11 Things Women Couldn't Do In The 1920s

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sneaking into speakeasies, becoming working women, and winning the right to vote—looking back, the Roaring Twenties seem to have been a great time for women's advancement, but women still faced heavy restrictions in day-to-day life. These 11 social and legal no-nos plagued women of the 1920s, though many fought the system and eventually won expanded rights.

1. HAVE THEIR OWN NAME PRINTED ON A PASSPORT

Couple on board a ship, circa the 1920s.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Requesting a passport in the 1920s was a pretty straightforward process—if you were a man. For female travelers, passport applications could be rejected based on the name they used or because their husband was already issued a passport. Unmarried women could apply using their maiden name, but married women were issued a joint passport with their husbands, where in place of their name, the passport granted travel privileges to "wife of" (followed by the husband's name). Married women who requested separate passports could receive them, but were often met with rejections or headaches if trying to use their maiden name, since passports were automatically issued with their husband's surname.

2. WEAR WHATEVER THEY WANTED

Two actresses taking pictures in 1925.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even though 1920s fashion history is dominated by the flapper style—featuring knee-length hemlines, shift-style garments, and bobbed haircuts—women in many parts of the country still faced stifling clothing restrictions. In Virginia, a legislative bill (which failed to pass) attempted to prohibit women from wearing "shirtwaists or evening gowns which displayed more than three inches of her throat," while Utah legislators worked to fine women whose skirts were "higher than three inches above the ankle." And in cities like Carmel, California, women couldn't wear heels taller than two inches without a permit from the city in an attempt to stifle tripping and falling related lawsuits.

3. HAVE CERTAIN KINDS OF JOBS

Women boxing on a ship, 1923.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Women entered the workforce in large numbers during World War I, and the return to peacetime in the 1920s didn't slow the growth of women's employment. But, workplace restrictions did make it difficult for women to find jobs outside of the home. So-called "protective laws" cropped up throughout the country, regulating how, when, and where women could work. Some states, such as Michigan, penned loose laws that banned dangerous work for women, while in Ohio, women were prohibited from jobs where men could "negatively influence women’s behavior," such as being taxi drivers, pool hall workers, or bowling alley employees.

4. KEEP THEIR CITIZENSHIP IF MARRYING A NON-CITIZEN

1925 cover of Ladies' Home Journal.
cloth098, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Finding the right partner and getting married is tricky enough, but for women who married a non-American between 1907 and 1922, it came with some additional disadvantages. Thanks to the Expatriation Act, women who married non-citizens lost their U.S. citizenship automatically. While some women didn't notice a difference immediately, it became a sticking point when World War I rolled around. Since they were no longer American citizens, these women were forced to "register as enemy aliens," according to Linda Kerber, a gender and legal history professor at the University of Iowa. In 1922, the Cable Act passed, allowing women to retain their citizenship regardless of their betrothed’s citizenship—so long as he met the requirements for potential U.S. citizenship, too.

5. USE THEIR LAW DEGREES TO THE FULLEST

Woman sitting at a typewriter.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Winning the right to vote opened the door to more than just political action for women in the 1920s; many could finally go on to become admitted to the bar and legally allowed to practice law. But, just because women were taking on court battles doesn't mean they had booming legal careers. Many law firms refused to hire women (and legally could do so), or hired female lawyers for office positions such as law librarians, secretaries, or stenographers. For many female lawyers, joining their father's or husband's practice was the only way they'd be able to argue cases in court.

6. WORK THE NIGHT SHIFT

A waitress in Harlem in the 1920s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

As another way to "protect women" from supposed rough men and health hazards, some states implemented laws prohibiting women from working late at night. New York did just that, with laws forbidding women to work as waitresses between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. But that doesn't mean female employees followed the law. In 1924, Anna Smith, a Buffalo waitress working for Joseph Radice & Company, took on the state's law after her employer was fined for her late night shifts. While Smith and the restaurant owner lost their case, New York law did grant exceptions for entertainers and bathroom attendants.

7. TAKE A QUICK BATHROOM BREAK

Ladies' room sign
Crystal Hendrix Hirschorn, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

While public restrooms were designated "men's" or "women's" before the 1920s, it wasn't until 1927 that bathrooms became officially gender segregated thanks to the nation's first building code. Unfortunately, restroom requirements from the time period were male-focused, since most women of the time still worked within the home, meaning fewer women's restrooms were required during construction. Fewer bathrooms resulted in women trekking farther to find the ladies' room, and in some cases, even being barred admission to schools or jobs based on the lack of toilets available for their use.

8. HOLD A JOB WHILE PREGNANT

Woman wearing a trendy dress, 1925.
Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Because legal protections for working moms and pregnant women didn't exist until 1978, women of the 1920s regularly faced unemployment after finding themselves "in the family way." Many employers considered pregnancy to be a detriment to job productivity, and fired women long before their due date. Some working women went to lengths of concealing their pregnancies, using the decade's loose flapper fashions to hide their changing bodies. Ads for maternity clothing even advertised styles to help women be "entirely free from embarrassment of a noticeable appearance during a trying period."

9. ENLIST OR RECEIVE BENEFITS FOR MILITARY WORK

Female operators at the switchboard of the Magneto Exchange of the National Telephone Company, USA.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

During World War I, women helped with war efforts by serving in non-combat roles, such as nursing, communications, or clerical work. But, despite the long hours and duties, much of that work was on a volunteer basis or a civilian contract, meaning women couldn't earn any military or veterans' benefits for their efforts. Following the end of the Great War, women were cut from their volunteer positions thanks to military rules that banned women from volunteering or enlisting during peace times. It wasn't until the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948 that women could enlist at any time and receive similar rights and benefits to male veterans.

10. HATE HOUSEWORK

A 1920s ad for mops.
An ad from a 1920 issue of Country Gentleman.
Don O'Brien, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Electric household tools and equipment helped free women of the 1920s from some domestic duties, while reducing the time spent on cleaning, cooking, and taking care of their homes. Even with home technology improvements, studies from the decade suggested women spent 35 hours per week or more on household work. But even with a little help, women of the '20s were expected to embrace their household work as a path to self-fulfillment. Advice columns and housekeeping experts of the time often suggested that women who were lucky enough to have fancy appliances but still hated housework "suffered from 'personal maladjustment,'" and women's magazines regularly championed women's stories of giving up careers or personal achievements for a return to 100 percent domesticity.

11. SERVE ON A JURY

The first all-woman jury called in the state of New Jersey, circa 1920.
The first all-woman jury called in the state of New Jersey, circa 1920.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite having the legal right to vote as of August 18, 1920, it would take decades for all women to be able to vote, much less serve on a jury. By the end of the Roaring Twenties, only 24 states permitted women to determine the innocence (or guilt) of their peers. While the remaining states began allowing women to serve in the following decades, Mississippi was the last holdout, keeping women out of jury pools until 1968.

15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0
Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

In 1665, about a quarter of all Londoners died of the Great Plague—but bubonic plague was not the only deadly disease circulating in the city. A published register, called London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality, recorded the causes of death and the number of victims in London between December 20, 1664 and December 19, 1665. The systematic, parish-by-parish tally reveals the rapid spread of plague throughout the capital: a total of one victim, recorded in the first week, increased to 7165 during the week of September 12-19, 1665.

But quite a few Londoners met their fates in other ways. Here’s a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill those that Yersinia pestis couldn’t catch.

1. Winde

Winde is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, winde referred to paroxysms of severe gastrointestinal pain, which could have been symptoms of numerous diseases.

2. Purples

Purples described purple blotches on the skin caused by broken blood vessels, indicative of an underlying illness, such as scurvy or a circulation disorder. It could also mean the most severe stage of smallpox.

3. Livergrown

People who died of livergrown suffered from an enlarged (or failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms, like jaundice and abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by a number of disorders.

4. Chrisomes

Infant mortality was extremely high before the advent of modern medicine. The Bills distinguished abortive (miscarried), stillborn, infant, and chrisom deaths—the latter term specified infants who died within the first month of life, around the time they were baptized with special white cloths (which were called chrisomes).

5. Rising of the Lights

18th century illustration of lungs and heart
Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, The Lungs and the Heart (1754), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

Physicians and scholars have debated the origin of the term rising of the lights. According to the OED, the condition indicated any kind of illness characterized by a hoarse cough, difficulty breathing, or a choking sensation. Croup, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema were all culprits.

6. Timpany

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating in the digestive tract, which produces a hollow sound when tapped, is still called tympany today. The sort that would have proven fatal to humans could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or cancerous tumors.

7. Tissick

The term tissick, a corruption of phthisis, originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years, only to end up an obsolete word referring to a “wasting disease of the lungs,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the 17th century, that could indicate the wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, bronchitis, or possibly tuberculosis.

8. Meagrome or Megrim

We recognize this obscurely spelled ailment as migraine. During the years of the Great Plague, any internal head trauma, from an aneurysm to a brain tumor, would be filed under megrim.

9. Imposthume

Imposthume was a swelling, cyst, or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. At the same time that it was being recorded as a cause of death, imposthume took on a metaphorical meaning and referred to an egotistical or corrupt person “swollen” with pride.

10. Head Mould Shot

In newborns, the bony plates of the skull are not fused together, which makes it easier to fit through the birth canal. Head mould shot described a condition where the cranial bones were so compressed by delivery that they overlapped (or overshot) each other and caused fatal pressure on the brain. Today, the condition, now known as craniosynostosis, is treatable with surgery.

11. Quinsie

18th century illustration of a woman getting her throat examined in a pharmacy

Quinsie, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still occasionally used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis in which an abscess grows between the tonsil and the throat. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient could suffocate from the blockage.

12. Surfeit

A surfeit means an excess of something. In the Bills of Mortality, it’s hard to identify the substance in question. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities.

13. French Pox

When people across Europe came down with syphilis beginning in the 1490s, they blamed the French. (Perhaps they should have blamed Christopher Columbus and the Spanish, whom historians believe brought the bacterial infection back from the New World.) Rightly or wrongly, French pox is what the Bills of Mortality lists for deaths by advanced syphilis, whose symptoms included rash, blindness, organ failure, and tissue necrosis.

14. Bloody Flux

Dysentery, a.k.a. bloody flux, was common among densely crowded Londoners without clean drinking water. People contracted dysentery from food or water contaminated with one of several pathogens, and its main symptom was bloody diarrhea (the aforementioned flux) and severe dehydration.

15. Plannet

Plannet is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity. A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks.

The American Museum of Natural History Moves Its Great Canoe—for the First Time in 60 Years—to Its Revitalized Northwest Coast Hall

From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

The Great Canoe at New York City's American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest dugout canoes on Earth. Suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Gallery, it appeared weightless. Visitors entering from 77th Street may have assumed the canoe was built for the space, like the museum's massive blue whale model. But the real history of the vessel can be traced back 150 years to the Pacific Northwest. Now, as the artifact moves locations for the first time in 60 years, AMNH is working with First Nations advisors to strengthen the connections between the new exhibit and its past.

On January 28, 2020, the Great Canoe was rolled in a custom cradle from the Grand Gallery to the neighboring Northwest Coast Hall. Design elements of the Great Canoe indicate it came from the Heiltsuk and Haida nations on Canada's Pacific coast, but the identities of its builders and many other details of its construction remain a mystery. A group of representatives from First Nation communities in British Columbia kicked off the event with traditional song and prayer. They concluded the ceremony by circling the boat and blowing tufts of eagle down over it. The Indigenous representatives then explained the significance of canoes to all First Nations in the region.

"Canoes are absolutely central to the cultures of all the people who are represented here today," Nuu-chah-nulth artist and cultural historian Haa'yuups, or Ron Hamilton, who's co-curating the renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall, said. "All of our people made their livings not long ago in and out of the sea [...] From birth until death, our people lived in and out of canoes."

Moving the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/M. Shanley

Even to cultures built around sea travel, the canoe at AMNH is exceptional. It measures 63 feet long and was dug out of a single Western red cedar tree. The body was carved in the 1870s, and it's possible that the orca and raven illustrations and the seawolf figurehead were added after its initial construction. AMNH trustee Heber Bishop acquired the piece for the museum in the late 19th century, and following a journey that included travel on a ship, train, and horse-drawn carriage, it arrived in New York in 1883. The Great Canoe was displayed in the Northwest Coast Hall from 1899 to 1960, when it was moved to the Grand Gallery where it resided most recently. January's move marks the boat's return to the hall after a six-decade absence.

The relocation is part of the museum's two-and-a-half-year revitalization of the Northwest Coast Hall. The exhibit includes hundreds of objects and nearly a dozen totem poles, all of which originate from the same general region of the world as the canoe. Like the canoe, the stories of many of these artifacts have been lost or misinterpreted over the years—largely because none of their original owners were involved in getting them onto the museum floor.

AMNH is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past with this new project. By seeking the counsel of 10 First Nation advisors, each coming from a different nation represented in the hall, the museum hopes to reflect their cultures in a rich, accurate light. "[Collaboration] is something we definitely try to encourage, specifically in relation to conservation," museum curator of North American ethnology Peter Whitely tells Mental Floss. "We really want it to be a participatory collaboration, because long-term, it's our responsibility to these communities to continue a pattern of mutual engagement."

Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
From left to right: Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Jisang, or Nika Collison, of the Ts'aah clan of the Haida Nation, spoke of her role as advisor following the canoe move ceremony. The museum sends her digital images of the artifacts being restored—that way, when she's home, she can consult with other members of her community and dig up context for each piece. "We get these great big files with these digital photos so you can go home and work with the carvers or the weavers that know things," she said. One photo she received showed a wolf mask missing its ears: "My brother was going through it, and he said, 'I think I found the ears,' because they were labeled as a separate piece."

The Northwest Coast Hall is currently closed for the revitalization effort, and in 2021, it will reopen with the Great Canoe in its new position suspended from the ceiling. In the meantime, advisors will continue working with the museum to update the collection. "We’re putting our treasures back together," Collison said, "because that’s the history of museums, that a lot of things came in without our knowledge to go along with it."

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