The young women rouged their cheeks, bobbed their hair and spurned the corsets of their mothers’ generation.
They got into motorcars and traveled south to the more bustling city of Renton, where they could dance the night away to the Charleston and the Foxtrot.
Some of them even left the family farms and moved across Lake Washington to the great metropolis of Seattle to work as typists or as shopgirls in department stores.
These were the flappers of 1920s Issaquah.
Though some may think of the “Roaring ‘20s” culture as firmly restricted to big cities like Seattle, even the small farming towns like Issaquah experienced their fair share of jazz and beaded dresses.
“Issaquah was a small town — it didn’t have as much of a roar as Seattle,” said Erica Maniez, director of the Issaquah History Museum. “But there were women in Issaquah who were flappers.”
And it’s these revolutionary daughters of the Jazz Age who make up the Issaquah History Museum’s newest exhibit at the Issaquah Community Center, titled “Girls’ Night Out.” The display includes all of the elements an Issaquah flapper would have needed for a night out on the town — gloves, dance shoes, sparkling purse, hair accessories and of course, a dress with a hemline that was decidedly not Victorian.
Maniez explained that the post-World War I era was the first time that young adults were able to truly enjoy being young, with “a little more time between childhood and adulthood.”
“It was a time period when we see the teenager evolve,” Maniez said. “Young people evolve their own teenage culture … We see a lot of the things teens are into today —going out and seeing live music, going to movies.”
For the young ladies of Issaquah, this meant enjoying weekends of going out with friends to dances or the movie theater rather than settling down with a husband immediately upon finishing school. Some of the women went out and found jobs so that they could support themselves without relying on a man.
One of the women featured, Josephine Cornick, moved to Seattle to work at the Bon Marché department store. Cornick moved out of her parents’ house and boarded in the big city during the week.
Museum Collections Manager Julie Hunter, who helped to create the new exhibit, explained that going to Seattle would have been significant in the days before freeways because “even though there were roads, you’ve still got that darn lake” — and in the 1920s, there were no bridges across it.
Hunter said that the entire 1920s display formed around a single party dress from the era that had been donated to the museum.
“We started out with a dress because we had this really pretty dress we wanted to show,” she said. “We had pictures of young women in Issaquah in the time period. We used photographs to put the clothing into greater context, to show how it would’ve looked.”
The volunteers gathered together photographs of prominent Issaquah flappers, including Cornick, sisters Ida Maude and Gertrude Goode, and a woman named Alpha, whose last name is unknown.
“The pictures of Josephine really spoke to me,” said volunteer Karen Gath-McClain, who designed the exhibit and came up with the theme “Girls’ Night Out.” “There was something about the women being together.”
The display focuses on fashion because the flappers used fashion as a way to make a powerful statement about what were they capable of as women. Gone were the days of high-necked, long-skirted Victorian gowns with their corsets and petticoats. The women of the ‘20s wore short, loose-fitting dresses that gave them boyish figures and allowed them to move easily.
“The 1920s lent itself to women becoming more modern in being more free,” Gath-McClain explained. “Their bodies were much more free because they weren’t encumbered … by garments they wore.”
Hairstyles, too, were a way to convey a clear message. Gertrude Goode’s Marcel-waved bob was not only for looking pretty and flirting on the dance floor; her revolutionary short hair demonstrated her independence from the constraints of previous eras.
“Bobbing your hair was a serious political statement,” Hunter said. “Prior to World War I, you didn’t see short hair on women unless they had been ill. Cutting that long hair that took a lot of attention saves you time, effort and makes a statement that you’re a modern woman and you’re not going to play by the same rules your mother did.”
And play by new rules they did. Whether it was gathering in a group to go to the firemen’s dance in Issaquah or going off to learn typing skills at college, the ladies of 1920s Issaquah were determined to carve a new path in the world.
“I found myself so immersed with the story of Issaquah — the history, the people … I love the women of Issaquah,” Gath-McClain said. “They have great spirit. You can tell by their pictures that they laughed, they had spirit. You don’t necessarily hear about the women, but they were hugely important in the story of Issaquah.”