The Early Swing Age in New York

project: Borrowed Lives, 1934, nnwm2012

This was an historical mystery with shots of -- urban fantasy? paranormalcy?

One important point is that this list will work nicely from 1933 on. But 1933 was the year of Repeal. Before that, you're in Prohibition, and while for a teetotalling middle-class settled family that's not important, it sure changes a night out on the town.


The WPA Guide to New York. I know where to get exotic dishes like pizzas and tacos. I know what bus and subway fares are. I know where the shops and nightclubs likely are, enough for a rough draft. This is a list of all the free guides and the many more that need to be made into PDFs and put online because they were public domain since they were printed. This was published in 1939, which means the information was collected in 1937 and 1938, which is only a little late for 1934. The important fact: it tells me which neighborhoods are suitable for everything from suburban houses to derelict warehouses.

1) history outline
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) everyday life
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. IV, 1930-1940; the Editors of Time-Life Books,1969; Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA. But it would pay you to also read v. III, 1920-1930 (1969) because it fills in what's there in technology and is what most adults have lived through.

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

4) General costume.
Movies, and the Costumers Manifesto.

5) Specific transportation
John Toland; The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs & Disasters; 1957, 1972; Dover, NY. Covers 1862-1937. Even if my characters never get on one, I may mention them overhead just for atmosphere.

6) etiquette
Emily Post, Etiquette, in the era.

7) Spectator entertainments, whether theatre or sports, a general overview.
Read the papers and the WPA Guide.

8) Self-entertainments, like card games, lawn games, and children's games.
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.
Of course the WPA Guide, but also DeGouy, Louis; Patricia M. Kelly, ed; Luncheonette: Ice-Cream, Beverage, and Sandwich Recipes from the Golden Age of the Soda Fountain; 1989, Crown Publishers, NY; portions of Soda Fountain and Luncheonette Drinks and Recipes; J. O. Dahl, 1940 reminds us that people grabbed lunch without franchise fast food. 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) Cookbook
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.

12) Specific costume, for your demi-decade, including specialty costumes for clerics.
Photoplay Magazine
(Jan - Jun 1933), (Jan - Jun 1934), (Jul - Dec 1934), - Chicago, Photoplay Magazine Publishing Company. This is a movie fan magazine, with lots of ads for movies and cosmetics, and with beauty and fashion articles. This includes all the movies, not just the classics we still watch.

13) A book on the religion(s) dominant in the time and place, as practiced then, not the current version.
Especially, Catholicism is fairly different from that after 1968. I checked with an old Catholic whose aunts became nuns around this time. However, I found 1930-1934 The Golden Age magazine, various issues. Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (now Jehovah's Witnesses). The magazine is now called Awake! and you have probably been handed a copy at some time.

14) A fat history book of the area and century.
Frank H. Simonds, 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.

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

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

America and ... let me think ... Japan. Britain is trying to maintain its empire, Italy is trying to build one, and the Nazis and Communists are still squabbling over Germany. The USSR is in flux. But Japan has an empire and is expanding despite Britain and America. So I read the history in Terry's Guide to the Japanese Empire: Including Korea and Formosa, with Chapters on Manchuria, the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the Chief Ocean Routes, by Philip T. Terry, 1933, Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston & NY. Wasn't I lucky on the date when I bought this ages ago? Then I read Lands & Peoples vVI: Canada & the United States; 1929-1954; The Grolier Society, NY. I really do not have to read up on more than Wikipedia: notice it doesn't say big history. Over the years, I have built very dense annals for this time, as the prelude to even denser ones on the later Swing Age.

17) A biography of the leader of country A

18) A biography of the leader of country B

Hoover and Hirohito. No, please, they really have nothing to do with this. 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.

19) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
Substitute Good Homes Never Grow Old.

20) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
Substitute Your Dream Home.

21) A biography of the leader of the country of your setting.
Substitute New Liberty Homes.

22) An everyday life for the commoner of your time and place.
The Federal Writers' Project, The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s New York (American Guide); 1939; WPA; New York.
I also checked Masonic, Moose, and other lodges. I know they were very popular, especially for their social support programs in this period, like the care of widows and orphans, since the government's only aid was state orphanages and pauper's asylums (poorhouses). This is pre-Social Security and Welfare, remember. Wikipedia is very oriented to the present day version of lodges and doesn't give much history: look for old books at Internet Archive.

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.
The Federal Writers' Project, The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s New York (American Guide); 1939; WPA; New York. Life hasn't changed that much since Repeal.

25) An everyday life for the women of your time and place
Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945
by Kelly Schrum. At 22, my protagonist still counts as an adolescent, and was a teen all too recently.

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 family that's staying above water." 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.
By Searching at the Internet archive for all books published in 1934, I got a pile of catalogs on prefab or concrete or other houses. That gave me the floorplan of the 3-bedroom above the pawn shop, as well as their old house on a tree-lined street with a big yard. I also got catalogs on stoves, kitchen cabinets, invisible radiators (reminding me most are the big cast iron beasts), paints with indoor and outdoor decor, lawn furniture -- in short, the next best thing to a home magazine for the time. (Kalamazoo Stoves, Alcazar Ranges, Aladdin Homes, 22 Low Cost Concrete Homes.) Naturally I could go back a few years as well. This is just to say that at this period, the catalogs are better for you than books.

28) A book about courting, romance, and sex of the time.
Morris, Hugh; The Art of Kissing, 1936, 1977; Doubleday Dolphin, NY reprint. With Costello, John; Virtue Under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social & Sexual Attitudes (1987; Fromm International, NY) because it deals with earlier times for contrast. Eugenics and Sex Harmony. The Sexes, Their Relations and Problems, &c by Herman H. Rubin, MD; 1933, NY, Elliot Publishing Company. Also, The Mystery of Love, Courtship, and Marriage Explained by Henry J. Wehman; 1890; NY; Wehman Bros, was reprinted through this time.

29) A source of period names.
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 40,000 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.

31) Climate and weather
Your WPA Guide for the area will often have this.You can also check the newspapers for weather reports. You really don't care if it rained Tuesday or Wednesday. You just want to know whether precipitation in March is likely to be rain or snow or sleet. Barring hurricanes and blizzards, who in the world is going to call you out on weather on a particular day eighty years ago?

Period Maps

J. W. Clement Co., Matthews-Northrup Division; The Matthews-Northrup New International Atlas & Illustrated Gazetteer, 1937, 1938, Blue Ribbon Books, NY. In 2013, this is running $10-15, is all.

I also 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.

32) Collegiate: To see real people about the age of my protagonist, and to populate the campuses she will visit, I got a mort of 1934 college yearbooks at the Internet Archive (criteria: yearbook AND 1934 NOT bible AND mediatype:texts).

33) Magazines of the Day: Wonder Stories: The Magazine of Prophetic Fiction; Volume 6, Number 3, August 1934. Published by Continental Publications, Incorporated; 99 Hudson Street, New York, New York. Why shouldn't my protagonist read science fiction as well as The Saturday Evening Post?

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

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

36) Weirdness: Fort, Charles; 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

37) Magic: Goodavage, Joseph F.; Write Your Own Horoscope; 1968; New American Library; Signet Mystic, NY

38) Entertainment: Stein, Charles W., ed & comm; American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries; 1984; Knopf, NY. covers through 1936.

39) Champagne Living: 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.

40) Travel: Wall, Robert; Airliners;1980; Chartwell Books, Book Sales Inc, Secaucus, NJ; airplanes, airlines, dirigibles, zeppelins, travel; 1913-1980

41) Collegiate: The Federal Writers' Project, The WPA Guide to Massachusetts, 1937, 1983. Notice the original publication date here is only three years in the future, and the manuscript would have been finalized in 1936. Two years is not enough to matter.

42) Magazines of the day: Amazing Stories, May and September. I loved these for the ads much more than the fiction (note to self: remember how much better scientific romances were than this science fiction). They clued me in to two sex manuals, extension universities, &c..

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

44) Technology: Popular Science has their own archive online.

45) Language: Partridge, Eric; A Dictionary of Catch-Phrases, British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day; 1977; Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, NY

46) Travel: Miller, William H., Jr.; Great Luxury Liners 1927-1954; A Photographic Record; 1981; Dover, NY. They tie up at the Hudson River docks and beckon dreams to slip over the blue horizon.

47) Cussing: Because someone might do it seriously. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, Oxford University Press, 2013.

48) Magazines of the day: Weird Tales volume 24 number 3 (September 1934). I also go back through my Golden Age reprints checking first publication dates. No ads in the paperbacks, but I know the stories she reads.

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

50) Music & Radio: Check Live365 for Cladrite Radio. Their logo says music of the 20's, 30's & 40's, but it's mostly later 20's and early 30's when I listen to it.

If you need something else for your particular story around this time, maybe Historical Novelists Center can help with their Swing 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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