Friday, January 30, 2015

What a Difference a Century Makes

My father and mother, both age 27.


My father, James R. Viall, would have turned 100 years old today. So, what was different when he was born a century ago? 

One of the first differences we would notice would be that in 1915 there were simply not as many people

U. S. population stood at just over 100 million, less than a third of what it is today.

The world population would not hit two billion until 1927, when my father and mother were entering seventh grade. It would top three billion about the time my older brother, Tim, was in junior high. Population growth accelerated from there: four billion in 1974, when Jenny Viall, my father’s second granddaughter was born, five billion in 1987, when Sarah Viall, his fifth grandchild joined the fray, six billion by the time she entered junior high, seven billion by the time she graduated from Yale in 2012.

(Ellora Viall, born in 2014, is likely to see the world’s population reach nine billion before she turns 40.)

Medical care was far less advanced a hundred years ago. The first heart transplant was half a century down the road. Insulin had not been discovered. Any boy or girl who developed type-1 diabetes was doomed. (Glad thats no longer true, Emily Viall.) Smallpox was still a killer and a sister of my father’s succumbed in 1912. An outbreak of influenza would sweep the globe in 1918. The death toll was at least twenty millions, perhaps as high as fifty million. 

Life expectancy was 52.5 years for men, almost 57 for women.

A little more than 1 in 4 American workers (27%) were employed on 6.4 million farms at the time of my father’s birth. 

(The figures today are 2.2 million and 2%).

Speaking of workers, Henry Ford dominated the fledgling auto industry and his company would roll a millionth car off the assembly lines before the year ended.

Ford also had problems. He had perfected the assembly line but was having trouble keeping workers. He decided to raise wages. In 1914, the average Ford factory worker earned $2.50 per day for nine hours. Ford cut the workday to eight hours and raised the daily rate to $5.00, including bonuses. The president of Pittsburgh Plate Glass predicted ruin for Ford Motors, or for American industry, or both, as a result. The Wall Street Journal hinted that Ford was infected with Bolshevik tendencies.

Over half of all workers in mines and factories were foreign-born in 1915. Conditions were far from ideal. Almost 2300 coal miners would die on the job during the year, roughly average between 1903-1930. A steel worker could report working 68 hours per week. And no Saturday off for most workers! A Polish immigrant reported making $41 in two weeks at his factory job. He then had to pay the company $9 rent for living in a company-owned house, owed $24 for purchases at the company-owned store, and had to pay a fee of 50¢ for a visit to the company-owned hospital and 30¢ for the privilege of having his tools sharpened at the company-owned shop. “Company towns” were common in those days—with workers sometimes paid in “scrip,” or bills and coins only good at the company store. Only 1 in 10 American workers then belonged to a union.

April 5: In a heavyweight fight held in Havana, Cuba, Jess Willard defeated Jack Johnson, a match ripe with racial undertones. Johnson, a black fighter, had made all kinds of enemies over the years, mainly by pummeling white fighters, and seeming to enjoy it, as well as marrying and/or living with various white women. (Interracial marriage was then illegal in most states, which did complicate matters.) 

April 26: Francis Marion Harbit, the mother of my wife, Anne Viall, was born. (The middle name is for the Revolutionary War hero.)

The world she entered in 1915 was a place where women were still denied voting rights. Legally, in most states, a wife’s services also belonged to her spouse—so a husband could control her paycheck. In one famous case a St. Louis woman, long separated from her husband, lost her leg in an industrial accident. She sued the company for $10,000, only to have her long-lost man reappear, agree to settle with her employer for $300, and disappear with the cash. In some states it was still legal for the husband to grant custody of the children in his will to whomever he chose.

At the time only 1 in 5 workers was female. 

Only 1 in 25 medical school graduates was a woman, a figure that would remain virtually unchanged from 1905 until 1965. 

There were still almost no female lawyers, judges or elected officials.

One man who was enjoying himself was Babe Ruth. In the spring he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox for $3500. The investment paid off, as Ruth, a lefthander, compiled a record of 18-6. As a bonus he led the Red Sox in homeruns with four. No other player on the team hit more than two for the season. The Boston squad would go on to win the World Series, 4 games to 1, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies. Ruth never had a chance to pitch and went 0 for 1 as a pinch hitter.

Charlie Chaplin was also having a fine year, having inked a deal to earn $1250 per week, mostly on the strength of a popular new character, “The Tramp,” who first appeared as a full-blown figure in a movie of that name in April.

Billy Sunday, the fiery preacher, was also in the news. In one blistering sermon after another he railed against dresses which showed too much cleavage, with “collars down around the waist.” He also warned against playing bridge, about listening to jazz, and said it was impossible to “see God through the bottom of a beer-mug.”

World War I had raged for six months by the time my father arrived as a squalling infant. In August 1914, news of war had been met with singing and cheering in Moscow, London and Paris. In Berlin one observer reported that the people were “mad for war.” Military experts predicted it would all be over within three to five months. Now enthusiasm was waning. On a single day in 1915, newspapers could report that 20,000 soldiers had been killed in just the last twenty-four hours.

On May 7, 1915 a German submarine put a single torpedo into the side of the great ocean liner Lusitania. The “floating hotel,” as the ship was then called, would sink in eighteen minutes, carrying almost 1200 passengers and crew with her to the bottom, including thirty-one infants aboard.

From that moment, pressure would grow on President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war on the side of France and England. He would refuse, and in 1916, run for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” (Wilson would go to bed on election night believing he had been defeated; but final results, three days later, would show he had won a narrow electoral victory, 277-254, over Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes. Ohio had 24 electoral votes—California 13—Florida 6, in those days. Today the figures are 18—55—and 29—reflecting huge population shifts.)

July 26: My mother, Eleanor Cecile Winter, was welcomed into the world.

There was great concern at this time about the flood of immigrants. The term hyphenated American came into use. Teddy Roosevelt popularized the idea of the “one hundred percent American.” Would German Americans be loyal during the war? Were Italian Americans all criminals? What about the radical ideas of many foreign workers? Could these people even assimilate? After visiting one Italian immigrant family a social worker grumbled: “Not Americanized. Still eating spaghetti.”

From 1900 to 1915, three million Italian immigrants landed on our shores. The flow had been changing. More and more Jews, fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia, joined them. There were many others from Greece, Romania, Hungary and Armenia. On the eve of World War I, 1 of ever 4 Greek males at work was working in this country.

Edward Ross, a professor of sociology, watched the flood and saw only “hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality,” people who clearly belonged in “wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age.”

These weren’t the kind of people who built America—who made it great! (Doesn’t that sound familiar?)

The Ku Klux Klan was also having a good year, as membership blossomed, and the Klan message—anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant—resonated. Sometime during the 20s, I believe, my mother’s Catholic family looked out one night to see a cross burning on their lawn in Akron, Ohio.

A number of books during this era warned of the growing immigrant menace. Madison Grant, in The Passing of a Great Race (1916) talked of “a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish ghettos. Our jails insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them.”

Almost 1.2 million immigrants landed on American shores in 1914. Then war in Europe cut the flow to just over 350,000 in 1915.

Spoon River was published in 1915. 

Lillian Gish starred in the film, The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of Southern women and Anglo-Saxon culture and civilization.

Anti-Semitism was also in vogue. Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia after his death sentence was commuted in the murder of Mary Phagan, a young woman employed in Frank’s factory. (Many legal experts believed Frank was innocent all along.) A mob of outraged citizens dragged him from his cell and left him dangling from a tree. The Marietta paper approved of the mob action, referring to participants as “law-abiding citizens” who only wanted to see a just sentence carried out. For the year there were thirteen lynchings of white prisoners and fifty-six of blacks. Harvard and other elite institutions implemented quotas on Jewish admissions and Henry Ford, himself, published a newspaper which regularly attacked Jewish bankers and ordinary Jews in language that, after the Great War ended, warmed the heart of a young veteran named Adolf Hitler.  

Speaking of prejudice, African Americans, referred to in those days as “negroes” (if they were lucky), were denied access to the vote across the South. Literacy tests and poll taxes were employed to keep them off the rolls. In some counties, with majority black populations, a black man had a better chance of being lynched than he did of casting a ballot. In many places not a single non-white voter would be listed on the rolls until after 1960.

Finally, Americans were far less educated a century ago than they are today. Only 6 in 10 white children, ages 5-19, were enrolled in school in 1915. 

The figure for blacks was roughly 4 in 10 and the average number of years of schooling completed was 8.6. 

As late as 1940, my father would still be the exception—my mother and Anne’s mother even more so. The year they all turned twenty-five only 5% of adults had college degrees. (A year before the United States joined the fighting in World War II the average high school graduate was earning $1,661. The average college graduate was doing much better, earning almost a thousand dollars more: $2,607.)


Who knows what the next hundred years will bring?
Ellora Viall, b. 9-2-2014, great granddaughter of James R. Viall.


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