A Ponzi Scheme for Flappers

The Shifters was a name of a group of young people who called themselves that for a few months in 1922. Some considered them a subset of flappers, but men were welcome to be Shifters. Newspapers covered the group as if they knew what the culture meant. No one knows who started the fad, and there was no organization behind it. And, like many fads among young people, the Shifters died out as soon as the media paid attention to them. It was a sort of "secret society" of cool, hep people "in the know," but we still know rather little. One of the fascinating things about the Shifters was their method of recruiting new members.

Central to the Shifters’ rapid growth was a pyramid scheme of enrollment and enrichment that was encapsulated by the Shifter motto, “Get something for nothing.”

A Shifter would tempt a victim into joining, swear her to secrecy, make her pledge to “be a good fellow” and demand an initiation fee of anything from 5 cents to $6. The newly minted Shifter was then dismissed to find fresh victims and make good her investment.

According to The Border Cities Star, “down in New York one stenog. cleaned out 1,200 persons in the Woolworth building offices during her membership campaign, and naturally collected 1,200 dollars.”

As time went by, established businesses wanted in on the game as well, and they manufactured Shifters pins,  patches, and hats to sell. A lot of money changed hands, but when the Shifters were seen as mainstream, they disappeared. On to the next fad! The New York Times Sunday Review has the story, plus lists of "Shifter slang" terms, which may or may not be accurate, but it's fun to read. Link -via Metafilter

(Image credit: the New York Public Library)

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