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All's Unfair in Love and War: The Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and World War II in Drexerd

April 23, 2012

To mark the Libraries' current exhibition, Inventing the Page: Student Literary Magazines at Drexel, the Archives' blog continues its series of essays about past literary magazines by Drexel alumna and Archives volunteer, Martha Cornog. Inventing the Page is on display at W. W. Hagerty Library until June 11.All's Unfair in Love and War: The Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and World War II in Drexerd by Martha Cornog A wonderfully fetching and fashionable young flapper decorates the cover of the second issue of Drexerd, a Drexel literary magazine running from 1921 through 1942. Enthusiastically serving up mostly humorous material at first, a majority of the longer stories in the earlier years give glimpses of romantic rivalries and conquests with a lighthearted touch. The Great War was over at last, and frivolity as well as coquetry rushed in to soothe the hangovers of battle, if only aggravate the hangovers from Prohibition's bootleg booze. 

In one early story, a wily young woman discourages her parents' choice of a rich swain by burning his dinner, sneaking out afterwards to marry her more modestly employed beloved. In another, a shy but talented basketball player finds himself the brunt of a more aggressive player's bullying until the shyer student does a chivalrous favor for the bully's sister - and attracts the affections of the sister herself. The numerous short selections include this perky comparison between boyfriends:

An awful bore is Felix Rice.

I really think he's made of ice.

For when he calls on me at nights

He sits away from me

Like this,

He talks of golf, Baby Ruth, and fights.


While I adore young Phil McCoy;

He fills my heart with heavenly joy,

For when with me he has a date

He cuddles up quite close


And though I'm dying for a kiss

And tho' his words may be remiss

I'll say he sure can osculate.

But by 1931, the cover shows a well-dressed man buying a wormy apple from a bedraggled apple-seller. Frivolity foundered when the stock market crashed in 1929, and now even lighthearted stories include allusions to the Depression. A rich coffee baron reminisces about how he made his fortune as an impoverished college student, running a chain of community coffee shops to make money on the side. By chance, a staggeringly drunk couple stops in on their way to get married. Thinking the match possibly a rash mistake, the future baron and his partner sober them up with their strongest brew, and one of them calls the girl's father. The coffee works, and soon the couple erupts in boisterous argument, capped by the arrival of the father. Cursing her would-be fiance, the young woman flings herself with melodramatic tears into father's arms. The father is so appreciative afterwards that he approves a match between his daughter and the baron's partner as well as backing the pair financially for expansion of their coffee business.

At least a one engineering student must have joined the contributors to pen 'An Engineer Speaks on Paul Revere,' an amusing take-off on Paul Revere's ride in stand-up comic style. Another engineering student must have created the inventive retake on Beowulf, which establishes that Grendel and his mother were man-eating robots, commissioned by Beowulf himself as sham enemies to propel the supposed 'hero' to fame and fortune. Could this be one of the earliest mentions of robotics in a Drexel student publication? Science continues as a theme in the 1935 piece: 'Elementary, My Dear Watson.' Not about Sherlock Holmes, the very clever short sketch about the tempestuous marriage of Mae Bunsen and Sam Erlenmeyer puns on the names of numerous elements of the Periodic Table, with only the abbreviations appearing in the text, like this:

'It's S the best, I suppose,' he said, when one day during one of their quarrels he Pb with his right after she tried to Fe him out with one of the dining room chairs.' (See translation at the bottom of the page.)

By now, the magazine included 'Blue Notes,' a column on noteworthy jazz and pop music recordings, and articles relating to Philadelphia theatre productions. A faculty member contributed an essay about the political apathy of too many U.S. youth, but that was due to change very soon and not for happy reasons. War was brewing across the oceans. The April 1938 issue of Drexerd is in fact dedicated to war, that 'age-old scourge of mankind, the third topic of every fraternity bull-session (the first and second being sex and religion, respectively).' The magazine's editors issued a call for opinions about the conflict and, potentially, American participation and published many responses. The editors did not hide their own reactions:

'We can see nothing to war but a very fancy form of madness.... To us the world 'war' does not mean a trained army, nor a country fighting for a great cause, nor a glorious death on a battlefield. It signifies a devastated land, a legalized mass murder, and bodies rotting on a battlefield; bodies of men whose last thoughts were not of happiness or beauty but probably a feeling of wonder at the joke fate had played by causing them to be born.'

While many of Drexel's young men responded with duty-minded generalities about national security, the young women let loose with heart-breaking predictions:

'Boys - the boys that you and I go to school with--will go out and get shot down because we have men like Hitler who are mad for power. It is our generation that will suffer.... What good will our degrees do us then?'

'And to have the horrible feeling that they were killed by someone who didn't know them; mostly likely didn't want to kill them; covered his eyes when he aimed but unfortunately didn't miss.'

Fiction and poetry in the issue picked up on the war theme as well. By 1942, the Pearl Harbor bombing had brought the U.S. into the war, and a military leitmotif underlies the entire content, but with more of a 'let's buck up and get on with it' air. A cartoon shows two ugly women luring a hunky male air raid warden into their home by purposely leaving all the lights blazing in the window during an air raid drill. (All residential lighting was supposed to be turned off during an air raid, so that enemy planes would not see lights on the ground to help them aim their bombs.) But although the battle in Europe escalated, the battle of the sexes did not thereupon cease. Indeed, mention of male-female matters took on a sexier tinge, perhaps due to a last-chance mentality. In one humorous piece, Mama, Papa, and Baby Stork are comparing notes on how their day went. When it comes to his turn, Baby Stork says, 'I've been across town scaring hell out of some of these high school kids.' More of the gags revolve around intoxicants or sex or both, such as the exchange, presumably at a campus party or similar:

'What's your name?'

'I don't know, but I'm beautiful!'

Thus, it was Drexerd that saw and reflected how Drexel changed with the rest of the world into a community that feels almost contemporary, even though 1942 was seventy years ago. Before the first World War, an electric optimism pervaded the United States and its universities, caught up in the accomplishments of fast-developing industries and technology but without the full social understanding of what might come of these. Postwar industrial and banking success fueled the Roaring Twenties, but prosperity collapsed with the Great Depression. Technologies, science, and education turned war into a different, more global, and more dangerous experience, as played out in both World Wars, than had been the case before the twentieth century. Education, technology, commerce, and the calculus of desperation common in wartime changed the dance between men and women, heralding the so-called sexual revolution to come. Industrialization in the nineteenth century had led to vulcanized rubber, and the rubber condom. Latex was invented in 1920, with latex condoms soon to follow. So what with love and war, both newly supported by the kinds of technology that led Anthony Drexel to found a university, everything about the world changed--and Drexerd saw it all. Slow to change, however, were race relations; and a very un-modern note is struck by the occasional 'Rastus'-type jokes and stories, reflecting supposedly comic takes on African Americans. A revolution was coming in social acceptance of minorities, including Jews affected by the Holocaust, Native Americans, and immigrants of multiple ethnicities. And none too soon. _______________ Translation: ''It's sulfur (all for) the best, I suppose,' he said, when one day during one of their quarrels he lead with his right after she tried to iron him out with one of the dining room chairs.' The names of the loving couple derive from chemistry laboratory stand-bys: the Bunsen burner and the Erlenmeyer flask.
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