John Held–1920s Cartoonist

John Held  illustrated this Life Magazine cartoon “Insatiable Neckers.”  Along with Norman Rockwell, he was perhaps the most well-known “drawer” in the 1920s.

What’s Wrong With Woodrow?

Who’s got an opinion on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th leader of the United States? Lately, it seems like everybody’s been talking about Wilson and his legacy, especially and most notably Fox News’ Glenn Beck. (See more about Beck, his animosity toward Wilson, and the Cold War writers whose work he draws from in this recent New Yorker piece by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz.) The New York Times’ website is hosting a discussion on Wilson’s newfound notoriety, with several historians, including Harvard’s Jill Lepore and UT’s own Mark Lawrence, weighing in. Anybody can comment; some comments so far are more civil than others.

Eva Tanguay

Slate.com’s Jody Rosen has written a piece about Eva Tanguay, a forgotten vaudevillian who was one of the most famous singers of the early twentieth century. In her self-presentation and marketing, Tanguay rivaled Lady Gaga. Eva was ubiquitous. Rosen writes: “If you read the press and popular literature of the first quarter of the 20th century, Tanguay is inescapable. Edward Bernays, the celebrated ‘father of public relations,’ called Tanguay ‘our first symbol of emergence from the Victorian age.’ The journalist and playwright George Ade dubbed Theodore Roosevelt ‘the Eva Tanguay of politics.’ One of her hits was titled ‘They’ll Remember Me a Hundred Years From Now.’ To Tanguay’s contemporaries, it must have seemed less like a boast than a foregone conclusion.”

Eva Tanguay probably put this feathered costume together without the benefit of a stylist.

Eva Tanguay probably put this feathered costume together without the benefit of a stylist.

Yet, Rosen points out, Tanguay is now the opposite of a household name (what would that be? a library name?)

Which of our present-day recording artists will find themselves lost in the sands of time in a hundred years? Does the fact that these days everybody and their mother can record a record using an iMac and distribute it over the Internet mean that music will be more or less easy to preserve?

Dying for a Drink: A Hidden Prohibition Story

Cops in Detroit inspecting a secret brewery during Prohibition.

Cops in Detroit inspecting a secret brewery during Prohibition.

This fascinating piece on Slate.com tells the story of how the US Gov’t, knowing that many crime syndicates were re-distilling stolen industrial alcohol during Prohibition, turned to putting harsh poisons in the industrial stock. As a result, as many as 10,000 people actually died, including one man who passed away after this dramatic episode:

“It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. He was flushed, gasping with fear: Santa Claus, he kept telling the nurses, was just behind him, wielding a baseball bat. Before hospital staff realized how sick he was—the alcohol-induced hallucination was just a symptom—the man died.”

The chief medical examiner of NYC at the time, Charles Norris, often tried to bring publicity to what he called “our national experiment in extermination.” Norris pointed out the government’s poison project disproportionately affected the poor, “who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff,” as opposed to wealthy drinkers, who bought safer bootleg whiskies.

A Look Back at Feminism

 A women’s-liberation parade on Fifth Avenue, in New York, in August, 1971.  A women’s-liberation parade on Fifth Avenue, in New York, in August, 1971.

A women’s-liberation parade on Fifth Avenue, in New York, in August, 1971.

Two weeks ago, the New Yorker‘s Ariel Levy wrote this really funny, sad review of Gail Collins’ new book about American women in the past fifty years (When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present). The review was initially located behind a subscriber-only pay wall, but is now freely available.

Levy uses Collins’ book to argue that the popular narrative about the feminist movement (feminists are angry, “feminazi”, man-haters) has eclipsed and overcome the actual accomplishments, or failures, of the movement itself. The most interesting historical revelation I found:

“In 1971, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Walter Mondale, came up with legislation that would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country. Tuition would be on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program would be available to everyone but participation was required of no one. Both houses of Congress passed the bill.

Nobody remembers this, because, later that year, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, declaring that it ‘would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing’ and undermine ‘the family-centered approach.’ He meant ‘the traditional-family-centered approach,’ which requires women to forsake every ambition apart from motherhood.”

I didn’t know that!

PS This article also has the most exceedingly clever title: “Lift and Separate.” Get it?

The Great Sickness

By the year 1918, America was ready for peace. The Great War in Europe was finally coming to a close, and more than a hundred thousand American lives had already been claimed in trench warfare there. However, something much deadlier than war was about to afflict the American people – epidemic. In the winter of 1918, an unusually large number of people began dying from influenza. It started in a small town in Kansas, where over five hundred people had suddenly fallen ill. The disease then spread rapidly all over the world, from North America to Europe and even to Far East Asia. It had a large mortality rate, killing about 15% of its victims and over 50 million worldwide.Unlike previous diseases, the flu affected the young and healthy just as much as it did the weak and elderly. manciniAt the peak of the influenza pandemic, about a quarter of Americans were diagnosed with the sickness. The American Red Cross issued face masks for people to wear in an attempt to prevent infection. Ordinances were put in place to prohibit the gathering of many people in one place. In an effort to raise morale during the final months of war, the government limited public press concerning the spread of the flu, as did the leaders of many other countries involved in the war. Since Spain was a neutral nation and had no such censorships, the disease became known as the Spanish influenza. By the pandemic’s end in 1920, almost 675,000 Americans had died from influenza – almost six times as many killed during combat in the war.2 Though the United States succeeded in ending a war that was killing its people, the main source of death during the Great War era ended up being a factor beyond its control. Posted by Laura Mancini

The Widening Income Gap

Money mon-ay. Image by Tracy O on flickr.

Money mon-ay. Image by Tracy O on flickr.

Just in time for Labor Day, Slate writer Timothy Noah launched a new series called The Great Divergence, which attempts to explain what he calls “the most profound change in American society in your lifetime”: the growing gap between the people who have a lot of money, and the people who have less. Noah points out that in 1915, 1 percent of the American people had 18% of the nation’s wealth—a fact, he adds, that disturbed sociologists studying income distribution, and was partially responsible for the institution of an income tax, to keep angry socialists from gaining too much traction with the poorer masses. Meanwhile, in our day and age, the top 1% has 24% of our total income, and nobody’s too concerned (well, except Noah). Noah writes:

All my life I’ve heard Latin America described as a failed society (or collection of failed societies) because of its grotesque maldistribution of wealth. Peasants in rags beg for food outside the high walls of opulent villas, and so on. But according to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.

Most interestingly, when it comes to the themes of this course, in the coming parts of this series Noah’s going to explore possible historical rationales for this change. Could this have happened because of “race, gender, the computer revolution, immigration, trade, government policies, the decline of labor, compensation policies on Wall Street and in executive suites, [or] education”? My guess regarding the answer? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Stay tuned.