A Day in the Life of an Erieite, 1923
What the world looked like 100 years ago
Another year has come to an end. You can hardly believe it. Soon, it will be 1924! It seems like yesterday that you were celebrating New Years in 1920 — the last before Prohibition went into effect, making it quite a memorable night. Now you're nearly halfway through the decade.
It's been five years since the Great War. You still think often of that senseless catastrophe which killed nearly 200 people from Erie County. Many of the thousands of others who came back to Erie still suffer. They left the war, your uncle told you, but the war never left them. Shell shock, some call it. That was the same year of the deadly flu strain. It killed over 500 people in this city alone.
The past few years though, they've been calmer, at least relative to the chaos of those years. The economy is roaring. Unemployment is low. People really seem to like buying stuff. In the newspapers, you've never seen so many advertisements for things to purchase. Your neighbor even bought one of those powered vacuum cleaners.
Life expectancy is much higher than it was 20 years ago. One can, if they take care of themselves, expect to live to almost 60 years old! The city is growing too, doubling its population over the past two decades. Many of these nearly 100,000 residents are immigrants. Not all take so kindly to that.
Most do take kindly to the recent completion of the Mill Creek tube though, which puts the entire creek underground downtown. It's an incredible feat of engineering and, while it cost over two million dollars, you hope it will prevent a repeat of the disastrous 1915 flood. "That once babbling brook will babble no more forever," you read in the Erie Daily Times, which added that nobody could have imagined the "peril and nuisance" the creek would become.
You've found yourself with more leisure time recently, although you wonder if the current anti-union sentiment might lead to rollbacks of labor gains. You've been reading more and one of your favorites is this new publication called Time magazine. You learned about some new theoretical invention called a helicopter, how it may soon be easier to get a divorce, and that Pancho Villa and Gustave Eiffel died. You read stories on Harry Houdini freeing himself from a straitjacket while dangling upside down at deadly heights, about this newly mass produced medicine called insulin, and more about politics around the world than you ever could have imagined. The Soviet Union was officially established by those Russian revolutionaries a year ago. Then there's this fascist fellow named Mussolini who consolidated power in Italy. A successful coup d'état occurred in Spain while a coup d'état failed in Germany led by some palooka named Adolf Hitler. Fortunately, they arrested that guy.
Then, of course, there is the biggest news of the year. President Warren G. Harding died. The Erie Daily Times called it a "great shock to the nation" as they had previously been reporting on his recovery only the day before. They described him as "self-made" and "a man of people" who was a "kind, considerate, lovable character" with "unerring judgment" and would "rank as one of the great presidents of the United States." The president was very well-liked. In fact, you didn't know many people who didn't like him, especially being from nearby Ohio — although you're wondering if there may someday be a reevaluation of his presidency considering this whole Teapot Dome thing. Time will tell, you suppose. You haven't made up your mind on Calvin Coolidge yet, although it was tantalizing hearing him give his congressional address on the radio a few weeks ago.
For other enjoyable distractions, you're particularly fond of moving pictures. Your cousin working for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh swears that someday you'll be able to watch them in your own home. One of his colleagues is patenting something called a "television system." You don't understand it, but assume he's bluffing when he insists it might be as popular as the radio someday. As for the moving pictures, you've seen plenty of them at The Strand Theatre on State Street. You loved Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim. The Ten Commandments was like walking right into history. Can special effects get any better than that? Recently, Eugen Haesener, director of the Erie Philharmonic, stated that local theaters might remove their orchestras and replace them with "lowbrow ... vulgar sensational music." You hope he's wrong.
Whatever the case, you dream about starring in pictures one day: the glitz, the glam, driving a shiny, brand new Cadillac or Willys-Knight through the California hills with that new "Hollywoodland" sign off in the distance. Maybe those four brothers who started off in New Castle would hire you now that they're out there. What was the name again? The Warner brothers? There are also those Disney brothers you read about who are trying to make those cartoons. You doubt they'll ever be able to compete with Felix the Cat.
Let's be real though. You know how to put on the ritz even here in Erie. Despite Prohibition, It's not too difficult to find one of the city's many speakeasies full of Canadian booze brought across the lake. And, much to your older family members' disapproval, you're quite fond of the blues and jazz. You've heard about these two new artists, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and hope to get a chance to see them someday.
You wish you had more time for sports, but sometimes it's hard to keep up. You were happy that Jack Dempsey retained his World Heavyweight title and while you don't love the Yankees, you found it difficult to root against Babe Ruth who, with his three home runs and .368 batting average, helped the team win their first World Series. You simply can't believe that he came to Erie for an exhibition game against the Moose Club barely a week later! You heard that he even visited some of the local orphanages.
The role of women in society seems to be changing, you've noticed, likely thanks to women finally being granted the right to vote three years ago. Much to your excitement, there's even been some progression with including women in sports. The first ever USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships for women was held this year and last year was the first Women's Olympic Games in Paris.
Unfortunately though, most of these sports (much like the neighborhoods of Erie) are still segregated. While the Civil War ended nearly 60 years ago, racism seems just as rampant. The Ku Klux Klan is bigger than it has ever been. You still are shocked that The Birth of a Nation picture made them out to be heroes. You've read all the horror stories about lynchings and heard some estimates of 150,000 members in Pennsylvania alone. This doesn't surprise you given that nonsense with the 25,000 Klansmen down in Carnegie back in August, not to mention the increased activity right here in Erie. The Klan is mentioned in the Erie Daily Times, it seems, nearly every day. There seems to be a lot of internal strife in the local chapter and while generally not outright violent like in the southern states, you despise their backwardness and are amused when the paper continuously publishes the license plate numbers of those attending the Klan gatherings (much to their anger and frustration).
"What right has your representative to publish these numbers?" a local businessman and Klansman wrote to the editor. "Please cancel my subscription ... I don't want your paper."
In these final days of December, it's been cold. Temperatures are dipping well below zero. "Put plenty of alcohol in your radiators for New Year's eve celebration," you read in the paper. "This is the warning of the Erie weather man and is not to be misconstrued as a new kind of [Prohibition] joke." While you are fond of the seasons, nights like these make you yearn for a ferry ride across the bay for a picnic on the peninsula, maybe enjoying some treats from the Lake Shore Ice Cream Company.
Oh, and this won't mean much to you yet, but it was quite a year for births too: Bob Barker, Estelle Getty, Richard Attenborough, Bettie Page, Charlton Heston, Jean Stapleton, Ed McMahon, Norman Mailer, Bob Dole, Hank Williams, Glen Bell (your great-great-grandkids are really going to enjoy his Taco Bell someday), and, yes, TikTok star Uncle Jack were just a few someday famous names born in 1923.
Well, onward to 1924. Who knows what will be in store for you and the world over this upcoming year? If history provides any clues though, it will likely be quite unpredictable.
Jonathan Burdick runs the public history project Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org