I have a knack for history that I’ve rarely embraced since I left college. As a professional writer I’ve covered crime, cyber crime, pop culture, disasters, you name it. But once 2014 arrived I took stock of a lull in work and my flagging desire to write, then embraced my love of history and began writing about things I find in newspapers from 1914. Within a few days of beginning the project (a word I still don’t like, honestly) I was enjoying the pursuit more than I’ve enjoyed writing anything in almost a year.
What I’ve found is a vibrant world beyond the books I’ve read about the era, beyond the factoids offered by various websites devoted to offering snips of major events, often tagged ‘100 years ago today.’
1914 marked the beginning of World War I. The Great War, as it was called before WWII, was a bomb at the end of a fuse lit in the 19th century, and it gave birth to the 20th Century proper. Our world today was fired and formed in both world wars, and no good understanding of our time can be gained without getting a grasp on the world as it was 100 years ago.
Of course, that’s the big view. It’s the kind of perspective that has some historians making their whole lives out of writing vast books about those events that only get read by pressured and resentful students and fellow academics. I’m just as interested in the wars and mass movements and deaths of so many as any professional or amateur historian but the forgotten stories of the time are just as fascinating. Sometimes they are more illuminating.
A few stories and people I’ve already discovered in old newspapers that are still interesting, in some way:
- Now little-known Romanian “aviatrix” Elena Caragiani. Her visit to the United States in 1914 to possibly meet with the Wright Brothers merited only a little coverage at the time, but seeing a brief note about her in the February 26, 1914 New York Evening World led me to discover a woman who is still a hero to high school girls in Romania and who was, by all accounts, pretty badass, in modern terms.
- I found the sad, odd story of Henry Collett, who committed suicide in a cheap Parisian motel after his ‘close companion,’ an 18-year-old Frenchman, had run out on him. Collett’s death will always, in essence, remain a mystery, but the response of some to my post told me that the mystery of what happened to the man from the city where I now live in Massachusetts is still compelling today.
- In an article about a child whom some thought might be the girl, I re-discovered the sad missing persons case of Catherine Winters, a little girl who vanished in March, 1913 from New Castle, Indiana. Many in that region still remember the Winters case, and newspapers revive it sometimes, but in 1914 Catherine was still a cause célèbre. Her image had been put up on flyers tacked to telephone poles everywhere. Over 65 years before the disappearance of Etan Patz, Catherine Winters’s story was nationwide.
America and the world were truly beginning to connect and communicate in 1914. The shape of things to come was beginning to reveal itself. But it was still an old world, too. Women didn’t have the vote, and to a 21st century eye the aggressive nature of the debate about womens’ suffrage was astonishing.
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in the summer of 1914, one of the bigger moral scandals around the world was the popularity of the tango. Hell, if you dig deep enough into newspapers from some regions, you can find instances of men still challenging other men to duels.
I’ve heard the argument, sometimes from otherwise intelligent people, that history doesn’t matter. That isn’t true, but I’d say that some historical perspectives are more vital to looking at the world today. Knowing about the Fall of Rome is instructive and fascinating, and can illuminate much about how human behavior doesn’t change over time. Diving into the world of your great grandparents is going to feel much more immediate, and relevant. It’s going to inform perspective on the world you see. While a person magically transported from 1914 to 2014 might be completely confounded by too many aspects of our world to list, they would still recognize much. They’d still understand most of the language. They’d still be able to find a newspaper here and there and fold it as they read in a familiar way. The reverse is also true.
The point of beginning the 100 years collection is to give my interest a place for itself without the artificial construct of an entirely different blog (thinking up a catchy blog name, etc).
I’m not trying to chain the posts here to one lockstep idea, though—detailing this or that from Today’s Date 100 Years Ago, and only staying in that frame. I will do as I’ve done on my blog and touch on the date and see what threads there are to pull from there. They may lead back in time. They may point forward. I might delve into many things related to the Great War, or find a forgotten personal tale that deserves the honor of some new light in this new century. My ambition is to continue with each new year, though I’ll settle for seeing how far I get with year 14, for now.
I’m certain 2014 is, in its way, every bit as much a turning point year as 1914 was. This may not be signified by the explosion of an unexpected war or something just as dramatic, but it sometimes still seems like we can feel time shifting in the air around us, and this new century is taking shape. It will, of course, be very different from the rough beast that slouched from the fires that sparked in 1914. That difference doesn’t make the study of how things came to be any less valid, or valuable.