For historical fiction author Juliette Fay, the year 1919 signified a momentous shift in the political climate and social culture of the United States. She explores the Prohibition Era, house parties, and the development and evolution of fashion here on XOXOAD. Juliette’s novel, The Tumbling Turner Sisters, is on sale June 14.
There are slices of history when things seem to hum along at a steady pace. Change is constant, of course, but for the average Joe, customs, politics, fashion—the Way Things Are—stay relatively stable.
The year 1919 was not one of those slices.
It felt like anything could happen, and here are just a few of the things that did.
In January of 1919, Prohibition—a ban on the production, sale and consumption of alcohol—was passed, and would take effect in 1920. Though proponents considered it the solution to alcoholism and domestic violence, many thought 1919 would be the last days of fun the nation might ever enjoy.
World War I, the largest armed conflict the world had ever known, causing the death or injury of 37 million people, had just ended in late 1918. At the same time, the Spanish Flu epidemic quickly spread, infecting one-fifth of the global population, of which 50 million died. In 1919 there was great relief that the war and the flu were over, but who knew what catastrophic events loomed in the future?
On the upside, the 19th Amendment ensuring women’s right to vote was finally passed. While some fretted that wives and mothers would throw off their aprons, stop feeding their children, and become “political,” many others hailed this great stride for women.
Fashion was changing as quickly as the socio-political climate. From high collar shirtwaist blouses and ankle length skirts worn over constricting chest-to-thigh corsets, women began wearing calf-length dresses, with lower necklines and shorter sleeves. Below they sported “drawers”—panties that are voluminous compared to today’s bikinis and thongs—and camisoles or brassieres (later shortened to “bra”). The era of the scantily dressed, cigarette-smoking flapper was just beginning to peek around the corner.
With the war and flu behind them, the entire nation about to go “dry,” and women’s rights (both political and personal) on the upswing, there was never a better time to light up the town. If you’d like to party like it’s 1919, here are some recipes to serve your guests and clothes to wear as you dance to the hottest music of the time.
You’ll start with a hearty dinner from American Cookery Magazine, June-July, 1919.
Potato Border with Vegetable and Broiled Beef: Have ready boiled potatoes, mashed and seasoned as for table. Beat thoroughly and press into well-buttered mold to fill it full. Have ready, also, tiny beets, carrots and turnips, cut in small balls all cooked tender and seasoned generously with salt, pepper and butter. Fill the center of the ring with the vegetables and set small rounds of beef tenderloin, nicely broiled, on the top of the potato; serve with a bowl full of Brown Sauce.
Apparently molded starch was all the rage in 1919—several recipes in this edition of American Cookery involve forming rice and potatoes into a sort of bowl in which the rest of the meal is served. If you butter a spring form pan and press the mashed potatoes up against the side, you can do it without the mold. (Where would you even get a starch mold, anyway?) Butter the outside of a small bowl and press it into the mashed potatoes, and it will form a perfect little valley for your veggies and meat.
Isn’t it funny how little information the recipe provides? No ingredient amounts or cooking instructions—clearly that’s an invitation to wing it. How very 1919 of you!
Coffee-and-Tapioca Trifle: Have ready two cups of hot, clear coffee (strain through linen if necessary); add half a cup of pearl tapioca and let cook over boiling water, stirring occasionally, until tender. Pearl tapioca will take at least two hours to cook. The minute and other quick-cooking tapiocas will cook in half an hour. When done add a half a cup of sugar and turn into glass cups; serve with cream slightly whipped.
Tapioca is a simple starch made from the cassava plant. I bought a bag of Bob’s Red Mill small pearl at a local supermarket to try this recipe myself. It’s very simple and only needed half an hour to simmer in a double boiler. My 75-year-old mother loved it so much she ate almost the whole batch! My 13-year-old son and I preferred the recipe on the back of the bag—sweet and creamy, with a distinctly comforting taste.
Coffee-and-Tapioca Trifle, served warm with whipped cream.
I chose your outfit from the Montgomery Ward catalog of 1919. You could wear a corset, but I figured you’re more modern than that—drawers and camisole for you. And at less than dollar apiece, what a bargain. You’ll have your choice of the two dresses pictured here, and your gentleman will look quite dapper in his three piece suit and derby hat. Dresses and suit each cost under $30.
After dinner, you’ll do all the new dances, including the Shimmy to the tune of I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron. It’s been sung by so many since 1919 (including The Beatles, Jim Croce and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) that it was hard to choose which version to include here.
The end of the night will find you dancing to something sweet and slow, such as A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody by Irving Berlin, originally written for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. Since then, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and many others have recorded it, too.
There may be no prohibition on booze, recently ended world war or epidemic, nor great stride in politics to celebrate this year, but good food, fun fashions and music you can dance to never goes out of style. Enjoy your own 1919 party, and if you have extra, please save some tapioca for my mother.
Don’t forget to play this great Vaudeville playlist during your party: