The Roaring Twenties in Kawartha Lakes

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

The Roaring Twenties were characterized by the kind of carefree spirit reflected in the expression of Edith Stewart (holding umbrella) and a friend at Sturgeon Point one summer 100 years ago. Stewart family fonds. (2022. Courtesy Kawartha Lakes Museum & Archives.

The evening of Feb. 9, 1929, saw some 2,000 people pack the armoury in downtown Lindsay for the last night of the Piccadilly Circus, a five-day fundraising extravaganza that had been organized by the Kiwanis Club almost annually since 1926. Complete with “the greatest showing of fine motor cars ever shown in Lindsay,” exhibits of the latest and greatest in merchandise carried by local vendors, and a big dance, the Piccadilly Circus epitomized the fun, optimism, and opulence of the Roaring Twenties.

What was special about that memorable decade, which came to an inglorious conclusion almost 95 years ago in the form of a stock market crash precipitating worldwide economic depression? Simply put, a host of developments in culture, fashion, media, and technology transformed life for a generation that had recently emerged from five miserable years of a world war and an influenza epidemic. Consumerism and a general disdain for the Victorian values of the past were hallmarks of the Roaring Twenties, setting the stage for future changes in North American society.

And how did all of this play out here in our community?

One of the best-remembered symbols of this decade were the so-called flappers – young women who drove fast cars, smoked cigarettes, stayed out late, and wore outfits their parents’ generation might have thought scandalous. Reviewing the silent film ‘Learning to Love’ on Jan. 5, 1926, an unnamed Lindsay Daily Post reporter described the “flapper generation” as having an “exaggerated ego” and rather patronizingly asserted that “when youth passes to thirty and beyond, the tinsel of flapperism ceases to charm.” (Just how many girls and women from what is now Kawartha Lakes fully embraced “the tinsel of flapperism” is a statistic that has been lost to history.)

Local flappers and other fashion-conscious women wanting to emulate “the society woman” and popular actresses of the day could make an appointment at the Lindsay Beauty Parlours (located on the second floor of the Dundas & Flavelle Ltd. department store) to have their hair bobbed or skin treated. “To appear at your best at a dance or social function, your attendance at the event should be preceded by a visit to our establishment,” urged a 1928 advertisement for the beauty parlour. Going out on the town for a good time was what mattered. “You’ll need a full dress or a tuxedo with so many parties, dances and occasions going on all the time,” decreed a Dundas & Flavelle Ltd. ad in 1925.

Dances were defined by the latest in music, notably foxtrots like My Sweet GalLast Night On The Back Porch, and It Must Be Someone Like You that sounded forth from a live band or a gramophone. One dance, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus on Feb. 7, 1921, saw the armoury “uniquely decorated in colour effects of blue and gold by means of hundreds of toy balloons, Chinese lanterns, and gracefully draped arches.” Attendees enjoyed a moon waltz as a powerful spotlight “spread wonderful shades of fleeting colours over the huge assembly.”

When they weren’t dancing the night away, local citizens might have been flocking to the Academy Theatre for the latest in silent movies (“talkies” didn’t appear until 1929). Features such as The Perfect Flapper, The Vanishing Dagger, and Through the Back Door (starring Toronto-born Mary Pickford) captivated audiences, as did the ubiquitous newsreels. Live theatre was far from dead, and full houses eagerly took in productions like “Dardenella” – described as “a saucy and sparkling hippodrome of fun with the most beautiful girls in the world” – and revelled in the talents of Lindsay’s own Mae Edwards, whose players brought cabaret and vaudeville acts to the Academy stage.

While some might have walked to the beauty parlour, dance, or theatre, one really made a statement if they showed up in a flamboyant automobile. Close to a dozen car dealerships were doing business in Lindsay by the mid-1920s – including F. King and Son, a Chevrolet dealer, which boldly insisted in its 1924 advertising that “modern life demands an efficient automobile for the time it saves and the health it gives.” Five years later, in 1929, Thomas Arnold was proudly showing off the Pontiac Big 6, which promised “BIG car luxury, BIG car style, [and] BIG car performance at low price.”

Everything seemed to be bigger and better throughout the Roaring Twenties. It was not without its problems, though. Prohibition was still in effect, and authorities regularly shut down local stills that were illicitly manufacturing whisky. Influenza was still causing widespread illness in parts of the county into 1923, and the Fred McGaughey murder trial cast a shadow over Lindsay in 1924.

40 Head Street, Bobcaygeon, was built in 1925-1926 by John Darwin Grant, who was inspired by the Arts-and-Crafts movement popular during the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Emily Turner, City of Kawartha Lakes.

Those with living memory of the Roaring Twenties are fast approaching their centenary years or are no longer with us. Even so, this illustrious decade left an indelible imprint on our culture. Tuxedos or skirts once donned by dashing young men and women for the moonlight waltz may yet survive in attic trunks or museums. Examples of 1920s-era rustic and arts-and-crafts architecture continue to grace neighbourhoods throughout Kawartha Lakes. And our ongoing infatuation with the private automobile owes much to trends launched more than 100 years ago.

While the roar of the 1920s has long since died away, echoes of it linger on.

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