by Annabel Fielding
The Golden Twenties, as the German tradition dubs the Roaring Twenties, have precipitated many changes in the lives of German women. We all know the international figure of a flapper, immortalized by authors both classic and modern, from Scott Fitzgerald to Kerry Greenwood. However, many tendencies of the decade have improved the lives of women far from the upper-class.
The roots of the changes could be found in the years of the First World War, when women were allowed to take factory jobs that were better-paid than domestic service and other predominantly female occupations. That was supposed to be only a temporary provision for the time of the war – however, the tide had turned irrevocably. As in many areas of life, it turned out to be impossible to simply re-establish the order of things that existed before the war.
Although taking care of the house was still considered firmly a woman’s job, even there the attitude was changing. It was increasingly recognized as an onerous duty that deserves technical assistance. The architect Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, one of the first women in her profession, designed the compact and very mechanical ‘Frankfurt Kitchen.’ This blueprint caught on instantly. In other words, housework started to be considered an actual burden that should be made easier, quicker, and more efficient thanks to the latest technical wonders, instead of simply expecting both housewives and working women to make do and carry their duties out uncomplainingly as little angels in the house.
As more fields of work became available to women, fashion shifted accordingly to cater to a more practical ideal. Corsets went the way of the mammoths; the ideal body became sporty, tanned and healthy. Victorian (or, rather, Wilhelmian) locks and curls gave way to practical haircuts.
Franz Hessel, a famous Jewish literary figure of his time, wrote a whole book called Schone Berlinerinnen, which was wholly dedicated to literary sketches of Berlin women – both particular famous residents and generalized portraits. The former category included such figures as Marlene Dietrich and Renee Sintenis – a sculptor who designed the Berlin Bear, whose miniature copy is to this day used as a prize in the International Berlin Film Festival. ‘By day, you are employed’, Hessel wrote fondly in the preface; ‘by night, you are dance-ready’.
Naturally, the greater economic independence and the growth of disposable income among women of the new generation has led to a plethora of new freedoms in the social sphere, too – and, in particular, the sexual one.
The most frank, no-nonsense, or simply time-starved girls made use of the new genre of advertisements that appeared in Sunday newspapers such as Berliner Tageblatt: ‘Companionship’. To the disapproval of conservative opinion, women as well as men published ads not for marriage, but for the delicately defined, well, ‘companionship’ – sometimes meaning just partnering at five o’clock tea dances and some pleasant flirting, but often something much more than that.
However, most women preferred a more personal approach, and here they had numerous options to choose from. First, there was the Tauentzienstrasse. This famous place for assignations harkened back to the pre-war era, and the ladies who frequented it (‘Tauentzien girls’) became a wistful byword for sophisticated femininity and unwholesome, but very alluring pastimes. So great was the fame of this hotspot for Ye Olde Hookups that it spawned a whole subgenre of erotic novels using it as a setting. However, the traffic there waned steadily through the decade. Whether people liked it or not, the perfumed, corseted seduction was on the way out, and a more forthright – some argued, a healthier – approach to sexuality was in.
One of the most celebrated settings of such encounters were the nightclubs that soon became a byword for permissiveness all throughout Europe. The process was greatly facilitated there by the fact that some clubs, such as Femina on Nurnberger Strasse, had each guest’s table equipped with a telephone and some notepaper. While making the first move was still considered to be a man’s prerogative, it became merely a business of writing a short note asking if the lady would like to be his partner for the next tango and passing it to the table in question. Thus, she was freed from the need to contrive introductions.
If one wanted a quicker and raunchier route to flings, she could try one of the indoor swimming pools open during nighttime that became popular among the club-going crowd. In fact, these places came to be used for such ends so often that the locals ended up dubbing them ‘Slutty Aquariums’.
(If, in-between those activities, one got hungry, worry not – scores of street food vendors lining nighttime streets could provide a lady in need with bratwurst on one hand and with cocaine on the other).
Of course, half-lit nighttime haunts were not the only option for single women. Tea dances were a genteel new setting for making acquaintances. They became a milieu where even respectable middle-class girls could sit with their cups of Mokka and invitingly smile for strangers to approach them without a danger to their own reputation and virtue. Among other things, tea dances were also less formal and less segregated by class than, say, club gatherings or traditional evening balls.
By the second half of the decade, most hotels – even the staid Adlon – have bowed to the winds of time, cleared space for the dances, and invited a jazz band. The only major establishment in the city that kept to the tradition of strict, dance-less afternoon teas was Hotel Bristol. Though, it must be said, in those days it attracted mostly stars of theatre, operetta and the incipient cinema, who were bound by less strict mores than its pre-war clientele, so it would be a stretch to claim that no illicit affairs were born over scones and jam, even there.
It’s all well and good for straight women, but how did those whose tastes didn’t include men at all fare, you may ask? Not too bad, actually. For one thing, mainstream bars and clubs routinely hosted lesbian get-togethers – it was as easy to find a ‘Sapphic Night’ in many establishments’ program as it was to stumble upon Japanese-themed parties. But there were also plenty of places where every night was Sapphic night.
While gay clubs usually admitted women on the dance floor, provided they didn’t try making moves on the patrons (indeed, the safety from unwanted sexual attention was precisely what drove some straight women to spending a night out there), lesbian establishments never allowed men to dance with the ladies. Some, like Damenklub Violetta, were even more exclusive than that, and never allowed men entry at all.
There were a number of options both in terms of price and atmosphere. Hohenzollern-Diele on Bulowstrasse (this area was a well-known hotbed of lesbian subculture) was known as a beloved and tranquil date spot for butch-femme couples. They were described without using this precise terminology, but rather unmistakably: one half deep-voiced, short-haired, and cravat-wearing, the other slim and girlish, sometimes younger than her partner (in the Monbijou Club, they were called Bubis and Madis, respectively).
Such establishments as Toppkeller were much higher up the price range, and it was a likely place for meeting famous actresses, female sculptors, and other representatives of the city’s bohemian side, while the butches there would have been wearing tuxedos and monocles. It’s not as if this place never played host to established couples on a night out, but more often than not it was a ‘monocled noblewoman seeks a sugar baby’ kind of spot.
And if that’s not going to motivate some lesbian out there to invent time travel, I don’t know what will.
Ein Führer durch das lasterhafte Berlin: Das deutsche Babylon 1931, by Curt Moreck
Vulkan Berlin: Eine Kulturgeschichte der 1920er-Jahre, by Kai-Uwe Merz
About the Author:
Annabel Fielding has studied Media, Communications and Cultural Studies in Newcastle University, and later got her Master’s in Public Relations in the UAL in London. However, as a lifelong history aficionado, she spent most of her time there admiring local landmarks. Since then, she has published a queer historical novel A Pearl for My Mistress with HQ/HarperCollins and started a history blog with a dash of travel on http://historygeekintown.com, as well as sharing haphazard tidbits of both on @DearestAnnabel on Twitter.