Featured Stories

Women's liberation, and the music of the Roaring 1920's


AD FROM THE BEE, 1927 - No need to travel to Portlands downtown department stores, when you could shop at the Sellwood Furniture Company. Music enthusiasts in the 1920s could pick up records, sheet music, or a fancy record player there. When the 1920’s arrived, the nation was prepared for change.

Rapid growth was occurring in industry, and new forms of entertainment were attracting Americans – particularly the younger ones.

As wages doubled, young people flocked to the cities, applying for the new jobs, leaving the drudgery of farm life behind.

Many new opportunities for women became available, as the traditional roles of “stay at home housewife”, teacher, or domestic worker, became passé. Many women were needed as stenographers, typists, secretaries, and office workers – and in the textile industry. There were breakthroughs for women also in sports, music, the arts, and the movie industry.

In Inner Southeast “Oregon Worsted”, a knitting and yarn manufacturing company, specifically hired women to work the spinning and weaving machines in the factory built in the vacant fields east of where Tacoma Street ended, in “Willsburg”. The factory was located within easy walking distance of the Sellwood or emerging Westmoreland areas.

Many other young ladies found their first jobs at the Peerless Laundry Company or at the Wassell Helgren Canning and Preserves Co, both located along 13th Avenue. A 1920 ad in THE BEE announced open jobs for 100 women to “peel pears for the Wassell Helgren Company”.

At the same time, young Americans were experiencing a dramatic change in the music they were listening to, the clothes they were wearing, and even the style of their hair. Ladies wore their hair short and their dresses looser, and enjoyed new-found freedom in dancing, smoking, and sports. Men wore baggy slacks, raccoon coats, and black patent leather shoes.

The days of neighborhood get-togethers in which parents played fiddles, guitars, and harmonicas, and sang “Danny Boy” or “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”, were disappearing. Up and coming now was music created by the younger generation. Young people of the 1920’s wanted music that made them feel happy, snappy, and fast, and motivate them to get up and dance instead of just sitting and watching. Big bands, ragtime, blues, and a fast upbeat tempo style called Jazz were emerging.

Young and old were now hearing and playing such instruments as clarinet, saxophone, drums, trumpets, and trombones – with singers performing together in groups backed up jazzy upbeat tempos. With the increasing income of the “jazz age ’20’s”, a new and exciting life style was emerging. The new businesses centered around music and dance provided new opportunities for ladies in the entertainment field. Norma Holzgraf emerged as one of Oaks Park’s first female musical directors, in a field usually dominated by men. She established an all-girls band made up of seven lovely and talented ladies who played an assortment of instruments from ukulele, banjo, trumpet, drums and mandolin.

Widely known as the Normandy Girls, each band member was required to play at least two instruments to qualify for the ensemble. These lady musicians performed during many shows in the summertime, playing such unusual instruments as the sousaphone, fish horn, and bass horn. The Normandy Girls were noted for playing something new called “Broadway Symphonic Jazz”, which was upbeat and appealing to young audiences – while still playing older “standard” songs requested by senior members of the audience.

Admission to these Oaks Park evening concerts cost only 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children, and often the Normandy Girls preformed for close to 3,000 spectators who filled the outdoor stage at The Oaks.

Norma Holzgraf, a Texas native, accompanied the band on the piano, and the Normandy Girls usually appeared twice daily from May to September. Norma also piloted the Harmony Girls and Orpheus Girls groups, and was able to book engagements as far away as California and Canada until the crash of the stock market in 1929 ended many of the park’s bands and concerts. When the Normandy Girls folded, the musically-talented Norma Holzgraf spent the rest of her life first driving a bookmobile, and later being a taxi cab driver.

However, the Crash in 1929 and the Great Depression did not stop the music; indeed its escape became even more important than ever. As music enthusiasts filled dance halls to listen to their favorite groups and musicians, pianos were purchased for in-home use, and consumer interest in sheet music increased. Hundreds of thousands of sheets were sold at department or music stores or by mail order.

Two new inventions had been grabbing the public’s attention since years before 1929 – the radio, and the phonograph.

The phonograph made popular music available for people to listen to in their own homes, or to share with friends and family whenever they wanted. Young adults no longer needed to wait for their favorite singer to show up at a musical venue, or pay admission to hear them. Over 190,000 phonographs were sold nationwide in 1923, and within six years sales reached 5 million.

While orchestral and marching music originally sold the most records and sheet music, soon jazz, blues, and hillbilly music was on the rise. The Sellwood Furniture Company offered free demonstrations of the new Orthophonic Victrola record player for potential buyers -- or you could stop by to hear the latest records, which they were selling. If you needed a piano delivered to your home, who better to call than the Sellwood Transfer Company – for reliable and fast delivery!

While owning a phonograph was originally quite expensive, limited to the upper classes, radios proved a cheaper method of entertainment and reached a larger listening audience. The longest continuous broadcasting station started in 1909 in San Jose, California, with KQW, today known as KCBS in San Francisco. In 1920, the first government license for radio broadcasting was issued to KDKA in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

By 1923, close to 500 radio stations were on the air across the country; in Portland, the oldest continuous radio broadcast is that of KBPS, the Portland Public Schools station, which started in 1921 – and in 1922 was purchased by students holding bake sales and the like, for $2,000, from the radio repair shop that had put it on the air. The students presented the station to the Portland Public Schools, which still operates it today from a studio and tower at Benson High School. KGW and KEX soon followed on the Portland dial. The earliest local radio broadcasts were sing-along musical shows, along with just a little national news and weather reports, and networked radio soon followed, featuring comedy and variety shows and mystery serials. Six years later radios could be found in more than half of the homes in America, and this “furniture that talked” became a major part of everyday life.

The new music that emerged in the 1920’s encouraged youngsters to join their local school band, and caused parents to enroll their children with private instructors who taught piano, violin, and trumpets, or who taught popular styles of singing.

In Sellwood, musical coaches included Mrs. Eugenie M. Brown, piano, and Mrs. Lambert A. Beard, voice and piano, who taught from private studios or their homes. For many years the Sellwood band which practiced at the Sellwood Community Center was hired to perform for many special occasions or by fraternal organizations which didn’t have their own band.

Carl A. Hohmann was a musician and onetime leader of the Sellwood band; and a kindergarten orchestra was organized at the Sellwood School, to the delight of parents and teachers. Bands were in such high demand that the Postal Workers and the Streetcar CarMen had their own bands, available for patriotic speeches, sporting events, and holidays.

The neighborhood’s most prolific instructor was Professor Albert Schuff who opened the Progressive School of Music in his house across from the Sellwood Community Center. Born in Mergeln, Austria in 1889, Albert learned how to play the piano when he was just seven years old, taught by his father. Albert emigrated to America (presumably with other members of his family) in 1909, when he was only nine years old.

Among his many accomplishments were being a member of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, where he played the violin for twenty three years; being a lifetime member of the musicians’ union; and being a lifetime member the Trinity Church of God. Besides being a music teacher at the Sellwood School, and serving as a private instructor throughout the Portland area, Albert created and shared many musical compositions for local high society in the Rose City.

During the 1920’s and well into the next decade, dances with live bands were held every weekend in the Westmoreland-Sellwood neighborhood. In particular, musicians and bands were needed for shindigs at Strahlman’s Hall, above the Isis Theater, at the corner of 13th and Spokane. Dances and fundraisers were on going at Union Hall upstairs over the Sellwood Volunteer Fire Station at 13th and Tenino, too. Meantime, a dance and card party was held regularly at St Agatha’s Hall during the 1920’s – a five-piece ladies orchestra was hired, and attendees paid only 50 cents for the evening’s performance.

The Westmoreland Community Club even went so far as organizing an annual “boat dance”. For 50 cents patrons could enjoy refreshments and glamorous music aboard the ship “The Swan”, which traveled from the East Morrison Street Docks down the Willamette River and back. A seven piece orchestra, the Francis Bliss Group, furnished the entertainment for the evening guests.

Dancing was a really big deal for young people in the 1920’s and 1930’s; you never went to a dance alone. If you didn’t have a date, you felt left out. It was a great time for young people to socialize and mingle, and dances were where many couples met, and later married.

Frequently referred to as the “Golden Times”, “The Roaring Twenties”, or the “Jazz Era”, the 1920’s are still remembered by Portland locals old enough to recall them as an exciting time of change – until the arrival of the Great Depression in the 1930’s cast a deep cloud over Inner Southeast Portland. But, that is another story.