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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Roaring Twenties brought Suffrage, Prohibition to Cape May

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 Some people, especially the women who fought for their rights and then bequeathed their stories to posterity, considered the Roaring Twenties a fun decade, even in conservative Cape May.

They had fought the battle for the right to vote during the 1910s and ultimately achieved their goal on Aug. 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. New Jersey was the 29th state to ratify, but it wasn’t easy.

Leadership in this state came from an organization called the New Jersey Women Suffrage Association, some of whom came from Cape May County. Their activity led to state Senate ratification of the amendment by an 18 to 2 vote in February 1920.

But supporters were not quite so certain about its fate when the vote came to the Assembly. For instance, in an earlier Cape May County referendum, the all-male voters had rejected the idea of women voting, although it was a close decision with 44.5 percent in favor. And even the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, once the governor of New Jersey, was vacillating, first opposed and then coming out for it.

So it was on this tenth day in February of this new decade that the women packed the Assembly chambers and waited nervously for the results. They were rewarded when the final tally was 34 to 24 in favor.

Cheers erupted and a few months later in April a grand victory convention was held in Newark. From that emerged what is still known today in Cape May County and elsewhere in the state as The League of Women Voters.

The 1920 federal legislation, however, was not the first time in this nation’s history that women were given the right to vote. That privilege was granted from 1776 to 1807, as long as the women were unmarried property owners. It was soon to be revoked, though, until more than a century later.

Important as it was in its own right, the new development for the American woman meant more than being allowed to vote for the person or issue of her choice. It created a New Woman for society as the lyrics from the Broadway show “Anything Goes” were to tell, lyrics that could apply to today’s society also:

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking

But now, God knows,

Anything Goes

“Good authors who once knew better words,

Now only use four letter words

Writing prose. Anything goes.”

For the still conservative people of that time period, the clothes that the women changed to as a result of their newly found freedom fitted the description that must have inspired the Cole Porter musical and its title song.

Gone were the ankle length dresses, the petticoats, black stockings and high button shoes. Replacing them were close fitting hats and (horrors!) dresses that ended about an inch above the knee. And please don’t take your children to the beach where the women were wearing some of those new fashion bathing suits and men were strutting around topless!

Women were expressing their independence in other ways too. They dyed their hair and wore what was advertised as “kiss proof lipstick” which has not been explained as to whether it restrained men from kissing them or made kissing better. And, most of all, they danced the Charleston in those abbreviated knee length (and sometimes shorter) dresses that some of the prim and proper thought were the worst thing to happen to American society since John Wilkes Booth shot Abe Lincoln.

Some of these women were to become known as flappers, an image still retained in the history of time and often recreated at parties in today’s Cape May society. Along with their attire the women became more assertive and rebellious in the 1920s.

But more was happening in the Roaring Twenties that often lived up to its nickname. New roads were being built for the increased number of automobiles that were arriving to replace horses. Scandals about road contracts and freeholders became frequent news and the same people who looked with disdain at the changes in some women didn’t like what was happening in automobiles either.

More young people were riding in this new form of transportation and they didn’t always stop at some secluded spot to discuss the presidencies of Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge, it was claimed. Church attendance was down, drinking was up and the nation’s morals continued to decline, according to those who claimed they kept track of those sorts of things.

Drinking was up even when there were those who tried to put it down with the passage of Prohibition in the early1920s.

Prohibition, in fact, was the biggest thing to happen in that decade of turbulence except for the stock market crash in 1929. The making, selling or distribution of liquor was made illegal, but all that did was spawn a rash of illegal speakeasies where if you said “Joe sent me” or the like you could enter and have a drink or two or more and dance the Charleston with a flapper.

One of those speakeasies in Cape May was said to be on the site of what is now Collier’s Liquor Store, later to become Charlie’s Bar before it assumed its present name.

Kept busy during this decade was the United States Coast Guard, which sought out mother ships far off shore and the boats that brought what was colloquially called booze to their illegal destinations on land. One report contended that some vacationers watched on the beach while the Coast Guard exchanged gun fire with the crews of the violating ships not too far from the bathing areas.

The violence on and off the land grew so frequent in the county that Harry F. Greaves, editor of the Cape May Star and Wave, came up with a bold suggestion. He suggested that the Ku Klux Klan, very active in the county at that time, be used to combat the violators.

“We do not advocate violence,” he wrote, “but it would do some of these birds good if the Ku Klux Klan happened to make a visit here, and make them skidoo, never to return.”

All these colorful years and often fun and games were to take a tragic turn later in 1929 when the stock market fell deeper than the ocean’s bed. Soon the decade turned to the Terrible Thirties and it didn’t matter so much what the flappers wore. For everyone it mattered whether they had anything to carry in their pocketbooks or wallets if indeed they could afford any pocketbooks or wallets.


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