A 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.
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.
John Willson, is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and professor of history emeritus, Hillsdale College. His work has been published in Modern Age, Imprimis, and the University Bookman, and he contributed to Reflections on the French Revolution (1990). Dr. Willson is past President of the Philadelphia Society and gives speeches regularly to various groups.