TAKOMA ARCHIVES • BY DIANA KOHN
One hundred years ago, in the election campaign of 1911 and 1912, it was the Progressive wing of the Republican party who were driving the political agenda, laying the groundwork for exactly the kind of active federal government that today’s Tea Party is intent on dismantling [updated Jan 18].
In the starring role was Teddy Roosevelt, who had handed over the Oval Office to William Taft in 1909. By 1911 Teddy was ready to take it back so he could push for change.
For decades, unbridled capitalists had been given free rein. Although the Supreme Court finally broke up Standard Oil because it showed “intent to exercise monopoly” as prohibited in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, more was required. The tragic fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory highlighted the abuses that needed reform.
Foreign policy wasn’t an issue. China didn’t need our help – the child emperor had been replaced by a republic under Sun Yat-sen. Bosnia had been in turmoil for years (no one could imagine the conflagration to come). Mexico was in civil war, but we could deal with the refugees. As for Panama, we should just take control of the land where the half-finished canal sits and be done with it. Few took notice of a friendship between two Russians, Stalin and Lenin.
Nothing stopped Teddy on his quest – not the unsuccessful assassin’s bullet, not the refusal of his own party to nominate him. He bolted and ran on the third-party Progressive ticket, beating Taft but ensuring the election of the Democratic,Woodrow Wilson. As a sign of the times, Socialist Eugene Debs gathered more than 900,000 votes.
The reforms followed anyway, especially the state-ratified constitutional amendments. The first mandated election of Senators by popular vote (hopefully doing away with the Millionaires Club). The second instituted a federal income tax (initially 1 percent on incomes over $3000, up to a maximum of 6 percent on incomes over $50,000).
Suffragettes had a tougher battle. Bicycles and typewriters provided some liberation. Voting rights, however, were doled out one state at a time, like California in 1911. When they marched on Washington in 1913, it turned violent with 40 women beaten by police. Time would eventually favor both the suffrage and prohibition movements.
Immigrants, now 25 percent of Americans, and coming at a rate of nearly a million a year, faced the wrath of no less an austere figure than Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. He declared they—those from southern and eastern Europe—would cause “a great and perilous change in the very fabric of our race.” The days of restrictive quotas were just ahead, although Mexicans were specifically exempted because America “needed their labor.”
Meanwhile the leading Negro leaders of the day, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, hotly debated the proper path for their people. Many chose to join the Great Migration, leaving the rural South for the urban life up North.
Life was improving for most Americans. Model T’s were getting cheaper, and with the new self-starters so you didn’t have to risk your life cranking up the motor. Henry Ford was refining his assembly line idea that would revolutionize the industry. By 1916, he would pay his workers $5 a day, double their usual wage, in the belief that they would use the money to buy a car.
Crackerjacks came with prizes and wristwatches glowed in the dark because of the radium painted on their dials. Ragtime popularized by Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin was all the rage.
Americans mourned the loss of Robert Scott in the icy Antarctica and the unfathomable sinking of the Titantic, but there was much to celebrate.
By far the most popular attractions were the wondrous moving picture shows at the neighborhood nickelodeons. Some people claimed that as many as 5 million Americans a day paid their nickel to see Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish in action, never mind that there was no sound.
Meanwhile, the enterprising movie makers were already heading to California where the sunny weather allowed cameras to film year round. One had already set up shop in a tiny hamlet with the unlikely name of Hollywood.
The first full-length film shown in the U.S. was a French export starring Sarah Bernhardt as Elizabeth I. Screened in a formal setting, it set the standard for the future.
Sears and Roebuck catalogs were the Amazon of their day, providing access to the vast array of consumer goods regardless of where you lived. You could even order an entire house, which came as a ready-to-assemble kit. Suburbs like Takoma Park with access to railroads were prime candidates for these new ideas.
Jim Thorpe dominated the sports scene. After setting several Olympic records in Stockholm in 1911, he came home and led his Carlisle Indian School football team to victory over an Army squad that included Dwight Eisenhower. Rule changes in 1912 gave teams four downs to advance 10 yards, counted an end zone catch as a touchdown, and awarded six points for a touchdown.
Baseball acquired a fan in President Taft, who threw out the first pitch at the Washington Senators season opener in 1911.
Closer to home
For the 1500 residents of Takoma Park, the biggest event of 1911 was the opening of the Takoma Park branch library. Everyone knew about the years of lobbying it had taken to convince Congress to support the library, a requirement before Andrew Carnegie handed over the $40,000 to build it.
The library provided space for the proliferating civic clubs spurred by the same Progressive impulses as the political turmoil. The year 1912 saw the beginning of the historical society, the women’s club, the horticultural club and even Boy Scout Troop 21, barely two years after scouts were organized in America.
An even bigger project consumed most of 1912 – removing tons of dirt so that Cedar Street would for evermore go underneath the railroad tracks rather than dangerously cross over them. Much better for those new fangled cars and for the kids who cross the tracks on their way to Takoma Park Elementary school.
In 1913, at the next train stop north, a grandson of Frances Preston Blair bought the old Sligo post office on Brookeville Pike and renamed it in keeping with his grandfather’s Silver Spring estate. That same year the Brookeville Pike toll road was purchased by the state and became today’s Georgia Avenue. [updated Jan. 18]