Picture the 1920s in America. Big-band jazz, flapper girls and clunky cars. The dawn of youth culture. It seems naive and cartoony to us now, but even at the time, the strange mix of innocence and raunchiness was captured by tuned-in artists of all kinds. One of these was a magazine illustrator and cartoonist from Salt Lake City, hugely famous in his heyday and almost forgotten immediately afterward. John Held, Jr. defined flapper culture as it was happening in magazines like "Life" and "The New Yorker" with instantly recognizable cartoons that distilled the time down to its essence: frenetic motion, angular shapes and giddy optimism.
Held had a particular fascination for the young women of the time, rightly seeing in them a microcosm of the changes happening throughout society. The flappers weren't exactly liberated, but they weren't wearing corsets anymore either. Short skirts, exposed stockings and hip flasks betrayed a casual rejection of social norms. When they threw parties, learned to drive and cut their hair short, they were taking control of their lives in ways women of even ten years earlier would never have dared. In three essential cartoons, Held caught the spirit of these young women and the changes they were imposing on their society.
"It Won't Be Long Now", ca. 1920, is a cartoon depiction of the moment of a flapper's rebellion. Smoking from a long cigarette holder, she is having her long red hair cut into a bob. Held's spare lines catch the aggressive edge in her cool demeanour, and details like her exposed stocking edges and bloomers enhance her blase attitude. Colour is applied sparingly, only to accent the long, skinny limbs of the girl and the red splashes of fallen hair on the white mass created by her apron, the chair and the barber.
On the cover of the February 26, 1926 issue of "Life" magazine, Held's cartoon, "Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks" features a young flapper showing an old man in a tuxedo how to dance the Charleston. Their flailing arms and legs and the woman's necklace flying upwards create a kinetic balance and use Held's angular style to enhance the motion. The man looks down at her feet to imitate her movements. The flapper, her head held high, is leading. Held's eloquence in conveying complex ideas with nuances has made this work perhaps his most iconic.
Again in 1926, the September 30 "Freshman Issue" of "Life" featured a Held cover. In "Sweet Sexteen", a flapper sprawls across a couch reading from one of a pile of psychology textbooks. Everything about her, from her casual pose to her short hair to the textbooks themselves, likens her to any male freshman of the time, but Held has portrayed her as a stylish young woman, someone to be emulated. The title also implies that these rebellious and increasingly independent young women were of interests to their male peers, which is not an insignificant development in terms of social change.
Held's flappers are beautifully idiosyncratic cartoons, evidence of deft talent, but the historical significance of their keenly observed subjects is perhaps of even greater importance.