1913A few days ago I decided to put together an anecdotal word-picture of what life was like in the United States in 1913, mostly to amuse my grandchildren. My grandfather Willson’s cousin Gertrude was keeping an occasional diary during that period, primarily to record the astonishing changes that seemed to be taking place in every part of her life. Mindful of the schoolboy who wrote, “Beginning in the 1760s a wave of gadgets descended upon England,” she tried to notice not only the gadgets but the conditions of her employment, the state of the arts, family events–everything that seemed to speak of progress. It was a great god in 1913, but  cousin Gertrude wasn’t quite sure about it.

“When New York had only a million people nearly all of them went to bed at night;” she wrote, “not so now. There are too many automobiles too much jazz and turkey trot.  Speed and noise seem to be an inevitable part of progress. The earth has become too crowded so we have taken to the sky where greater speed can be attained…Even the absurd idea of air planes fighting in the sky has become a reality.” She wondered if the vote for women might constitute progress, and attended a “suffrage parade.” After sweating up Fifth Avenue up to 59th Street, she and a few friends slipped down an alley and took a trolley back to Brooklyn. “We were wind-blown, tired and hungry,” she said. “All the women looked their worst, hats askew, shoes dusty and back hair in much need of attention.” She concluded that until women could dress as comfortably as men, they had best not parade, and perhaps not vote.

Gertrude had moved from the farm in southwestern New York to be a teacher in the good high schools of New York City. The old farm neighborhood was declining rapidly and her brother and two sisters made the same move, all of them having attended the state “normal school” at Geneseo. Gertrude  (b.1869) and her sisters were the first generation of women who had the  realistic opportunity to choose to work outside the home; Gertrude and Laura chose also not to marry, although they had offers well into late middle age. Because their sense of family remained so strong (they returned to the farm for the summers for many years) they did not necessarily think of the life they lived in New York City as progress, although Gertrude did say that by 1910 or so she could not go “home” to stay. The City had too many attractions.

A throw-away line from Gertrude’s thoughts about 1913 prompted me to think about this little nostalgic exercise in a different way. She rarely talked about politics, but there is this summary: “The Panama Canal is open, Parcel Post is in operation, Federal Reserve Banks have been established and the income tax is the subject of much discussion.” 1913 was quite a year–one that, the more I think about it, I would like to just cut out of the calendar.

Knute Rocke

First, let us note that 1913 was a year in which much that makes up post-modern America began to be visible. Ford perfected assembly line production, and the Hudson automobile emerged as the first mass-produced sedan. The Swede Gideon Sundback patented the first modern zipper and Mary Phelps Jacob the first workable mass-produced brassiere; two inventions that still hold us together. The first drive-up gas station opened, in Pittsburgh. On December 21 a  “word-cross” appeared in the New York World, the first crossword puzzle. R.J. Reynolds introduced Camels, the first packaged cigarette (my father-in-law smoked them for 56 years, until they passed $1 a pack, and he quit). The Lincoln Highway “opened” October 31 (actually a collection of interconnected roads) to become the first more-or-less coast-to-coast automobile friendly driving surface. On November 1, football became football as we know it when Notre Dame, led by Knute Rockne and the forward pass, beat Army, 35-13. Some surprises here, but none that bothered cousin Gertrude (or any other American) very much.

On the other hand, the Progressive Era hit a new political and constitutional high with the passage of the 16th and 17th Amendments and the Federal Reserve Act. It doesn’t take much imagination (conservative or otherwise) to argue that the “progressive” income tax gave the national government its primary tool for instituting a command and control economy, and for funding all the grand redistributionist and social justice schemes of the past century. It changed the nature of the republic perhaps more than any other single constitutional amendment. The 17th amendment, by universalizing popular elections, marked the beginning of the end of the federalist principle. As long as state legislatures controlled the makeup of the U.S. Senate, states had real constitutional authority. What had been a gradual flow of authority into Washington now became a flood. The Creation of the Federal Reserve not only transferred control of much of the country’s money power to Washington, but (along with other major progressive legislation) opened the economy to regulation by a combination of “experts” and bankers and encouraged the growth of “lobbying.” Not since Alexander Hamilton had government been so open to what in 18th century Britain had been referred to as “corruption.”

There was considerable optimism about nationalist cooperation in 1913, evidenced not only by the laws but by the “Great Reunion” on July 3 at Gettysburg. On the 50th anniversary of the most destructive single battle (in terms of death) in American History, Pickett’s Charge was reenacted–this time with the two sides meeting to shake hands. Things seemed good. But the laws that changed the Constitution were as nothing compared with the influence of a book that had been published just six weeks before the Great Reunion: Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard was a professor in what was considered the most forward-looking history department in the nation,  at Columbia University.  It was the home of the “New History,” on the surface an outlook toward the writing of history that drew inspiration from the emergence of the “social sciences” of economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology; but deeper, it was what Morton White called “The Revolt Against Formalism.”

Beard’s Constitution mirrored the revolt generally. Instead of a document that reflected fixed principles of natural law and natural rights, Beard argued that the Constitution was a document fixed only in time and place, and designed to further the economic interests of its authors. It was worth preserving, but as a “living” document, relative to its circumstances, and destined to change as the needs of the nation changed. While it took the Supreme Court and the legislative branches of government a while to catch up to Beard’s notions, from May 20, 1913 on, the Constitution would never be the same.

And so for the world of art. The “Armory Show” (“International Exhibition of Modern Art”) opened on February 17, at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, and later moved to Chicago and Boston. It drew huge crowds (87,000 in New York alone, in less than a month)–particularly Gallery I, which contained the work of “Cubists” and “Futurists,” and others outrageous to traditional sensibilities. One reviewer called Gallery I the “chamber of horrors.” The work of Jacques Villon, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Archipenko, and Henri Matisse shocked most of the patrons, and delighted others. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was renamed by one wag, “Food Descending a Staircase,” no doubt because of the indeterminate form it represented.

This was the point. Whatever the merits of Modernism, or the “avant-garde” as it came almost immediately to be known, the deconstruction of the human form and of nature (and the family in Archipenko’s stature of that name) was both obvious and upsetting. Former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a review of the show for Outlook magazine that appeared just two weeks after it left New York. That he was perhaps the only President ever to write a review of an art show–and certainly the last–is probably a measure of its cultural importance. He compared the Armory Show to P.T. Barnum’s display of his “mermaid”: “There are thousands of people who will pay small sums to look at a faked mermaid; and now and then one of this kind with enough money will buy a Cubist picture, or a picture of a misshapen nude woman, repellent from every perspective.” Roosevelt, as a good progressive, liked most of the show very much, and applauded its spirit of change: “There was not a touch of simpering, self-satisfied conventionality anywhere in the exhibition.” Yet, he insisted, “why a deformed pelvis should be called ‘sincere,’ or a tibia of giraffe-like lengths ‘precious,’ is a question of pathological rather than artistic significance.” It is true, Roosevelt admitted, that to be afraid of change is to be afraid of life, but: “It is no less true, however, that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development.”

It is certainly unfair to pin the culture of death that was one of the major features of the 20th century on Gallery I of the Armory Show. But it did appear there, just as all seismic cultural changes appear first among artists and poets and take political shape almost a generation later. Charles Beard was in his own way a poet, and it was not his intention to deconstruct the Constitution (later he would become its champion against those progressives who would manipulate it for other reasons), but, intention or not, his book was an important event along the way from a natural law to a utilitarian understanding of our fundamental law. 1913 was also the year that Margaret Sanger decided to spend her life crusading for a utilitarian and progressive understanding of the life force, and the year that Mabel Dodge provided a link between culture and politics with her support both of the Armory Show and the United Textile Workers’ strike/pageant in Madison Square Garden. One thinks, in this regard, of Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers in  1970, described so colorfully by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic.

Ah, to excise 1913 from the calendar! It’s not only a silly notion, of course, but it’s contrary to the Order of Creation.  Still…(sigh). Cousin Gertrude never did get over being ambivalent about progress.  She lived through two Great Wars and a Great Depression, which should have been sobering to us all, and she was much too rooted in family, church, and neighborhood to believe that anything really important changed much, anyway. Besides, she was an avid reader, and in 1913 there appeared both Robert Frost’s first volume of poetry, A Boy’s Will, and Willa Cather’s first major novel, O Pioneers!.  They would help her to cope.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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14 replies to this post
  1. Fascinating and the family connection makes it all the more vivid!

    Some day, John, if you have the time and the inclination, I would relish your list of five or ten single years that got us into our deplorable state. Where would you begin? With Luther or Locke or Robespierre? I am not, I hope, an historicist, but there seems to be a lot of historical likelihood (not inevitability) from Gutenberg and the Age of Exploration to now, so a list of years and their wrong turns (versus right-turns missed) would be a very welcome read. Meanwhile many thanks for 1913!

    • s masty: I was under the impression that conservatives possessed sufficient historical, social, and spiritual perspective to understand that mankind’s “state” has always been “deplorable”? That’s not to say that things don’t sometimes get better and sometimes get worse; but in terms of “first things,” I’m unconvinced that there’s been much change over the centuries. 1913 sounds like a fascinating year, but it represents neither a recovery of some lost Eden (that’s beyond us) nor a fall from grace (which happened long ago): in the long run, it’s just another date on the calendar of a flawed and flailing humanity.

  2. Professor Willson: Thank you for the fascinating article, which disappoints only in that it’s too short. I’d love to see an extended, book-length treatment of the year 1913–something along the lines of William Klingaman’s “1919”. Now that you’re piqued my interest, I’ll have to look to see what’s available.

  3. Bravo!
    A delightful, insightful, and erudite essay! I knew a little about 1913 and now I know a lot more. You should expand this into a book, using your aunt’s diary too!

  4. What I found particularly interesting was Beard and TR’s capacity for honest self-criticism, an art lost on subsequent generations of “progressives”, particularly the their ultimate mutation in the form of the 60s hippies/New Left.

    Naturaly, I have a theory to explain this: it is the same theory which explains why men like Woodrow Wilson and Adlai Stevenson could be progressives, yet still display an honesty and intellectual fortitude sorely lacking in today’s Democratic Party: the first generation progressives recognized and were humbled by the remnants of Christian culture.

    I do not say they were all devout Christians, but it is a testimony to the strength of conservative social analysis that we can observe in these first progressive rebels an adherence to the habits of the Old World, the principles of which they rejected at the intellectual level.

    People who are brought up in good homes and strong communities often cannot fathom that good habits are the result of a delicate social system rather than just being the norm. Only many generations later, when they have disabled said social structure and a few generations have grown up “liberated” from the old morality does it become clear that something good has been lost. Thus modern progressivism is literaly unhinged from morality, having taken it for granted and thus hacked it off.

    As a wonderful young lady from a good large Catholic family who herself is a progressive femminist once told me: “it’s obvious that bribery and narrow self interest is bad, and you can’t say that a fall in Church attendence in Europe has anything to do with rising levels of corruption.”

    Well, it’s obvious to her, progressive that she is, her father took care to teach her right from wrong, but what of the legions who languish in broken families and politically correct schools, where learning the obvious borders on a miracle?

    • Mr. Rieth: Your generations of ‘progressives'” and about “today’s Democratic Party” amount to no more than stereotypes unsupported by a shred of evidence. In case you’ve forgotten, the “60s hippies/New Left” who you consider to have been the “ultimate mutation” of some allegedly post-Christian culture were, for the most part, raised in middle-class Christian homes by members of American’s “Greatest Generation”; I speak from personal experience, as I was one such person raised in one such home by two such parents. My own counter-cultural tendencies at that time stemmed from (a) some combination of youthful idealism and adolescent rebellion and (b) taking too literally the gospel teachings I heard every Sunday in a Catholic Church–I may, of course, have misunderstood them, but I was in fact trying to take them seriously. (I will admit to having read and possibly having been corrupted by some things by the likes of Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, and Malcolm X.; but I regret none of that reading.)

      As for “the legions who languish in broken families,” you cannot seriously believe that such individuals have not always been with us; the difference is that, in the past, no real social safety net existed for them. By “politically correct schools” I assume you merely to mean schools that don’t teach your own preferred version of history, culture, morality, etc.

      You write that “modern progressivism is literaly unhinged from morality, having taken it for granted and thus hacked it off,” and I have to confess my frustration: I have read so many articles and books and comments about how America and Western culture is headed straight to Hell in a secular hand basket and how awful awful awful everything is, and I wonder–don’t the people (like yourself) saying these things realize how patronizing and even insulting their claims are? Just who is it that you are accusing of being “unhinged from morality”? I know no such people myself. I can’t speak to your experiences, Mr. Rieth, but every day in America I encounter nothing but decent ordinary people doing their best to live decent ordinary lives; it’s not an easy task, but then it never was. These people have different opinions about politics, history, religion, and even sometimes about morality; but they’re all striving to make sense of (and, some, to raise children in) a confusing world.
      Can we not advance and promote our values and our beliefs without denigrating other people in the process?

      • Mr. Shifflett,

        Regarding stereotypes and shreds of evidence: yes, I agree I am stereotyping, and certainly I am not citing statistical data nor scholarly works. This is because I presume these to be merely friendly comments, and just as we use common sense and cite popular opinion when discussing such matters amongst friends, so I find it unnecessary here to go beyond certain – as you call them – stereotypes.

        As to your personal experiences, I congratulate you on possibly being corrupted by Bertrand Russel; I was merely bored with him. To this day, I have on my bookshelf his ‘Authority & the Individual’ and reach for it when I want to experience a bland sort of state.

        As to possibly misunderstanding Catholic sermons, I had the good fortune of attending my first year of Catholic Church in Italian, a language completely foriegn to me. Perhaps, had I understood the words, I may have been less moved by the ceremony. When I did finally attend in english, it all seemed so much less mystical and more mundane. Only recently, when I became a pupil of a Jesuit who guided my Communion and Confirmation, did I finally begin my journey towards understanding. While I am no expert on Church teachings, I have read enough Twain to be sure he did not “get it”, and am fairly certain in any event that Malcom X and Mark Twain would not bring one closer to understanding it.

        Regarding broken families; of course I understand they have always been with us to some degree, but never so flippantly and voluntarily constructed through the efforts of so many men and women finding ever newer reasons why they ought not honor their vows or indeed make any in the first place. Divorce was once a tragedy, it is now by and large the natural progression from marriage.

        As to the safety net, I suppose we shall disagree here too, as I believe such things only subsidize broken families. Without access to welfare, perhaps people would become independent faster and seek out the benefits of mutual care in a newly built family?

        Now, this specific question deserves a specific answer:
        “I have read so many articles and books and comments about how America and Western culture is headed straight to Hell in a secular hand basket and how awful awful awful everything is, and I wonder–don’t the people (like yourself) saying these things realize how patronizing and even insulting their claims are? Just who is it that you are accusing of being “unhinged from morality”?

        Fair question. My answer: I accuse American voters, the voting majorities that in election after election have proven themselves timid and easily swayed by demagogues. I do not consider it denigrating to point this out.

        • Mr. Rieth: thanks for taking the time to respond at length. You’re right that “comment” threads don’t provide room for a lot of documentation or detail; I suppose that necessarily encourages generalizations and even stereotypes, so I withdraw my objection on that score. As for Twain, I guess if by “it” you mean Catholicism, you’re certainly right that he didn’t “get it,” though I’d argue that Twain most certainly “got” America as well or better than any writer before or since. Finally, thank you for your frank criticism of the “timid” and “easily swayed” American voters, though I note in passing that my longer quote (continuing from where you left off citing it) had more to do with American’s moral decency and integrity than with their political judgment, of which you have already expressed your disapproval. You and I will continue to disagree, no doubt; but as a resident of the great state of Montana, I just don’t see any reason for all the gloom and doom I keep hearing.

        • Mr Reith, it is fairly obscure among Twainiana, but researching his pioneering historical novel on Saint Joan moved him greatly and lifelong – remember that the heavy historical work on Joan (and on the medieval interviews done when her conviction was overturned) was only mid-19th C and she was not canonised until the 1920s. After his novel, in letters and diaries, Twain makes friends with God without making much sense of organised religion. At a dinner in his honour late in his life, his hosts had an actress dressed as St Joan come to the head table and make a presentation, and Twain was strangely silent and awestruck as though had he seen a ghost (that is in my small TIC post on St Joan and Twain, if you care to look). So perhaps he was not as he seemed, or seemed in his earlier life. One could assemble enough of his quotes to make the case that he was a Christian, of an idiosyncratic sort.

  5. I have a wonderful friend who insists that every gathering of conservatives produces a “rise and fall of western civilization” discussion–mostly fall. She is probably right, just as Mr. Schifflett is probably right in saying that citizens of Montana tend to be less gloomy. I wrote the 1913 piece not out of gloominess, but in the spirit that if you can locate the proximate origins of things, it at least gives you the chance to correct them; or if not correct them, then at least understand where we messed up. Or maybe get some perspective on how to help in renewing the cult. I would love to know if cousin Gertrude attended the Armory Show (she probably didn’t–I can’t imagine her not writing about it if she had). I can imagine her standing before “Blue Nude” and saying, “Well, at least she has some meat on her bones.”

  6. For the record, can one have the intimations of post-modernity before advent of Modernism itself?

    Moreover consider that one stood at the cusp of an age of extreme violence when tens of millions of young men will soon die, and the weight of Tradition will be turned to a bitter mockery — how many families would have longed that 1913 be extended but just a little longer?

  7. JOHN LUKACS: “In 1913 the first large American show of modern art, in the New York Armory, had created much excitement: for the first time the avant-garde of Paris was shown, while outside philistines howled, scarcely restrained by the police. In 1963 the fiftieth anniversary of the event was celebrated in the same place, but now all the philistines were inside.”

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