In 1919 a new term made its debut in popular culture with the enormously successful Broadway play The Gold Diggers. It wasn’t about gold miners, but about attractive “show girls” who flirted and played up to men for what they could get out of them. In it, one of the women tells her roommates “either you work the men, or the men work you.”
The play betrayed the upheaval in gender relations that had begun in the late 19th century but was deepened by World War I, continuing into the 1920s. Women had thrown off Victorian restrictions and traditional roles as they entered the job market. Men were confused, sometimes angry. The divorce rate soared.
In the 1920s the play was made into a movie and a virtual swarm of other gold-digging-themed plays and movies arrived, with titles such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Broadway Daddies, The Shopworn Angel, Naughty Baby, and Hardboiled. The theme remained strong in the 1930s, when there was a run of Busby Berkeley Gold Digger films.
The gold digger problem also appeared in advice columns. Columnist Dorthea Dix went so far as to proclaim, “No other women in the world do more harm than do these demanding women.” Ordering a lavish restaurant dinner paid for by a man was a clear sign of gold digging, according to a 1920 newspaper story. Good behavior, on the other hand, would look like this: “If she orders cheaply and modestly, she is either very considerate or very wise; . . . and if she says, ‘Oh, let’s go home and broil a chop in my kitchenette!’ – she is a wonder!”
Gold diggers also appeared in cartoons and on postcards, usually shown in a restaurant, eating and drinking freely and running up the check. So they not only took advantage of men, but their other sin included eating too much, in violation of the idea that true ladies had naturally small appetites. The examples below are presented in approximate chronological order.
She puts on her gloves, showing no concern for his alarm upon seeing the check.
“Dear” meaning costly. At a time when a steak dinner including caviar, oyster cocktail, deviled crab, steak and lambchop, with something sweet and a demi-tasse would have come to $3 a person, $32.50 was a very expensive dinner.
On the postcard at the top of the page, it appears that Miss Gold digger is also a heavy drinker.
This nasty little cartoon from 1927 makes her seem seriously — almost professionally — conniving.
In the 1930s Depression the male victim assumed the profile of a sugar daddy, possibly suggesting to the economically deprived masses that he deserved to be relieved of some of his money.
On the other hand, this poor guy truly looks like he’s suffering and his gold-digging girlfriend isn’t a bit sympathetic. She looks as though she rather enjoys seeing him wash dishes.
A 1940s card from a vending machine, assuming the worst about this woman, who probably made considerably less money each week than the mean-hearted server.
This one appeared in 1959, still working the tired old joke.
I’d like to think the gold digger meme had been retired, but a recent defamation lawsuit would suggest otherwise.
© Jan Whitaker, 2022