A fast glimpse at the Roaring 20s in Maine

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“Children in automobile,” part of the Library of Congress’ National Photo Company Collection.

By Paul Mills

We’re now on the cusp of a decade that just a century ago won fame and immortality as the “Roaring 20s.” It’s thus an occasion to take a good look at a few vignettes that make the decade stand out, even nearly a century after it made its debut.

So, let’s go now to 1921. It is to be one of the first prosecutions of its kind in Maine. The charge: speeding. The adjudication by the Farmington Municipal Court: Guilty – the defendant having admitted to driving at least 17 miles per hour in a 15-mile-per-hour zone – but the $10 fine was suspended so long as the respondent was not brought into Court on a similar charge.

Though it’s not known if he exhibited recidivist tendencies, the 19-year-old defendant had good reason to lay claim to being a young man in a hurry. More on that later.

Though automotive technology has since made the infraction that the youthful offender committed seem trifling today, there is one area that “progress” has not occurred. For at the time one could travel a lot faster to and from such places and Lewiston and Bangor, Farmington and Portland than one can today. For railroad passenger service provided in that era such virtually uninterrupted means of travel that no automotive means has ever been able to compete.

Men like the 1921 speeding case defendant were certainly on the move. But so too were women. For the August 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment ushered in a right that would be accompanied by a general though sometimes gradual acknowledgment of equal gender rights. Though it would be several years after winning the right to vote that women would become as enthusiastic as men about the right to drive – most of them still relegating that mission to men – their views would have more of an immediate impact.

Legislation successfully spearheaded by Skowhegan State Senator Clyde Smith – future husband of Margaret Chase Smith – regulating working conditions and overtime protections were among the first in the 1920s to experience the impact of women’s influences at the ballot box.

The new era of female emancipation played itself out in popular literary expressions. These included a somewhat demonstrative quatrain from a Farmington State Normal School yearbook from the early 1920s:

“If ever I should get married
And my husband began to chew
I’d fire the rolling pin at him
And paddle my own canoe.”

Also noticeable were the street side visions in the ’20s. These manifested the social changes that the new decade had ushered in. Bobbed hair and shirt skirts outfitted many women. Men’s preferences showed a reluctance to wear the stiff collars that had long been uncomfortable.

Not so visible of course was the consumption of alcohol. For just a year before the 19th women’s vote amendment had been the 18th, decreeing a national prohibition. This was not such an abrupt imposition for many of the states such as Maine, however, which had already by state-wide regulation purported to proscribe consumption well before the 1919 national ban. Indeed, so much in the forefront of the movement was the Pine Tree state that similar laws throughout the world were sometimes referred to as a “Maine law,” this after the initial 1851 enactment by our state’s lawmakers. (It was repealed in 1855 but reinstated in 1858, where it was to remain on the books until replaced in 1934 by a system of local options that remain largely in place today.)

The decree banning alcohol was not the only socially conservative pushback of the decade. Some mainstream religious groups still discouraged dancing and theatre attendance and it would not be until 1947 that Sunday bowling would be legalized in Maine.

Leading exponents of Puritanism came not always from the pulpit but also from the principal’s office. One of the youngest high school principals in Maine, 25-year-old Myron Hamer of Farmington, turned out to be one of the more conservative. Hamer banned jazz performances by bands at the regional high school he led. (Hamer’s yearning for a certain degree of ascetic certainty may well have been better fulfilled in the years he would later spend through the 1960s as a math professor at Northeastern University.)

Oh, on that first speeding case. The teenage offender may have had good reason to be going a bit fast. He was after all, on his way to becoming one of the premier self-made industrial potentates of 20th century Maine. For this was Ted Hodgkins, the future owner of Forster Mfg. Co. which during the ensuing decades – with facilities stretching all the way from Mattawamkeag to Strong, to East Wilton and Dryden – would become one of the biggest employers in Maine. As the world’s largest manufacturer of toothpicks it would claim cinematic immortality when the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt made an almost instant count of 246 of them spilled on a restaurant floor in the Dustin Hoffman Rainman movie!

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net

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