tutankhamen

This is the second article in my 1920s Week series.

On November 4, 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered the first of sixteen stone steps that led down into the tomb of Tutankhamen, a minor pharaoh of ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. Tutankhamen, only nine when he came to the throne, died in his late teens or early twenties, and left little mark on Egyptian history. His tomb, however, left a very big mark in the history of popular culture in the 1920s. Although he died in 1343 BCE–some 3,265 years before Carter and his patron, Lord Carnavron, broke down the thin plaster wall and shined candles into his burial chamber–Tutankhamen and the treasures of his tomb became the focus of one of the first modern media crazes, which was dubbed “Tutmania.”

There’s no doubt that Carter discovered something special. Almost all the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings had been long ago plundered by grave robbers and were thus barren of the fabulous funerary artifacts they once contained. (I profiled one such tomb in an “Earth Panorama” post not long ago). Tutankhamen’s, however, had not been plundered, or at least the thieves who did plunder it didn’t get away with it. The tomb was found in a terrible state of disarray, with burial objects stacked haphazardly and thrown everywhere, suggesting that the tomb was plundered shortly after it was first sealed, then the thieves were caught and their booty thrown back into the tomb hastily before it was resealed. Then its location was forgotten. Howard Carter had been looking for it since 1907, having pieced together the mystery of the tomb’s location from various contextual clues. The First World War put the kibbosh on his search, but he returned to Egypt after the war and made his spectacular find just as Carnavron was about to pull the plug on his funding.

Although the initial discovery of the tomb and its treasures made a huge splash in the newspapers of the English-speaking world (and much of the rest of the world too), Carter kept Tutankhamen in the news and the public eye with a steady stream of new discoveries. After all, the tomb was cluttered and fragile, and it took years to excavate it fully and catalogue the fabulous artifacts inside. The most dramatic discovery occurred in October 1925 when Carter opened Tutankhamen’s mummy case, exposing the solid gold death mask, one of the most priceless treasures ever found in the history of archeology. When the mask was taken off and the mummy unwrapped, the desiccated face of Tutankhamen, a teenager who had been dead for over 3,000 years, ran on front pages all over the globe.

alice joyce

Egyptian influence in fashion of the 1920s can be seen in many women’s dresses of the period, including the elegant patterns on this one, worn by actress Alice Joyce, which resembles a piece of jewelry found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Popular culture reflected people’s tremendous fascination with Tutankhamen–nicknamed “King Tut”–and everything relating to ancient Egypt. In addition to the news stories, advertisers were keen to cash in on the dead king and the milieu of Egypt that was suddenly cool. Bars started offering cocktails with Tutankhamen and Egyptian-themed names, usually exotic fruit drinks with bright colors. But not in the United States, of course, where Prohibition was in effect. Songwriters and publishers churned out sheet music with hastily-written ditties that referenced Egypt or the tomb discovery, and they sold like hotcakes; fun dance numbers were already becoming a hot commodity, and you could still do that in the United States.

The most notable examples of “Tutmania” were found in the consumer fashion and makeup industries aimed primarily at women. The women of Ancient Egypt were known to be the world’s first connoisseurs of makeup and beauty products; some, in fact, were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. (There were items in the tomb that were thought to belong to his wife, who was also his sister). Advertisers marketed soap, eye shadow and lipstick as being descended from Egyptian traditions or having anything they could think of to do with ancient Egypt. Fashion designers, already having a heyday in the growing postwar consumer culture, found rich inspiration in the designs and motifs of Egyptian art. Consequently, women’s dresses in the early 1920s utilized lotus patterns, the rich colors of vermilion and lapis-lazuli that adorned Egyptian paintings, and the long gentle draped look of Egyptian women as they appeared in ancient depictions. Tutankhamen revolutionized Western fashion.

clara bow

The classic 1920s glamor look–which emphasized heavy dark eye makeup, hair worn “up,” and long necklines–was very heavily influenced by the appearance of women in ancient Egyptian art. This is Clara Bow, about 1926 or ’27.

Why did Tutmania take hold so firmly in the public consciousness? After being on ice for 3,200 years, Tutankhamen popped back up into the world at an interesting moment. Popular culture, as driven and defined by magazines, mass advertising, consumer culture, movies and radio, was just starting to jell in the early 1920s. The Western public was tired of war, politics and depressing things like that, and for-profit media started delivering more frivolous, leisure-themed content; the sudden spark of interest in Tutankhamen was perfectly made to parlay into things that disposable incomes could buy, like makeup and luxury dresses. Plus, Tutmania was addictive. Ancient and exotic peoples always exert a magnetic pull on modern mass audiences. The history, rituals and religious practices of ancient Egypt are so bizarre to modern eyes that it’s easy to get hooked on reading and consuming content about them.

Smaller-scale explosions of interest in Egyptiana invariably occur whenever treasures from Tutankhamen’s tomb go on tour around the world, as happens occasionally. Modern media behaves toward these events exactly as media in the 1920s did, often running frivolous stories about the sudden interest in Egyptian themes or introduction of Egyptian-like products. These mini-explosions are usually themselves referred to as “Tutmania,” showing the enduring impact of the 1920s’ first modern media craze.

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