The Swing Age in Los Angeles

project: series, Spartan

 LA can be particularly difficult because they tear down and replace everything they can every ten years. I'm astonished City Hall has held out as long as it has. The sheer expense of tearing down skyscrapers helps, but a lot of Victorian blocks disappeared to make room for parking lots and tickytacky stucco cubes. They also have leveled about every hill they could, so that today's town is much flatter.

This is why I say that research trips are generally over-valued for actual help to the writer until after you have done so much research that you almost don't need it. They otherwise mislead you, but, hey, it's one of the few perks a writer has, taking research trips off on the taxes. But your research books are deductible, too.


The WPA Guide to Los Angeles. If you can get one for your locale, you will, too. 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.

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. Remember to build your book as you go.

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. It's mainly good as a picture book for the uninitiate.

3) General transportation
Nock, O. S., gen.ed.; Encyclopedia of Railroads; 1977; Galahad Books, NY, covers1800-1980. Going by rail is still the most common transportation, including around LA. Pacific Electric Red Cars and Yellow Cars, as well as the Blue Cars. I had heard about these from people cursing the lack of public transit in LA (the bus lines were a joke) before they got some back. As well, I got to talk to someone who had ridden them as a child and could point out anachronisms to me ("Nah, those streamlined ones are from the Fifties."). But I still got Red Car Era, An Album: Memories of Los Angeles and the Pacific Electric Railway by Raphael F. Long and Pacific Electric Yellow Cars (Images of Rail: California) (Arcadia, 2007) by Jim Walker.

4) General costume
Boucher has a bit, but far more help was Costumers Manifesto. You don't have to describe them so they can be pattern-drafted, so checking period movies (and no matter what you think of the clothes, that was the sharp styling of the time) and catalogs for colours will give you enough. Various mail-order catalogs, from Sears, Montgomery Wards, Speigel, &c., especially the Christmas "wishbooks."

5) Specific transportation
Let me insert John Toland; The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs & Disasters; 1957, 1972; Dover, NY., because I have a character who arrives from South America by Zeppelin.

6) Etiquette
Emily Post, Etiquette, in the era. She had a supplementary chapter for etiquette after Repeal and other things that had changed since the last revision.

7) Spectator entertainments, whether theatre or sports, a general overview.
The WPA Guide to Los Angeles. This is the free e-book.

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 people played at home in the evenings, bridge or acey-deucy.

9) Food and dining, including what sort of public dining was available.
Of course WPA Guide to Los Angeles, 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. This reminds us that people grabbed lunch without franchise fast food.

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. So this tidily covers food of the day.

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.
I watch movies and steal the look from that. They don't have the plethora of fashion magazines we do, at least not that I can dig up. I also own a small collection. On Costumer's Manifesto, there's a page of 100 links for for "the 1930s." Schiffer to the rescue, at least with a life ring, with Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs: Late 1930s (Schiffer Book for Collectors)(2007) by Tammy Ward and Tina Skinner.

13) A book on the religion(s) dominant in the time and place, as practiced then, not the current version.
Okay, so I tapped an old Catholic. Sub or add Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, Oxford University Press, 2013. Naturally, this is useful in many eras. But the second Rudy Vallée autobiography gave me the best view of period cussing in action.

14) A fat history book of the area and century.

15) A history of the most influential country at the time (country A).
The Third Reich. The USSR is a close second, as they dismember Mittel Europe between them, and whether your spies are Commies or Nazis isn't always easy to guess. Being married to a WW2 buff, I'm used to more detailed stuff than this. I'll say I have this one down. For your own, consider which you know least and read that one.

16) A history of its rival (country B).
America. Hollywood's influence put them over the top, in my assessment. People were very aware of of the USA, since it had proved the tie-breaker in the World War.

For all three of these, Simonds, Frank H., LittD & Brooks Emeny, PhD The Great Powers in World Politics; International Relations and Economic Nationalism 1935-1939 American Book Co., NY. Since the author didn't know what was to come or what was to be found out, he provides one actual period American view of the world. Post-War books all suffer from 20/20 hindsight. For what was happening in the press, Flappers, &c.

17) A biography of the leader of country A.
Konrad Heiden, Der Fuehrer 1944 Houghton-Mifflin, Boston. Excellent and scary.

18) A biography of the leader of country B.
Agk! My mother worshipped FDR, so I'm pre-OD'd. Oh, well, it can be a small one. Say, Wikipedia.

19) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
A substitute: Joe McKinzie; San Pedro A Postcard History; 2007; Arcadia Publishing, Charleston SC. I had to reconstruct the map of the harbor area based on these sort of aerial photos, as I can find none for the time. Also San Pedro's Cabrillo Beach (Images of America: California) by Mike Schaadt & Ed Mastro, Arcadia, 2008. If you need local history with lots of pictures, Arcadia is where to start looking.

20) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
Make that city or megalopolis I'm setting in. The Federal Writers' Project, The WPA Guide to Los Angeles (American Guide); 1939, WPA. If you want something less particular, try 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.
Another sub: John Roy Carlson; Under Cover: My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America Now Plotting to Destroy the United States; 1943; E P Dutton & Co, NY. This guy passed as a Fascist Italian, put out his own rabid anti-Semitic 'zine for several months to establish his cred, visited the training facilities outside NY for the German-America Bund, travelled to the Midwest to live and work with Nazi sympathizers, interviewed and investigated the upper crust Fascists -- hoo, boy! If the reiterations of their beliefs from every group didn't get so repetitive, it wouldn't be quite such a sandbag. It's basically dangerous spy work by an investigative journalist.

22) An everyday life for the commoner of your time and place.
The Federal Writers' Project, WPA Guide to Los Angeles; 1939, WPA; reprint UC Press.

23) An everyday life for the upper classes of your time and place.
The concept of an "upper class" in LA seems a little strange. It was never organized like Society in the East. This is where Silver Screen biographies have their use: Hollywood amounts to the interesting wealthy class everyone watches. Michael Korda; Charmed Lives; 1979; Avon Books. Also, way too many Wikipedia articles. Rudy Vallée's second autobiography, Let the Chips Fall: Unrestrained Reminiscences Through Half a Century of Sweet and Sour Relationships with People, Places and Performances (1971), covers more of this era in an uncensored level, though it's really all over the '30s and '40s, besides later and earlier to lesser degrees.

24) An everyday life for the middle class of your time and place.
Movies are generally about either the middle class or the supposed upper classes. You can pick up a lot about unconscious behaviors that way, like the assumption that wives are all housewives, or the frequency of separate bedrooms even before 1934 Code. For example, the opening of The Middleton Family at the World's Fair (1939) shows you that mid-teen boys on vacation happily wore a 3-piece suit and tie, and that a co-ed art major wears a very nice dress and jacket for classes. Not kidding about boys and suits: you can see that in 1940 ads that are supposed to appeal to them, too, like this one on making a radio you can carry in your bike basket. Sub Robert Wall's Airliners;1980; Chartwell Books, Book Sales Inc, Secaucus, NJ; for airplanes, airlines, dirigibles, zeppelins, travel; 1913-1980

25) An everyday life for the women of your time and place.
I already had the idea of Mom and Sis from many a movie and novel. So I added Confessions of a Taxi Dancer
(1938, Johnson Smith & Co, Detroit), especialy if you don't know what a taxi dancer is. I had a friend attending UCLA who worked as a taxi dancer, and all I can say is, that when guys know where to pick up streetwalkers, they behave better in taxi dances. This girl dealt with more bad cases in a town where the streets were "clean." Yes, I would like six more on various aspects. But you know now I won't be able to resist at least going to a dance hall.

26) An auto/biography of someone like your protagonist, or a book as much as possible focused on people like that.
Let's say my protag was possible, but wasn't known to ever happen, which leaves this up in the air. So let's look for something particular to his and his friends' age, like Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945 by Jon Savage. He's careful to always get both a male and female "voice" for each era, and he covers Europe as well as America. Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945 by Kelly Schrum. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (2000) by Thomas Hine.

27) A book on houses and furnishings of the period.
Los Angeles in the Thirties
by David Gebhard gives the latest Stream Line buildings.

28) A book about courting, romance, and sex of the time.
Hugh Morris; The Art of Kissing; 1936, 1977; Doubleday Dolphin, NY reprint. But be sure to get the old text with the Art Deco cover, not something that's been modernized by someone too lame to start from scratch. More advanced: Eugenics and Sex Harmony. The Sexes, Their Relations and Problems, &c. by Herman H. Rubin, MD; 1933, NY, Elliot Publishing Company. This was the closest we've gotten so far, with Costello, John; Virtue Under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social & Sexual Attitudes (1987; Fromm International, NY) because it deals with earlier time as contrast. Also, The Mystery of Love, Courtship, and Marriage Explained by Henry J. Wehman; 1890; NY; Wehman Bros, was reprinted through this time, for the more conservative.

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. But remember, 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
American Red Cross; First Aid Textbook; The Blakiston Company, Philedelphia, 1933, rev. 1940; 256 pg, index; How times (and practices!) have changed! Features traction of broken limbs, abhorred today, but more practical in a world where it might be a day's travel to a doctor, or even a phone. In an action/adventure series, first aid is going to be committed a lot, and it had better not be modern or even 1980s. As well, I tripped over 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 (MPD) is considered a form of epilepsy. This is going to take a while to read: 781 pages.

31) Climate: L.A. Times for daily weather reports. The WPA Guide describes a much colder LA than I knew.

Period Maps

I have my map collection, the maps in some of the books like the WPA Guide, and J. W. Clement Co., Matthews-Northrup Division; The Matthews-Northrup New International Atlas & Illustrated Gazetteer; 1937, 1938; Blue Ribbon Books, NY. Yup, dead-on period atlas, bought years ago because I love atlases.

On e-Bay, I bought a minty 1939 Shell Gasoline map of LA but, while it detailed downtown, it ignored and barely sketched in the harbor. That's my peculiar problem. Old gas-station maps are usually available if you look at Ebay, because map-collecting is popular. However, the David Rumsey Collection eventually bailed me out with 1938 Thomas Brothers road atlas. It had the South Bay in excellent detail, and Downtown marked as to the buildings within a block! On the other hand, they had almost nothing on Manhattan after 1908. Research is as full of holes as a colander.

Handy Railroad Maps of the United States (Rand McNally, 1923) is still quite applicable. It has an LA metro map to show the Red Car lines.

32) City & Buildings: Bruce Henstell; Los Angeles, An Illustrated History; 1980; Alfred A. Knopf, NY. Covers Los Angeles 1781-1980.

33) City & Buildings: Lee, Shippey; photos by Max Yavno; The Los Angeles Book, 1950; Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston. This gives some info and a lot of pix of LA, 1920-1950.

34) Design & Architecture: TheodoreMenten; The Art Deco Style in Household Objects, Architecture, Sculpture, Graphics, Jewelry; 1972; Dover, NY

35) City & Crime: Otto Friedrich; City of Nets, A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s; 1986; Harper & Row, NY; starts a bit earlier in background on West Coast gangland.

36) Scientists: Laura Fermi; Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-1941; University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2nd ed. 1971; A precise but emminently readable story of the efforts of American academics to rescue their fellows from the Nazi regime, giving valuable background on what their lives had been like in Europe, and what they faced in the New World. The bulk is given over to following the continuing success of these figures (and the occasional failure) and the effect they had on American arts and sciences by being here.

37) Ideologies: Leslie A. Gould,, American Youth Today; 1940; Random House, NY: youth culture of a more serious bent, unemployment, red-baiting, racism, Great Depression, communism; 1930-1940

38) Military: The Military Service Publishing Company; The Officer's Manual; Harrisburg, PN, 8th ed. 1941; If you want to present an Army officer and you haven't been one, or weren't in the right branch of service, this is great. If you were one, you will still want it to make sure you're not being anachronistic. It covers the National Guard as well, with organization of the Army, the command structure, what you wear, with whom you serve, your first station, your last will and testament, ad infinitum. Mercifully written before gobbledegook, in a clear and simple format, which is neither flowery nor dull. However, a 9th edition, 1943, would be way off for this period,because so much changed in 1942. I have four editions of this -- so far. Maybe I'll turn it into a collecting hobby. I can put them between the atlases and the etiquette books.

39) Military: Nancy Shea; The Army Wife, What She Ought to Know About the Customs of the Service and the Management of an Army Household; Harper and Brothers, NY, 1941 revised edition; Put together to meet the needs of women who suddenly found their husands in the army, on the bones of a book for girls marrying cadets or other men already in, Shea tells what to expect in almost any situation. It's a great guide to what foreign postings are likely to come up in this pre-NATO era.

40) Military: Aerospace Publishing, Inc.; Combat and Survival: What It Takes to Fight and Win; 1991; H.S. Stuttman, Inc., Westport, CN. There's a lot of modern stuff, but there's plenty of WW2, still.

41) Natural History: Judith Viorst; The Natural World: A Guide to North American Wildlife; 1965; Bantam Books, NY. Knowing the flora and fauna that's out there is always a good idea. This is the oldest that I've located.

42) Espionage: H. Keith Melton; OSS Special Weapons & Equipment (1991, Sterling Publishing, NY)

43) Espionage: Kurt Singer, Spies and Traitors of World War II 1945 Prentice-Hall, NY. It covers some work in this period; actually, it begins with Canaris' work in WW1.

44) Espionage: Hingley, Ronald; Russian Secret Police: Muscovite, Imperial Russian and Soviet Political Security Operations; 1970; Dorset Press, Marboro Books Corp, NY.

45) Everyday Life: Charles & Helen Dalrymple Goodrum; Advertising in America: The First 200 Years; 1990; Harry N. Abrams, Inc. NY. These provide snack foods, catch phrases, and images of the ideal.

46) Everyday Life: Bruce & Mike Pinfold Crowther; The Big Band Years, 1988 Facts on File, NY. Because someone's girlfriend is a songbird

47) Language: Eric Partridge; A Dictionary of Catch-Phrases, British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day; 1977; Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, NY. One has to go through this and mine out the ones of appropriate vintage.

48). Women in War: A. A. Hoehling, Women Who Spied: True Stories of Feminine Espionage; 1992, Dodd, Mead & Co, NY. This ranges from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, but is good on WW2.

49) Women in War: Jessica Amanda Salmonson, The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era, 1991 Paragon House, NY.

50) Music & Radio: Check Live365 for Cladrite Radio. Their logo says music of the 20's, 30's & 40's, and there's a fair amount of late 30's swing. I find myself using #50 to comment on music, because in Near History radios are on, people ordinarily go out dancing, and all that. The Andrews Sisters are just breaking in 1937 but the swing band is the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Yes, I have more than this, starting with our movie and music collections, and all the "prelude to WW2" coverage in our home library. 50 Books is a minimum list, to make sure you don't have big holes in your knowledge. Much of what we have is the militaria that WW2 buffs would read, and doesn't fill in everyday life. We were choke aircraft and Naval Institute Press books, but it took the 50 Books list to shove me into getting sex manuals of the time, The Modern Home Physician, the proper version of The Officer's Manual (I had older and newer), or the San Pedro/Fort MacArthur books. You can always go beyond 50 to find out wonderful things.

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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