mid 1930s

Top Misconceptions People Have about Pulp-Era Science Fiction

A lot of people I run into have all kinds of misconceptions about what pulp-era scifi, from the 1920s-1950s, was actually like. 


“Pulp-Era Science Fiction was about optimistic futures.”

Optimistic futures were always, always vastly outnumbered by end of the world stories with mutants, Frankenstein creations that turn against us, murderous robot rebellions, terrifying alien invasions, and atomic horror. People don’t change. Then as now, we were more interested in hearing about how it could all go wrong. 

To quote H.L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, in 1952: 

“Over 90% of stories submitted to Galaxy Science Fiction still nag away at atomic, hydrogen and bacteriological war, the post atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children killed because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve….the temptation is strong to write, ‘look, fellers, the end isn’t here yet.’”

The movie Tomorrowland is a particulary egregious example of this tremendous misconception (and I can’t believe Brad Bird passed on making Force Awakens to make a movie that was 90 minutes of driving through the Florida swamps). In reality, pre-1960s scifi novels trafficked in dread, dystopian futures, and fear. There was simply never a time when optimistic scifi was overrepresented, even the boyish Jules Verne became skeptical of the possibilities of technology all the way at the turn of the century. One of the most famous pulp scifi yarns was Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids, about a race of Borg-like robots who so totally micromanage humans “for our own protection” that they leave us with nothing to do but wait “with folded hands.”


“Pulp scifi often featured muscular, large-chinned, womanizing main characters.”

Here’s the image often used in parodies of pulp scifi: the main character is a big-chinned, ultra-muscular dope in tights who is a compulsive womanizer and talks like Adam West in Batman. Whenever I see this, I think to myself…what exactly is it they’re making fun of?

It’s more normal than you think to find parodies of things that never actually existed. Mystery buffs and historians, for example, can’t find a single straight example of “the Butler did it.” It’s a thing people think is a thing that was never a thing, and another example would be the idea of the “silent film villain” in a mustache and top hat (which there are no straight examples of, either). There are no non-parody examples of Superman changing in a phone booth; he just never did this.

In reality, my favorite description of pulp mag era science fiction heroes is that they are “wisecracking Anglo-Saxon engineers addicted to alcohol and tobacco who like nothing better than to explain things to others that they already know.” The average pulp scifi hero had speech patterns best described as “Mid-Century American Wiseass” than like Adam West or the Lone Ranger. 

The nearest the Spaceman Spiff stereotype came to hitting the mark was with the magazine heroes of the Lensmen and Captain Future, and they’re both nowhere near close. Captain Future was a muscular hero with a chin, but he also had a Captain Picard level desire to use diplomacy first, and believed that most encounters with aliens were only hostile due to misunderstandings and lack of communication (and the story makes him right). He also didn’t seem interested in women, mostly because he had better things to do for the solar system and didn’t have the time for love. The Lensmen, on the other hand, had a ruthless, bloodthirsty streak, and were very much like the “murder machine” Brock Sampson (an attitude somewhat justified by the stakes in their struggle). 


“Pulp Era Scifi were mainly action/adventure stories with good vs. evil.” 

This is a half-truth, since, like so much other genre fiction, scifi has always been sugared up with fight scenes and chases. And there was a period, early in the century, when most scifi followed the Edgar Rice Burroughs model and were basically just Westerns or swashbucklers with different props, ray guns instead of six-shooters. But the key thing to remember is how weird so much of this scifi was, and that science fiction, starting in the mid-1930s, eventually became something other than just adventure stories with different trappings. 

One of my favorite examples of this is A. Bertram Chandler’s story, “Giant-Killer.” The story is about rats on a starship who acquire intelligence due to proximity to the star drive’s radiation, and who set about killing the human crew one by one. Another great example is Eando Binder’s Adam Link stories, told from the point of view of a robot who is held responsible for the death of his creator.

What’s more, one of the best writers to come out of this era is best known for never having truly evil bad guys: Isaac Asimov. His “Caves of Steel,” published in 1953, had no true villains. The Spacers, who we assumed were snobs, only isolated themselves because they had no immunities to the germs of earth.


“Racism was endemic to the pulps.”

It is absolutely true that the pulps reflected the unconscious views of society as a whole at the time, but as typical of history, the reality was usually much more complex than our mental image of the era. For instance, overt racism was usually shown as villainous: in most exploration magazines like Adventure, you can typically play “spot the evil asshole we’re not supposed to like” by seeing who calls the people of India “dirty monkeys” (as in Harold Lamb). 

Street & Smith, the largest of all of the pulp publishers, had a standing rule in the 1920s-1930s to never to use villains who were ethnic minorities because of the fear of spreading race hate by negative portrayals. In fact, in one known case, the villain of Resurrection Day was going to be a Japanese General, but the publisher demanded a revision and he was changed to an American criminal. Try to imagine if a modern-day TV network made a rule that minority groups were not to be depicted as gang bangers or drug dealers, for fear that this would create prejudice when people interact with minority groups in everyday life, and you can see how revolutionary this policy was. It’s a mistake to call this era very enlightened, but it’s also a mistake to say everyone born before 1970 was evil.


“Pulp scifi writers in the early days were indifferent to scientific reality and played fast and loose with science.”

 FALSE.

 This is, by an order of magnitude, the most false item on this list.

In fact, you might say that early science fiction fandom were obsessed with scientific accuracy to the point it was borderline anal retentive. Nearly every single one of the lettercols in Astounding Science Fiction were nitpickers fussing about scientific details. In fact, modern scifi fandom’s grudging tolerance for storytelling necessities like sound in space at the movies, or novels that use “hyperspace” are actually something of a step down from what the culture around scifi was in the 1920s-1950s. Part of it was due to the fact that organized scifi fandom came out of science clubs; Hugo Gernsback created the first scifi pulp magazine as a way to sell electronics and radio equipment to hobbyists, and the “First Fandom” of the 1930s were science enthusiasts who talked science first and the fiction that speculated about it second.

In retrospect, a lot of it was just plain obvious insecurity: in a new medium considered “kid’s stuff,” they wanted to show scifi was plausible, relevant, and something different from “fairy tales.” It’s the same insecure mentality that leads video gamers to repeatedly ask if games are art. You’ve got nothing to prove there, guys, calm down (and take it from a pulp scifi aficionado, the most interesting things are always done in the period when a medium is considered disposable trash). 

One of the best examples was the famous Howard P. Lovecraft, who published “The Shadow out of Time” in the 1936 issue of Astounding. Even though it might be the only thing from that issue that is even remotely reprinted today, the letters page from this issue practically rose up in revolt against this story as not being based on accurate science. Lovecraft was never published in Astounding ever again.

If you ever wanted to find out what Star Wars would be like if they were bigger hardasses about scientific plausibility, check out E.E. Smith’s Lensman series. People expect a big, bold, brassy space opera series with heroes and villains to play fast and loose, but it was shockingly scientifically grounded.

To be fair, science fiction was not a monolith on this. One of the earliest division in science fiction was between the Astounding Science Fiction writers based in New York, who often had engineering and scientific backgrounds and had left-wing (in some cases, literally Communist) politics, and the Amazing Stories writers based in the Midwest, who were usually self taught, and had right-wing, heartland politics. Because the Midwestern writers in Amazing Stories were often self-taught, they had a huge authority problem with science and played as fast and loose as you could get. While this is true, it’s worth noting science fiction fandom absolutely turned on Amazing Stories for this, especially when the writers started dabbling with spiritualism and other weirdness like the Shaver Mystery. And to this day, it’s impossible to find many Amazing Stories tales published elsewhere.

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Eeee I’ve been working on this dress for over a month now and I’m so happy it’s finally done ^-^ I’ve been in love with mid century fashion for years, and earlier this year, I went to a fashion exhibition with my grandma and I got so inspired, I sketched this design in my book on the floor of the gallery haha
All of the beading is entirely sewn by hand and I’m really looking forward to doing more in the future ♡
Dress: Made by me
Purse: Etsy

Can you believe that all of these pictures were taken from 1900 to 1910?? It’s called Autochrome and it’s an early color photography process! It was the principal color photography process in use before the advent of subtractive color film in the mid-1930s. Isn’t it absolutely beautiful & fascinating to see history in color as opposed to the black & white we are accustomed to?? 😲 Just me? Okay. 😅

Queer began as a self identifier in the community in the 1910s at the absolute latest and only became a slur and weapon in the hands of the privileged class in the mid 1930s and early 1940s. Unlike the vast majority of our terms throughout history (gay, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, etc) it began as our word and was stolen from us to do us harm. By the mid 60s and early 70s, we had already decided this was unacceptable and stolen it back, along with several of the aforementioned other historic terms. We were proud of ourselves and identities and the discomfort that the privileged class felt when they saw our pride was a fitting reward.

Queer, for those who wish to use it, is one of many umbrella term identifiers people use. We refer to Bisexual people as an umbrella, gay people, as an umbrella, etc. Queer, as one of the first words we made for ourselves, is deserving of this respect as an identifier too.

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Nature was Georgia O’Keeffe’s most enduring inspiration, whether she was looking at panoramic southwestern landscapes or the intimate terrain of a single flower, seashell, or leaf. ⇨ O’Keeffe was often photographed outdoors, among the elements that shaped her art. ⇨ Her fascination with organic forms also surfaces in her wardrobe. This white blouse is thought to have been made by O’Keeffe herself, and we can draw analogies between its delicate hand-stitched decoration and details in her art. ⇨ Even her store-bought clothing is evidence of her consistent stylistic choices. These flat suede shoes, which she bought in multiple colors, have a pattern of raised seams that evokes tree branches or the veins of leaves. 

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Founded in the 1920′s as a security force for the Ku Klux Klan, The Black Legion were a white supremacist organisation, prevalent in the Midwest of the United States. By the mid-1930′s, they had accumulated 20,000 to 30,000 members, mainly lower-class Southern Protestant whites. They perpetrated violence predominantly against African Americans, who they felt had stolen their jobs while completely disregarding that they lacked any useful skills for said jobs. They also targeted Catholics, Jews, labor unions, farm cooperatives and fraternal groups.

On 12 May, 1936, the organisation kidnapped Charles A. Poole, a Works Progress Administration organiser. Poole, a French Catholic, had married a Protestant. They shot him dead and it was this murder that eventually led to their downfall. It is believed that they killed up to fifty people in Detroit alone.

A technical and not-at-all-sexy guide to 1920s/30s lingerie for people intending to write Fantastic Beasts steaminess

During this period, women wore three basic item categories under their clothes for most purposes, consisting of some next-to-the-skin layer (layer A), some shapewear layer (layer B), and stockings.  You needed all three layers to be properly dressed…and no, this does not mean women were constantly overheating.

Layer A’s purpose was manyfold.  It protected your skin from the structure of your shapewear.  It protected your shapewear and clothes (both of which were laundered only with difficulty; they wore a lot more wool and silk then) from your sweat. It might keep you warm in winter, though the vast majority of surviving ones are very sheer and would not have contributed to overheating.  There were several options for this “layer A”, including slips (exactly like the full slips of today), teddies, camiknickers, and step-ins (think full slip but with a strap to connect the front and back hems between the legs, which most often could be unfastened with a button), a combination of camisoles and French knickers (like teddies/camiknickers but separated at the waist), and a combination of camisoles and bloomers (the latter being pant-like garments that gathered just above the knee, almost always worn with sporting gear).  Based on Tina’s propensity for trousers, she probably wears camiknickers or camisoles and bloomers.  Queenie, obviously, wears slips but might own a teddy or two.  One thing should pop out at you: the lack of a true equivalent garment to today’s panties.  This is really important.  There’s a practical reason why “true panties” didn’t develop at this point that we’ll explore when we discuss layer B, but the real reason there wasn’t an equivalent is that womankind literally hadn’t seen the need for such a garment yet.  The “drawers” worn by prior generations were all completely open at the crotch.

(If you’re wondering how women could have possibly handled That Time Of The Month without modern-style panties, they pinned rather long sanitary pads—either disposable ones made of cellulose like today or reusable ones made of rags—to elastic belts worn under layer A. Think kind of like a modern thong where you can change out everything but a waistband.)

Layer B was shapewear…and yes, even in the liberated 1920s, women wore shapewear.  Like layer A, there were options.  Corsets were still worn in the 1920s, mostly by women who had reached adulthood when corsets were the be-all-end-all of shapewear, but by this time they extended from the underbust to the hip.  Corselets were cut along the same lines as a slip but were much snugger.  Girdles extended from the waist to the low hip.  All of these options would have garters (suspenders for you Brits) at the bottom to hold up one’s stockings, and all of them were designed to help achieve the ideal banana figure of the era, not a tiny waist.  Queenie most definitely wears a corselet, and Tina probably wears a girdle but might also wear a corselet depending on the scenario.  Now for the important bit: remember that layer B fits snugly to the body in order to do its shapewearly duty, and you’d have to remove it before you removed your layer A.  If you’re going to use the bathroom, you either have to completely disrobe, or you’re going to have to remove no garments whatsoever…and this is where the open-crotch lingerie designs come in handy, because you only need to pull up your skirt to use the facilities.

(A quick word on brassieres: while they existed during this period, brassieres in the 1920s provided almost no support, functioning mostly like a layer A piece to conceal nipple topography under thin dresses, and they were altogether pretty rare since the other layer A styles worked better to protect dresses from sweat.  They became more popular in the mid-1930s, particularly among younger women, and they provided some more support…but not by much.  Busty women of this era would have been stuck with corselets.)

Stockings were mandatory for everyday wear, full stop.  This is an era before shaved legs, so they were essential to get a smooth look.  Stockings basically all came in the same style, fully-fashioned with a back seam coming to mid-thigh, where they would be held up by the garters/suspenders attached to the shapewear layer.  That is, unless you were a mid-1920s flapper.  For the flappers—who, it needs to be noted, were a counterculture that did not describe the majority of women in the 1920s—there was a short-term fad for women to wear elasticized garters below the knee and roll their stockings down to that level.  This was so they could go without shapewear and its garters, but I stress again—this was a short-term fad.  Even flappers returned to their girdles after about two years, and stockings held up by garters were the only real option throughout the 1930s.