To flip through the Kansas City Star magazines of the 1920s is much like a child opening her great-grandmother’s jewelry box up in the attic.
Gorgeous in a flapper sort of way, quaintly old-fashioned, historically eye-opening, these trinkets created for a lonely heiress are, yes, printed treasures from the past.
J.C. Nichols strides to work on the just budding Country Club Plaza in photograph spreads; two pages of colored drawings illustrate the latest ladies’ fashions (the plunging back of one gown, if worn on Kansas City streets, likely would have caused a police incident); and the serial fiction often features a mystery, like “The Thirteen Opals.”
It was cosmopolitan and, like its muse, Laura Nelson Kirkwood, world-traveled. The Star, the leading newspaper of a brawny, sooty-bricked slaughter capital, had more than 200,000 readers; one wonders how many read the advice on picking a steamship for a European excursion.
That women were seen as the key demographic is shown by the paintings on the color covers: “A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window” by Vermeer; “Young Woman Trying on Earrings” by Rembrandt; “Queen Isabella,” by Rubens, on and on.
One Sunday might devote a page to portraits of young ladies away at college; another of the co-eds who were voted most beautiful by the 1925 Jayhawks. High society conscious, the magazines also showed modern women with tennis rackets, horses, golf clubs and javelins; they were advised to take life-saving lessons, because you never know.
One feature: “Belinda Buccaneers a Barn: A story which goes to show that a modern girl usually gets her own way.”
In its roughly 100 issues, Old West stories and explorations were a favorite. “My Adventures in the Jungles: A Young Woman Delves Into the Mysteries of Darkest South America.”
The stream of photographs wandered wide and shallow: polo at the country club; movie stars, including Olathe’s Charles “Buddy” Rogers; “Temple” the elephant pushing a lawn roller at Swope Park tennis grounds; a tourist convoy negotiating a hairpin on an Estes Park, Colo., road; zeppelins; the Blues playing on the Muehlebach Field diamond; large Kansas City homes “touched by vernal beauty.”
One learns from these old black-and-whites that toll houses once controlled the ASB Bridge traffic and that before Shriners paraded in fezzes and tiny cars here, they dressed as sheiks and rode sleek saddle horses.
Once, a poem, “The Voice of Kansas City — a Modern Epic,” plugged the newspaper’s radio broadcasts from 18th and Grand. A fragment goes like this:
The prairies now are conquered where the imps of nature raged,
The Desert Demon is enchained, the prairie wind is caged,
And the Kansas City radio is singing low and fine.
Like a prairie fairy speaking from a trumpet blossom vine.
It wasn’t all fluff in those well-illustrated, 20-page packages.
The detailed background of the old masterpiece on the week’s cover would be inside. One week told of the locally discovered 1857 letters of a young steamboat pilot, Samuel Clemens. Another Sunday it was about the Kansas City daughter of mountain man Jim Bridger suing the Shubert Theater and Paramount Pictures for the drunken depiction of her father in the silent film “The Covered Wagon.”
International pieces included the “Notebook of Leon Trotsky,” still unassassinated in Mexico; a piece that sniffed, “Italy has a king. His name is not Benito Mussolini”; and a piece titled “An English Boy Becomes Arabia’s Uncrowned King,” about T.E. Lawrence.
A special correspondent was paid to dish on the Prince of Wales’ visit to Canada. “He never shirks his tasks,” gushed the writer about the future Edward VIII, king for 326 days before abdicating to marry an American divorcee in 1936.
It’s obvious that the publication didn’t pay for itself. Of the few ads, most came from major local firms: Folger’s Coffee; Cook’s Paint; Peet Brothers (now Colgate-Palmolive) CreamOil; Franklin Ice Cream. One of the national ads was by Life Savers — “Good for little tummies and tiny teeth.”
Kansas City’s African-American population, of course, was invisible. The only black faces that seemed to appear were when a Star artist put the dozens of newspaper comics characters — Walt of Gasoline Alley was the last to survive in these pages — together at a formal dinner. From the wings, dutifully come cartoon servants Rachel, Plato and Mandy bearing covered dishes for the others.
We didn’t say every trinket was shiny.
To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to email@example.com.