Jazzy Nerves, Aching Feet, and Foxtrots: Representations of Jazz in the New Zealand Media during the 1920s

In honour of International Jazz Day (April 30) I’ve decided to post about one of my favourite topics: jazz in print. One of the interesting things about researching anything historical is that at some point you get to examine old newspapers, and, headaches caused by badly photographed newspapers/badly calibrated microfilm machines aside, it was a lot of fun discovering how people perceived things in a different time, and how ideas were used in advertising and reporting. I found this aspect of jazz in New Zealand so fascinating that I turned some of it into a conference paper (most recently presented at the New Zealand Musicology Society Conference 2012). What follows is an excerpt of that presentation focusing on jazz in advertising and moral evangelism.

During the 1920s ‘jazz’, as a concept, captured the world’s imagination and the term ‘jazz’ was adopted by consumer and popular culture and associated with many different things. I discovered that the New Zealand media and advertising industry enthusiastically embraced the term ‘jazz’, and the associated ‘jazzy’ and ‘jazzing’ during the 1920s and that these terms were used to describe the new style of music and dance that we call jazz, as well as personal behaviour (fashionable or reckless), emotions (particularly excitement), events (fashionable and exciting), and even aspects of consumer items (such as patterns on fabric). Researching jazz in the New Zealand media led to me discovering some fascinating examples of how the New Zealand press used the term jazz during the 1920s. Possibly the most interesting use was in advertising, but not in direct association with music or dance. Jazz was an ideal and a lifestyle that was considered fashionable, but it was also a lifestyle with certain risks.

In advertising the terms jazz and jazzy were often used to describe emotional qualities or fashionable items that the consumer simply must have. Advertising using the term jazz during this decade emphasised both the negative and the positive of jazz and jazzing (music and dance) such as sore feet, messy hair, or perspiration– to sell their products to the supposedly jazz obsessed public. Women in particular were targeted by companies that incorporated the jazz in their advertising. For example, “There’s nothing like ‘TIZ’ before and after jazzing” to soothe ones tired feet.

jazz feet CP 27.10.1920

Or “Do you Dance? Of course you do, you could jazz to the end of the earth” however, you need to use “Owens Dancing Powder” to create the best floor on which to jazz.

jazz floors ad CP 12.7.1920

However, during the season of jazz (winter) when  “frivolous flappers are out for fun…Taking a chance in the chill night air”

jazz and flu cure NZH 11.5.1922

if said flapper caught the ‘flu (a serious concern so soon after the influenza pandemic), all she needed to do to help endure the ‘flu was to dose herself with “Woods Peppermint Cure”. Woods in particular played on the subject of flappers, jazz, and the flu with a wide range of amusing poems for their advertisements, which encourage the reader to actually read it rather than flick past it like so many advertisements.

Woods Peppermint ad Kaipara Echo

Although the majority of extra-musical jazz advertising appears to have targeted women, men were also included and  were encouraged to use a certain brand of hair cream to set their hair before a jazz party,

jazz hair cream EP 3.7.1922

or  to learn how to jazz by mail-order: no music or partner required!

jazzing ad NZH 14.4.1923

And if life became too much for men or women, and the nerves became “jazzy”

jazz nerves ad 6.1.1922 NZ herald

then to cure “The universal jazz”, just take “Marshall’s Fosphorine” as “a single dose bucks one up tremendously.”

The types of advertisements, that used jazz as a marketing buzz–word were wide and varied, everything from hair cream to alarm clocks. The one thing that the majority of these advertisements had in common is they way they used the term jazz. The activity most often associated in this advertising was dancing, and the emotion that was connected was excitement.  By connecting their products to what they thought the consumers desired materially and emotionally, companies hoped that their products were the ones that were chosen by consumers.

At the same time that companies are targeting women as their primary audience for jazz and jazz inspired products that moralist and religious organisations were emphasising the moral and physical dangers of jazz- including ill health from being exposed to the night air. This debate in New Zealand was never about jazz specifically, but jazz was included as one of the many modern evils that surrounded the main objection in the early 1920s, that of the modern styles of dancing. All modern ballroom dances, and by extension, commercial public dancing venues appear to have been given the same treatment by the moral evangelists. A great part of that outcry against dancing involved the potential for premarital, or extramarital sex, as enabled by the newly formed practice of ‘cutting in,’ and the possible availability of alcohol, or, to a lesser extent, drugs.


These morality panics were for the most part focussed the behaviour of young women, rather than young men. Young women were considered to have a weaker moral fibre, and were easily swayed by anything new, modern, or illicit, unless they were properly protected from evil by their parents and brothers.  During the 1920s the tabloid New Zealand Truth was filled with lurid tales of girls and young women falling from grace at dance halls. And still more about girls identified as flappers turning to a life of crime, although the links between jazz at the crimes they committed are flimsy at best! Throughout the 1920s there were multitudes of scare–mongering articles about the effects of cabarets on the “nebulous morals of young flappers,” and occasionally one about a young man who fell from grace due to jazz.


If a flapper managed not to fall from grace Truth certainly tried to convince her that no man would want her as a wife, because she would project an air of jaded boredom, and had none of the energy or wholesomeness that men wanted in a wife.


Conversely New Zealand Truth also promoted the jazz as a fashionable lifestyle alongside its articles on the downfall of women due to jazz. There were articles defending the flapper as an independent modern woman, who was not falling from grace in any way, shape, or form. She held down a respectable job, sent money home to help out her parents and while she enjoyed jazz, cabarets and nightlife, did not overindulge and was wise enough to stay away from intoxicants. This alternate picture of the flapper is an interesting contrast to Truth’s other version that it is amusing to see such articles side by side in the paper. These contrasting views are a result of Truth attempting to pander to all sections of New Zealand society.


Less lurid than the Truth articles, but still provoking moral panic, were the articles and opinion pieces in the daily newspapers that decried the supposed deviancy that regularly occurred in commercial dance halls. These articles vigorously championed sobriety, modest behaviour and dress, and campaigned against the evils of modern living, in particular, modern dancing in commercial dance venues. The tour by Salvation Army General Herbert Booth that damned all dancing as being sinful and physically dangerous added impetus to organisations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to campaign against the evils of modern living and spawned a number of articles and opinion pieces in support of General Booth’s views. While these articles did not focus as Truth did on the downfall from grace, they certainly played on the fear that young people, especially young women would fall from grace without proper guidance.


On the flip side to this moral panic is the dance–for–health movement with the proponents advocating all forms of dance, including one–steps, foxtrots and the other jazz dances, as being excellent exercise. These articles were often in reply to moral evangelism articles, and in particular in reply to General Booth’s speeches. Interestingly this movement included a number of senior clergymen of various denominations, who, while they disapproved of commercial dance venues, they did not condemn dancing as a physically, emotionally and socially healthy activity if done in the proper atmosphere such as a private dance.

Several articles on this matter appeared in women’s columns, and explained in detail the physical and mental benefits of dancing. Dancing in general was thought of as improving one’s physique and posture, and was a good treatment for anyone suffering from a respiratory condition. It was also believed to be good for anyone suffering from depression, and also to improve mental acuity. For jazz dancing specifically, the foxtrot was considered to be a perfect balance of physical and mental activity, and the one–step dances were simple enough for anyone with the proverbial two left feet.

The two sides of the moralism debate raise interesting issues for the position of jazz in New Zealand society during the 1920s. On the one hand it was a popular music and dance style, one that was considered, at the least an acceptable novelty. On the other, it was seen as immoral and physically and mentally dangerous. While these were the extreme views about jazz, both camps were very vocal in the popular press and their opinion articles and letters to the editor formed some of the conceptualisation of jazz that the general New Zealand public had during this decade.

So what was the general perception of jazz in New Zealand during this time? Sadly for the moral evangelists (or perhaps happily since it gave them something to complain about), many New Zealanders at least tolerated jazz as the latest (possibly passing) fad. From as early as 1921 the majority of commercial dance venues included jazz in their dance lists, or even had jazz evenings. By September 1921 the first jazz venue had opened: The Winter Garden in Christchurch, and even churches allowed organisations to hold regular jazz dances in their halls. Gramophone recital evenings at music stores began to include jazz in their repertoire, and jazz teas, a variation on the tea dance (high tea with jazz records and dancing) became the fashionable way to celebrate a birthday or other events. The battle for New Zealander’s morals was lost before it began, as the popularity of, and the number of venues, and contexts for, jazz only increased across the decade.

The image of jazz in the New Zealand media during the 1920s was one of ambiguity. It was considered good and bad; fashionable, but not sensible, primitive, but sophisticated, and it was, at the least, morally questionable. At its essence, however, the representation of jazz in the New Zealand popular press was one of modernity with all the positive and negative associations that that term implied during the 1920s.

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