Flirting with fads

“Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire,” by Russell Patterson (1893-1977)

In our consumeristic society this weekend becomes a sort of proving ground for material desires. We mark “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday,” not as official holidays, but as shared celebration of enormous corporations achieving their Q4 revenue expectations. 

The stuff we buy and sell, however, changes a little each year. I remember Tickle-Me-Elmo being a hot commodity in 1997, but no one’s talking about the jiggling Muppet this year. All “hot” toys end up in a cold Dumpster eventually.

It’s never about the thing. Rather, it’s about the idea.

Even our language, clothing and bodies become conceptual displays. 

A torso full of tattoos used to mean you were rough and rowdy. Now it just means you’re broke. A three-piece suit once represented appropriate attire for all men, even hobos. But now most regard it as stuffy. Meantime, our slang turns faster than the blades of a helicopter.

I had to laugh at a historical example of one fad that spread too quickly for its own good. A century ago, Minnesota’s Iron Range was entering the “Roaring ’20s” just like the rest of the nation. However, its relatively remote location left the region just slightly behind on new fashion.

Nowadays, our impression of that era is dominated by the image of the “flapper girl,” including her distinctive dress and independent ways. In her own way she pioneered women’s liberation in the 20th Century. Well, flapper dresses appeared in the catalogues, so people on the Iron Range knew about them (even if many did not approve). But the dress was only part of the story. 

For about a year, starting in 1921 until the middle of 1922, a new fad quickly emerged from the flapper motif. It was an amorphous “order” called “Shifters.” They wore distinctive hats and pins. There was a special walk and secret handshake. Shifters developed their own slang, mostly to navigate a world dominated by parties, dancing, making out, and acquiring enough money to enable all of the above.

The Shifters had special hats, pins, and even a particular hairstyle, seen here.

In the Shifters, young women wore paperclips on the brims of their hats to signify certain messages to the men of their order. One paperclip on the hat and another on the lapel meant, “I am waiting for someone to say hello.” Two paperclips on the hat meant, “I kiss.” Four clips on the hat and two on the lapel meant, “Not dated up.”

The idea was to loosen the inhibition at parties and dances. Not surprisingly, these “Shifters” provided plenty of controversial fodder for big city style writers across the country. But their secret codes weren’t well known in the sticks. 

That’s how a cub reporter for the Hibbing Daily News got quite an education one early spring day in 1922. He was sitting at the train station when he noticed two attractive young women festooned with paperclips. They were stenographers sent to Hibbing for a work assignment. And they were rather frustrated that their paperclips had produced no kisses, dates or any fun at all. 

In an April 2, 1922 story in the News the unnamed reporter wrote:

“If the discernment of an humble pencil pusher is to be accepted as worthy of attention, both ‘Shifters’ were entirely kissable, too; the fact that they were neither kissed nor entertained at a movie last night being due to the general ignorance of Hibbing males as to the meaning of the ‘mystic’ paper clip insignia, and to the bashfulness of the reporter whose curiosity led to the discovery that Hibbing was entertaining for the day two real ‘Shifters.’”

The two ladies explained the rules of the Shifters to him: the special language and how men were supposed to respond. Ultimately, they could not contain their disdain for the dullness of this northern mining town. 

Despite the national controversy over this flirtatious flock, the Hibbing Daily News reporter concluded, tongue firmly in cheek, that Shifters posed little threat to the people of Hibbing. He wrote:

“Inquiries at the stationery stores here show no sudden demand for paper clips, but professional men who employ stenographers are warned to keep their office supplies of such clips in the safe.”

By summer of 1922 the Shifters trend died as suddenly as it started, having never taken root on the Mesabi Range. 

Interestingly, there is some evidence that the Shifters were a marketing ruse from the start. The makers of the inexpensive hats and pins declared to be the “uniform” of the Shifter made fast millions, and no organic origin of the group could ever be proven. Nevertheless, untold thousands of women and some men nevertheless joined the hype that year.

People have always gotten swept up in fads. I think we like the idea that we can remake ourselves. Hope dwells in the new, even if it’s foolish. And then too, humans do well to remember that nothing lasts forever. All things change, and then they change again.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Being from Hibbing I’d never heard of shifters either. However the excellent Trina Robbins has another good book out there about women cartoonists who pushed ink in the toon world. Trina is featured in Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. She is one of the ladies in the song. Somewhere around here I have pictures with her.
    Thanks for the piece.

  2. Interesting. Guess what those paper ips were made of? Steel. Thousands of tons of it nationwide, a fes grams at a time. In those days no doubt from Mesabi iron ore. What goes around comes around.

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