Featured Resource: The Interwar Culture Database

Today’s post was written by Michael Robinson. Michael is the circulation services late night supervisor for the William H. Hannon Library. During the day he pursues interests in playwriting, poetry, and the occasional short story, as well as sitting in IMAX or Dolby Atmos cinema spaces watching films in a not very systematic fashion.

If you’re on our lovely William H. Hannon Library website, there is a row of four buttons below the OneSearch field on the home page. From left to right, they are “Libguides,” “Database List,” “Get Help,” and “Study Rooms.” We are going to explore the second button, “Database List,” and, specifically, the database, Interwar Culture.

Some quick background: a database, in the context of a library or scholarly setting, is an electronic repository of information gathered around a specific, though often broad, topic. Select the database list button, and it takes you to lists of database categories, beginning, alphabetically, with “Accounting” to “Information Systems” to “Music” and so on, and ending with “Yoga Studies.” Click on any of these categories, say, “Music,” and you are dropped into a world of music-centric databases30 in allranging from “African American Music Reference” to “Victorian Popular Culture.” You may also find databases by type, for example, audio, e-books, images, government information, and so on. We’ll use the browse feature because Interwar Culture is a recently acquired database focused between World War I and World War II, an era of particular scholarly interest for me.

The Interwar Culture database, per its description, “…showcases popular and lesser-known periodicals published across Britain, the United States, France, and Australia during the interwar period (1919-1940). With articles covering culture, entertainment, fashion, home and family life, world current affairs, class, social and welfare issues, these historically significant and highly visual magazines provide a rich insight into these dynamic yet turbulent decades, as well as allowing examination of a burgeoning media industry that both shaped and reflected society.” We provide access to module 1 (the 1920s) and module 2 (the 1930s).

This is just after World War I and the Great Flu of 1918 that somehow led into everything from the bookends of the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression of 1929; new popular media — radio broadcasts, talking motion pictures, the rise of vinyl records; and the increased mobility promised by automobiles and, later, airplanes. American women received the right to vote in this period, Prohibition began and ended, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rose and crashed, and the Harlem Renaissance ushered in Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker and many other artists, intellectuals, activists, athletes and so on.

type written poem with handwritten annotations
Copy of Ridge’s poem, “Firehead,” from her typewriter, circa 1929.

It was also the time of a little-known poet, Irish-born Lola Ridge, who has figured in a couple of my academic works. Ridge flourished in New York after finding her way there after emigrating from Australia to Los Angeles. Though little-known now, she was well known in the literary circles of New York of her day as a poet, editor and activist. Her work appeared with poets you would find in a Norton anthology, the likes of William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Carl Sandburg and Marianne Moore. As an editor she championed Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer (“Cane“) and as a social activist she once shared a jail cell with Edna St. Vincent Millay in protest of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

If you’re looking for primary or not-so-primary sources on a relatively obscure writer (artist, politician, cartoonist, sports figure, scientist, etc.) that lived during the interwar period, the Interwar Culture database is a wonderful starting point. Remember, though, that the search field of this or any other database may lead you a bit astray.

For instance, typing in “Lola Ridge” will make you think that she was, as they would say in the period, “the cat’s pajamas.” You will get 640 hits! And a significant number of them will be for a magazine, “Woman’s Pictorial,” a London-based weekly concerned with domestic issues. Not a Lola Ridge kind of publication. But it comes up because there was, in the first issue, a story with a character named Lola AND an ad for Dr. Ridge’s Baby Food. To avoid such results, remember to put your search item in quotes: e.g. “ “Lola Ridge” ”. This will yield a more manageable seven sources — five appearances in The Dial, a small press literary magazine, which Ridge contributed to as writer and/or editor during its short run (1920-29) and one appearance, each, in Forum and Century, in 1935, of interest for a brief review of Ridge’s “Dance of Fire” and the periodical, World Progress, also in 1935, which cites Lola Ridge’s receipt of a Guggenheim Award for Poetry. (One of the joys of discovering Lola Ridge in artifacts of her time, such as World Progress is that in that same Guggenheim section you can see Langston Hughes also received an award for novel writing and fellow Harlem Renaissance contemporary, William Grant Still, won one for musical composition.) The Dial appearances showcase three of her poems and include reviews of two of her collections, “Red Flag” and “Sun-Up and Other Poems.” Collectively, these periodicals give you both a feel for her poetry and something of the response her work elicited.

The historic Gertrude Ederle (left) and her actor counterpart, Daisy Ridley (right) in “Young Woman and the Sea” (2024)

A final note. Databases can be used to fact check (or just enrich) other projects. In this case, the recent Disney movie, “Young Woman and the Sea,” about Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to successful swim the English Channel in 1926. The publication, Time and Tide, a British, woman-produced, political and literary weekly, confirms the particulars of the story. But it also adds to it. Time and Tide reported Ederle’s historic crossing and her record-breaking time (beating the men’s record by over two hours) but also mentioned other women attempted the crossing around the same time. Amelia Gade Corson — an American immigrant from Denmark — would become the second woman to make the 21-mile crossing a month after Ederle.

(header image on left: headline, The New York Times, 1941; header image on right: Lola Ridge, March 1903, in New Zealand Illustrated Magazine)