Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 22, 2016

What’s Changed Since 1916


Some things change, and some don’t.

That was the central argument between the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides (both ca. 500 BCE). Heraclitus thought that the only constant was change. He argued that you can’t step into the same river twice, because by the time you step into it a second time, it’s already changed. Parmenides, on the other hand, believed that change was only apparent and that real things did not change. We’re still having the same argument over two millennia later.

The fairest judgment is that both Heraclitus and Parmenides were right, but that they emphasized different things. Looking back 100 years at how America was in 1916, we find that some things have changed and others have stayed the same.

My bookshelf provides many such windows into the past. One item on the shelf is a tattered copy of The American Review of Reviews from January 1916. Founded by Albert Shaw, who had been a classmate of future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Review published from 1890 to 1937. Its January 1916 issue shows much of what has changed and what hasn’t changed since then.

Front Cover

The front cover (above) shows an issue price of 25 cents, or $3 for a year’s subscription. It lists articles by various luminaries. Notable is the now-forgotten Lothrop Stoddard, who was a popular public intellectual at the time — so much so that a character in The Great Gatsby (1925) refers to one of his books.1

The School Advertisements


One section has school advertisements grouped by geographic region. The schools are mostly single-sex, and all the boarding schools are single-sex. A page of text introduces the section and extols the virtues of private boarding schools:

”LOYALTY. There is a feeling we have for our native land: It is called patriotism. We have a similar feeling toward our friends and the institutions we hold dear … If as school boys and girls we are not heart and soul loyal to some one particular school, then we have lost a great opportunity to develop a true spirit of loyalty and appreciation not only of the individual but of groups of people and of communities — that big side of our character upon which in later life is built our ideals and our ambitions.”

The girls’ school ads emphasize languages, arts, household science (home economics), “special finishing courses” (i.e., how to act like a lady), and graduation certificates that provide a fast track to Vassar and other women’s colleges.

The boys’ school ads are often for military schools, since that was still considered a respectable upper-class career. They emphasize business, science, character-building, athletics, and college preparation. I was surprised not to find an ad for the school I attended, since it existed at the time and the magazine lists two of its rival schools.

Advertisement for History Books


The Great American Crisis was a 20-volume history of the American Civil War, “without bias or prejudice” and promising “justice to both North and South.”

It’s worth remembering that in 1916, plenty of Civil War veterans were aged but still alive. They probably occupied a place of honor in America similar to that of World War II veterans today. Each volume in the series is written by a different author, including Booker T. Washington, who was the pre-eminent black intellectual of his time and advised several American presidents.

The whole set cost $25. Purchasers sent in $1 up front and then paid $2 a month for a year.

Advertisement for Diet Books


One thing that hasn’t changed is the market for diet books. Do you want to know “what foods cause constipation, indigestion, fermentation, and rheumatism?” For only $3, you can get a little set of diet books by Eugene Christian, “recognized as the world’s greatest authority on food and its relation to the human system.” The ad doesn’t say if he’s recognized as an authority by anyone other than himself. But send no money: “Either return the books within five days or send $3.” That’s called the honor system, folks. It hasn’t been seen in America for a long time.

Better known than Eugene Christian was Horace Fletcher (1849-1919), who advocated chewing food 32 times before swallowing it: called “Fletcherizing” the food. His nickname was “The Great Masticator.” To this day, nobody knows if the nickname was intended to make fun of him. Ruminate on that, if you cud.

Progress of the World


The news analysis section discusses the Great War, of course: It had started in July 1914 and didn’t become “World War I” until there was a “World War II.” The article refers to it as “the European war,” as Americans often called it before the United States entered the war.

It’s true that when the Great War started, a lot of people thought it would be short: “German troops were assured that they would be home in time for Christmas.” Nobody expected it to turn into the continent-wide slaughterhouse that was arguably the beginning of the end for Western civilization. So many of our best men were killed that the name people applied to the generation of the 1920s — “the lost generation” — might more aptly have been given to the ones who died.

Even worse, the draconian surrender terms that the allies imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) made World War II almost inevitable, as John Maynard Keynes warned in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The article quotes the German Chancellor addressing the Reichstag (the German parliament) in 1915:

”If our enemies make peace proposals compatible with Germany’s dignity and safety, then we shall always be ready to discuss them.”

The entry of America into the conflict tilted the balance enough that the victorious allies could and did humiliate the Germans. Wounded pride is always dangerous, and in that case, it proved to be deadly beyond imagination.

War Profiteers


Profit is not the only reason wars keep occurring, but it’s one of them. There’s money to be made by selling arms to all sides of every conflict.

War profiteers get richer and politicians pose as war heroes without ever getting near a battlefield. The only losers are voiceless: the dead, the wounded, and the taxpayers.

Educating Immigrants for America


Americans in 1916 assumed that immigrants would forsake their lands of origin and become Americans. The popular metaphor was that of the United States as a “melting pot,” in which distinct nationalities and cultures joined the dominant American culture and added to it.

The idea that immigrants should remain separate from or even hostile to the American mainstream would have been dismissed as foolish and harmful since it leads directly to social strife. We see the results all around us in 2016. Of course, assimilation was easier to wish for than to achieve:

”The process has too often been irregular and haphazard. Many who should have become citizens have failed to qualify because of the lack of proper encouragement and assistance.”

Reducing Illiteracy


Another thing that hasn’t changed much is the problem of illiteracy. We live in an interconnected world and an increasingly technological culture. People who can’t read adequately or at all are excluded from participation in most events and issues. That was less true in 1916, but it was still a problem for a democratic republic:

”The illiteracy of millions of unschooled men and women — children in mind, though adult in years.”

Current events on both sides of the Atlantic provide ample evidence that plenty of “children in mind, though adult in years” are still with us.

Finding a Sensible Cigarette


Educated people seldom smoke anymore. That’s more because of social pressure than because tobacco is unhealthful, a fact that has been known at least since the early 1600s. In 1604, King James IV of Scotland wrote about the dangers of tobacco, and he probably wasn’t the first one to do so.

Until the 1960s, smoking was as much in fashion as it is now out of fashion. An unintentionally funny radio commercial of the late 1940s reported on a survey of 114,000 doctors. The survey discovered that more doctors smoked Camel cigarettes than any other brand. The commercial suggested that for good health, everyone should “do what doctors do” and smoke Camels.

Back Cover: Buying a Good Car


Finding a good car is still a problem: That hasn’t changed. Reliability is crucial, especially as the car gets older:

“A Pierce-Arrow grows old as gracefully as a good oriental rug or a Chippendale chair.”

In 1916, automobiles were still a luxury item: notice the chauffeur in the picture. It wasn’t until the 1920s that millions of average families owned cars.


  1. Stoddard’s ideas are shocking today, but they were entirely mainstream in his time. He held views similar to those of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger


  1. What a fantastic compilation of old articles and ads, and what wonderful commentary you’ve written to accompany them! With the benefit of hindsight, I think your clips prove that there are a few constants in human nature/history.

    PS: I would love to drag out “The Great American Crisis (In Twenty Volumes)” and see what parallels exist between post-Civil-War society and where we stand today. Hmm. I wonder if it’s online somewhere … 😉

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment! Yes, I also wish that I could look at “The Great American Crisis” books — I wonder if they’re available anywhere.

      Love him or hate him, Karl Marx got a few things right. One was: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

      • Since no one reads anymore, perhaps we can collaborate and start a “Great American Crisis” You Tube channel. 🙂

        And thank you for that Karl Marx quote! I’d never heard that one, and — love him or hate him — it’s brilliant.

  2. The characteristics of the human person is one of the great unchanging things. We are so used to our modern worldview in which we are so much better and smarter than those who came before. We have figured out more about the physical world, but by all other measures, we humans have been remarkably constant.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment! We seem equally suspicious of the idea that people are necessarily better and smarter than in the past. For one thing, “people” includes everyone, both the good and the bad. Our science and technology are definitely better, but we ourselves don’t seem to have changed much.

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