Sunday, January 29, 2023

Bobby Pins, Plumbing, and Other Challenges of Writing about the 1920s

The 1920s can be a real puzzlement for writers. In some ways, there were so many modern changes taking hold that it was hard to keep up with for people who lived through them, and in other ways, for many, life hadn't changed much from the 1800s. Region had a lot to do with this. City and rural living made a difference. In the 1920s, many people still hadn't even enjoyed the modern conveniences that some of the rich did during the gilded age 20, 30, or 40 years previously. In other ways, the new era ushered in changes with the speed of a telephone call.

Take plumbing for instance. Very wealthy people and even some hotels enjoyed some manner of indoor plumbing in the late 1800s, but by 1920, only one percent of American households enjoyed such. One percent! That means that even in cities during the roaring twenties, people were still hand-pumping their water and taking late-night treks to the outhouse or sliding a bedpan out from beneath their bed. They may have used a water closet or had a bathroom, but all the after-effects had to be carried away.

Some homes may have had a system for dispensing, but we've all seen or heard of people in large cities pouring their "slops" out the window into the gutters below, and woe to anyone who happened to be passing nearby!

When I'm writing about that period, I always have to pause and ask, "Would this family have been part of that one percent or not? What kind of system did their town have?" It's easier to answer if they lived rurally. Then, as I've mentioned in previous posts, I have to ask about electricity. Some had it in 1920, but most did not. They still used gas lighting or oil lamps.

Image by munik manalo from Pixabay

Now let me direct your attention to a odd detail that also effected the period. I'm currently finishing a book set in 1920 about a young woman named Polly who has very fine hair. She has trouble keeping her hair pins in place. Of course, I first imagined slipping bobby pins, because that's what I'm familiar with. But did you know that bobby pins weren't invented yet?

Bobby pins as we know and refer to them were invented during the twenties. Their creator was Luis Marcus, a San Francisco cosmetics manufacturer. After WWI, as women began bobbing their hair and the flapper era swept in, he started hand-making the pins and selling them in sets of two for thirty-five cents. He considered calling them "Marcus pins", but chose instead to name them after the new, bobbed hairstyles, deciding on the simple "bobby pins" we know today. Interestingly, Marcus never got rich on the invention, and didn't even care to talk much about them, even though they changed a part of women's worlds.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Hair pins were the ancestors to bobby pins. Either long and straight or U-shaped, hair pins could be jabbed into the hair to hold styles in place or to keep a hat where it belonged. Barrettes, on the other hand, have been worn for centuries.

Image by Briam Cute from Pixabay

Frankly, I'd never given a lot of thought to bobby pins until my current heroine started having trouble keeping her thin hair in place. Suddenly I found myself wondering, gee, did they even have bobby pins then? Just another conundrum about the little details we face when we write historical stories.

I'll be excited to introduce my post-WWI heroine to you with the thin and newly bobbed hair. Her story will release next January (2024) in a novel titled Polly. She is the first in the Apron Strings series of heroines connected together over the decades by a single recipe book.

In the meantime, I hope you'll add my other 1920s series, Echoes of the Heart, to your book list beginning with The Deepest Sigh. Below are the opening lines. 

God bless, and happy reading!


  1. Thank you for the interesting post today, and Happy New Year! I'm always glad to learn of the things writers research to keep their stories authentic to the era in which they take place. And I am so thankful for indoor plumbing!!!!

    1. I'm thankful for plumbing too! I didn't have an indoor facility until I was 8, and then for 3 years during our early marriage. We'd bought a fixer-upper and had to make do with an outhouse and a handpump until we had the cash to put in a septic system.

  2. Even though I write historical romance set in an earlier period I often don't think about the origin of the bobby pin. I refer to hairpins, but its hard to think of hairpins as anything but bobby pins because they have always been a part of my life. So interesting, Naomi.

    1. That was the path my brain was on too. I mentioned hairpins, and then I started wondering what they looked like for thin hair and stumbled onto this conundrum.

  3. I read something like that too. I don't even know what made me pause to check out the whole origin thing. :)