Imagine you could travel back in time … could close your eyes and move 100 years into the past. What would you encounter in the year 1919? Let’s explore.
Want to catch a movie? We are in the silent film era. On-screen titles help you follow the story, and someone plays the piano or organ to accompany the action. A Day’s Pleasure, Charlie Chaplin’s fourth film is released this year. In February, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith incorporate the United Artists studio.
If you’d rather read, Sherwood Anderson, Jack London, Virginia Woolf, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Franz Kafka, and Baroness Orczy have books coming out. If you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, his 13th Oz book, The Magic of Oz, is published in June. And heads up you language nerds! Professor William Strunk Jr. will publish The Elements of Style. If you’d rather roam about outside, Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Zion enter the National Parks system.
What music is playing? Maybe “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” or “Mandy” or “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).” It’s quite an interesting year in baseball. The Chicago White Sox throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds resulting in the Black Sox Scandal. 1919 is also the last year Babe Ruth plays for the Red Sox. Want to shop? Women’s skirts have risen several inches above the ankle. Some women are bobbing their hair. Many women are ditching their corsets in favor of less-confining undergarments. Women still cannot vote, but in June, after years of work by suffragists, the Senate passes the 19th Amendment and sends it to the states for ratification.
Most of the adults you encounter have not graduated from high school. It will be more than 20 years before half the young adult population has a high school diploma. So if children aren’t in school, what are they doing? Many work full time. It will be years before there is a direct prohibition on child labor. There will be a prohibition, however, on alcohol. During 1919, three quarters of the states ratify the 18th Amendment. Prohibition will take effect in January of 1920.
Woodrow Wilson is in his second term as president. WWI broke out in 1914, but the United State remained neutral until 1917. An armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ended the fighting. The Paris Peace Conference will begin in January of 1919 and produce the Treaty of Versailles in June. Wilson advocates ratification of the treaty and U.S. participation in the new League of Nations, but in October he suffers a serious stroke and is unable to advance his agenda. The Treaty is not ratified by the Senate, and the U.S. does not join the League of Nations.
World War I had cost more than 115,000 American lives. Shockingly, about 45,000 of those deaths are a result of the Spanish flu pandemic which began in 1918 and continued for more than two years. The flu killed an estimated 50 million victims around the world. Ten to twenty percent of the people infected with the flu died from it. In the United States, estimates of the number of flu deaths range from 500,000 to 675,000. Unlike most flu epidemics, those most likely to die from Spanish flu were young adults.
The summer and fall of 1919 is also scarred by brutal actions against workers and those suspected of being leftist radicals. In addition, there are white-supremacist attacks on African Americans in a number of cities, which result in hundreds of deaths. One of the most horrific of these events occurs in Elaine, Arkansas. An exchange of gunfire at a meeting of black tenant farmers leads to days of indiscriminate killing of African Americans by white vigilantes and troops called up by the governor.
The country is on the doorstep of the Roaring Twenties. But there are hints of great evil to come. In May, 1919, Benito Mussolini will found the Italian Fascist Party. In September, 1919, 30-year-old Adolf Hitler becomes a member of the newly-formed German Workers’ Party. By 1920, he will remake this group into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazi Party.
Who is born in 1919? Jackie Robinson in January, Nat King Cole in March, and Pete Seeger in May. What new words find a place in literature and dictionaries? Some include ad-lib, bagel, phooey, skivvies, and snookums.
The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, has mounted a fabulous exhibit on the year 1919, the year Henry and Arabella Huntington began to transform their estate into a public institution. The exhibition is organized around the themes Fight, Return, Map, Move, and Build. It runs until January 20, 2020. Find out more at https://www.huntington.org/