1920s Traffic Laws and Technologies

The 1920s are well known as a decade when automobile ownership in the U.S. skyrocketed, especially with the production of Henry Ford’s Model T. But an equally fascinating aspect of the story is how municipalities tried to cope with the sudden explosion of automobile traffic on the streets. All of the road signs and signals that we are so used to seeing today–a double yellow line down the center of the road, a white pedestrian crosswalk, the traffic light in the intersection–did not simply spring into being when the first cars drove down the road. They had to be invented, and there were lots of false starts along the way. One of my favorite examples of a traffic technology that faded into obscurity is the mushroom traffic light.

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(Source: The American City [May 1921])

Cities experimented with painting various signals on the road too. In the mid-1920s, some began painting a white line down the middle of the road to separate traffic. Before that, there were no lane markings. As my next novel is set in Los Angeles in 1925, I’ve been researching traffic laws there in particular. In January of that year, LA passed a new traffic ordinance. This required the police to paint white crosswalks for pedestrians and also established the first loading zones on curbs. Speed limits included 20 mph in residential areas, demarcated by a sign shaped like a triangle and painted red.

To make things really confusing, every state and every city was experimenting with their own system. So in one city you might find mushroom traffic lights, in another lights hanging above the road. One city might paint signals on the road, while another relied on signs.

At this time, if police stopped you for violating a traffic law, they didn’t write a “ticket.” Instead, it was called a “tag.” So policemen “tagged” offending motorists.

My main character is a motorcycle patrol officer with the LAPD. Enforcing traffic laws might sound dull, but in fact, this was a remarkable period in which cities adapted to automobiles and created the landscape of traffic signals and signs so familiar to us today.

 

Sources: California Motor Vehicle Act of 1925; “Heath Reports Need of Police,” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1925; “New Los Angeles Traffic Code Goes Into Effect Next Saturday,” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1925

1920s and 1930s slang

Using the correct slang for an era is absolutely key in capturing the feel of the time and making the characters’ dialogue sound right. There are a lot of slang lists floating around the internet already, but I thought I’d add this one to the mix. All of these terms are ones I have come across in primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s. I’ll be adding to it periodically.

awfully: very (e.g. “would you mind awfully?”)

beastly: terrible

blamed fool: an idiot

blue: sad/depressed

cake of soap

chummy pair: two close friends

cool your heels: wait

corking: wonderful

crook: criminal

devil: common swear word (e.g. “why the devil did you do that?”)

dinky: little

dough: money

famously: good/well (e.g. “he got on famously with them.”)

fast set: group of fashionable people

good egg: a good person

gosh

“had a hankering for”: wanted something

hell: common swear word (e.g. “the hell of it is”)

honey/hon: a good thing/person (e.g. “we thought that was a honey”)

hooey: nonsense

hot dog kennel: roadside refreshment stand

howling: great (e.g. “a howling success”)

“I’m-from-Missouri attitude”: very critical and skeptical

“in a funk”: depressed/sad

jig time: fast (e.g. “it’s on the job in jig time”)

jolly: good

“keep your trap shut”: keep your mouth shut

lamb: a sweet person

lousy: crappy

mental capacity: intellgence

old bean: a man

old bus: an older car

“on the level”: true

phoney: fake

plug: kill

rotten: crappy

a scrap: a fight (e.g. “a dandy scrap”)

shiftless: unreliable (e.g. “shiftless fellows of no account”)

sister: a girl

skunk: a jerk

smashed to flinders: wrecked, like a car

smackers: dollars

snappy: cute/fashionable

sock on the nose: a punch

spooner: a teenage couple

sport: an easy-going/accommodating person (e.g. “what a glorious sport you are!”)

swell: good

“taken for a buggy ride”: fooled

tinsmith’s delight: a car

“why the heck”

“you could have knocked off their eyes with a barrel stave”: surprised

Latest work and what’s next

My short story “Another Saturn Monday” is now available in the Simmer anthology, at Dreamspinner or Amazon.

This story is a sci-fi fantasy, but I am more at home in historical fiction, and that’s the genre I’m working in for my next novel. And I am working on a new novel. It’s just taking a while mostly because I’m also in the middle of writing my dissertation. But I also do care about getting the history right, and that requires a lot of research.

The new novel–untitled as of yet, because I’m awful at titles–is set in Los Angeles in 1925. Yes, there is bootlegging, and speakeasies, and I try to slip in some of the great twenties slang. Building up the world that the characters live in is really fun, but also a lot of work. For example, when the two main characters decide to go see a movie, first I had to look in the Los Angeles Times archives to determine what movies were showing in July 1925 and ideally at what theater, then see if any of the movies were available on youtube so I could watch it myself and accurately describe it. (They go to see The Lost World, by the way. Stop motion dinosaurs!) I recently decided that another character enjoys fishing and camping, and so I want to try and read some issues of a contemporary magazine, Outdoor Life, so I can have him talking about current products and activities. Often these details only take up a paragraph or two, or maybe even just a sentence, but it takes hours to research them. Inevitably, you still get things wrong, but I want to do my best to represent the place and time.

So yes, a new novel is coming, it just might not be arriving quickly. But I hope the wait is worth it!

New short story to be released soon

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My short story “Another Saturn Monday” will be released February 24 as part of Dreamspinner Press’s Simmer anthology. All of the stories in this anthology revolve around food–although don’t be fooled by the banner as my story does not feature chocolate-covered strawberries but cabbage.

Cabbage forms the basis of the Hirculian cuisine, so when Interstellar Parking Authority employee Theo is forced to have breakfast at a Hirculian stall in the Saturn space station food court, he knows he’ll be having cabbage. But after one look at the stall’s shy but sexy proprietor, Ekain, Theo thinks he should have started eating cabbage for breakfast a long time ago.

Yes, this story is a departure from my usual historical fiction genre into the realm of sci-fi fantasy. The call for submissions asked for every author to include a recipe along with the story, and the first recipe that popped into my mind was my grandmother’s coleslaw recipe. This left me with a dilemma because cabbage did not seem like the sort of food that a story, let alone a romance, could revolve around. But then I came up with the idea of an alien culture that only eats cabbage, and soon poor Theo was stumbling around the Saturn space station on a Monday morning and discovering the delights of Hirculian cabbage cuisine…and Ekain who does sport horns but is still pretty adorable, fondness for cabbage and all.

The Simmer anthology can be preordered on the Dreamspinner Press website here:

Simmer ebook

Simmer paperback

Charity and Sylvia

This looks like a good book: Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleeves. It tells the story of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake who lived in Vermont in the early 1800s. Their community recognized them as a couple but accepted them because the women were modest and active members in the community’s social and religious life.  Charity and Sylvia lived during the Second Great Awakening and both experienced a spiritual rebirth. They often struggled with the sexual nature of their attachment because it was considered a sin but viewed the struggle itself as the way of earning God’s love. At age 54, Sylvia wrote in her diary: “31 years since I left my mother’s house and commenc’d serving in company with Dear Miss B. Sin mars all earthly bliss, and no common sinner have I been.”

Blog Release Party on April 8

On Wednesday, April 8, I will be doing a blog release party on the Dreamspinner Press blog to celebrate the release of Untethered. It will start at 12 PM EDT and continue through the afternoon. I’ll be posting excerpts, more about the historical setting of the novel, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of my writing process. I’ll also be giving away two free ebooks to participants, so come join the fun!

3-candle Floor Lamps

I think one of the most challenging aspects of writing historical fiction is finding out all the mundane details of daily life. It is also one of the most fun. A little detail from the 1920s and 1930s that I find particularly charming is that instead of using watts to describe the power of an electric light bulb as we do today, people used the term “candle power.” So in 1931 you could buy a 3-candle floor lamp for $7.75, for example. Although “watt” as a unit of measurement existed, the use of “candle power” demonstrates that the transition to electricity was still under way, and people continued to look to an older system of lighting as reference in understanding and speaking about the new one.