department stores allowed women to run amok and encouraged them to abandon all financial constraint. Truthfully, the rise of the department store did give women a unique space that catered to their wants and needs. By purchasing—or not purchasing—women exercised power in a way they never had before. As the economy changed from one focused on producing goods to one focused on consuming goods, women were in control.
But the department store wasn't the only place women were pushing boundaries. To many, modernity meant the machine age—faster machines, futuristic art and rapid communication. To others, modernity meant urban sprawl, poverty and crime. Women of the era were quick to call upon their image as protectors of the hearth and home to join in crusades for pressing social issues. Women served as important voices in the fight for accessible education, government-sponsored medical care for children and, of course, the right to vote. While women from a range of social classes and ethnicities participated in these issues, most reformers were white and middle class.
As women stepped into the public eye, they also began to shed many long-held conventions about "proper" and "improper" behavior. Makeup became more common. By the end of the decade, suggestive dances, such as the tango, were popular. Women also asserted their power as workers and took to the streets en masse to protest unsafe factory conditions, low wages and lack of workplace mobility.
As both consumers and citizens, women began to redefine their positions in American society. In doing so, they set the stage for the monumental changes that would come with the 20th century.