Turkey Trouble

A scandalous dance rage that came home to roost.

These days, the phrase “Turkey Trot” brings to mind Thanksgiving Fun Runs, but back in the early 1900’s, it was a notorious dance craze that cost the jobs of fifteen young women in Philadelphia’s biggest publishing house. Originating in San Francisco’s red light district, the Turkey Trot was a kicky dance featuring a distinctive, hopping promenade that’s supposed to mimic a turkey’s waddling walk.

Apparently, Pope Pius X found the movements so alluring, he declared the dance immoral. Pressure grew to have it banned in public, which only made it more popular. Local historian Bob McNulty takes us back to Ragtime-era Philly, before women had the right to vote, back when a woman’s boss was also her vice cop…

Philadelphia has always been a hub for printing – the country’s first paper mill was built off a branch of the Wissahickon Creek here in the 1680’s, establishing a settlement known today as Historic Rittenhouse Town. Fast forward to the early 20th century, when The Curtis Publishing Company was one of the largest and most consequential publishers in the nation, employing thousands of men and also providing women a rare opportunity to work in a professional capacity.

Located at 6th and Walnut Streets, their impressive headquarters — a full city block — was the home of two of the world’s most popular publications, The Saturday Evening Post and The Ladies Home Journal, which in 1903 was the first American magazine to reach one million subscribers. It was also a family operation: founded by Cyrus Curtis’s wife, its chief editor, Edward Bok, was married to Curtis’s daughter.

The women who worked at LHJ had access to a Ladies’ Recreation room where they’d gather to enjoy lunch hours together. On Fridays, things would get a little festive as an office full of single women revved up for the weekend. Younger girls would cut a rug, showing each other the latest steps that would soon have the dance floors jumping.

One Friday in May 1912, however, the fun came crashing to a halt when Mr. Bok himself happened upon sixteen young women having the audacity to dance the Turkey Trot. In his corporate offices! In broad daylight!??!!

Bok could not believe his eyes. He had JUST written an editorial about how vulgar the Turkey Trot was, too, it appalled him to see such disgusting undulations under his own roof. The whole point of the Ladies Home Journal was to uplift and refine women, to teach them propriety, decorum, and etiquette. That “his” girls would betray him with such coarse behavior, at work no less.

He fired them all on the spot. They appealed to Mr. Curtis but it was no use. The men shared old-fashioned ideas about women and femininity. To them, women were supposed to be wives and mothers — even the “lady” writers, artists and editors they worked with every day. It was impossible to imagine how a woman could want the same rights as men, when so many responsibilities went along with those rights. By banning the Turkey Trot, Bok was trying to save these harlot hoofers from themselves.

Bok retired from The Ladies Home Journal in 1919 as the US Senate debated the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The Bok Technical High School was named in his honor; these days, the building has been transformed into workspaces for makers, artists, small businesses and non-profits (there’s also an amazing rooftop bar and restaurant).

As for the Turkey Trot, its popularity peaked not long after the young ladies were fired. By December 1912, it was rivaled by the Chicken Flip, and in 1914 it was surpassed by the Fox Trot, which would go on to become a staple of Ballroom Dancing, and the precursor to the Jitterbug and the Hustle.

Today, the Curtis Center boasts modern office and residential space, plus it’s also a favorite fancy venue – especially for weddings, where towering columns, radiant skylights, and a grand staircase make memorable backdrops for a couple’s special day. The main lobby (off 6th St) remains public, attracting tourists-in-the-know who come to marvel at Maxfield Parrish’s mosaic masterpiece, “The Dream Garden,” featuring more than a 100,000 pieces of glittering Tiffany glass in 260 colors. (Lobby is open business hours Monday thru Friday, and from 10am – 1pm Saturdays)

Wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels as we celebrate with our loved ones this week.

Get the Full Story!

This post is an encapsulation of a much longer and thoroughly-researched Philadelphia Story by the wonderful Bob McNulty. Originally published November 20, 2016. Please click through for full text with details & narrative flair that bring this important local history to life. 

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About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 22 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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