1919 was a year of great turmoil as men, and women, returned from the War, a War they’d thought would last ten times longer. Telephone operators serving with Army Signal Corps–read The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers by Elizabeth Cobbs–returned from Europe to find themselves denied by the Army and received no discharge papers, no benefits, no bonus checks. Black men, treated fairly in France, returned to face oppression all over again.
Labor strikes abounded. Union workers fought with owners’ representatives. People were killed on both sides. Race riots tore the country apart during the summer, injuring more than five hundred in Chicago over the course of one week in late July. The Reds, mostly Soviet, were blamed for the strikes and the riots. Read Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter.
Women were still excluded from voting in most states, though the Nineteenth Amendment was on the rounds for ratification. Black workers were generally excluded from union memberships, though thousands were recruited from the South to work service jobs in places like Atlantic City. Read “A Plantation by the Sea” and The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson.
The federal government reluctantly gave back radio. It had taken control over wireless communication at the start of the War. Amateurs were allowed to listen to radio receivers beginning in April. The ban on amateur transmitters wasn’t lifted until October. Telegraph keys sent Morse code over radio waves in 1919.
The first telephone with a rotary dial was introduced in 1919. It was a candlestick model with its receiver on a hook. It would be eight years before a rotary phone with a handset incorporating both receiver and transmitter was introduced. The changeover from manual to electromagnetic switching began in 1919, though operator-assisted calling remained a staple of telephone service in the US until the 1960’s.
Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919
More Americans died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 than in WWI and WWII combined.
Spanish influenza first appeared in early spring 1918. It continued through 1920, but as a less virulent strain than in 1918 and 1919.
Around 550,000 people died in the US, but that may be a low estimate. 21 million people died in the whole world, but that is probably a “gross underestimation”.
- Read America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby.
- Read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter. Three short novels. First published in 1939. The third one is about her influenza experience.
- Read They Came Like Swallows, novel by William Keepers Maxwell. Originally published in 1937. Beautifully written. Keep the tissue box handy.
Prohibition: 1920 to 1933
We all know how this turned out.
- Read The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Jazz Age Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. PBS American Experience. Dr. Charles Norris, the first trained medical examiner in New York City, worried about the rise in the number of deaths attributed to methyl alcohol as a result of Prohibition. The always-available arsenic and other poisons discussed.
- Read Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson. Information about rum running, neighborhood gangs, and speakeasies in New York City.