The West That Was, Part 2

America, 1910

1910 was well before my own time, of course, but I knew at least ten people who lived through it as adults, and discussed the era at some length with one of them, my great uncle Dave. And so this is an era I feel I can still reach out and touch.

One of the more interesting things about this era regards our separation from it. The great event that forged this divide was World War I, which is greatly under-appreciated in modern discourse. Schools cover World War II in great depth, but run through World War I fairly quickly. World War I, however – “The Great War” – changed human affairs and human consciousness far more than World War II did. The world before and the world afterward were very different places.

Bear in mind, however, that in 1910, people lived very similarly to the way we do. They (particularly in the cities) lived in houses with central heating, refrigerated their food, and ate the same foods we eat today. They had newspapers, affordable and rapid transportation, access to medical care, telegrams (delivery in an hour or two was common) and so on. Even movies and radio were starting to spread. Cars were arriving, as were electricity and telephones. Airplanes were starting to appear in the skies. Railroads went almost everywhere.

To give you a feel for daily life in 1910, here is a list of family expenses kept during November of that year:

A major characteristic of this world was that people tended to be significantly more confident. And the primary reason for that was that their world was comprehensible. More or less all the factors of their daily lives were understandable. Even their scientific discoveries were understandable, provided that one was willing to get the necessary books and read them. It’s telling that television, just a few years later, was invented by a farm boy (Philo T. Farnsworth), whose knowledge came largely from reading magazines.

There is a critical difference between the person who sees the world as comprehensible and the person who does not:

    • Understanding the world, we tend to make plans to accomplish our goals, and then pursue them, confident that we can (or at least are likely to) reach those goals.
    • Feeling overcome by a world we cannot understand or rely upon, we hunker down in place. Not knowing what may or may not work, we pull back our horizons, hold on to whatever we do have and refuse to let go, even when letting go may get us something better.

Those who can comprehend the world believe they can improve it, and so they insert their will into it.

What It Was Like

I’ve always liked the way Bill Buckler described this era in The Privateer:

There was a golden world which developed between 1815 and 1914. Over that century and with the interruptions of a few short wars… a general peace had been the main feature…

An immense optimism covered the world, economically underpinned by the Classical Gold Standard. Gold coinage, though often of different weights in different countries, WAS money. The entire western world was a form of payments union in the sense that Gold was money.

Governments were small; tiny compared to today. What taxes existed were almost imperceptible. The US had no income tax. Privacy, property and contracts were sacrosanct.

As I’ll often say, the people of this era often behaved foolishly, but they made their errors in a different and better context than we make ours in today.

And the world between about 1815 and World War I was a type of golden age. And in fact, the technical wonders we enjoy would have been impossible without these people bringing them forward to us.

Between 1919 and 1935 or so, a great deal of human life was arranged in response to World War I and its pointless horrors. And the fact is that the West, in general, lost its confidence in this era. Sensitive commentators at the time (such as Virginia Wolfe) made note of it, and we see it from a number of people who reminisced about it. For example, economist Friedrich Hayek recalled this:

It used to be the boast of free men that, so long as they kept within the bounds of the known law, there was no need to ask anybody’s permission or to obey anybody’s orders. It is doubtful whether any of us can make this claim today.

Hayek was not wrong about this. The law was simple in 1910 (legislation hadn’t yet overtaken the common law), and even beyond the rules you knew, law’s universal standard was “the reasonable man.” So long as you were reasonable, and your actions defensible with reason, you really didn’t have to worry very much about the law.

And regardless of the Victorian image of the time, there were many independent movements toward radical progress. Author Leonard Woolf wrote about the movement he was involved with this way:

We were not part of a negative movement of destruction against the past: We were out to construct something new; we were in the van of builders of a new society which should be free, rational, civilized, pursuing truth and beauty. It was all tremendously exhilarating.

Nor were women entirely silent. Here is a passage from Mary Wollstonecraft:

To be a good mother — a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers; wanting their children to love them best, and take their part, in secret, against the father, who is held up as a scarecrow.

I often think of this time as The Near Miss of 1900. I’m convinced that if somehow that moment had been continued, we’d be living far better and more happily than we are.

As I’ve noted in other places, a major source of our world’s confusion arises from our money. If that sounds odd, please bear in mind that money is the primary tool of our survival, being half of every transaction for food, housing and so on.

In 1910, new money had to be pulled from the ground with difficulty. And that difficulty kept it honest. It couldn’t be created by decree, which changed the tone of everything from taxes to stocks and bonds. More importantly, it kept the working man in a position of importance.

The next time you go through an old city, look at the grand homes that were built in this era, then consider this: Those homes were built by grocers, mechanics, longshoremen and bakers. As a result, working people carried more dignity than they have since. Hard work and prudence paid in those days, and there was no tax on income to siphon away one’s surplus. The hard-workers of this era made loans rather than begging for them. This informed not only their attitudes regarding themselves, but the mating strategies of the young.

In 1910, the young man went out to earn his “nest egg,” and thereby convinced the girl to marry him. There were myriad exceptions and failures, of course, but this was the standard model and could not have stood if it had been impossible. And, in fact, it was ridiculed and expelled a decade or two later, once the war and the income tax changed conditions so that very few could rise to it.

In Part One of this series we said that the Americans of 1960 still believed in their culture. These people certainly shared in that, but they believed in themselves in a deeper way than the Americans of 1960 did, and certainly far more than most people believe in themselves today.


Paul Rosenberg