Monthly Archives: February 2018

Celebrating Valentine’s Day, 1918-style

Valentine’s Day in 1918 was nothing like the holiday we celebrate today, with couples going out for stressful dinners at crowded restaurants while single people sit at home wanting to die. Part of the reason was the war—there was much less attention to such frivolous topics than in previous years.

To the extent that it was celebrated, Valentine’s Day was a holiday for children, who exchanged handmade cards at parties, and single women, who got up to all sorts of hijinks with their friends. Men, apparently, refused to have anything to do with it. The February 16 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which was a men’s magazine at the time, did have a Valentine’s theme, though,

J. C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover, St. Valentine writing, February 16, 1918.

J. C. Leyendecker, February 16, 1918

and its January 26 Norman Rockwell cover celebrates young romance:

Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, boy stepped on girl's toe at dance, January 26, 1918.

Norman Rockwell, January 26, 1918

The Delineator tells us in its February issue that

Saint Valentine’s Day offers wide latitude for ingenuity and artistic skill, both to the wee tot in kindergarten, whose baby fingers have been newly trained to paste and weave and prick, and her grown-up sisters who can, with pen or brush, evolve delightful valentines with the personal touch, or design charming place-cards and dance programs, and contrive cunning nut and bonbon dishes.

Katherine Southwick Delineator cover, girl in bonnet with lacy border, February 1918.

Katherine Southwick, February 1918

According to The Delineator, the day “lends itself most happily for luncheons for brides-to-be and announcement parties.” One such party features a game called heart archery. A large heart is mounted on an easel, with a bulls-eye and numbered sections. Gifts are placed in a box, “tied with crimson ribbons and with the number on a tiny dangling red heart.”

Armed with a bow and arrow (handed to the guest by Cupid himself if possible), the guest tries out her skill in hitting the bull’s eye. If she is successful she should find that her number draws a package containing a ring, indicating that she will be the next bride. Other gifts, all significant, fall to the less fortunate: a mitten for rejection, a coin for wealth*, a rabbit’s foot for luck, a toy boat for a sea journey**, an automobile, a thimble for the spinster, etc. Any hostess will have the ingenuity to work out little fortunes for her guests, and if they fall to the right people, all the merrier.

Woman's Home Companion illustration, Engaged Girl and Soldier Boy Valentine's Day parties, February 1918.

Delineator, February 1918

Woman’s Home Companion tells us about some small-town girls who sent Valentine’s Day treats to the boys in khaki. (How, I’m not quite sure, given that the February issue must have been printed well in advance, and the United States wasn’t at war yet the February before.) They baked a huge spice cake, divided it into fifteen sections, one for each of the soldiers from their town, and iced it in white and red, “with an appropriate red heart as a centerpiece.” A good-luck charm (four-leaf clover, wishbone, or horseshoe) was baked into each piece. Small gifts, such as homemade cookies, chocolates, and khaki-colored initialed handkerchiefs, were “distributed impartially.”

So happy Valentine’s Day everyone, brides, spinsters, and rejects alike! Watch out for flying arrows, and don’t break your tooth on a good luck charm!

*You know, because being wealthy is way less lucky than getting married at age twenty.

**Maybe not such a great idea in 1918?

America at war: Suddenly, it’s real

I didn’t learn much about World War I in school. It was the seventies, and there was a backlash underway against the rote memorization of battle dates and that sort of thing. It was all about cause and effect. One day we’d be learning about Archduke Ferdinand and the alliances, and the next day the teacher would say, “Now, after the Allied victory…” We’d say, “Wait, what about the war?” and the teacher would ask us if we really wanted to learn about a bunch of battles. We’d say no and that would be that—on to Versailles.

So my vague impression was that the Americans came in in 1917 and gave new energy to the exhausted Allies, who won fairly quickly. A month of reading the 1918 news set me straight. As depicted in the press, the early stage of the American war effort was a colossal screw-up. American soldiers in France, short on weapons and supplies, did little but consume scarce food supplies and—judging from the humor magazines—hit on French women.*

French cartoon in Judge magazine, That Bewildering Trench Lingo, 1918.

Judge magazine, February 9, 1918

The Wilson administration’s handling of the war was universally regarded as inept. The New Republic said in its January 19 issue that “any friend of the administration who fails at the present time to speak frankly about the effect produced by the breakdown of management of the war upon the state of mind of the public is doing to President Wilson a most indifferent service.” The fuel shortage, it said, is creating a sense that the country is “helplessly drifting into a succession of similar crises, which if they are allowed to develop will continue to paralyze American ability to assist our Allies and do harm to Germany, and which will react balefully on the morale of the nation.” And that’s what the administration’s friends were saying! (New Republic founding editor Walter Lippmann was serving as an aide to Secretary of War Newton Baker.)

Photo portrait of Senator George Chamberlain, 1904.

Senator George Chamberlain, 1904

Congress was so fed up that Republican Senator George Chamberlain introduced a bill to reorganize the government’s conduct of the war through the establishment of a War Council with sweeping powers, accountable only to the President. “The military establishment of America has fallen down,” Chamberlain said in a January 20 speech, because of “inefficiency in every bureau and department of the Government of the United States.”  The New Republic denounced this “crude, ill considered, and indefensible measure,” but said that, if Wilson didn’t come up with better structures for the conduct of the war, “the existing mechanism will continue to creak, and groan and exasperate its victims.”

As January ended and February began, though, American soldiers completed their training and moved to the front lines. A Times correspondent reported that, as they did so, “Every man was happy just because he was going to fight at last, and as the regiments marched along the men sang joyously until they reached a point where all further operations were carried out in complete silence.”

On January 30, there was heavy shelling on an American position on the French front. Two soldiers were killed and one was captured. The Associated Press interviewed one of the wounded, a sandy-haired youth from Bismarck, North Dakota, who “said with a smile to the correspondent, ‘Did you ever hear of such bad luck? Now I’ve got a piece bit out of my leg by a shell splinter…believe me, if I ever get back to that line again—well, all I want is another chance.”

Photograph of British ship SS Tuscania, 1914.

SS Tuscania, 1914

Then, on February 5, the SS Tuscania, a British ship transporting American soldiers across the Atlantic, was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk in the Irish Sea. The British and American governments were slow to produce casualty lists, and relatives waited anxiously for days. Among them were the cartoonist Richard F. Outcault, creator of Buster Brown and the Yellow Kid, and his wife. “I am expecting hourly to hear from Dick,” Mrs. Outcault told the New York Times, “and I expect to get news soon. He is a level-headed boy, and I am sure he knew how to take care of himself in an emergency.” Richard F. Outcault, Jr., was among the survivors. 210 other families were not so lucky.

The strange air of unreality was gone. America was at war.

*UPDATE 4/1/2019: Remember when I promised to make mistakes? This is one of them. First of all, the soldier is French. And he’s not hitting on the women–one of them is his marraine, or (honorary) godmother. Marraines served as substitute mothers to soldiers without families or whose families were out of reach in German-occupied areas.

Wednesday Miscellany: Erté, boys’ fashion, and fast cars

Erté, the artist and designer whose name is synonymous with Art Deco, was only twenty-five in 1918, but he was already making a name for himself. (A fake name: his real one was Romain de Tirtoff. Erté comes from the French pronunciation of his initials.) He got his start designing covers for Harper’s Bazar. I’m not sure what this one means, but an online slideshow of classic covers at the magazine’s website says that it “suggests a dadaist influence.”

Erté Harper's Bazar cover, February 1918, masked woman looking out window at man.

Erté, February 1918

I had the impression that everyone drove around in Model T’s in 1918, but the magazines were full of ads for all different kinds of cars. This one, the Marmon 34, set a new coast-to-coast speed record in 1916: 5 days. 18 hours. 30 minutes.

Marmon 34 ad, 1918, car on black background.

Harper’s Bazar, February 1918

Clothes for the well-dressed boy. The Palm Beach suit costs $7.49–a week’s pay for an office boy at a New York law firm.

Macy's boys' clothing ad, Harper's Bazar, 1918.

Harper’s Bazar, February 1918

Sound familiar? Book chat, 1918-style

If you spend as much time reading about books online as I do (or did, before I went back to 1918), there are certain topics that you come across again and again. I knew that these debates had been around for a while. But I had no idea that they’d been around for a hundred years. Here’s the 1918 take on a couple of book-chat perennials.

Can writing be taught?

Can creative writing be taught? Do writing classes really make students’ writing better? As a recent MFA grad, I’ve grown tired of this seemingly endless debate. (No one ever asks MBAs this type of question, and I don’t recall MFAs ever causing an international financial crisis.) But MFA programs weren’t around in 1918, so I thought I’d get a break.

But no, here’s Edward J. O’Brien, founding editor of The Best American Short Stories, weighing in in the January 1918 issue of The Bookman. “Experience with many short story writers who had completed courses in short-story writing under competent critics had left me frankly sceptical as to the value of endeavouring to teach the technique of a developing and changing literary form,” he says. He’s reviewing a book called A Handbook on Story-Writing by Blanche Colton Williams of Columbia University. After such an education, he goes on, “The last state of the pupil seemed worse than the first.” Oh no.

Postcard of Columbia University library, 1917.

Columbia University library, 1917 (

But then one day he’s bad-mouthing writing classes to a short story writer he admires, and the writer reveals that he’s studying writing at Columbia. He invites O’Brien to tag along, and he wins a convert. “What I found in this class was a free play of critical intelligence, taking actual stories as its point of departure…Here was a true academy, in which the teacher learned from the pupil.” This approach, he says, is skillfully presented in Williams’ book. Plot, point of view, character, and dialogue—all are lucidly discussed.

Score one for Team MFA!

Should adults read books written for children?

If there’s any debate in book-talk-land that’s even more heated than the one over MFAs, it’s the question of whether adults should read books written for children. Ruth Graham took up the anti-YA banner in a 2014 Slate article called, succinctly, “Against YA.” “Read whatever you want,” she said. “But you should be embarrassed if what you’re reading was written for children.” A raucous argument ensued, with writers like Meg Wolitzer coming to the defense of adult YA readers.

Seventeen by Booth Tarkington, first edition cover, 1916.

First edition cover, 1916

Again, not a topic I’d expect to have much currency in 1918, when grown-ups were grown-ups and children wore sailor suits. But, writing in The Bookman in February 1918, children’s writer and anthologist Montrose J. Moses notes that books for boys are popular among soldiers. The low level of literacy among enlisted men could be part of the reason, he says. But he thinks it’s more than that. “I believe—and I have followed the trend of juvenile literature for many years,—that this tendency on the part of the soldier to read boys’ books is only another evidence of the fact that juvenile literature, since it has come under the influence of out-door sports and modern inventions, has in it a degree of expertness which appeals to no age and to all interest.”

Cover, Bab A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1917

First edition, 1917

It’s not only soldiers who were reading about children. A surprisingly high percentage of 1918-era books for adults have child protagonists. Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen (1916) and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Bab: A Sub-Deb (1917) were adult best-sellers by well-established writers. But John Walcott, writing in The Bookman in December 1917, says that children don’t share their parents’ enthusiasm for these books. “Have you chanced to note the rueful grin with which a real Bab or [Seventeen’s] Willie Baxter scans those delightful and too-revealing records?” he asks. “The relief with which they turn to the latest number of St. Nicholas, or the latest ‘corker’ by Mr. Ralph Henry Barbour?” Young people, he says, take themselves with deadly seriousness, “and it behooves those who cater for [their] favour to do likewise.” That’s what Barbour does, with his tales of schoolboy athletics. “Just now,” Walcott says, “he is working his way methodically through the line-up, so that after Left End Edwards, Left Tackle Thayer, and Left Guard Gilbert, we have naturally arrived at Center Rush Rowland, and we have the right side of the line to look forward to in the near future. Heroes all!”

Cover of Center Rush Rowland, 1917.

It’s Barbour and his schoolboy athletes, Moses says, that the soldiers are clamoring for. And I can see why. For young men going off to fight for a cause that even the Allied countries’ leaders were having trouble articulating, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a tale in which the hero competes, as Moses puts it, in “the season’s decisive event upon the modern field of academic glory.”

Friday Miscellany: Cigarette poetry, comics, and more vermin for children

Apparently no one knows whether British Corporal Jack Turner, who supposedly wrote this poem, was real or not. If he was a figment of an ad writer’s imagination, it makes me mad. If he was real, it makes me want to cry.

…Then you think about a little grave, with R. I. P. on top,
And you know you’ve got to go across–altho’ you’d like to stop;
When your backbone’s limp as water, and you’re bathed in icy sweat,
Why, you’ll feel a lot more cheerful if you puff your cigarette.

Poem, Fags, Murad cigarette advertisement, 1918.

Judge magazine, February 2, 1918

What was it with St. Nicholas magazine and the vermin?

Poem, A Soldier Brave, St. Nicholas magazine, 1918.

St. Nicholas magazine, February 1918

I haven’t read any 1918 comics yet, but this gets me pretty much up to speed.

Cartoon, "The cartoon-supplement artist's paradise," Judge magazine, 1918.

Judge magazine, February 2, 1918