Welcome to the Twentieth Century

This morning I am immersed in the Twentieth century, during which I have spent more than half of my life (so far). A part of me wishes I knew more about (and cared more about) current popular culture, but I don’t think Rap is music (it’s poetry, really, isn’t it?) and I fail to comprehend the popularity of the Kardashians.

In my historical novel Pacifica, in 1914, artist Nola Lynch leaves New York City and a failed romance to sail for the newly-opened Panama Canal. Love affairs and mishaps bring her, via a detour through Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, to Los Angeles, where she seeks work as an illustrator in nascent Hollywoodland.

In 1914 Walt Elias Disney was 12 years old. He founded his first animation studio in 1920 with his most loyal illustrator and master of the art, Ub Iwerks. During the Depression, working from Disney Studios’ astounding success with Mickey Mouse, Walt added women to his all male artistic staff, but they were relegated to ink and paint, a low paying coloring job. These women worked 12-hour shifts to produce the cels for Disney’s 1937 box-office smash, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Nola winds up in San Francisco in 1915, where she lands a job with a local newspaper. She is a rarity, a young unmarried woman who is seeking her way without the impediment of male interest. In the sequel, I’ve outlined the idea of Nola returning to Los Angeles in the 1930’s, invited by friends to consider working in animation.

Majer “Max” Fleischer was 31 years old in 1914, working in New York City for Popular Science as an art illustrator. A skilled cartoonist, by 1914 Max found the newly animated cartoons interesting, and to improve them, he invented the rotoscope, a sort of shortcut to animation. Aside from this, he and his brother Dave invented Betty Boop and Popeye and animated Superman for the first time.

Union battles of the late ’30’s and early ’40’s damaged both Disney and Fleischer Studios. Walt Disney’s unforgiving management style resulted in employee abuse, and the pressure that Paramount Studios put on Fleischer’s workers to produce more and faster caused the talent to revolt. Both men felt betrayed.

In my historical novel Voices of Ash, I move away from Hollywood and into the ceramics industry, where women worked in design. Mid-twentieth century California pottery, eminently collectable and a current obsession with younger generations, was a huge industry in Southern California, where the raw materials for its production were abundant. The founders of Bauer, Catalina, Metlox, and Franciscan were male, but individual studios of female designers produced figurines and unique dishware. Here, women were allowed to own and run their own companies. One of my characters in the novel designs figurines for a large fictional ceramics firm in Manhattan Beach and oversees her own studio within the company. Ceramic figurines become central characters in the book, which deals with themes of memory and memorial.

Hedi Schoop vase


I can’t let certain events of the Twentieth century alone; I’m happy to be stuck there. And there will inevitably be more to come.




About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Welcome to the Twentieth Century — 4 Comments

  1. My mom was raised in LA in the twenties and thirties and, to add to your store of information, she said that Grim Natwick (brother of actress Mildred, of whom Mom was fond) was the guy who invented Betty Boop. Also, Tyrus Wong (the guy who designed the movie ‘Bambi’ and got scant credit/money for it), when he got let go from Disney, turned to painting china and even Christmas cards for a living, examples of which are worth a slow fortune now. There must be lots more of these stories there for the digging, but these are the two I know of.

  2. My ignorance of popular culture pretty much is anything past the 1960s. My tastes were set by the time I got to college.