The Original American Flapper

In a 1923 interview Zelda Fitzgerald told a reporter that she loved her husband’s “books and heroines,” especially the heroines who were like her. She explained that she liked girls like Rosalind Connage, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise, because she admired “their courage, their recklessness and spendthriftiness.” She continues: “Rosalind was the original American flapper.”

Zelda Fitzgerald dates “the original American flapper” to three or four years before. Back then, she states, “[G]irls of their type were pioneers. They did what they wanted, were unconventional, perhaps, just because they wanted to for self-expression.” However, as of 1923, girls were flappers because, according to Zelda, it was “the thing everyone does.” In this interview, Zelda charts flappers from pioneering to predictable in just four years.

When did flapper come to mean the strong, independent, and sometimes reckless female heroine both idealized and embodied by Zelda Fitzgerald, an exhibitionist in her early 20s at the time of the interview? Flapper entered English in the 16th century meaning a flat item used for striking. During the 18th century, flapper first described a person who flaps something, and also a young bird learning to fly. It was not until the late 19th century that flapper was used in reference to a woman.

Though the etymology is unknown, it is thought that perhaps this is a metaphorical extension of the “young bird” sense. It also might have come from a Northern English dialect in which the terms flap or flappy (now obsolete) were used in reference to “an immoral woman” or “a prostitute.” The sense of “a boldly unconventional young woman” first emerged in English in the late 1800s. At the time, a flapper was a girl in her late teens, especially one who puts adventure and excitement above manners. The term flapper continued to grow in meaning in the 1920s. By the end of the decade, it could be used in a similar political context as the term suffragette. In fact in 1929, the first UK election in which women were allowed to vote in was referred to as “the flapper vote” or “the flapper election.”

Zelda Fitzgerald was a fiery girl in her late teens when she first met her famous future husband, though by this time the term flapper had extended to all young women, even those beyond their teenage years. In a 1918 note to his soon-to-be bride, F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the character of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise resembled Zelda “in more ways than four.” The woman who she referred to as “the original American flapper” was, in fact, based on Zelda Fitzgerald herself.

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