Here is the final draft of an essay I wrote on my Great Aunt Edna. The photos referred to are at the end, except for the one of Louise Brooks. You’ll have to look her up yourself, because I could not figure out how to get that picture in here for the life of me.
Edna Mae Town was born on March 10th, 1908 in Dunkirk, New York. At the recognized beginning of the flapper era in 1920, she was eleven years old (1920 Federal Census). Thus she was the perfect age to experience the twenties as a flapper. Though her hometown of Forestville was not a typical metropolitan center where flappers would have been found, Edna was influenced greatly by the flapper movement.
Many modern American young women in the 1920s were rebellious. These women exhibited crass behavior such as smoking and drinking in public; wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, and went out dancing. They broke free of social norms and redefined women’s roles. This social group was known as the flappers, a general term for the socially indecent women of the jazz age, also known as the “roaring twenties”. Flappers were characterized by their straight dresses that hid curves and contributed to the boyish look already shown in their short hairstyles. Their short skirts exposed their knees as they danced the Shimmy, the Bunny Hug, and the Charleston. Shocking and abrasive to the parent generation, the flappers changed American society (Pittsburg State University). Edna was such a woman.
Flapper influence was evident in Edna’s hair and clothing styles. Photographs of Edna show her wearing styles consistent with those of young women in cities during the twenties. Following is a photo of actress Louise Brooks and four photos of Edna. Ms. Brooks exemplifies flapper styles through her clothing and hair. The short skirt, low-cut dress, and thick-collared coat she wears are all typical of the flapper era. Her bobbed hair and short, round hat are also styles that were popular in the nineteen-twenties. Edna’s style, as shown in photos of her, is consistent with flapper styles. In the second picture, Edna wears a straight, short dress that is characteristic of the roaring twenties. The dress comes down only past her knees and exposes skin on her arms, both fairly radical fashions for the time period. The photo was taken in 1930 at the close of the flapper era. Edna was twenty-two years old and already married at the time. Figure three is an undated photo of Edna, probably taken while she was still at school. This means it would have been anywhere from 1918 to 1926. This picture particularly emphasizes the bob hairstyle. Her hair is short enough that it grazes the cheekbones, barely covering her ears. Until the nineteen-twenties, women traditionally wore their hair much longer than this. The flappers popularized a bob hairstyle. Next is a family photo, which was taken around 1925. Edna is in the center of the photo, and she would have been about sixteen years old. The shapeless, stylized dress is consistent with twenties fashion because of the short sleeves which exposed the arms. This was considered scandalous to many women of the former generation. The thick stripe down the center of the dress is a pattern that flappers would have worn. Edna also sports the thick beads that were popular in the time period. The final photo was taken on Edna’s twenty-sixth birthday in 1934 (she is on the right). Even though the flapper era had ended, its influence is still seen in the thick, boyish coats the women are wearing.
Edna possessed many of the mannerisms of a flapper too. Family members recount that she played cards, drank, and smoked quite heavily, all habits that many flappers indulged in (Robert and David Schlick). Those who knew her also say that Edna and her sisters enjoyed shopping and generally having a good time together. This trend toward materialism is very characteristic of the 1920s. Edna’s family also recalls that she loved to dance, and that she would teach the younger generation flapper-style dances. One relative said:
Edna probably was a flapper. Once when we were showing her the dance of the 60′s called the [Mashed Potato], she said “Why that’s the Charleston.” We begged her to dance for us and she did. She could really do the Charleston well. She would have been a teenager during the Roaring 20′s (David Schlick).
Edna was set apart from the older generation by her liberal tendencies for a woman of her time period. She gained a flair for reading by attending school as a girl (1920 Federal Census). Whereas more conservative women were not interested in books, Edna continued to read (and do crossword puzzles) enthusiastically for the remainder of her life. This ensured that she was a well-educated woman (Robert Schlick). Her literary finesse also extended to writing, and she was the author of a few poems. Her poems were of a personal nature, and she never had them published. In fact they were not of any true literary merit; it is more important that she wrote them. There were few women writers at the time, at least few that gained any following. The fact that Edna was writing during this time period proves her views on women’s achievements to be quite open-minded.
Edna also exhibited liberal trends by divorcing her first husband, Porter Ruttenbur. Divorce was not common during the twenties and thirties, because it was a difficult legal process. The fact that Edna was willing to obtain a divorce and remarry in a time when such an act was pushing the social boundaries shows her forward-thinking mindset and also her disregard for what the public would think of her. Both are traits that a true flapper would have. Women often had to prove adultery, abuse, or abandonment in order to secure a divorce. While “No-Fault” divorces were becoming available in the 1930s, couples often had to move to places like Reno, Nevada to obtain them (Online Nevada Encyclopedia). Edna and Porter were married in 1928, and they had three children together (1930 Federal Census). By 1939, Edna had divorced Porter and remarried, to a man called Homer Johnston (Don Town). Family rumor dictates that Porter abused Edna, and that he and Homer fought over her (Margaret Jensen and David Schlick).
It is certain that the divorce was a long, messy process for all involved. Edna and Porter had three teenage children at the time, Daphne, Marilynn, and Terry Ruttenbur. The children appear to have been sent away while the divorce was taking place. Daphne lived with Marian Town, Edna’s sister, and her husband Phillip Schlick during that time (David Schlick). Presumably Marilynn and Terry were away from home as well. Edna and Porter most likely did not want their children to see them fighting. This sentiment is shown in a poem Edna wrote during that time in her life. Edna’s poetry is important to her character because it shows her spirit as a writer, but also because it explains how hard the divorce was for her. Only a woman of true social spunk could withstand such trials. The poem is as follows:
Dear God, please watch my babies
While I am far away;
I worry so and wonder how
They get along each day.
It is my fault they are alone
And oh, I miss them so!
Don’t let them grow to hate me
I beg you, God, oh no!
There are three of them, dear Lord,
Two girls and a little boy;
If I could only have them again
My heart would fill with joy -
But I grew tired of staying there
Half-living from year to year -
(Excuse me, God, one second
While I brush away this tear.)
So I just up and left them, God.
What can I say or do?
I’ve come to You for judgement [sic], Lord,
I rest my case with You.
Edna Town was my great aunt, sister to my grandmother. Many family members have told me that I resemble her. I have long been fascinated with the world of the roaring twenties, and it intrigues me that she may have fit into it, even in some small way. By examining Edna’s clothing and hair styles, mannerisms, and social actions, I have given myself a glimpse into her life, a life that I believe was centered around the flapper movement.