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The Year Of Change

July 2024
5min read

The United States is always turning a corner. Nothing ever quite stays fixed. No matter what period you select for examination, it always seems to be a moment of transition, when one age is giving way to another. Although it is the common fate of mankind to feel that the golden age lies somewhere in the past, in this country we forever appear to be just leaving the golden age; it is the time we ourselves knew, bafflingly changing its character just when we had concluded that it was permanent; and if we are compelled to brood about the future it is because the future is always beginning to take shape before our eyes.

One of the greatest moments of change, obviously, came somewhere in the middle of the second decade of the twentieth century. Ordinarily we ascribe the profound change which then began to the First World War, which knocked the props out from under so much of Western society. Yet the war itself may have been the product of change rather than its cause. Perhaps the transformation had already commenced when the rulers of Europe made their fateful, ruinous decision in the early summer of 1914.

Paul Angle is a man who thinks this is so. As director of the Chicago Historical Society he has just finished an eighteen-year stint of examining every page of the Chicago Tribune for the period from 1895 through 1913, supplementing this with an equally thorough study of such magazines as The Independent, The Nation, the Literary Digest, The Outlook , the Century , and the Ladies’ Home Journal; topping off with careful perusal of such items as the World Almanac, Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide , and two standard biographies of Woodrow Wilson. This study has led him to two conclusions—first, that that period was an authentic golden age of a sort, and, second, that it came to an end and gave way to a different age before the great war in Europe ever began.

He sets forth his argument persuasively:

Consider, if you will, the income tax, and the changes, social and economic, which it effected. Consider the New Freedom with its shift of emphasis in the goals of government. Consider the coming of age of the automobile and the evidence it offered of the perfection of mass production. Consider the beginnings of automation, bearing then the lowly term of labor saving. Consider the acceleration of the suffrage and prohibition movements. Consider the revolution in women’s dress and the increasing frankness in drama and fiction. And consider the impact of “modern” art and “modern” music. I hold that after 1913 life in the United States would have changed radically even if there had been no World War.

What, specifically, was life in 1913 changing from ?

In 1913 the United States was still predominantly a rural nation. More than half of all the people lived either on farms or in towns of fewer than 2,500 inhabitants; we were still, basically, a nation of small-towners. Yet the change was well under way. During the first ten years of the new century the urban population had increased by thirty-four per cent, while the rural population had gone up by only eleven per cent. Furthermore, the immense shift in the weight of population had begun. The Pacific Coast area was even then the most rapidly growing section of the entire country; although California in 1913 still ranked no better than twelfth in population among the states of the Union, the trend that would bring it up to the top in another half century was there to see if anyone had had an eye for it.

Along with this there was, equally visible and equally fateful, the development of the automobile industry. New York’s annual Automobile Show in January of 1913 found eighty-eight manufacturers putting more than 700 vehicles on display, at prices ranging from $395 up to !7,000; the angular, blocky cars of earlier days were beginning to be streamlined, the electric starter was coming into use, and the automobile was becoming something the ordinary man or woman could handle.

Crossroads: 1913, by Paul M. Angle. Rand, McNally & Company. 278 pp. $5.95.

Furthermore, the business was expanding beyond anything that anyone—except, probably, Henry Fordhad ever thought possible. By the end of 1913 more than 1,190,000 passenger cars were registered, a number which seems small enough today but which was fantastic by the standards of the day. (In 1900 there were just 8,000 cars.) Even more significant was the rate of growth. Nearly half of all of those cars, 461,500, were produced in 1913 alone.

Production of auto trucks, incidentally, lagged far behind. In all the United States there were in 1913 fewer than 68,000 trucks, and the World Almanac remarked that “there is nothing to indicate that this branch of the industry will ever progress as has the passenger car division.” Still, the truck did seem to have possibilities. Considering the potentialities of “the auto wagon,” the Chicago Tribune said whimsically that “highly imaginative men have indulged themselves with fanciful expectations of the horseless city.” In Chicago alone, more than five million tons of merchandise were transported by truck in 1912.

Politics was changing. Woodrow Wilson had become President, had broken precedent of long standing by going to Congress in person to read his messages, and was driving ahead toward a vast, epoch-making extension of the federal government’s powers over the nation’s economic life. In his inaugural address he warned that “we have not counted the human cost of our industrial achievements” and declared that “the government has been used too often for private and selfish purposes.” Government must concern itself with things previously left in other hands: specifically, there needed to be tariff reform, a new banking and currency system …

Out of which there came the Federal Reserve System, devised, in Wilson’s words, “so that banks may be the instruments, not the masters, of business and of individual enterprise and initiative.” Out of which, also, there came the income tax: mild enough, in all conscience, by present-day standards—it came in originally as part of the tariff bill, and it was devised to make up for the loss in revenue which would come from lower tariff rates—it imposed a “normal” tax of one per cent on incomes above $4,000, with additional surtaxes ranging up to three per cent on incomes over $100,000. Not very many people in the America of that day had incomes of more than $4,000. The burden was light, and the step was popular. Yet as liberal a magazine as The Nation warned that there was no theoretical limit to the income tax, and pointed out that “it is possible for governments to increase repeatedly the rate of such a tax, without being stopped by its sudden non-productiveness.”

Mr. Angle ranges far and wide in his examination of the year of transition, discussing everything from women’s dress, which seemed, to the conservative, dismayingly provocative, to the new dances (tango, maxixe, bunny hug, and turkey trot), which seemed even worse; touching on the rising motion-picture industry, the burgeoning of “ragtime,” the appearance of such composers as Jean Sibelius, Arnold Schönberg, and Richard Strauss, and the state of the American novel; and through it all he shows clearly that one America was indeed passing away and that another was being born. And he concludes:

I wish I could remember where I was when the year came to an end on the night of December 31. Since I had turned thirteen only a week earlier I must have been at home. At 10:30 or thereabouts my father would have been asleep over the Saturday Evening Post; my mother, up since 6:30, would have been nodding over her mending. The three young children, a girl and two boys, would have been bedded down for a couple of hours; my older sister was in Dallas, studying music. So I would have gone to the kitchen for a nightly snack: cheese—Herkimer, aged Wisconsin brick, or imported Swiss (none of your devitalized stuff in packages)—or a saucer-full of raw oysters, supplemented with pie and coffee. And then I would have gone to bed, unaware that I had just passed through a pivotal year, and without the slightest suspicion that I would ever write a book about it.

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