Megan McArdle: “I read a week’s worth of newspapers from 1921”

From a Washington Post column by Megan McArdle headlined “I read a week’s worth of newspapers from 1921. It was comforting how wrong they were about what mattered.”:

Nothing invokes as much nostalgia as Christmases past. In the spirit of the season, I decided to see what Post readers were reading about in holiday seasons of yore. Alas, we didn’t have a correspondent in Bethlehem to cover the Big One. So I picked a nice round number — 100 years — and decided to read a week’s worth of papers from Christmas 1921 to New Year’s 1922.

I tried to imagine myself back in 1921, in a D.C. rowhouse much like the one I now occupy, with the gifts already opened and the wrappings disposed of, a cup of tea at my elbow and a dog or two at my feet. I opened my Christmas paper on — a big fat one, for in 1921 Christmas fell on Sunday — and settled in for a nice thorough read.

If you imagine yourself there with me, what do you see?

First, there is news of the great Washington Naval Conference, which has commanded half of the front page since opening in mid-November. The idea of the conference is for the great powers to jointly reduce their armaments, so everyone can spend the money on better things. Or at least that is the American idea.

The Japanese idea is to have a navy as close in size as possible to the British and American naval forces, and the French, smack up against Germany, are also not keen on disarmament. By Dec. 30, our editorial page would be seething: “The attitude of France at the Washington Conference is strange, disappointing, and dangerous to the world’s welfare.”

The conference will eventually cap naval tonnage while failing to limit submarines, none of which will prevent World War II. But we are still in Christmas week 1921, and that day’s paper is optimistic. “New era in World Affairs Here, Arms Delegates Say,” blares the headline, while the editorial page purrs: “In the main nations are moving upward toward greater freedom, more permanent order, and more general justice to individuals.”

Inside the paper, we may spend some time browsing the ads, perhaps pausing over the homage to the REO Speed Wagon — still a modern commercial vehicle in 1921, rather than an elderly rock band. We find predictions that Russia will soon be forced to abandon communism and embrace capitalism to feed its people. (Millions of dollars have just been earmarked for U.S. food aid to the starving Soviets.) But let’s linger longest over Christmas Day’s big piece on social issues: an article on America’s missing girls, authored by “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,” Grace Humiston….

Mrs. Humiston, the first woman to serve as a special assistant U.S. attorney, had since moved on to hunting down missing girls. Mostly she is writing about runaways, many of whom crave freedom and excitement. But despite being something of a feminist pioneer, she seems far more concerned about the dangers awaiting country girls in big cities than she is about the patriarchy stifling sturdy young adventuresses.

Okay, that’s us peeking in from our vantage point of 2021, but it’s the kind of odd note that will hit any modern reader over and over while reading through a paper this old. The most important story of the day was a naval conference no one but historians remembers, and further column inches were devoted to the finer details of railway regulation and tariff formulas. Race is mentioned mostly to classify criminals, sex is a tangential aside to a college censorship story, and women’s issues are the new dropped waists and shorter hemlines. Aviation means dirigibles as well as airplanes, while Prohibition merits a few side stories and a single editorial suggesting that alcohol bans weren’t working yet but were probably just about to.

And as you alternately laugh or frown at their blindness, remember that we are all of us only living through the first draft of history, which counsels a little humility. No matter how earnest our convictions, even the smartest of us are probably missing half the important stories and getting a lot of the others wrong.

That may seem dismaying if you fantasize about being on “the right side of history,” but really, it’s a holiday gift, of sorts. Once you imagine your descendants peering back in surprise across the centuries, chuckling at the sight of you passionately arguing some historical irrelevancy, it gets easier to relax and stop shouting at each other. Or maybe even put down our phones and attend to the biggest story most of us will ever live through — not what’s happening in the news but in the homes where we read it.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”

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