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Marion Ringwood

Boston in the 1920s

Like many Simmons students, Marion immersed herself in the the cultural life of Boston as well as in life on the Simmons campus. As a thriving and bustling city, Boston provided many controversies, diversions, and entertainments for students in the 1920s, and Marion appears to have involved herself in the wider Boston culture with her characteristic enthusiasm.


Cigarette found in Marion's scrapbook


Both at Simmons and in Boston in general, smoking was becoming a major topic of cultural discussion in the 1920s. Historically, it had been a male preoccupation and privilege. Tobacco products were advertised nearly exclusively to men, portraying smoking as masculine and robust. By contrast, women who smoked before the 20th century—and even in the early years of the 1900s—were often criticized for indecency and inappropriateness ("Early Years,” Stanford). Cigarettes and tobacco products were loosely targeted to women in the late 1800s, but tides began to shift noticeably at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1900, Ogden & Phillips marketed their Ogden's Guinea Gold cigarettes to women. It was a progressive and bold strategy to appeal to the emerging modern woman whose sensibilities lay in freedom and independence ("Early Years,” Stanford). Despite anti-tobacco movements targeted at women and children to discourage smoking, mass marketing by cigarette companies flourished in the 1920s, perhaps encouraged by the unfolding women's suffrage movement in America. Unsurprisingly, these advertisements appealed to social changes and portrayed an idealized female image: a young, trendy, and attractive independent woman ("Cigarette Advertising,” Yale). As tobacco prohibition threats quieted down in the mid-1920s, tobacco companies continued to deploy heavier marketing towards women ("Early Years,” Stanford).

Policy at Simmons College in the 1920s reflected both an attitude towards refinement and leniency for independence, setting it apart from most women's colleges of the time. Recorded mention of smoking policies first appeared in student handbooks in the academic year 1919-1920. No student was allowed to smoke either in or outside dormitories and gentlemen "callers" were not permitted to smoke in dorm living rooms. These rules stayed largely the same until 1926, when handbooks additionally declared no smoking would be allowed in the vicinity of campus buildings, or in any way that would be "unseemly" and affect "[the] good reputation of the College and of the other students."


“Early Years,” Stanford University: Research into the Impact of Cigarette Advertising, accessed November 10, 2017,

“Men, Women, and Gender in Cigarette Advertising,” Yale University Library, accessed November 10, 2017,

woman smoking cigarette
Full length portrait of young woman smoking a cigarette, seated on pedestal, in profile

"Banned in Boston"

Book censorship in Boston was formally organized in 1878 under the guidance of the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, later named the New England Watch and Ward Society in 1891 (Doherty, Boston University). The society was inspired by New York's Anthony Comstock, who had established his own Suppression of Vice society in 1873. Membership was open for those willing to pay a minimal $5 fee, and the society’s membership consisted mostly of concerned moral activists, the largest percentage being Boston Brahmins, a New England caste of Puritan descendants ("Brief History,” New England Historical Society). Together, these moral enthusiasts adamantly vilified literature they deemed corrupting to the public's moral goodness , especially sexual literature in any mention or amount. Most famously, in 1882, the Watch and Ward Society successfully leveled obscenity charges against Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass for its controversial sexual openness and celebration (Boyer, American Quarterly).

Upton Sinclair protesting censorship
Upton Sinclair and supporter (possibly his son David) protesting at censorship hearings for his novel Oil!, wearing sandwich boards reading 'Oil!... fig leaf edition' and '...banned by Boston censor', ca. 1927

During the 1920s, Boston censorship picked up speed; it became so pervasive that it gave rise to the phrase "banned in Boston," which quite unintentionally had the effect of bolstering interest in and sales of deprecated books (Boyer, American Quarterly). Despite this comical result, threats to publishers and booksellers were quite serious. Bowing to the Watch and Ward's tenacity and presence, booksellers would send representatives of the society books they had flagged as potentially concerning. If the representatives found the no offense was committed in the book, charges would not be pressed. If, however, faults were discovered, booksellers swiftly pulled the items from their shelves to avoid possible repercussions that could ensue (Boyer, American Quarterly).


Daniel M. Doherty, “Censorship of the theatre in Boston,” Boston University, accessed November 17, 2017,

“A Brief History of the Boston Brahmin,” New England Historical Society, accessed November 17, 2017,

Paul S. Boyer, “Boston Book Censorship in the Twenties,” American Quarterly, accessed November 17, 2017,

Theatre Censorship

Censorship in Boston in the early twentieth century was by no means limited to print materials. Any affront to Boston’s moral crusaders was subject to their attack, including the performing arts. As with literature, grounds for censoring or outright banning theatrical performances hinged on the determination of “immorality”. Any lewd behavior or implication was quick to be denounced by the Watch and Ward, no matter whether a performance enjoyed success outside the city. In particular, the burlesque scene was a frequent target of Boston theatre censorship, although somewhat unproductively (Doherty, Boston University). Despite repeated fines and suspensions, burlesque theatres continued their activities mostly unperturbed.   

Expressive and artistic freedoms were pushing the boundaries of pre-conceived notions of right and wrong, even if people and societies like the Watch and Ward disapproved. One prominent example of this conflict occurred around the production of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Strange Interlude, which had been set for performance on September 30, 1929. The play had been openly advertised in Boston for six months without any serious backlash. Weeks before opening night, however, city censor John M. Casey finally prevailed upon Mayor Nichols, and the entire run of the show was cancelled in Boston (Doherty, Boston University).


Daniel M. Doherty, “Censorship of the theatre in Boston,” Boston University, accessed November 17, 2017,