What did people do for fun 100 years ago?
I researched 1920s entertainment for a program I gave recently to my DAR chapter. The John Hoyle chapter Daughters of the American Revolution is marking its 100th anniversary this year.
Our main celebration is planned at the Hickory History Center. There will be 1920s décor, food and tours of Harper House, home of one of our early members, Corinne Harper. On the third floor was a speakeasy patronized by one of our founders, Mildred Ellis Mott, and husband Tom, but I’m sure they had plenty of company up there during Prohibition..
The more you look, the more you find. I Googled “1922 games” and “amusements” and came up with an impressive list that included such things as amusement parks, radio, silent films, boxing and reading. Yes, Americans spent way more time with books; there was no television.
Many of the 31 founding ladies were involved with local book clubs. It’s believed that those clubs may have contributed to ladies bringing DAR to Catawba County. Most had a common ancestor, Lt. John Hoyle, who is buried at Grace Lutheran cemetery on Hickory-Lincoln Highway. Cleaning and rededicating the gravestones of John and wife Margaret was a chapter project this past year.
The year 1922 arrived on the heels of a world war, a worldwide pandemic and economic uncertainty. World War I had claimed 9 million lives. The Spanish Flu claimed another 50 million, about 10 times the COVID-19 death toll. Food shortages plagued Russia and Eastern Europe.
Having endured so much heartache, Americans didn’t just seek to escape. Many sought answers to eternal questions. Some tried to communicate with the dead through mediums, séances and fortunetellers. Ouija boards surged in popularity.
Mah johgg enjoyed a resurgence too. The game, developed in China during the 1800s, was seen as a status symbol. President and Mrs. Harding played the game, as did Hollywood celebrities. It was something like playing cards only using decorated tiles to create “suits.”. Mah jongg is still played today in Hickory, I’m told.
Dance marathons began in 1923 when a woman named Alma Cummings danced continuously for 27 hours with six different partners. The marathons took the nation by storm, with some dancers actually sleeping while standing up. And some unfortunately succumbed, including one man who died after dancing for 87 hours straight.
The flagpole sitting fad began in ’24 when, as a publicity stunt for the opening of a department store. A man known as Shipwreck Kelly perched himself a top a flagpole for 13 hours, 13 minutes.
Soon, hundreds across the United States were trying to break the record. Nevertheless, Kelly defended his title the following year by sitting atop a flagpole for 12 days!
Popular illusionist Harry Houdini captured the world’s imagination with his amazing stunts. His repertoire came to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers and straightjackets underwater.
Among risk-takers were flappers—young women who bobbed their hair and donned corset-less, filmy attire to party and dance to the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It was a wild and jazzy age indeed.
Amusement parks made their mark with automated rides and thrill-seeking experiences such as wooden roller coasters, bumper cars, speed boats and centrifuges. No doubt many Catawba County residents got their kicks at “Lakewood,” a park in Northeast Charlotte.
The movie houses offered escape for everyone. One of the most popular idols was Rudolph Valentino, known for his depictions in “The Sheik” and other films. When he died in 1926, some 100,000 people gathered in Manhattan to glimpse his coffin and nearly caused a riot at the funeral home.
It was the golden age of sports. Babe Ruth dominated baseball and Jim Thorpe, an Olympic Gold medalist, is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, playing baseball and football interchangeably by the season.
Boxing drew both men and women ringside to watch the likes of Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey.
Meanwhile, golf was taking the country by storm, and Hickory was no exception. By 1922, the Hickory Country Club was being planned for opening in 1923, four years before Lake Hickory was created with the completion of Oxford Dam.
Listening to radio was arguably the most popular form of entertainment. Mass production of radio sets, the availability of electricity and buying on credit meant that 40 percent of the population was “radioing” by the end of the decade.
Charlotte’s WBT went on the air in 1922 to broadcast church sermons, talk shows, instrumental and vocal music, making the Charlotte station among the nation’s oldest. Hearing a broadcast from a long distance was a big deal. Fans collected radio verification stamps bearing the call letters, much as visitors collect pins and stamps while visiting various national parks today.
Editors’s Note: John Hoyle Chapter DAR was officially organized on Jan. 31, 1922 in the City Hall auditorium, now used by Hickory Community Theatre.
DAR members must prove direct lineal descent from an ancestor who aided the American Cause between 1775-1783. The chapter meets for lunch on the first Wednesday of the month at Lake Hickory Country Club. More information, email [email protected].
---Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Her latest book is Going Plaid in a Solid Gray World: Collected Columns, published by Red Hawk Publications. Part of proceeds benefit The Corner Table soup kitchen in Newton. Contact her at [email protected]