This past week has seen dramatic events follow one another like giant dominoes falling. Political maneuvers are happening at such a pace that the media are barely able to report one decree or policy change before something of equal or greater intensity supplants the first. I find myself reeling between outrage and helplessness as I try to make sense of the apparent lack of focus and randomness of events.
One way I handle these kinds of experiences is to expand my perspective. Sometimes I go back in history and see if there are comparative situations and take a look at how others managed. Other times I imagine myself five years in the future, looking back on what has happened, seeing myself as having successfully made it through. These are both exercises in shaking me out of habitual thought patterns and emotional responses. They are useful in addressing my increasing sense of impotence in the face of memes posted by opponents and re-tweeted by unconscious consumers.
The following is a very brief and highly selective tour of what was going on in the U.S. 100 years ago. Back then, the country was getting ready to celebrate its 142nd birthday. Today, as we get ready to celebrate 242 years as a nation, it may come as a surprise to see what has changed and what hasn’t.
Issues of the Day – The U.S. in 1918
Back in 1918 the U.S. was transitioning from a rural economy to a more central, urbanized one. This meant more people lived on land they rented (but did not own), grew most of the food they ate, and stayed within a 20 or 30 mile radius of where they lived for their entire lives.
Because of WW I, the U.S. sent more manufactured goods to Europe (wire, chemicals, explosives, firearms) than agricultural products. Payment for these goods was based largely on credit, which ultimately contributed to the world-wide economic depression in 1932. Tariffs and taxes were used to restore trade, but succeeded only in making the economic growth of the U.S. slower (see Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930).
Most roads in the U.S. were not paved. This meant that many communities were cut off in the spring when dirt roads were turned to mud and were impassable in winter, when drifts of snow prohibited horse-drawn sleighs from getting through. Cities paved their streets with bricks and wooden planks.
Electricity was an oddity and most wealthy people were quite scared about putting it in their homes, feeling that the gas jets they lit each night provided adequate light and did not pose a risk. Regular people continued to use candles, coal, or wood-burning stoves.
Communications were limited to letters delivered in many places by horse and buggy. Postage was three cents back then. In 1918, the U. S. Post Office introduced a new and improved service that took advantage of an innovation in transportation – Air Mail. Biplanes would now transport letters from New York to San Francisco in a little less than four days – one way.
News came printed on paper. Telegrams delivered breaking stories. Big cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco had five or six daily papers and numerous weekly papers. Papers were published in many different languages to meet the needs of immigrants from the multiplicity of nations living in metropolitan areas. Newspapers also thrived in rural areas.
Children attended public schools until they were 12 or 13. Only a few were home schooled. On finishing 6th grade, boys became field workers or worked in factories and girls took care of their siblings, did chores such as making soap, doing laundry by hand, mending clothes by lamp or candle light. Compulsory education ended with the 6th grade, meaning students could read the Bible and do sums.
Illiteracy for Blacks and foreign-born Americans ranged from 12 to 25 percent. Total illiteracy rates for the country were 6%. College was for the privileged few. These rates increased dramatically after WWI. Women’s enrollment rates actually declined however, perhaps because men returned home from the war and took their seats.
Women could not vote. World War I ended and President Wilson sailed to France for the Paris Peace Conference. Germany was forced to pay reparations to England, the United States, France, and Italy setting the stage for the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.
President Wilson made sure he cleaned up the corruption from the Wm. Howard Taft administration, but he was unable to keep the peace after leaving the Presidency. Warren G. Harding, (R-Ohio), Wilson’s successor, was one of the most corrupt Presidents we have elected. He stood by as his cabinet members systematically took advantage of bribes from Big Oil, political bosses, and just about anybody who had money (see Teapot Dome Scandal).
Average life span in 1918 was 37 years for men and 42 years for women. The Flu Epidemic of 1918 overwhelmed the U.S. and the world, with estimates of 500 million people succumbing because there was no vaccine. Bodies literally were stacked like cord wood in cities because graves couldn’t be dug fast enough to bury all the people.
There was no health insurance. Doctors made house calls. People paid cash for doctors and medicine. Most made do with folk remedies. Hospitals were in short supply and there was no ambulance service or 9-1-1.
Cities were crowded with immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and refugees from war-torn France, Belgium, and Germany. Americans were afraid of these folks and passed strict immigration laws labeling them aliens and anarchists. The government conducted raids to round up anarchists (Palmer Raids), which just made things worse.
Quotas on immigration weren’t passed until 1924. According to the National Park Service, approximately 5,000 to 10,000 people per day passed through Ellis Island in the years between 1910 and 1920. On the West Coast, immigrants in fewer numbers came from China, Russia, Canada, the Philippines, and Poland. Statistics were kept on crossings on the Mexico border starting in 1905. People crossed into the U.S. in Texas, Arizona (Territory), New Mexico (Territory) and California. New Mexico and Arizona didn’t become states until 1912.
What Can We Conclude?
When taken together, it is remarkable how similar our times are. Yes, the speed of things has improved, and there are many, many more of us. We have access to communication 24/7. We have ways of healing that are nothing short of miraculous. But we are still trying to figure out how to teach our children, how to make ends meet and provide for those who want to live in our country. We are still arguing about the economy, education, and health care. And Lord knows, politics hasn’t really changed all that much.
Maybe that is the take home message. The essentials — education, politics, immigration, health, and the economy — will always be the focus of debate. And that is probably a very good thing.