What Did the World Look Like in 1920?

2020 is already off to a dynamic start. What was the state of the world 100 years ago, as it rolled into a new decade?

By Kaleena Fraga

The new year has certainly gotten off to an eventful start. In the first month of 2020, we’ve seen massive fires, sabre rattling, an impeachment trial in the United States, and the end (or the beginning?) of the Brexit saga in the EU. Whew. So what did the world look like 100 years ago? Did people at the time feel that the 1920s started on a similarly chaotic foot?

Obviously (obviously) we’re all about the presidential side of things. So what was the White House situation in January of 1920?

The presidency in January 1920

In 1920, Woodrow Wilson was completing his second term in office. Or, was he? While rallying support for his League of Nations plan in October 1919, the president suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife, Edith effectively took control.

Without the 25th amendment, which would not be ratified for another half-century, there was no way to remove Wilson from office. Not that many people knew about his stroke—in the pre-social media age, Edith Wilson was effectively able to keep her husband’s condition under wraps.

The president’s wife later denied that she’d ever served as president herself, but she did acknowledge her “stewardship” of Wilson’s last year in office.

The average American had no idea. They weren’t habitually checking Twitter like some of us do today.

Presidential campaigns in 1920

As in 2020, 1920 was an election year. Wilson, a Democrat, had broken up a reign of Republicans that had existed since the Civil War. (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats to be elected president between 1860 and 1932.)

Americans wondered who their candidates would be—especially because Theodore Roosevelt, who had energetically barnstormed for a third term in 1912, had died one year earlier, in January 1919. (A Roosevelt would be on the ticket in 1920—Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats.) In January 1920, it seemed that the country might see William Jennings Bryan run—again.

Despite his health, Wilson hoped for a third term. It wouldn’t be. He received little support from the party and died four years later. In any case, Wilson believed that campaigns required vigorous time on the stump. As Jeffrey Normand Bourdon so eloquently describes in his book From Garfield to Harding: The Success of Midwest Porch Campaigns working the stump resulted in victory for Wilson 3/4 times. But in 1920, the ill president could hardly pick up the reins of his old campaign technique.

Which resulted in a fascinating twist. Although the campaign would not start in earnest until the summer (reminder: the 2020 campaign has been dragging on for two years), the Republican nominee and eventual victor, Warren G. Harding, resorted to front-porch campaigning. This technique, as Bourdon describes, had served as a happy medium between seeking the presidency and letting “the office choose the man”—i.e., displaying none of the presidential ambition that was considered fatal in the 19th century.

Popular in the late 19th century, front porch campaigning had lost its shine as great orators like Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan made their mark on American presidential campaigns. But it had proven effective for James Garfield and William McKinley, and Harding went this direction as well.

Harding campaigned on a “Return to Normalcy” and “America First” following the end of WWI. His campaign marketed him as a patriotic family man. Waving to crowds from his front-porch, this was easy for voters to accept. His opponent, James Cox, was divorced. This made Harding’s front-porch persona all the more appetizing.

Harding’s status as a married man gave him a special boost in 1920, the first year American women could vote. The divorced Cox, at a disadvantaged, was portrayed as desperate for women’s votes. A judge involved with Cox’s case told the Los Angeles Times he believed the candidate’s divorce would cost Mr. Cox “a million votes.”

In the end, Harding carried the day by about seven million votes. The victory would be short lived. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, elevating his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to the White House.

The state of the world in 1920

But what did the world look like in 1920? Did the year burst into being with the same cascade of events that we’ve seen in 2020?

The new year picked up to a brisk start. Billy Joel could write a song about it. In January alone, an earthquake hit Mexico; the Treaty of Versailles was ratified (without the United States); Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees, Prohibition began, launching an era of bootlegs and speakeasies—the list goes on and on. The war had ended in November of 1918, but the world was still untangling the results. We all know how that turned out.

In summary, life continued to charge forward. In 1920, as in 2020, each day brought an avalanche of something different. But maybe it felt slower. After all, people in 1920 couldn’t spend all day watching events unfold across their phone screen.

Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Rome, Italy on his way to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. His voyage capped off years of incredible violence and uncertainty, and Wilson was greeted throughout Italy with cries of “Viva l’America!”

Wilson’s trip to Europe was part of a six-month journey (the longest any president had ever spent outside of the country) meant to end the war for good. He came home triumphant in July–armed with the idea of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would prevent future world wars. It was perhaps the high point of his presidency. Unfortunately, there was no where for him to go but down.

Despite initial widespread support, political infighting would doom American participation in the League of Nations. Mere months after he returned to the States, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and much of his presidential duties were secretly assumed by his wife, Edith.

Although the 1920 election was just around the corner, Americans in 1919 were not as eager to start the election process as they are today. In the waning days of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced her candidacy, and other Democrats are expected to quickly follow suit. Politics moved at a slower pace in 1919. That year had seen the loss of political giants–Theodore Roosevelt was now dead; Wilson, a shell of himself after his stroke, was an increasingly unpopular president. The election would not start in earnest until the next year.

Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be nominated in June of 1920 with a promise of a “return to normalcy”.

“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…not surgery but serenity.”

Although not explicitly said, Harding’s determination for the country to turn inward is reminiscent of the America First sloganeering of today.

Harding, Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, was popular despite his general incompetence (which he even noted himself, stating “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”) Gladwell attributes this to Harding’s physical appearance (a political insider at the time of Harding’s nomination argued that he looked like a president), personality, and commanding voice.

Harding and the Republicans would win in a landslide, in a direct rebuke to Wilson and his internationalist policies. Harding did not have much time to enjoy his new job, however ill-suited he found himself: he died unexpectedly in 1923 after a sudden stroke. This catapulted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.

The candidate for the Democrats, James Cox, would go on to be a footnote in history. Things turned out differently for his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later win election to an unprecedented and unmatched fourth term in the White House.

Despite the optimistic start of the year, 1919 would prove to be a tumultuous one. Half a million Americans would die from Spanish flu; Prohibition ushered in an era of bootlegs and speakeasies; violent race riots rocked the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The year 1919 also saw the introduction of dial telephones, the 19th Amendment which secured women’s suffrage, and new fiction by Sherwood Anderson and Virginia Woolf.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between 1919 and 2019–new technology making the world seem smaller, the precipice of another election year, the ongoing debate about America’s role in the world. No one can predict what next year will bring. Rather, we go into 2019 with Wilson’s words in mind:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”