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Chorus Girl Modernity: Of Salamanders and Periodical Culture

Lower-middle-class and working-class girls coming to the big city in the early twentieth century made all sorts of life choices, but in the popular fiction of the period a disproportionate number of them end up as chorus girls. Chorines turned into icons of American urban modernity—versatile, daring, sexy, and young. My article will approach this phenomenon by way of Owen Johnson’s chorus girl novel The Salamander, which appeared monthly in McClure’s Magazine from September 1913 to June 1914 before it came out as a book shortly thereafter. Though now forgotten, the novel was a huge success at the time of its first appearance and led to a veritable salamander craze in the early 1910s. The narrative around a chorus girl and her friends anticipated the idea of the flapper, forging the image of a particular type of young urban woman—walking through the fire of modern urban corruption unscathed, like the legendary animal.

For a while, the salamander was everywhere, and while the term disappeared, the phenomenon did not. The salamander just morphed into slightly different forms. A little later, the same type came to be known as a gold digger (following Avery Hopwood’s eponymous play of 1919), then as a flapper (utilizing a term already introduced in Johnson’s novel, to which Zelda Fitzgerald, as the incarnation of flapperdom, pointed as an inspiration).[1] Johnson’s story was picked up and parodied in the society magazines of the day, it inspired a fashion line, was turned into a Broadway play in 1914, and came out as a film in 1916 (dir. Arthur Donaldson, starring Ruth Findlay, now lost).

The Salamander permits reflection on the formula of the chorus girl narrative as it unfolded in the 1910s on the stage, the screen, and on the pages of the periodical press and popular novels. These formulaic chorus girl stories gesture beyond theatrical and cinematic performances and bear significance for the cultural conceptualization of the “modern girl” in a much wider sense.[2] This larger cultural meaning hinges upon the principle of multiplication. Chorus girl stories draw upon the narrative arsenal of cultural and economic self-making and the American dream, but one elementary feature of this longstanding repertoire is glaringly missing in the enactment of the chorus girl: singularity. Chorines are invariably part of an ensemble—they require the plural form.

There is no typical male counterpart to this figure in the popular imagination, unless one counts in the iconic scene of King Vidor’s film The Crowd (1928), in which the young everyman entering New York City on the quest for success is shown as one alienated figure laboring next to many others in the anonymous width of an open-plan office. Mostly, however, the city may hold all sorts of positive or negative things in stow for the young man, but usually he tackles them on his own—in glorious or desolate isolation. The working girl, however, even if she is determined to prove her exceptionality, is more often than not involved in synchronized or ornamental arrangements and collective constellations, unless a love plot singles her out and makes her specific as part of a heterosexual pair. Precisely because of the dynamics of multiplication enveloping her the chorine embodies—somewhat paradoxically—young single womanhood in the modern era. The figure epitomizes social existence under the conditions of industrial modernity. Andreas Huyssen famously read modern mass culture “as woman”—I aim to approach modern mass culture as women, contesting, at the same time, Huyssen’s largely negative reading of the conflations of gender and modernity.[3]

Although it is obviously no classic chorus girl narrative, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie may serve to illustrate the logic of this conflation. The country girl Carrie takes to the stage not because she is extraordinary, but because of her “innate taste for imitation” and due to her “sensitive, receptive nature, her barometric feelings, . . . her lack of initiative and decision [which] were . . . characteristic of the tribe [of actors in general].”[4] When she seeks employment as a chorine in New York, she has to learn that this segment of the theatrical world does not rely on glamorous distinction but on industrial discipline, actualizing the very same exploitative rigor that rules mechanized work places like the construction site or the factory: “girls who can stand in a line and look pretty are as numerous as laborers who can swing a pick” (Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 385). Her success, then, is attributed to her talent for adaptation through variation—she fits in by standing out. She elevates her insignificant part in the line by frowning instead of smiling, and this slight deviation turns her into “the chief feature of the play” beside which “[e]very other feature paled” (447).

In Dreiser’s novel of formation, the chorus is only one episode. Carrie’s success story leaves the chorus girl status behind, even though the chorus girl existence is, in a certain way, emblematic for her success, since her upward mobility is marked—and marred—by repetition and regularity.[5] Dreiser’s novel thus illustrates that the chorine’s work stands in for other forms of female labor in the modern city such as the shop girl, the milliner, or the factory worker, which are less obviously tied to the modern imperatives of self-fashioning and performativity, but entangled in the same parameters nevertheless.[6]

Chorus girl narratives like The Salamander, however, which thrived in the first decades of the twentieth century, do not even pretend to chart transformation, but rather totalize the precarious status quo of the chorus girl existence. This also comes to the fore in novels and (screen)plays such as Roy L. McCardell’s Conversations of a Chorus Girl (1903) and The Showgirl and Her Friends (1904), Kenneth McGaffy’s The Sorrows of a Show Girl (1908), Grace Luce Irwin’s Diary of a Show Girl (1909), Max Pemberton’s The Show Girl (1910), Avery Hopwood’s Gold Diggers (1919) or Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925).[7] But originally, the chorus girl was a creature of the periodical press. Mass-addressed magazines and society journals such as Collier’s, McClure’s, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, or Harper’s Bazaar, many of which also reported regularly on the stage sensations of the time and their stars, made chorus girl narratives a regular component of their pages.

This is no mere coincidence or parallelism: the chorus girl subsists on the materiality and mediality of modern mass culture, as countless self-reflexive chorus girl narratives on the stage and the screen exemplify. But there is something particularly compelling and effective about periodical culture’s self-conscious appropriation of this narrative, as we shall see. It is here that the chorines’ collective condition turns from a shortcoming into an asset—and where they evolve into an archetype of modern womanhood.

This archetypal capacity rests in the figure’s disposability and volatility—chorus girls are excellent projection surfaces. What follows is concerned with a (very) white segment of the larger story, but this is only a facet of a narrative that spreads and sprawls. In her deliberately imaginative reflection on the unwritten history and unarchived memory of “wayward” young Black women in the metropolises of the early twentieth century, Saidiya Hartman thus keeps returning to the chorus girl as an emblem of urban young womanhood, emphasizing the multiplicatory dimension of her narrative: “not the story of one girl, but a serial biography of a generation, a portrait of the chorus, a moving picture of the wayward.”[8] The chorus girl is part of a group, but she is no abstraction—the fascination with the figure rests on the tension between uniformity and specificity, and like the larger phenomenon of the “modern girl,” the chorine attests to racial, national, sexual, and other social categories of differentiation precisely by signaling overarching sameness and anonymity.[9]

As the modern girl took shape as a type in the mass-cultural imagination across the globe in the 1920s and after, the chorus girl as a particularly salient variant of the figure retreated into the background.[10] Pulling the chorus girl back into plain view permits to approximate the ways in which modern femininity, theatricality, and multiplication are complicatedly interwoven in the early twentieth century, to the effect of rendering girls more “modern” than their male counterparts in the culture of the day. After all, classical male self-making, in its emphasis on self-reliance and autonomy, does not harmonize too well with the operational logic of industrial capitalism, which prioritizes automation, synchronicity, and aggregation. The chorus girl narrative champions imitation (as opposed to authenticity), seriality (as opposed to individuality), and consumption (as opposed to self-sufficient productivity)—and thus flaunts practices that can be seen as instrumental in a larger repertoire of modern subsistence and expression. All of these practices have been ethically, aesthetically, and socially critiqued, but in the context of chorus girl narratives and “salamander stories” their significance and valuation changes, as we shall see. As strategies of takeover and self-assertion, they insist that modernity is female.


Hollywood enactments around the chorus girl revolve routinely around the big misunderstanding that the stage (or screen) means stardom. Films like What’s His Name (DeMille, 1914), Behind the Scenes (Kirkwood, 1914), The Final Curtain (Harkins, 1916), Lights of New York (Brooke, 1916), It Happened to Adele (Brooke, 1917), A Girl’s Folly (Tourneur, 1917), ’49–’17 (Baldwin, 1917), A Society Sensation (Powell and Mortimer, 1918), The Chorus Girl Romance (Dowlan, 1920), Manhandled (Dwan, 1924) or Stage-Struck (Dwan, 1925) reiterate relentlessly that to seek theatrical or cinematic fame is a shallow dream that more often than not ends in destitution rather than exaltation.[11] These narratives rely heavily on a larger repertoire of nineteenth-century storytelling around actresses between ambition and downfall (and draw, to a certain extent, on the actual experiences of young women in the theatrical profession).[12] This is often epitomized by depictions of chorus lines—whose logic glaringly defies the ambition to personal fame and glamorous singularity that drives so many country girls into the big city in both filmic and literary chorus girl narratives. The dance revue was associated with the streamlined productivity of the assembly line long before Siegfried Kracauer coined the compelling concept of the “mass ornament” in 1927, as Susan Glenn points out.[13]

Glenn cites a review from 1911 in which the professional dancers are made out as parts of an automated assembly, “incapable of independent playing . . . parts of a whole and theatrically useless when not surrounded by other particles” (Glenn, Female Spectacle, 179). In his Marxist reading of the phenomenon, Siegfried Kracauer would later totalize the dancers’ robotic quality, reducing them to “sexless bodies in bathing suits.”[14] In the periodical press of the 1910s and ‘20s, however, the reifying and exploitative character of the chorus girl existence is only one association among others. Chorines may be artificial and machinic, but they are also and at the same time intriguing and erotic in their promise of ever more spectacular arrangements of limbs, bodies, and troupes in a dizzying alternation of close-up and long shot, detail and tableau. The collective accentuates its constitutive elements by degree: one girl is just a bit more beautiful and stunning than the next. Symmetry and synchronicity are elementary components of an aesthetic of the modern, after all.

This logic gains further complexity when reviewed against the backdrop of what Susan Glenn calls the “mimetic moment” of American culture at the turn of the century (Glenn, Female Spectacle, 75). Between 1890 and the 1920s, imitation became a key component of theatrical entertainment—“blackface minstrelsy, gender impersonation, burlesque, parody, and ethnic caricature” all thrived on the principle of ‘almost the same but not quite’ resonating with the revue aesthetics’ insistence on more of the same (75). Steeped in a larger modular mass culture of replication and seriality, these formats serve to call into doubt “the very notion of the unique individual,” and question the distinction between originator and imitator, as Glenn details (80). In doing so, the formats articulate insights on the gender of modernity that reach far beyond the stage and screen.

The early 1910s were a period in which cinematic stardom with its pervasive reach across social spheres and spaces was only about to emerge.[15] In 1913, when The Salamander appeared, it was not yet common practice to identify performers by name on the movie screen. The theater, in contrast, looked back on a long tradition of singling out and idolizing stars, which the vaudeville stage both emulated and flaunted in its insistence on parody and imitation. In the 1910s, the star system was taking hold both on the screen and on the popular stage, and the periodical press played a major role in this transformation.[16]

There are no clear-cut distinctions between stars, starlets, and pretty performers on the pages of the popular magazines, as becomes apparent already in the early 1910s, when Vanity Fair begins to feature chorus girls—particularly Ziegfeld Follies dancers—in its promotion of “interesting” performers. In a photo page announcing “Here Are the Goddesses of Comedy, Drama, Dancing, and Folly” in the magazine’s August 1914 issue, the term “Folly” is used as a separate artistic category (fig. 1).

 Introducing Julia Beaubien, bottom right
Fig. 1. Stage Goddesses: Introducing Julia Beaubien, bottom right. Vanity Fair 2, no. 6 (August 1914).

The page introduces chorus girl Julia Beaubien next to a series of Broadway actresses as “one of the most beautiful of the many follies in Ziegfeld’s ‘Follies of 1914’ at the New Amsterdam.”[17] The size and shape of the photo portraits on the page signal importance, and Beaubien clearly does not attain prominence here. She is singled out from one ensemble (“the follies”) only to be inserted into the second row, as it were, of another (pretty performers of the day). Conspicuousness, even beyond the chorus line, does not equal exceptionality here. These performers are all alike—pretty, young, replaceable, forming a virtual chorus line in its own right.

The same issue of Vanity Fair that showcases this ornamental arrangement of ascending star(let)s also announces the stage production of Johnson’s Salamander, which was to open in October 1914 on Broadway and then tour the country for almost a year. Like the magazine aesthetic at large, this announcement endeavors to beckon specificity and multiplication at the same time: Johnson’s novel, the article’s subtitle indicates, had unleashed a “Deluge of Young Lady Salamanders”:

At an exhibition of paintings by Whistler, held in New York some time ago, it was observed that many of the young women who visited the galleries were dressed in monotone. Some were in black and some in gray, and all wore sad, symphonic expressions and stood around the room with the evident intention of trying to be mistaken for the exhibits.

Strange as it may seem, there was nothing very peculiar about their desire. It is characteristic of our time that whenever a new heroine—either in literature or in art—springs into popular favor, thousands of people all over the country discover that they have a coincident personality or appearance, and proclaim the fact forthwith. . . . Thus, every little town in America has for years boasted its Gibson Girl, or its Harrison Fisher Girls, and now, following the somewhat generous discussion awarded “The Salamander,” innumerable young women are coming forward with the pleasant information that they are incarnations of Doré Baxter, the youthful fire-fiend in Owen Johnson’s story, soon to be produced on the stage.[18]

The article invokes the outstanding success of Johnson’s novel and the craze around its protagonist Doré to reflect upon mass cultural effects of identification and imitation in more general terms. It contends that fads spread through fan communities all over the country, and demarcates fandom as a largely female fascination with a pervasive image culture—the reference to the iconic illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson and Harrison Fisher that pinpointed Edwardian ideals of femininity is a case in point.

As Diana Anselmo shows, imitation was regarded as a specifically feminine quality in the first decades of the twentieth century. This assessment was anchored in the scientific discourse of the day—particularly in psychology and sexology—where it carried forth assumptions about gendered shortcomings and deficiencies: “adolescent girls became popularly identified by their love for the frivolous and the ornamental, as well as by their unstable and inauthentic—and hence readily reproducible and erasable—‘superficial’ personhood.”[19] Imitation, seen in this way, has an effect of diminution; it reduces character to the surface phenomenon of “personality,” to draw on Warren Sussman’s terminology.[20] As a collective practice, however, imitation changes its implications: appearing variously as a powerful practice and a threat, and contributing to young women’s takeover of modernity by sheer serial spread.


Vanity Fair sees the imitative dimension of young women’s lives as disconcerting—or at least indicative of these women’s social marginality and insignificance. Johnson’s novel itself reviews the aspect of the Salamanders’ plural existence more favorably. Even though the novel’s story zooms in on the experiences of one particular girl, she is made out from the very beginning as part of a collective. In his prologue to the novel, published in the August 1913 issue of McClure’s, Johnson delineates his subject matter in quasi-anthropological fashion. He aims to investigate a “curious and new type of modern young women” who thrive in urban settings—and particularly in New York—but really can be found everywhere:

. . . [B]e sure that the young girl of to-day, from the age of eighteen to twenty-five, whether facing the world alone or peering out at it from the safety of the family, whether in the palaces of New York, the homesteads of New England, the manors of the South, or the throbbing cities and villages of the West, whatever her station or her opportunity, has in her undisciplined and roving imagination a little touch of the Salamander.[21]

Johnson thus stylizes his novel into the case study of an impending and unnoticed social transformation, a “world revolution” brought about “day by day, month after month, in the spectacle of young women, bundle in arms, light of purse, rebel in heart, moving in silent thousands toward the great cities” (Johnson, “Salamander” [Prologue], 56). These women, we learn later, will end up in all sorts of professions, but many of them “touch[] the stage in one of a dozen ways” (59). In the novel itself, however, only one theatrical career path opens up for the protagonist and the girls around her: the chorus. Resonating with contemporary perceptions of suffrage marches and female activism, the prologue invokes a military troupe rather than a dance formation in its imagery of a silently advancing “new army of women” (56). In its further course, however, the novel presents the Salamanders’ transformative potential not in terms of aggressive assertion but as driven by collective persistence and pleasing synchronicity.

In a manner of speaking, the novel is about the divergent currents of imitation and uniqueness. To stand out, in this logic, is only possible against a backdrop of standardized sameness; specificity is a matter of degree. The city and its mass culture are evoked in key scenes of the novel as the stages of this performance, in which you are never truly unique, just more or less conspicuous in a continuous sequence of exaltation and blending. This is exemplified in the heroine’s very first experience of city life, related in the novel’s characteristic overblown style:

The multitude churned about [Doré], roaring down into the confusion of many currents: the multitude—the others—whom she felt so distant, so far below her. They were there, white of face, troubled, frowning, harassed, swelling onward to clamoring tasks, spying her with thousand-eyed envy; and everywhere darting in and out, dodging the gray contact of the mass, alert, light, skimming on like sea-gulls trailing their wings across a chafing ocean, the luxurious women of the city sped in rolling careless flight. She felt herself one of them, admiring and admired, glancing eagerly into tonneaus bright with laughter and fashion, deliciously registering the sudden analytical stare of women, or the disloyal tribute boldly telegraphed of men.[22]

The mass that both threatens and beckons the novel’s protagonist here is amorphous and ambivalent also due to syntactical indeterminacy—in the beginning, “they” refers to the multitude of the common people, and then, almost inadvertently, it signals the multitude of the “luxurious women,” who are part of and apart from the masses. To belong to them thus promises distinction, but no stable or enduring exceptionality—the urban system knows no essence or identity. Both entities—the common folk and the ladies of leisure—are caught in a persistent process of scrutiny and assessment, in which self-assertion is ensured in endless loops of heteronomous determination. Significantly, the most forceful players of this game of assessment are women, not men, and the female interaction is largely characterized by mutual admiration, not competition or envy.

Social distinction and social recognition in this world are contingent on and expressed by replicability and substitution—you imitate others until you become a model of imitation in your own right: the logic of the star system. The novel captures this logic time and again in the imagery of periodical publication and circulation. Girls are popular because they are all over the place and because they resonate with mass fantasies. Doré’s friend Ida is a case in point, as she is “in great demand among the illustrators, who had reproduced her tom-boy smile on the corners [sic] of a million magazines” (Johnson, “Salamander” [October 1913], 53). These “popular illustrators, who cater[] to the sentimental yearnings of the multitude,” channel the social currents of desire and projection by turning individual girls into icons of modern womanhood—thus both singling them out and rendering them flat surfaces in turn.[23] It is the single girl that is at the heart of this business of glamorization, but her singleness is paradoxically tied up with the aesthetics of multiplication.

On the pages of the modern magazine, seriality, as the core principle of mass production, is most intricately conjoined with the machinery of mass entertainment.[24] The popular literary and lifestyle magazines of the turn of the twentieth century—Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, Munsey’s, or McClure’s—in which Johnson’s novel appeared, relied heavily on serial storytelling and its larger toolbox of reader address and solicitation. Alongside other markedly “modern” magazines, McClure’s had formed in the 1890s to go up against the established periodical scene with its genteel, middle-class aura of respectability and family orientation (represented, then, by periodicals such as Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly).[25] By 1913, when The Salamander started its serial run, the magazine had abandoned its muckraking agenda of the past, and turned, under the editorship of Willa Cather, to publish mainly middlebrow literature, often revolving around love stories and young women. The magazine featured copious illustrations by leading graphic artists of the time, many of whom had made names for themselves as illustrators of young womanhood, such as Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, Nell Brinkley, May Wilson Preston, or the Ashcan artists Everett Shinn, William Glackens, and John Sloan.

Owen Johnson’s name was featured regularly on the covers of McClure’s side by side with other established authors and illustrators (indicating that writing and graphic art were of equal importance to the marketing and reception of mass-addressed magazines of the day).[26] The May 1913 issue of McClure’s announces The Salamander by concatenating it with Johnson’s previous writing: “This summer: OWEN JOHNSON. Another powerful novel of New York life, just as big, just as dramatic, as ‘The Sixty-First Second’—‘The Salamanders’ [sic] by the author of ‘Stover at Yale’” (127) (fig. 2).

Advertising the Salamander in McClure's 41, no. 1
Fig. 2. Advertising the Salamander in McClure's 41, no. 1 (May 1913).

The September issue, then, exposes Owen Johnson’s new series, printing its title (now in the singular form) and the author’s name in extra-large letters, together with a pull quote from the prologue, a blurb (“The Story of the Girl who went through Fire”), and an illustration by Charles Dana Gibson of a markedly modernized Gibson Girl, which invites the readers to associate the Salamander with this powerful icon of modern femininity (fig. 3). The text is thus both advertised as special and fitted into the larger universe of Johnson’s oeuvre, McClure’s middlebrow agenda, and the periodical mass entertainment market around it.

Front Page Salamander in McClure's 41, no. 5
Fig. 3. Front Page Salamander in McClure's 41, no. 5 (September 1913).

The novel itself is then illustrated by Everett Shinn, whose graphic art exemplifies the visual aesthetics of the magazine. Throughout the magazine, in the copy and the advertising sections likewise, young women are displayed in variously decorative, glamorous, and ornamental arrangements, their hairstyles, hats, headdresses, and outfits taking over much space and vying for attention with the magazine’s storytelling and reporting. Shinn’s illustrations, which graced both the serial publication and the pages of the bound first edition of the novel, provide an interesting gloss for the narrative’s oscillation between singularity and the multitude. Where Johnson’s story routinely, if dutifully, reminds us of Doré’s exceptionality (“Doré did not imitate the others,” runs the summary of the protagonist’s first successful society appearance in the novel), the illustrations tend to feature the chorine as a part of a larger group.[27] The first installment of the novel, in the September issue, is preceded by a full-page illustration of the novel’s opening scene, depicting Doré in front of a mirror and with her friend Winona (fig. 4).

 Illustration by Everett Shinn in McClure's 41, no. 5
Fig. 4. Doré doubled: Illustration by Everett Shinn in McClure's 41, no. 5 (September 1913).

This echoes the narrative, which introduces Doré in the company of two other women who clearly figure as her alter egos: one slightly, the other markedly older; one—Winona—on the brink of losing her youthful appeal and erotic capital, the other—Snyder—already too old and worn-out to qualify as a successful Salamander (as symbolized by the use of her masculine last name). The novel will continue to show Doré with her fellow Salamanders who represent different options for and stages of young single womanhood. The illustrations, however, steer a slightly different course.

Four pages into the first installment, a double-page spread shows Doré in company (fig. 5 and 6). Here she is part of a group of people, six men and six women in evening attire. In keeping with the convention of featuring images of key scenes in proleptic fashion early in a serial installment, the illustration’s caption, a quote from the novel, refers to a scene that will only appear about thirty pages later in the story: “Doré, a little apart, watched Lindaberry” (Johnson, “Salamander” [September 1913], 140–41). [28] None of the women in the tableau is standing apart, and it is unclear, at this stage, which of the well-dressed, glamorous, beautiful girls is Doré, despite the fact that the story makes much of her uniqueness among the other chorus girls. The illustrations drive home that Doré’s exceptionality hinges upon her exemplary status—she is interesting because she is like others, only more of everything.

 Where’s Doré? Illustration by Everett Shinn, McClure’s
Fig. 5. Chorus Girl Confusion, or: Where’s Doré? Illustration by Everett Shinn, McClure’s (September 1913).
 Where’s Doré? Illustration by Everett Shinn
Fig. 6. Chorus Girl Confusion, or: Where’s Doré? Illustration by Everett Shinn, McClure’s (September 1913).

This typicality of the protagonist is evoked in the narrative, too, but while the illustrations lay out a spatial scenario, the narrative unfolds a similar pattern of thought in spatio-temporal dimensions. The Salamanders’ very existence hinges on a time-out, so to speak, they are part of a liminal “society of passage,” which Johnson situates between the Victorian gender order of the nineteenth century and a feminist future to come (Johnson, “Salamander [Prologue],” 57). At the same time, they are in-between figures, age-wise and in their lifestyles. They are no longer girls and not yet women; they live in all-female boarding houses—neither private households nor public places—and they maneuver more or less deftly between respectability and recklessness, following the shady conventions of the demi-monde with which chorus girls are associated.[29]

On one end of the narrative’s temporal spectrum, fragmented memories of small-town family conventions mark the past. These may not necessarily be all negative, but they are inapplicable to the modern urban existence. At the other end, the future vaguely branches out into a number of standard options structured by the major bifurcation of marriage or single life. Against these blurred contours of past and future, the fanciful life stories of the girls around Doré fan out present options next to each other. The seriality of the chorus girl existence, like the seriality of the chorus girl narrative—and the seriality of commercial mass culture at large—is informed with a logic of spread and simultaneity (Mayer, Serial Fu Manchu, 1–26).[30] Even though the individual installments of the narrative are presented in chronological order and appear in consecutive issues of the magazine, their storytelling is replete with repetitions, reiterations, mirroring, and episodic repercussions. The girls’ lives do not lend themselves to a depiction in terms of a linear (“formative” or “educational”) unfolding of past, present, and future, either. This is not about progress or development, because it is already clear where it will end. It is the now that counts. Whereas the future bears few promises, the present is full of possibilities on a micro-scale. “Hurray!” exclaims Doré in the beginning of the novel, after a second suitor called to ask her out: “Now I can have a choice” (Johnson, “Salamander” [September 1913], 142).

This logic of serial spread resonates with the larger structure of an illustrated magazine such as McClure’s, where narratives of young womanhood are laid out side by side. The periodical stories, photo series, illustrations, fashion spreads, cartoons, comics, and advertisements then also gesture to other media’s serialized storytelling, such as, for instance, the film serial with its serial queen craze of the day.[31] In all of these cases, medial cross-references are mostly indirect, layered, and looped. Due to the uneven distribution and circulation of serial media across the country at the time, the narratives cannot rely on a solid or committed pop cultural canon but rather tap into a wide range of possible familiarities and the archive of formula fiction and genre knowledges among their target audiences. A serial narrative like The Salamander can never fully comply with the genre demands of the novel of formation, which it routinely gestures to, because it has to establish its narrative foundations over and over again.

Declarations of distinction or defiance thus rarely carry monumental weight or consequences in The Salamander. They have little to do with career options, long-term relationships or moral decision-making. They almost invariably revolve around acts of performative self-assertion—and often bring about duplicity and doubling. When at the beginning of the novel, Doré poses as part of a chorus girl sextette in order to get into a fanciful society event, she adopts the blatantly made-up stage name “Trixie Tennyson,” thus adding one more—obvious—layer of masquerade to previous acts of self-stylization: ‘Doré Baxter’ is, after all, just another result of a “self-baptism” (Johnson, “Salamander” [September 1913], 137; Johnson; Salamander [Prologue], 55). Doré’s real name, we learn later, is Florence, or Flossie, signaling a working-class background that pins down rather than allowing for the fleeting indeterminacy that marks the Salamanders’ existence.

This is in keeping with the play-acting that Doré and her friends engage in incessantly—on- and off-stage, consciously and unknowingly. In a manner of speaking, they all have split personalities, although not as blatantly on display as in the fashionable plays or films of the period that enact pathological cases of doubled identities, such as The Invisible Power (Melford, 1914), The Case of Becky (Reicher, 1915), or the serial Zudora (Thanhouser, 1914), in which young women develop dual personalities or personality disorders under the influence of hypnosis or other forms of psychic manipulation.

The Salamander, too, occasionally associates the state of mind of its unmoored protagonists with pathological disturbances. An annoyed suitor at one point blames Doré for indulging in a neurotic obsession: “All this is a phase of mild hysteria . . . You’re not living; you’re rejecting life . . . with every man you meet. The time comes when you will have to select. . . . Now you play at fooling men so much that you fool yourself. When you marry, you will surprise yourself!”[32] Doré is infuriated by this projection, although (or, perhaps, because) it does map out precisely what will happen to her: “Marriage! Yes, that’s all you men believe we are capable of! But we are different now. We can be free—we can live our own lives! . . . Oh, what’s the use of living, if you have to do as everyone else does!” (Johnson, “Salamander” [November 1913], 168). The switch from the singular to the plural form is interesting here—and it inadvertently foregrounds that the core of the Salamanders’ deviancy is not the rejection of heterosexual commitment, but the choice of homosocial belonging. As long as the girls’ stories can still be told in the plural form, they are safe from the dull trajectory of respectability and aging. “To do as everyone else does,” after all, is to leave the multitude of girls behind and go solo in order to be paired and filed away.


Making good in the city means to make money, and money-making, in The Salamander, is closely associated with self-fashioning. When Doré Baxter arrives in New York, she first envisions herself in journalism, writing about what she knows best: herself. Her ambition of becoming a writer is thwarted by the fact that the “woman’s column” about “A Western Girl in New York” that she proposes to launch, is already being published.[33] When confronting a representative of the paper with her idea,

he had gone to a file of papers, and returning, spread before her a gayly colored page, placing his finger on another face in silhouette, gay, jaunty. Another had had the same idea! How many others? She was no longer an individual—only one of a thousand who came, with the same ideas, to face the same struggle. (Johnson, “Salamander” [December 1913], 80–81)

The discovery of belatedness leads Doré to abandon the facile attempt at originality and embrace serialization on stage and in life: by joining a dance troupe and then becoming a Salamander. In doing so, she moves farther and farther away from the idea of regular wage labor. Her first idea was to make money by embodying (and recording) the idea of the country girl in the city; eventually she will make money by embodying (and performing) all sorts of ideas of modern girlhood. Like the other Salamanders she subsists largely on gifts and invitations (“it was rare that a Salamander was forced to a recourse on her purse for more than one luncheon—dinner never”), and propels a second-order economy, in which ‘innocuous’ gifts such as flowers, chocolates, and luxury goods are slyly traded back to selected stores that are willing make a profit (Johnson, “Salamander” [October 1913], 50).[34]

Money rarely changes hands directly between the suitors and the girls, and when a man tries to give cash he is sternly reprimanded or rejected. At a society event, every girl receives a little bouquet that showed “from the loosely bound stems, the edge of a banknote,” and Doré, unlike her companions, who cannot help showing excitement about the money, “contrived, while folding her gloves, to turn the bouquet slightly, so that no trace of what it contained showed” (Johnson, “Salamander” [September 1913], 162). Consumption is thus disengaged from the monetary economy. While the Salamanders are part of the consumer society that Thorstein Veblen eyed with so much suspicion, they practice “inconspicuous” consumption rather than flaunting the wealth of others like their more respectable and established counterparts—the society wives and daughters to whom “the expenditure of superfluities” is delegated.[35]

The Salamanders’ second-order economy obfuscates material needs and totalizes luxury and leisure. Their offstage lifestyles thus call to mind the orchestrated dance performances of the chorus line, which ornamentalize the serialized industrial production modes, and at the same time blur the boundaries between industrial and finance capitalism in keeping with the actual transformation of the economic order at large. This is, in a nutshell, the point of Siegfried Kracauer’s reading of the contemporary “mass movement of girls” emblematized in dance troupes like the Tiller Girls as “the mass ornament”:

Like the mass ornament, the capitalist production process is an end in itself. The commodities that it spews forth are not actually produced to be possessed; rather, they are made for the sake of a profit that knows no limit. Its growth is tied to that of business. . . . The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires. (Kracauer, “Mass Ornament,” 75, 78–79)

Resonating with this capitalist critique, Johnson’s Salamanders prove to be tied up in the market logic around them, and they will eventually succumb to it. In the course of the narrative, Doré becomes entangled in the power games of a financial tycoon and a newspaper magnate, both of whom make money in stock market operations that have long lost any grounding in material reality or subsistence labor. She escapes from this destructive pull only by eventually agreeing to marry an heir who is independently wealthy.

On these grounds, The Salamander and its chorus girl protagonists seem to lend themselves neatly to a Marxist reading. Next to Kracauer’s seminal reflections, Walter Benjamin’s approaches to the subject matter come to mind. Some ten years after Kracauer, he revisited the chorus girl phenomenon in his Arcades Project, similarly highlighting the perversity of the coupling of sex and business in the course of which the girls are turned into wares themselves:

In the form taken by prostitution in the big cities the woman appears not only as commodity but, in a precise sense, as mass-produced article. This is indicated by the masking of individual expression in favor of a professional appearance, such as makeup provides. The point is made still more emphatically, later on, by the uniformed girls of the music-hall revue.[36]

Both Kracauer and Benjamin read the dance troupes as emblematic of capitalism and anticipate in their analyses core aspects of Adorno and Horkheimer’s later critique of the reifying culture industry.[37] This critique does capture aspects of the American girl cultures of the early twentieth century, as Susan Glenn points out exemplarily: “[I]n the first decade of the twentieth century the terms ‘salamander,’ ‘chicken’ and ‘prostitute’ shaded into one another to name the questionable mores of women who, like Dore [sic], traded their company for gifts, money, or an evening’s entertainment” (Female Spectacle, 200). But in their blatant disregard for the revue dancers’ agency, the Frankfurt School scholars reduce the girls to nothing but illustrations of the capitalist culture at large.

This is where chorus girl narratives such as Owen Johnson’s offer a surplus value. In The Salamander, it is the self-contained and bracketed-off quality of the young urban female world that indicates resistance to the larger economic order that threatens to envelop everybody and everything. The Salamanders’ existence is commercial through and through, but it does not pay tribute to the elementary economic principles of profit and progress. The Salamanders’ lives are not future-directed but fixated on the immediacy “of the present, of the day, of the hour, gloriously, deliciously stirred from blank realities” (Johnson, “Salamander” [November 1913], 144). In stark contrast to the “indefinitely prolonged” “promissory note of pleasure” that Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer identify as the core quality of the culture industry’s perverse titillation, the worlds of young female entertainers are anchored in the here and now.[38]

The aesthetic of multiplication that determines this and other narratives of young womanhood of the day does not go well together with grandiose gestures of social defiance or political resistance. But it does not present an unconditional surrender to the dominant order either. All-female spaces and storylines carve out pockets in time and space—tentative, precarious, and unstable imaginations of a different order of things that cannot be easily subsumed in the established storytelling formulas of young single womanhood.[39]


Doré Baxter dances around the question of making a living in a complicated choreography, and so do the girls around her. Their cool poise calls to mind the contemporary cult of smartness, which turned gender relations into playful battles rather than issues of the heart or the pocketbook.[40] Everything in this world is for show, and it is precisely the lack of substance and solidity (both in a moral and a material sense) that intrigued and irked contemporary critics of Johnson’s best seller. In the wider mass-cultural field of the day, the Salamander’s most prominent attribute, after all, seems to be her malleability and the profit that can be reaped from it.

As a middlebrow magazine, McClure’s addressed female readers of a broad social range. The “smart” magazines that picked up the Salamander narrative in the 1910s, such as Vanity Fair or The Smart Set, professed to address more exclusive audiences, even though many of the contemporary authors and illustrators published wherever they could place a piece, contributing to an underlying tone of sophisticated realism across the board of literary periodical culture.

While these magazines emphasized their entertainment value and their reach beyond the niche markets of the little avant-garde magazines, they insisted, at the same time, on their freedom from the—economic and moral—constraints that the big journals were facing.[41] To be smart meant to be urbane and sophisticated, polyglot but also aloof and carefree: “We are not going to print any pretty girls’ heads on its covers,” promises an ad for Vanity Fair that appeared in The Smart Set in September 1916, to then continue:

We are going to spare you the agony of sex discussions. We shall publish no dreary serial stories. No diaries of travel. No hack articles on preparedness. No gloom. No problem stories. No articles on tariff, or irrigation, or railroad rates, or pure food, or any other statistical subject.[42]

Wiping off the table all major questions of international politics, economy, and society, and rejecting also the most viable means of popular entertainment—serial storytelling—the magazine anchored itself firmly in a sophisticated entertainment culture of ironic and parodic refutation. This technique of allusion and indirection by means of savvy references to larger discussions and trends, cashing in on what worked in entertainment culture at large while retaining a critical distance at the same time, was by no means exclusive to the smart magazines, but an underlying theme of modernism and modernity at large. Daniel Tracy rightfully points out that regardless of all the distancing gestures in advertising and editorials, the smart magazines were as anchored in a cultural middlebrow as their mass-addressed peers: “Parody itself became a genre that signaled professionalized play by magazine writers: imitation, sometimes critical, provided the grounds for pleasure.”[43]

Catherine Keyser contends that irony and satire were coded masculine in the literary and artistic scenes of the early twentieth century, and that for the women who aimed to compete in this intellectual sphere, writing became a tightrope walk between strategic disassociation and self-expression—the choice between appearing cool and losing their dignity. This latent masculinization of smartness manifested prominently in the avant-gardes’ (and the smart press’s) turn against the type of young womanhood that the mass magazines and feature films of the 1910s and ‘20s identified as their core audience—working girls: “The reserve, irony, and social savvy of a sophisticated urban perspective was often established at the expense of the unsubtle flapper, caricatured both for her intellectual limitations and her flirtatious manipulations.”[44]

The Salamander, as the early incarnation of the flapper, consequently became the butt of ironic revisions, as George Bronson-Howard’s parody “The Real Salamander” in The Smart Set of March 1914 illustrates succinctly. The spoof’s author was no stranger to the chorus girl genre himself. The January 1914 edition of The Smart Set announces Bronson-Howard’s novelette “The Parasite” on its cover as “A Complete Novel of Broadway Life,” and the story then does follow the chorus girl narrative formula quite dutifully. Bronson-Howard would have had his reasons, thus, to study Johnson’s best seller closely—and his parody attests to this familiarity and to a considerable degree of anxiety of influence. The story approaches the new type of young womanhood, which Johnson’s novel traces, with open derision and barely concealed aggression. It takes the guise of a series of episodes revolving around the young “salamander” ‘Dearie Davenant’—an object of ridicule, not admiration. While in The Salamander, the men orbiting around the chorus girls are addressed as props—“a term obviously converted from the theatrical ‘property’”—in Bronson-Howard’s parody it is the salamander figure that turns into a prop, while the men around her recapture narrative control (Johnson, “Salamander” [September 1913], 144). Most importantly, however, unlike Johnson’s salamander, this girl is on her own.

Bronson-Howard’s spin-off starts like Johnson’s novel with the depiction of a society event in which the chorus girl Dearie functions as an ornamental attraction. When the host asks her, with obvious intentions, to join him later for “tea at [his] apartments,” Dearie refuses to meet him alone, pointing out the tête-á-tête’s compromising implications.[45] But unlike Doré, she does not get away with this. Her host insists on a deal that she has entered by attending his party in the first place:

“You’ve ac­cepted my presents; you’ve encouraged me to make love to you. And even if you were still working in the chorus, you couldn’t earn enough to pay for those expensive clothes you’re wearing. . . . What did you suppose I took all this trouble over you for? . . . Why else should a man with any brains give little girls like you so much time and money? Surely not to marry you. Don’t you know that every year there are hundreds of pretty débutantes who are bred up to the business of get­ting married?” (Bronson-Howard, “The Real Salamander,” 98)

In this display of male superiority, market logic rules supreme and the girl is reduced to a commodity for good. In the entire narrative, Dearie is marked as singularly cheap and unworthy—and juxtaposed to the “hundreds” of marriageable women who the men will eventually turn to, after having cashed in on girls like Dearie.

To voice her resistance, Dearie resorts to a language that is identified as “cheap melodrama”—“the approved style and . . . those terms favored by fictionists” (98, 99). She uses, in other words, the very language of the middlebrow magazine and popular press that The Smart Set aims to distinguish itself from. Dearie is shamed for her lack of education, her lack of family and her lack of money: “You don’t even earn your own living; you haven’t any money to make up for it; you have no rare entertaining powers. You have only your looks, and I natu­rally imagined you lived by them,” concludes her suitor in a continuation of the language of the business deal that he insists on throughout (99).

The story goes on to confront Dearie with a series of other men, who all look through her act and perpetuate the cycle of humiliation and degradation, until she finally encounters “Archie,” who “had lived all his life amid the hypocrisies of a small town” and makes a living writing “novelettes for . . . women’s magazines [which] were in such demand that he wrote under half a dozen names” (107). Archie falls for Dearie’s act because he has been infected by his own cant: “He congratulated himself on his luck when, just as he was beginning to plan the plot [of his novel], he should find in his own company the same wonderfully brave little girl he had imagined, Miss Adeara Davenant, whose life was the novel.” (107).

The parody exhibits the rich subtext of gender anxieties that Johnson’s novel dramatizes in less phobic tones. With the exception of the effeminate and naïve Archie, the male protagonists are all sophisticated writers, theater managers, producers, and directors who know how to distinguish cheap entertainment and true art along the gendered lines of cultural stratification identified by Huyssen in “Mass Culture as Woman.” In this juxtaposition, the woman is not only firmly associated with the consumer rather than producer of entertainment, she also eventually merges with the very product of consumption: Dearie becomes the middlebrow novel that she routinely draws inspiration from.

The same conjunction of figure and medium can be noted in another smart parody of The Salamander, this one published in Vanity Fair in July of the same year by an author using the pseudonym “O-you John-is-on” and titled “The Sal Amanda: A Sociological Study of Great Importance” (fig. 7).

 Illustration in Vanity Fair 2, no. 5
Fig. 7. The Salamander as a periodical creature: Illustration in Vanity Fair 2, no. 5 (July 1914).

Less phobic and less ridden with patriarchal anxiety than the story in The Smart Set, this spoof captures the oddities of Johnson’s style well—its overabundance of descriptive detail, its overblown metaphors, and its penchant for a pseudo-scientific jargon. It also exposes the salamander’s oscillation between the multitude that is her habitat and a largely performative singularity, highlighting the figure’s periodical character: “Now gentlemen,” proclaims the protagonist, called here “Dorayme Laxer”: “I am going to say to you what I have to keep saying all through the book. I’m not like other girls. . . . I expect men to make mistakes—that’s what sells the magazine. But if you want to fight, you’ve got to go over to Jack London’s; this isn’t that kind of a story!”[46]

The story ties the hype around the salamander to a modernist magazine culture. Like Doré, Dorayme is never alone. When asked why salamanders don’t just seek wage work or get married, her friend and fellow salamander, Anna Conda, evokes the principles of periodical publication to sketch a periodical existence: “Doraymi, she wants to experiment, not to experience, to flit through the pages—to be continued in the next.” Marriage, she adds, “ruins the circulation,” to then tie the salamander existence explicitly to the periodical publishing format: “Before we come out as a book, we’ve all got to be married—it’s the only way. But so long as they can use us in the magazine—” (“O-you John-is-on,” “The Sal Amanda,” 54).


All these stories of young urban womanhood in general and chorus girls more particularly were (presumably) written by men. And while there were female-authored chorus girl narratives, the genre was, at least initially, dramatically male-dominated. The author who to this day is most prominently associated with the genre, however, is a woman: Anita Loos, who published Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1925 as a serial in Harper’s Bazar to great acclaim.

This is not the place to go into the ways in which Loos’s 1925 novel plays with the formulas established, among others, by Johnson. But I want to end with a quick reference to the underestimated second volume of the novel—But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes—that appeared in 1927 also as a serial in Harper’s Bazaar. This narrative revolves around Lorelei Lee’s much more sophisticated friend Dorothy Shaw, who comes to New York from California to join the Ziegfeld Follies. Like the first volume, this one is related by Lorelei Lee in what Daniel Tracy calls the language of a “vernacular blonde.”[47] While Lorelei pursues her goal of making good by marrying rich with great determination, Dorothy—in Salamander fashion—lives in the moment.

This presentist focus is epitomized in Dorothy’s socializing in New York. While Lorelei recommends to strategically befriend “famous girls who went out socially,” Dorothy steers a different course:

Well, in the Follies there are practically always 18 Tiller girls who are an English ballay, which is noted for nothing but hard work. And they never go out anywheres socially, because they have to practice all of the time, just like soldiers. And the result, is, that they are just like one girl, on the stage and off of it. So when Dorothy was looking around for a girl friend, that was what she picked out.

I mean, Dorothy did not even pick out one Tiller girl. And I really think it was very undignified to go walking around the streets of New York with a whole English ballay, when she might just as well have been riding in the Rols Royse of some girl with a future. But Dorothy says that one Tiller girl never goes out alone without yearning for the other 17.[48]

This is the apotheosis of the multiplicatory aesthetics of the chorus girl. Eighteen Tiller Girls and Dorothy, who does not care about the future. When her millionaire suitor Charlie Breene arranges a party in Dorothy’s honor, she almost misses it, because

after rehearsal was over, instead of going to her room, and relaxing for the party, Dorothy took a bus with her 18 Tiller girl chums, and went to Coney Island. And she was having such a delightful time riding on all the concessions that she forgot to look at the clock. And she never got back to the hotel until after 12, where Charlie Breene had waited in the lobby for two hours, and had gotten so nervous that he was almost ready to scream. And he finally had to escort Dorothy to a refined party full of brokers and cute girls in evening gowns, with large holes in her stockings from sliding down the Devils Slide, and practically a dislocated hip. (Loos, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes,” 194–95)

Dorothy will marry Charlie eventually. But her heart—and the novel—belongs to her girlfriends and to a lifestyle of the moment, endlessly circulating, in defiance of clock time and strategic life planning—around and around and around.


[1] Kendall Taylor, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), 5–7; Carolyn Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origin of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 121–35.

[2] On this phenomenon see also: Ruth Mayer, “Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls: The Trans-Atlantic Mass Magazine Culture of the 1920s as a Gendered Affair,” Journal of European Periodical Studies, 7, no. 2 (2022): 52–73.

[3] Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 44–64. Huyssen was, of course, not the only literary scholar to approach modernity and gender as entangled concepts. So did, at around the same time, feminist critics such as Rita Felski, Tania Modleski, or Janice Radway. Their work focused on resistant female strategies of appropriation and brought to the fore a feminine aesthetic of the mass cultural. For this present study, however, I will—like Huyssen—focus on the production and dissemination of images of womanhood, not on the variegated techniques of reception. See Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (New York: Methuen, 1982); Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

[4] Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (London: Penguin, 1981 [1900]), 157, 158.

[5] Philip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 128–78.

[6] Throughout Sister Carrie, female work is enacted primarily in terms of self-fashioning and expressivity—even before Carrie enters the stage she is a performer. See Ashley Palmer, “Forgetting the Uncomfortable: Reading the Shadows of Retail Labor in Sister Carrie and Susan Lenox,” American Literary Realism 49, no. 2 (2017): 129–51; Marlies Schweitzer, When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 51–95; Ruth Mayer, “Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls.”

[7] Maya Cantu, American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage: Imagining the Working Girl from “Irene” to “Gypsy” (New York: Palgrave, 2015), 50–64; Angela Latham, Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers in the American 1920s (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Pres, 2000); Linda Mizejewski, Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

[8] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019), 31.

[9] On the whiteness of the chorus girl, see Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), 182–220; on chorus girl diversity, see Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Linda J. Tomko, Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890–1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); James F. Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 112–53.

[10] See Alys Eve Weinbaum et al., eds., The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); on the consolidation of the modern girl imagery into the flapper, see Linda Simons, Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper (London: Reaktion Books, 2019).

[11] Larry Langman, American Film Cycles: The Silent Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 43–49.

[12] See Tracy Davis, Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian England (London: Routledge, 1991), 69–77; Renata Kobetts Miller, The Victorian Actress in the Novel and on the Stage (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019); Alison Piepmeier, Out in Public: Configurations of Women’s Bodies in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[13] Susan Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 177; Ruth Mayer, “Endless Deferral: Theories of Mass Culture and the Aesthetics of Affect,” Real: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 35, no. 1 (2019): 81–102.

[14] Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, tr. and ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 74–88,­­­­ 76.

[15] Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Jennifer M. Bean, “Introduction: Stardom in the 1910s,” in Flickers of Desire, ed. Jennifer Bean (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 1–21.

[16] On the ambivalent figure of the actress in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture, which obviously affects the cultural perception of the chorus girl, see Susan Glenn’s Female Spectacle, 9–39.

[17] “Just a Few Stage Goddesses,” Vanity Fair, 2, no. 6 (August 1914), 38.

[18] “Doré Baxter: A New Stage Heroine. And the Recent Deluge of Young Lady Salamanders,” Vanity Fair 2, no. 6 (August 1914), 31.

[19] Diana W. Anselmo, “Made in Movieland: Imitation, Agency, and Girl Movie Fandom in the 1910s,” Camera Obscura 32, no. 1, (2017), 129-165, 137-138, cf. also Glenn 24-25.

[20] Warren I. Sussman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 271-285.

[21] Owen Johnson, The Salamander (Prologue), McClure’s Magazine 41, no. 4 (August 1913), 54–60, 54, 55.

[22] Owen Johnson, “The Salamander,” McClure’s Magazine 41, no. 6 (October 1913), 48–60, 48.

[23] This quote stems from the bound book publication of The Salamander, which contained a few additions and corrections. Owen Johnson, The Salamander (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1914), 77.

[24] Faye Hammill and Hannah McGregor, “Bundling, Reprinting, and Reframing: Serial Practices Across Border,” The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 9, no. 1, special issue, Seriality (2018): 76–100; Frank Kelleter, “Five Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality,” in Media of Serial Narrative, ed. Frank Kelleter (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2017), 7–34; Ruth Mayer, Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013); Mark Turner, “Seriality, Miscellaneity, and Compression in Nineteenth-Century Print,” Victorian Studies 62, no. 2 (2020), 283–94.

[25] Matthew Schneirov, The Dream of a New Social Order: Popular Magazines in America, 1893-1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[26] Roger Reed, “Diverse American Illustration Trends, 1915–1940,” in History of Illustration, ed. Susan Doyle, Jaleen Grove, and Whitney Sherman (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 322–37, 323–24; Jennifer Nolan, “May Wilson Prescott and the Birth of Fitzgerald’s Flapper: Illustrating Social Transformation in ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair,’” The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 8, no. 1 (2017), 56–80.

[27] Owen Johnson, “The Salamander,” McClure’s Magazine 41, no. 5 (September 1913), 162.

[28] On the periodical practice of using illustrations proleptically see Nolan, “May Wilson Prescott,” 69.

[29] This enactment of girlhood in terms of in-betweenness is not exclusively narrative, of course. As Annabel Friedrichs’s work on modern female illustrators exemplifies, the idea of girlhood as an indeterminate time/space of possibilities also unfolded visually in the magazine culture of the 1910s. See “Claiming Her Time: The Entrenchment of Time and Gender on the Periodical Market, 1880–1920,” Women’s History Network Blog (December 2019),

[30] Cf. Umberto Eco, “Interpreting Serials,” in The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 83–100; Kelleter, “Five Ways of Looking.”

[31] Ilka Brasch, Film Serials and the American Cinema, 1910­–1940: Operational Detection (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018); Ilka Brasch, “The Perils of Print: Twentieth-Century Media Modernity and the Pauline Serial on the Newspaper Page and the Film Screen,” in Modernity and the Periodical Press: Trans-Atlantic Mass Culture and the Avantgardes, 1880–1920, ed. Felix Brinker and Ruth Mayer (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2022); Ruth Mayer, “Running Late: The Silent Serial, the Cliffhanger, and the Exigencies of Time, 1914–1920,” in Oxford Handbook of Silent Film, ed. Charlie Keil and Rob King (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2021); Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

[32] Owen Johnson, “The Salamander,” McClure’s Magazine 42, no. 1 (November 1913), 168.

[33] Owen Johnson, “The Salamander,” McClure’s Magazine 42, no. 2 (December 1913), 80.

[34] On the cultural logic of such lifestyles precariously perched between performance and prostitution see also: Kirsten Pullen, Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[35] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 96.

[36] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 346.

[37] Cf. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); Mayer, “Endless Deferral.”

[38] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, tr. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 94–136, 111.

[39] This conceptual pattern that manifests tentatively and playfully in the periodical and performative cultures of the 1910s will take root and inform the representation of young womanhood in the decades to come. In her reflections on the avant-garde cultures of the 1920s, Alix Beeston identifies the Ziegfeld revues as the aesthetic reference point of novels such as Manhattan Transfer and the avant-garde photography of the period, in which multiplied female bodies enact a latently subversive constellation of “women-in-series” across the social scene. In and Out of Sight: Modernism and the Photographic Unseen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 108-46. But by the mid-1920s, when these avant-garde experiments unfolded, the multiplicatory aesthetic of the chorus had long left the revue stage behind and taken root in popular and entertainment cultures at large. By then, modernity was, in a manner of speaking, “women in series.”

[40] Catherine Keyser, Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010); Ruth Mayer, “Engineered Desire: The Smart Set, Mass Culture, and the Dispositif of Distraction,” in Modernity and the Periodical Press: Trans-Atlantic Mass Culture and the Avantgardes, 1880-1920, ed. Felix Brinker and Ruth Mayer (Leiden: Brill, 2023), 17-32.

[41] Sharon Hamilton, “American Manners: The Smart Set (1900–29); American Parade (1926),” in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, ed. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 224–48, 226; George H. Douglas, The Smart Magazines: 50 Years of “Vanity Fair,” “The New Yorker,” “Life,” “Esquire,” and “The Smart Set” (New York: Archon Books, 1991).

[42] Vanity Fair Ad. The Smart Set 50, no. 1, September 1916, n.p.

[43] Daniel Tracy, “Investing in ‘Modernism’: Smart Magazines, Parody, and Middlebrow Professional Judgement,” The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 1, no. 1 (2010), 38–63, 42; Matthew Stratton, The Politics of Irony in American Modernism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

[44] Catherine Keyser, “Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Very Clever Woman in Vanity Fair,” American Periodicals 17, no. 1 (2007), 65–96, 66.

[45] George Bronson-Howard, “The Real Salamander: A Page from the Book of Broadway,” The Smart Set 42, no. 3 (March 1914), 97–108, 98.

[46] “O-you John-is-on,” “The Sal Amanda,” Vanity Fair 2, no. 5 (July 1914), 54.

[47] Daniel Tracy, “From Vernacular Humor to Middlebrow Modernism: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Creation of Literary Value,” The Arizona Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2010), 115–43, 128.

[48] Anita Loos, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes,” in Brunettes, ed. Regina Barreca, ill. Ralph Barton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998), 194.