Historical info

Queer Marriage in the 1920s

Note: this post contains mild spoilers for a scene in my book My Baby Chased Away the Blues

It’s true that legal gay marriage, in which both parties are recognized as male, is a recent thing. But that doesn’t mean that queer people did not get married in the past–and often, public perceptions of those marriages were much more complicated than one might assume. In one scene in my book, Ev shares two newspaper articles with Del that discuss marriages between same-sex couples. I based this scene on actual articles and wanted to discuss one of them further here because it’s absolutely fascinating.

The article is dated October 4, 1923, and it appeared in the New York Times. It discusses a murder case in Chicago, where a Fred G. Thompson was on trial for shooting a man named Richard Tesmer in a holdup. During the trial, it came out that Thompson also lived as a woman, Frances, and had been married to a Frank Carrick for the past fourteen years. Shortly after Thompson’s marriage to Carrick, Thompson (as a man) had married a woman named Marie Clark, but did not live with her.

Unfortunately, the article does not go into anymore detail about the relationship between these three people. However, the author of the article includes descriptions of Thompson that gender them as feminine. Thompson “spoke in the low tones a woman might use” and “unclasped and clasped his hands, and sobbed as he told of his double life.”

When Frank Carrick took the stand to testify in behalf of Thompson, the State objected on the grounds that a husband could not testify on behalf of his wife. The judge sustained the objection.

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.


(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


“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

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.”

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.

Setting the Mood

Some of the songs that the characters listen to in Untethered:

“My Buddy” is one of those songs that comes across as very homoerotic today but wasn’t intended so at the time. Of course, queer men would have been able to interpret it in a romantic way.


“They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” which contains the immortal lines: And flying over Egypt, your heart will never be gypped



Coming Soon

Untethered will be released on April 6 by Dreamspinner Press. You can read the full synopsis here. It’s about Frankie Norris, a young pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Besides telling the love story of Frankie and his crew chief, Jim Morrow, I wanted to show how WWII enabled gay men and lesbians to form a community of unprecedented scope and influence. The Armed Forces brought millions of men and women from all parts of the country together, providing countless opportunities to form same-sex relationships. It was a watershed moment in queer history.

What I found particularly striking as I did research for this novel was how the environment within the Armed Forces could be amazingly tolerant at times for queer men. Drag shows, surprisingly open sexual and romantic relationships, acceptance of gay men within units–you can find evidence for all of this. But at the same time, there was repression and homophobia and violence and the threat of discharge and/or prison. It was so dependent on the individuals involved and the place you happened to be. Because I’m a historian, I can’t help citing a source! I found Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II particularly useful in conceptualizing what gay men and lesbians encountered in the Armed Forces.

Hopefully I captured some of this sense of community coupled with the uncertainty and danger in Frankie’s story. It is available for pre-order at Dreamspinner Press.