50 Books for 1931 New York

project: revision, Borrowed Lives

So Sarah Zama got me thinking, and maybe the better spot for this book was 1931. The more I played with the idea of a series, the better this looked. So, just as elsewhere I researched 1817 to learn I really wanted to be in 1803, here I stepped across the big divide of Repeal into Prohibition. This is something with which I have only a nodding acquaintance. I know I need much more than to plug in the 1934 stuff with some magazines of different date. This is a very different era.


1). A general history of the time, not over 200 pages.
Flappers, Bootleggers, "Typhoid Mary" & The Bomb: An Anecdotal History of the United States from 1923-1945
by Barrington Boardman; 1988; Harper & Row, NY. This is it for this period, like we keep using the one outline history from the Fall of the Rome to the end of the Renaissance. If you find a good one, it's your first book every time you need to check when you want to write in. This one is cool because it isn't a political history, more a headlines of pop culture. Otherwise, go read Wikipedia on the era.

2.) An "everyday life" book of the period.
Everyday Life Through the Ages
; Reader's Digest editors; 1992; Reader's Digest Assoc, London; nonfactual in many places, making rest suspect, but it's a start if you have no clue. You can also use This Fabulous Century v. III, 1920-1930; the Editors of Time-Life Books,1969; Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA. But it would pay you to also read v. II, 1910-1920 (1969) because it fills in what's there in technology and is what most adults have lived through, including The War and the Spanish influenza that had such a high mortality.

3.) General transportation
Hollingsworth, JB, & PB Whitehouse; North American Railways; 1977; Bison Books, London.

4.) General costume
Movies, and the Costumers Manifesto. Most "history of costume" books bail out after, if not before, the Great War (WW1), or get very sketchy. C'mon 21st century, get with it!

5.) Specific transportation
Hildebrand, George, ed., The Golden Age of the Luxury Car: An Anthology of Articles & Photographs from "Autobody" 1927-1931; 1980, Dover, NY.

6.) Etiquette, and I don't mean morals for maidens.
Emily Post, Etiquette, in the era.

7.) Spectator entertainments, a general overview.
Stein, Charles W., ed & comm; American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries; 1984; Knopf, NY. covers through 1936.

8.) Self-entertainments
Foster's Complete Hoyle
(1922) by Robert Frederick Foster was the closest I could get you in freebies. I had to find out what the Thains played in the evenings, bridge or acey-deucy.

9.) Food and dining, including what sort of public dining was available.
For the night life, I found Dining in New York (1930) by Rian James. The chapter on popular cocktails and their recipes is great help.

10.) Recipes for period food.
The American Woman's Cook Book by Ruth Berolzheimer, 1943, Consolidated Book Publishers, Chicago, IL. The section on dumplings is excellent. The supplement in the back is on cooking within the limitations of rationing, which means the rest is older, pre-war: the earliest version is 1927.

11.) Marriage and family.
Eugenics and Sex Harmony. The Sexes, Their Relations and Problems, &c
by Herman H. Rubin, MD; 1933, NY, Elliot Publishing Company. A bit late in date, but not in theories.

12.) Specific dress styles, for your decade, including specialty costumes for clerics.
You need to look at period mail-order catalogs and fashion magazines. As a shortcut, Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs: Early 1930s (Schiffer Book for Collectors), 2007, by Tammy Ward and Tina Skinner, makes a nice selection from a tight time period. The Dover book on "The Thirties" is just too broad and decadal, when there is a drastic change at 1934, with the plummet of hems and the arrival of shoulder pads for women.

13.) Religion for the time and place.
I actually found a volume of Jehovah's Witnesses publications from the period, the predecessor to The Watchtower. I also talked to old Catholics about their church before 1968. I researched the Masons and the Rosicrucians, including the anti-Masonic literature. I needed a Rosicrucian-like mail-order wisdom that I could make specifically what I needed.

14.) A fat history book of the area and quarter-century before as an introduction.
Only Yesterday
by Frederick Lewis Allen (1931) is considered a standard reference to the USA in the time from the end of the European War to the Stockmarket Crash. Then we pick up with his 1940 book, Since Yesterday. That covers 1929-1939, and the earlier part rather better.

15.) A history of the most influential country at the time (country A).

16.) A history of its rival (country B).

Simonds, Frank H., LittD & Brooks Emeny, PhD; The Great Powers in World Politics; International Relations and Economic Nationalism 1935-1939; 1935-1939; American Book Co., NY. Covers 1890-1939 without foreknowledge of WW2. This will work quite nicely for a history refresh over all.

17.) A biography of the leader of country A

18.) A biography of the leader of country B

If they feature in your book. In Near History, you can substitute biographies of any two notable celebrities of the time, though the more different they are the better. Say, Al Capone (Al Capone; the Biography of a Self-made Man (1930), sooo tongue in cheek) and Billy Sunday, or Clara Bow and Aimee Semple McPherson. In my case, Rudy Vallée to 1931, and Alister Crowley.

19.) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
This lets you see if you want to adjust your era a bit, or a lot, if you're not in A or B. If you are, take this spot for a book particular to your plot. Like Stein, Charles W., editor and commentator, American Vaudeville As Seen by Its Contemporaries (NY; Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.) A wonderful gleaning of articles, including the 1922 economics of running a vaudeville theatre. To understand the equivalent of television for its day, because I have a major character in show biz.

20.) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941 (Norton twentieth century America series) by Michael E. Parrish (W.W.Norton, 1992).

21.) A biography of the leader of the country of your setting.
Substitutes are
Are the Jews a Menace to Civilization? The Character of the Jew Explained, 1934, which for a change is an anti-anti-Semitic anonymous pamphlet. To balance it, I read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion updated, I didn't think anti-Semitism would be big in the book, but just there, like rain, but it has actually become a tiny pivot point.

22.) An everyday life for the commoner/lower classes of your time and place.
Of course, we will be tempted to load up on bootleggers. The gangster movies before 1934 are pretty good for this (Little Caesar, Public Enemy (poor movie, good on vignettes of the life), The Roaring Twenties, Smart Money). But check #47, Popular Science Monthly, for articles on how rum runners operate and how the Feds go after them. It's the period approach. They also give an unusual time-table on what approaches to getting liquor were being used. But there's a lighter side in approaches to theatre: The Gold Diggers of 1934 is still spot-on for being a starving actress in the Depression and how things are delivered COD from the shop around the corner. Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang is your guide to talking tough for underworld types. Accurate and well-researched. Check especially the note on "gunsel."

23.) An everyday life for the upper classes of your time and place.
Emily Post, Etiquette, in the era. That's where she was born into and lived.

24.) An everyday life for the middle class of your time and place.
See #23 and #26, and every movie about the middle class from the early talkies you can get your hands on, drama or comedy.

25.) An everyday life for women of your time and place,
Because the other books rarely touch on what the wives of the workers, bankers, or plutocrats do with their day. Try
starting with ladies on the shady side with Confessions of a Taxi Dancer (1938, Johnson Smith & Co, Detroit), especialy if you don't know what a taxi dancer is. I'm looking at young woman more than the older, so "girl's history" can help: Kelly Schrum's Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945 (2004; Palgrave MacMillan, New York) for girls, fashions, movies, music, and fandom. Note that my lead character was born 1907, putting her in her teens 1923-1927.

25b) This is about the earliest we can introduce Youth Culture, everyday life for people 13 to 25.
There's Jon Savage's Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945 (2007; Penguin Books) for teenagers, high school and college life, in America, Britain, France, and Germany,well-written but extremely under-illustrated. People were finally paying attention to the age group, and I found a pile of period books on "Young People and the Cinema" that was mainly valuable for all the quotations written by the kids in essays on their experiences, giving me period voices for boys and girls, and blacks as well as whites.

26.) An auto/biography of someone like your protagonist, or a book as much as possible focused on people like that.
That I haven't found, other than looking for "young woman in New York in a better family that's staying above water after the Crash." Let's count Hildegarde Dolson's We Shook the Family Tree (a trifle early; published 1946, author born 1908, and grew up in Franklin, Penn.) and Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen (1938; author right age but moved to NY from Ohio), since they both wind up in NY, had working girl adventures, and I've read them a zillion times. They form the basis for my concepts here of a girls's life in Manhattan.

27.) A book on houses and furnishings of the period, if possible.
Alpern, Andrew; New York's Fabulous Luxury Apartments With Original Floor Plans from the Dakota, River House, Olympic Tower and Other Great Buildings; 1975, McGraw-Hill, NY, as Apartments for the Affluent: A Historical Survey of Buildings in New York; Dover, NY; 1987. Also Olson Rugs: 1931 (1931) by the Olson Rug Company, which shows nice interiors. There are a dozen catalogs of early pre-fab houses to give you floorplans, and Popular Science Monthly for interiors, repair projects, wall finishes, and gadgetry.

28.) A book about courting, romance, and sex of the time.
Birth Control
by Dr. B. O. Whitten, "read before Columbia Medical Society, June 13, 1932." Now that's a subject you don't often find covered before the 1960s. Discusses acceptability more than actual method, and tells me that it is pretty normal among the middle and upper classes, so foolin' around may proceed. Also Eugenics and Sex Harmony. the Sexes, Their Relations and Problems, &c. by Herman H. Rubin, MD; 1933, NY, Elliot Publishing Company, would be being written at this time. Also, The Mystery of Love, Courtship, and Marriage Explained by Henry J. Wehman; 1890; NY; Wehman Bros, was reprinted through this time. Not everyone is on the same page of a settled Sexual Revolution: it's just starting, and this is the conservative side.

29.) A book for naming historical characters properly.
The Social Security site, but remember: you need to choose the decade or year, not by when the story is, but by when the character was born. A high school girl and her mother, let alone grandmother, can have very different kinds of names. By all means, latch onto ones near the top of popularity that aren't in use now: they make your characters seem less of today and very much of then. Also, these are only personal names, and characters need family names. For specific ethnic groups, Holly Ingraham, People's Names: A Cross-Cultural Reference Guide to the Proper Use of Over 40000 Personal and Familial Names in Over 100 Cultures, 1997, McFarland.

30.) Medicine of the time and place.
American Red Cross; American Red Cross First Aid Text-Book; 1933; The Blakiston Co, Phila. PA for medical and first aid, 1925-1945. Our first responders only have to keep things together until the ambulance or medivac chopper arrives. These guys might have to carry out someone with a broken bone to get somewhere with a phone or radio or telegraph to get a doctor in. So the techniques actually go deeper into care. Also, A History of Medicine, 1945 Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd;. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, New York; it covers around 500 BC to 1940 CE. There's a nice history of the treatment of bone fractures up to the 1500s from 1936: it includes information on the Winnebago and Dakota tribes, along with the expected European. As well, I can apply The Modern Home Physician, A New Encyclopedia of Medical Knowledge, Illustrated with Two Hundred and Thirty-Two Photographs and Nearly Seven Hundred Drawings Made Expressly for This Work, edited by Victor Robinson (Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1938). This is even better for correcting my ideas of period medicine, as in, due to the lack of antibiotics, lead and mercury are still in common use, external and internal, or that dual personality is considered a form of epilepsy. Different planet!

31.) Climate, weather, and seasons.
New York Times, especially to check for blizzards and floods.


Sigh. I just noticed I have a 20-year gap in my atlas collection, between 1914 and 1937. It's off to Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

I found diagrams of the subways and elevateds at Historical Maps of Subways and Els, 1880-1976.

My 1928 Railway Atlas lets me check what she takes to go out of the city. I am slowly scanning this and hope to get it up online for you some year. I have finished the scans and now I just need to format all those JPEGs into something like a PDF.

32) Weirdness: Brian Inglis; Trance: A Natural History of Altered States of Mind; 1990; Grafton Books, Collins Publishing Group, London

33) Weirdness: Charles Fort; Complete Books of Charles Fort, The: The Book of the Damned/New Lands/Lo!/Wild Talents; 1941; 1919, 1923, 1931, 1932; Henry Holt & Co, NY; Dover, NY

34) Weirdness: Joseph F. Goodavage; Write Your Own Horoscope; 1968; New American Library; Signet Mystic, NY. This is a simple introduction to some of the complexities of a natal horoscope for the beginner.

35) Weirdness: Colin Wilson; The Occult, 1971; Vintage Books, div. of Random House, NY

36) Weirdness: General Guide to the Exhibition Halls of the American Museum of Natural History (1932); American Museum of Natural History; New York: American Museum of Natural History. Well, that's what I used it for.

37) Everyday Life: Charles Goodrum, & Helen Dalrymple; Advertising in America: The First 200 Years; 1990; Harry N. Abrams, Inc. NY

38) Everyday Life: Various mail-order catalogs, from Sears, Montgomery Wards, Speigel, &c., especially the Christmas "wishbooks."

39) Style: Theodore Menten; The Art Deco Style in Household Objects, Architecture, Sculpture, Graphics, Jewelry; 1972; Dover, NY

40) Family Life: Infant Care (1929): United States. Children's Bureau; Eliot, Martha M. (Martha May), b. 1891: Washington : U.S. Govt. print. off.

41) Collegiate Life: The Sorority Handbook (1931) by Mrs. Ida Shaw Martin, 1867-: Boston [Ida S. Martin]: originally 1919

42) The U.S. of A.: This Country of Yours (1932): Markey, Morris, 1899-1960: Boston, Little, Brown and company

43) New York City: New York Architecture, 1650-1952 (1952) by Jackson, Huson; New York: Reinhold. That's New York! (1927; NY; Macy-Masius) by Morris Markey. There is a lot since they added the Seymour Durst collection on New York City.

44) Travel: Robert Wall; Airliners;1980; Chartwell Books, Book Sales Inc, Secaucus, NJ.

45) Entertainment: The Weekly Radio Dial, 1931 (1931): Radio Dial Publishing, Co.

46) Automobiles: George Hildebrand, ed., The Golden Age of the Luxury Car: An Anthology of Articles & Photographs from "Autobody" 1927-1931; 1980, Dover, NY.

47) Technology and Fashion: Popular Science Monthly Magazine, for January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December. Okay, I read this magazine a lot. That's because if you don't read the years around you won't see when pinking shears are a new household device (not until 1932), or when electrocardiographs come in (at least by 1937, so far) and that contact lenses were invented in 1930 (but not popularized or really available for decades). Popular Mechanics isn't nearly as good for our purposes. Ads tell you about tobacco products, power tools, and electric shavers, not to mention that pimples aren't called zits, they're called hickies. Use that one at your own peril. This also showed me that most people don't have Art Deco decor. They go to a lot of trouble to turn spindles on a lathe to get that Colonial style, with the occasional Jacobean accent. A modernistic table or lamp is an accent in an otherwise Duncan Phyfe or Chippendale room.

48) Prohibition: Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America is very light on the last years: spends more time on 1933 and the effects of Repeal than on anything in the three years 1930-32, so it's more background and backstory than immediate. I have better hope for Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohbition (2010; Scribner, NY) by Daniel Okrent, which still starts in 1890, and runs through 1934.

49) Cussing: Because someone might do it seriously. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, Oxford University Press, 2013. But it's largely what we use today, with some notable exceptions of the inventions of the counter-culture Seventies. But I wouldn't know that if I hadn't read it. Of course, polite society didn't cuss at all. So sub Negro Life in New York's Harlem : A Lively Picture of a Popular and Interesting Section (1927) by Wallace Thurman, because my characters go there.

50) Music & Radio: Radio has nearly killed both sheet music and record sales in 1931 (Rudy Vallée is keeping records alive). Download one of the 1925-1934 collections posted by PopularJazzArchive, or a 1920s pop collection.

 This danged thing is turning into a series, at least as far as 1935. So I'm looking at Los Angeles (Personal Glimpses of Famous Folks : and Other Selections from the Lee Side o' L.A. (1929)), Cuba (Havana during Prohibition was legendary), and some other elements. Shall we see what goes into a series? For the second volume, I really don't need more than this.

If you need something else for your particular story around this time, maybe Historical Novelists Center can help with their Hot Jazz Age pages.

copyright Holly Ingraham



More Near History Lists 

1926 New York

1931 New York

1934 New York

1937+ Los Angeles

1937+ Europe

1943 New York

1940+ Europe


 1940+ London

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