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article number 242
article date 06-11-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our life of 1908 … Local Prohibition, Women Caught Smoking, Movie Theaters Prohibited, Shameful Fashions …
by Mark Sullivan

From the 1930 book, Our Times, The United States 1900 – 1925. Volume III Pre-War America.

1908 Prohibition Advances. Smoking by Women. Hard Times. New York Ends Race-track Gambling. Taft and Bryan Are Nominated. Fred Merkle Makes Baseball History, Unwillingly. Josephus Daniels Attacks the Republicans. Mrs. Astor Dies — and an Era Comes to Its End. The “Sheathgown” Causes Controversy. J. P. Morgan Speaks on America. The Motion Picture in Its “Nickelodeon” Stage. The First Sunday Evening Newspaper.

* * *

January 1. A State-wide prohibition law went into effect in Georgia. One hundred and twenty-five of the hundred and forty-six counties had already been dry under a local-option law.

January 25. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company announced that all employees engaged in running or directing trains must be total abstainers.

February 20. The New York Herald deemed it fitting to use large type for a head-line reading: WOMEN SMOKE ON WAY TO OPERA — Are Discovered Puffing Cigarettes When Electric Light Beams into Their Carriage.

By the 1920’s, when smoking by women in America became common, it was generally assumed that the practice was a part of the shattering of standards that accompanied the Great War, or came as aftermath of it. Actually, the custom was started in the early 1900’s, chiefly by American women who had passed some time in Europe, had become familiar with smoking in “smart” circles there, and introduced it in America.

In the New York Herald for July 12, 1908, a despatch from San Francisco said that a woman of some social importance in that city and New York, Mrs. Teresa Fair Oelrichs, “has been brave enough to give the continental custom, the seal of American approval and San Francisco women have now an unquestioned precedent for smoking if they feel so inclined. In Tait’s Café, Mrs. Oelrichs and Mrs. McCreery lighted their cigarettes after dinner and puffed their smoke rings with the men as if there had not been anything to disapprove in their action.”

Perils of the Theatre Lobby. Once it was her hatpin … Now it is here cigarette. From the Ney York Herald Tribune, September 8, 1929.

The editor of one New York paper sent a reporter to interview the managers of restaurants. Mr. A. Miller, manager at Rector’s, on being asked: “Would you permit a woman to smoke here now?” replied: “Decidedly not, if we saw her. Of course there is no law against it, as far as I know. For that matter there is no law to prevent a woman from smoking in the street. If she was arrested at all, it might be for disorderly conduct.”

Mr. John B. Martin, proprietor of the Café Martin, said: “I am afraid the average American is still too Puritanical to allow the innovation.”

An assistant manager at the Waldorf said: “We have never given the question much thought, because it is seldom brought up. Probably once in six months an Englishwoman unfamiliar with conditions in this country will light a cigarette. We tell her it is against the rules, and the matter ends in her frank apology. We have never seen an American woman smoke here, and so never have been obliged to ask an American to stop, although everyone knows they smoke in their own homes.”

Eventually the troublesome problem was treated in New York City by passing a law against it, the Sullivan Ordinance, which made smoking by women illegal, made it an offense for the manager of a public place to allow women to smoke therein. “Will the ladies rebel,” asked the New York Times, “as the ladies of New Amsterdam did when Peter Stuyvesant ordered them to wear broad flounces?”

* * *

February. Hard times, unhappy sequel to the panic of 1907, continued into 1908. Two thousand more needy persons than in normal years applied daily to the Bowery Mission, New York, for free coffee-and-roll breakfasts; so great were the demands for lodging that the Mission was compelled to keep open until five in the morning. Wide-spread unemployment, continuing over a period of six months, had the usual effect of demoralizing wages for workers not belonging to strong unions:

- SITUATION WANTED — Book keeper, 23, thoroughly competent double entry, German, French, Swedish and English correspondent, typewriter; quick, accurate; good penman; highest references; salary $12. Address S., 187 Herald.
- SITUATION WANTED — Butler (English), good worker; city or country; salary $25 monthly; excellent references. Harry Colpus, Mills Hotel, 7th Av. and 36th St.
- SITUATION WANTED — Barkeeper, would accept $10 weekly; experienced, respectable, careful, sober, steady, reliable man; good faithful worker, highly recommended. Address B. B., 265.

The bread line at the Bowery Mission, 1908.

* * *

April 30. Worcester, Mass., having voted in favor of local prohibition, became the largest dry city in the country. (Population, about 130,000.) Seventy-six saloons were closed, two thousand men thrown out of employment. Seventeen other Massachusetts cities, including Haverhill and Lynn, and 249 smaller towns went dry the same day.

May 9. The Senate debated, and rejected, a resolution providing for official observance of Mothers’ Day, to be honored by the wearing of a white carnation. Senator Kean of New Jersey moved to substitute the Fifth Commandment. Senator Fulton of Oregon contentiously argued that “if we are to have a Mother’s Day, I for one want to have a Father’s Day, also,” as well as a Grandfather’s Day and a Mother-in-Law’s Day. Senator Gallinger of New Hampshire felt it “almost a reproach and a burden upon me that I must wear a flower of a certain kind to remind me of my mother; I need no outward demonstration to keep my mother’s memory green.”

May 14. The Henry C. Frick Company, subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, posted an order that employees of the company must not use liquor either while on or off duty.

June 3. Henry Ford, in a brief departure from the production of cheap and serviceable, but not very ornate or speedy, four-cylinder automobiles, advertised: Henry Ford is the pioneer manufacturer of six cylinder cars. Now they all make “sixes.” Ford “sixes” are in use all over the world, and every one to the entire satisfaction of the owner. . . . Permit us to appeal to that sporting blood that’s in every man with the Ford Six as a sport satisfying car. The price was $2,800.

June 8. Members of the United States Brewers’ Association, in convention at Milwaukee, announced a crusade to stem the tide of prohibition by themselves declaring open war against dives. They had a slogan: “Let us clean house; down with the immoral saloon.” The convention greeted with roars of laughter the receipt of a facetious telegram reading:

The Prohibition State Convention of Minnesota, now in session, sends condolences to your association. Your business is doomed as your outposts are now carried and the prohibition army is about to move against your main body. The church and society have now declared and the State will soon say “The saloon must go.”

A memento of the days when the fight against the liquor traffic had the moral fervor of a crusade. The scene is of a billboard in Wilmington, Del. (about 1908), on which is painted the slogan of the reformers, “SALOONS cannot run without BOYS. Have YOU one to spare? ‘Think it over.’” Wherever in Wilmington a billboard advertised liquor, beside it, the “cold waterites,” as they were called, put one bearing their slogan.

June 11. Race-track gambling was prohibited in New York State by a law passed by the legislature, on the insistence of Governor Charles E. Hughes, who made a stirring issue of it. . . . June 23. The Louisiana Legislature prohibited race-track gambling in that State.

June 17. At the Republican National Convention at Chicago, when Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge said, in the course of his speech, that Theodore Roosevelt was “the best abused man in the United States, but also the most popular,” the 12,000 men and women present started a demonstration that lasted forty-five minutes, exceeding the record set after Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech of 1896, when the tumult lasted thirty minutes. The following day, the Convention nominated Secretary of War William H. Taft for President on the first ballot, giving him 702 votes.

June 24. Grover Cleveland, President of the United States 1885 to 1889 and 1893 to 1897, died in Princeton, N. J.

June 28. Senator Tillman of South Carolina read into The Congressional Record an official statement showing that in the District of Columbia there were 540 licenses to sell liquor and that 865 internal revenue tax receipts for the same purpose had been issued. The population of the District of Columbia at this time was about 310,000 (by the 1900 census, 278,718).

Fashion: The Washington belle of 1908.

June. Nineteen-eight was the year of the phrase “Ain’t it awful, Mabel” — at first a byword among actors, later universal. The phrase was originally the refrain of some verse by John Edward Hazzard, purporting to be a dialogue, in twelve stanzas, between two chorus-girls:

The way folks talk about us too;
For the smallest thing we do —
‘Nuff to make a girl feel blue.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel ?

My Gawd! is that the overture ?
I never will be on, I’m sure —
The things us actresses endure.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel ?

- July 1. Count Zeppelin at Friedrichshafen remained aloft twelve hours in his dirigible and traversed the greater part of northern Switzerland at an average speed of thirty-four miles per hour. . . .
- August 2. Henry Farman flew one-third of a mile in thirty seconds in his airplane at Brighton Beach, New York. . . .
- September 10. Orville Wright flew for 62 minutes 15 seconds at Fort Myer. . . .
- September 17. The Wright brothers’ airplane, flying at Fort Myer, fell from a height of seventy-five feet, seriously injuring Orville Wright and killing Lieutenant Selfridge, his companion. . . .
- October 3. Wilbur Wright at Paris made a world’s record for flight with a passenger by staying in the air with a French journalist 55 minutes 37 seconds. . . .
- December 18. Wilbur Wright broke aviation records at Le Mans, France: he rose to a height of 360 feet travelled 120 kilometres and remained in the air 113 minutes.

Count Zeppelin’s first ‘Zeppelin.’

United States Postmaster-General George von L. Meyer was asked if he thought airships would ever be used in the postal service, and was said to have replied, meditatively: “Yes, they might be, if you didn’t care when your mail was delivered—or where.” . Thomas A. Edison was quoted as having said: “The dirigible has no future, speaking commercially. It has no great future any way you take it. It may be utilized in some measure in war, but the heavier-than-air machine that can go straight against the wind — ah, that is the thing that must come. . . .

. . . . I’ll tell you what I think about this sky-sailing business. As I have said, it’s sure to come. They haven’t got it yet, but they will. But when the question is solved you will find that the machine that goes straight up in the air—screws
itself vertically into the air — has answered the riddle.” “The helicopter?” he was asked. “Right,” he answered.

July 10. The National Democratic Convention at Denver, Colorado nominated William Jennings Bryan for President. Bryan’s name was cheered for an hour and 28 minutes — eclipsing the endurance Marathon of cheering at the Republican Convention the preceding month, when Roosevelt’s name had evoked an uproar that lasted forty-five minutes.

. . . July 21. Melvin W. Sheppard, an American, won the 800-metre race at the Olympic Games in London. His time, 1 minute 52 4/5 seconds, broke the previous record of 1 minute 56 seconds.

July 24. J. J. Hayes, an American, won the Marathon race, in 2 hours 55 minutes 18 seconds. An Italian, Dorando, was first to cross the line, but was disqualified on the ground that he had received assistance from onlookers. Dorando was delirious and several times during the last few yards collapsed and had to be helped to his feet. . . . The Washington Post remarked: “The British will have to console themselves with reflections on the running-record they made when George Washington was after them.”

August 13. Ira D. Sankey, evangelist, associated with Dwight L. Moody, died. He was the composer of many hymns:
“The Ninety and Nine” (of which millions were sold), “When the Mists Have Rolled Away,” “A Shelter in the Time of Storm.” He compiled “Gospel Hymns,” of which more than fifty million copies were published.

President Roosevelt and Governors of States making inspection tour of Mississippi River, 1908.

* * *

A Historic Event in Baseball.

September 23. At the Polo Grounds, New York, a dispute historic in baseball, which enriched the language with two exceedingly forceful words, “bonehead” and “boner,” arose over whether Frederick Charles Merkle did or did not touch second base. The game was between New York and Chicago and its outcome would determine which of the two teams should lead the National League.

The setting of the play was the most dramatic that baseball provides — the last half of the ninth inning, the score 1 to 1. New York was at bat; there were two men out, one on third base and another, Merkle, on first. In this status, the New York player at bat, Bridwell, made a safe hit into centre field. The runner on third ran home, with what almost everybody took to be the winning run for New York. However, the play was not yet completed and it would not be completed unless and until Merkle reached second base ahead of the ball.

What Merkle actually did do, following Bridwell’s hit, is one of the unsolved enigmas of baseball history and is a point about which the chronicler of “Our Times” declines to be authoritative. The natural thing for Merkle to do was to get to second base with all the speed he could command; he insisted after the game that this was what he had done. It is equally plausible that when part way to second base he saw that Bridwell had made a safe hit and that the runner on third had got safely home with the winning run; he may have reasoned, prematurely, that the game was over, and may have turned and started for the club-house without touching second base.

Fred Merkle, whose failure to touch second base in a crucial game with the Chicago Cubs, September 23, 1908, will be remembered as long, at least, as Steve Brodie’s leap from Brooklyn Bridge.

Whatever the fact may be, the resourceful “Johnny” Evers, second baseman for Chicago, took advantage of the situation for his team. Shouting to the umpire that Merkle had not touched second, Evers signalled to the outfielder to throw him the ball. This the outfielder attempted to do, but was interfered with by New York players and “fans” who had streamed onto the field. Somebody got the ball and threw it into the stands.

Meanwhile there was a tussle over the person of the bewildered Merkle, his New York teammates seeking to drag him to second base, the Chicago players holding him back. In the stands a spectator friendly to Chicago scuffled for the ball, got it, and with a fine aim threw it to Evers, who, a short man, was now almost swallowed up by the milling mob of police, spectators, and players. Evers, with the ball in his hand, touched second base and frantically looked about for the umpire to get his decision on the play. The umpire had departed, however, precipitately, some minutes before, under the protection of an escort of police.

New York newspapers next morning credited the game to New York, but President Pulliam of the National League decided that the evidence favored Chicago and called the game a tie, and as such it stood. In their wrath at Merkle, an excellent player, the New York fans fixed upon a previously amemic and almost meaningless word, and gave to it a significance with which every reader is familiar. For more than twenty years, there has been rarely a game when from some part of the stands there did not arise from time to time, in shrill falsetto or hoarse bellow, the cry “bonehead” directed at any player disapproved, not always justly, by “a fan”. *

* In a letter to the author, August 27, 1930, John A. Heydler, president of the National League, gave some additional details:

“The evidence clearly established that Merkle ran down part way toward second, then turned to right for the club house. . . . Some eight thousand people at that time signed a great protest in which they averred they actually saw Merkle touch second. The umpires ruled it a tie. President Pulliam sustained the umpires. The New York club appealed. The Board of Directors of the League ordered the game re-played in New York October 8th, one day after the season’s close. The Chicago club was ordered from Chicago to New York, and in a pitcher’s duel between Mathewson and Brown, Chicago won the game 4 to 2 and the championship. . . Those were seething times in the old town !”

Auto Racing: A bad turn on the Briarcliff, New York, road race course.

* * *

October 14. Democratic editor Josephus Daniels, chairman of the press committee of the Democratic National Committee, advocating the election of Bryan, implied that the Roosevelt administration had not really been so very fierce against the trusts. Whereupon the Attorney-General in Roosevelt’s Cabinet, Charles J. Bonaparte, produced statistics:

Since Roosevelt became President in 1901, 46 antitrust suits under the Sherman law had been started. Nineteen ended in success, 6 in failure, and 21 were still pending. Under Presidents Harrison and McKinley 10 had been commenced, of which 5 were successful and 4 unsuccessful. Nine had been instituted under President Cleveland, of which 5 were successful and 4 unsuccessful.

The ‘New York Sun’, which disapproved “trust-busting,” carried the Attorney-General’s statement under an impish head-line: “Bonaparte Counts the Bag.” Mr. Daniels asked why the Republican Attorney-General “did not take up the Steel trust, which received more benefits than any other from the government and contributed the most to the Republican campaign fund.”

Fashion: Handling the long skirt going down stairs … Going up stairs. Graceful possibilities of the long skirt. From the ‘Delineator,’ 1908.

* * *

Passing of a Dynasty, and an Era.

October 30. Mrs. William Astor died at her home, 842 Fifth Avenue, New York. With her passed not only a social dynasty but almost the whole idea of hereditary or otherwise arbitrary social supremacy in America; with her, indeed, passed “Society” in the old sense.

For more than a generation, attendance at “Mrs. Astor’s ball” had been the test of social position in New York. “If she invited you, you were in; if she did not, you were out.” Mrs. Astor’s rule over New York society coincided with a time when it was a compact, definite, limited body, largely composed of the older families of the city. In her prime, her box at the Metropolitan Opera House, No. 7, was a social throne — “it was always Mrs. Astor who gave the signal as to the proper time to leave; the time bore no relation to the stage to which the opera had advanced, but was selected because it happened to suit the matron; the time she chose was usually just after an intermission.”

Her later years were characterized by further and further retreat into retirement; she had given up her annual ball in 1904, and had discontinued her large dinners of which formerly she had given three or four yearly. Since 1906 she had not attended the opera. To circumvent photographers, she carried, on the rare occasions when she left her house, a small parasol. During a year or more preceding her death, she was cautious about going even to the windows of her house, “so great was her horror of being seen by the rubberneck wagons.” (Sight seeing busses.)

Entrance Hall & Stairway at the Astor Residence. Photo by the Brown Bros.

Born in1830, a Schermerhorn, and therefore a descendant of the earliest Dutch families of New Amsterdam, she had married, in 1853, a grandson of the original John Jacob Astor. The disintegration of “Society” in the old sense that followed Mrs. Astor’s death can hardly be comprehended by a generation who never knew the magic that once went with the name Astor.

In the popular mind the name was often associated, not wholly accurately, with the name Vanderbilt, which came to prominence in New York life somewhat later than Astor, and was the symbol of a phase of New York society that did not quite attain the glory of Society in the Astor sense. The two names became, in a popular and even a literary sense, almost the American and nineteenth century equivalent of Tudor and Plantagenet, Capulet and Montague.

“Astorbilt” was the standard satirical or comedy term for a person or institution having, or pretending to have, social importance; a really clever invented word, current for a while, was “Astorperious.”

Mrs. William Waldorf Astor.

* * *

November. Nineteen-eight was the year of the “sheath” gown, called, on its arrival from Paris, the “Directoire,” which “rang the knell of the rustling petticoat.” When the first woman wearing one appeared in the shopping district of Chicago “the police had to rescue her from a jeering insulting crowd.”

A skirt whose meagre gores necessitate
The waddle of a Chinese lady’s gait . . . .
A waist promoted half way up the back
And not a shred that’s comfortably slack.
A figure like a seal reared up on end,
And poking forward with a studied bend.

The sheath skirt at the Paris races, 1908.

The comic papers made quips about it: “The sheath gown uncovers a multitude of shins.” A popular song celebrated it:

Katie Keith, she wears a sheath
With very little underneath.

Life Magazine contrasted the slimness of its effect with the vogue of a few years before, when amplitude of hips had been thought desirable:

We don’t wish to insinuate
That they were not real before;
But where, oh, where, are the hips that we
Don’t notice any more?

In South Norwalk, Conn., the Haute Ton Whist and Literary Club, an ultrafashionable social organization, concluded “that the sheath gown was but one big step backward toward the fig-leaf,” and voted that “the sheath gown is both immodest and homely and this club will do everything in its power to put it down.”

From The Theatre Magazine, September, 1909 — “This is to be a bandeauless season. Up and down Fifth Avenue, and in and out of the side streets, you may search and never a single bandeau will you find. Every hat sits way down on the head, and were it not that we are blessed with a goodly amount of hair, grown or purchased, would surely rest on the ears.”

Nineteen-eight, summer and fall, was the period also of the “Merry Widow” hat, with wide brim, many of them roosts for dead birds, causing Life Magazine to say: “Ten gorgeous little father birds were killed to trim the hat with; ten somber little mother birds were left sitting on their nests with nobody to feed them — and the hat was called the Merry Widow.”

Fashion: The Merry Widow hat. From the ‘Millinery Herald,’ Winter 1908.

Nineteen-eight was the period also of dotted veils, good for the business of oculists; and of the boned collar, extreme ones reaching five inches with an added inch of lace ruching; and of what was supposed to be a rather bold stocking, about which Puck quipped: The Old Man. — No wonder m’ sore throat ain’t no better this mornin’. Asked Bessie for a stockin’ to wrap around m’ neck an’ durned if she didn’t give me one o’ them fish-net open-works.

Fashion: The chenille dotted veil. From the ‘Millinery Herald,’ 1907.
A fashionable costume about 1907-1908: later the importation of aigrettes was banned by law.

* * *

December 6. (Sunday.) Frank A. Munsey inaugurated in Washington a Sunday evening edition, the first in America, of a newspaper he owned, The Times. The innovation was not widely imitated and ultimately was abandoned.

Frank A. Munsey of ‘The Times”.

December 11. J. Pierpont Morgan was quoted in newspapers as having recited to a group of friends and business associates at the Chicago Club, an axiom that had been handed down to him by his father:

Remember my son, that any man who is a bear on the future of this country will go broke. There may be times when things are dark and cloudy in America, when uncertainty will cause some to distrust, and others to think there is too much production, too much building of railroads, and too much other enterprise. In such times, and at all times, remember that the growth of this vast country will take care of all.

Publication of Morgan’s statement was believed to have a helpful effect on the current business depression. The axiom continued to be quoted for more than twenty years.

December 21. Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff arrived in New York to become German Ambassador to the United States; his leaving, nine years later, was a dramatic incident of the entry of the United States into the Great War.

December 21. Andrew Carnegie, at tariff hearings before the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, urged abolition of the tariff on steel. “Take back your protection,” said Mr. Carnegie, shaking his finger at the committee; “we are now men, and we can beat the world at the manufacture of steel.”

Fashion: Sheath bathing suits, 1908.

* * *

An Early Phase of Motion Pictures.

December 24. In 1908, the motion-picture was just midway between its grub stage, the nickelodeon, and the faint beginnings of what was, twenty years later, to be its gorgeous chrysalis — nearer the former than the latter.

The day before Christmas, Mayor McClellan of New York revoked the licenses of 550 nickelodeons “because of the serious opposition by the rectors and pastors of practically all the Christian denominations in the city and because of the further objections of the Society for the Prevention of Crime.” Future licenses would be granted, the Mayor said, only on written agreement that the licensees would not operate their places on Sundays and that they would not show pictures tending “to degrade the morals of the community.”

Earlier in the year, the New York Herald, moved by a fire in a moving-picture theatre at Boyertown, Penn., which had destroyed more than a hundred lives, investigated the moving-picture theatres of New York City and found that they were patronized daily by about two hundred thousand people, more than three-quarters of them women and children.

One of the early nickel movie houses.

“In almost every case a long, narrow room, formerly used for more legitimate business purposes, has been made over into what is popularly known as a ‘nickelodeon.’ At the rear a stage is raised. Across it is swung a white curtain. Before the curtain is placed a piano, which does service for an orchestra. Packed into the room as closely as they can be placed are chairs for the spectators, who number from one hundred to four hundred and fifty. Directly above the entrance is placed the moving-picture machine, which flashes its lights and shadows upon the white curtain dropped in front of the stage. Many of the machines are operated by means of a tank filled with gasoline or some similarly inflammable material.”

While the motion-picture houses had not yet risen above the low esteem that attended their early stage, a few ambitious proprietors were beginning to picture Shakespeare, and in other ways were initiating developments that constituted a milestone in an evolution destined to bring about what in 1908, few would have predicted or admitted, a status in which, by the 1920’s, the motion-picture occupied more theatres and employed more actors than the spoken drama. The Theatre Magazine for October, 1908, in an article entitled “Where They Perform Shakespeare for Five Cents,” made what then seemed daring predictions:

Whatever there may be crude about the kinetoscope of the present, we cannot say that the kinetoscope of the future will not be much nearer perfection. The scientific brains are at work improving it, so that the slightest facial expression may soon be caught, so that those looking for any length of time upon the screen may not go away with wearied eyes, which at present is not only a painful defect, but a danger to be guarded against. . . . The actor has a formidable rival in the kinetoscope.

The time is not far distant when we will see along Broadway, theatrical agencies specially catering to the manufacturers of moving-picture films. The Edison Company of New York, the Vitagraph Company of America, the Pathé Freres of Paris, each has its regular stock company. These men and women, employed at good salaries, are richly costumed for the dramas and the ballets and fairy tales and the dances that are performed before the machine. It is remarkable to what extent the moving-picture manufacturer will go in his anxiety and determination to obtain realism in his kinetoscopic play.

An announcement of one of the 1908 5-cent “movies”.
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