After its 1912 founding, the Girl Scouts of the United States (as it was then known) had amassed almost 70,000 members by 1920. This 1921 New York Times Magazine article profiled the surging organization, which would more than triple its membership that decade to 200,000+ members by 1930.
“Camping” to the girls has meant a canoe and a proposal. To man it has meant getting off from the woman and roughing it with his fishing tackle or his gun.
Now the Girl Scout program throws tradition into the discard, for it operates on the theory that a girl can practice woodcraft as well as a man can — can build a fire and construct an incinerator, can pitch a tent and police up barracks, do the Australian crawl and climb a mountain. This new feminist movement is rapidly infringing on man’s preserves.
The article makes no mention of Girl Scout cookies, which began in 1917 with a troop in in Muskogee, Oklahoma, though it’s unclear how widespread that was by 1921. It was the next year, 1922, when their official magazine American Girl (not to be confused with the unrelated current magazine of the same name) published their first cookie recipe.
Today, the Girl Scouts of the USA counts 1.7 million members.
From Flapper to Girl Scout
Published: Sunday, October 23, 1921
Even the most popular cultural phenomena can fade away. A 1921 New York Times Magazine article begins: “Every one now seems to have taken part in the discussion of John Dos Passos’s brilliantly written novel” Three Soldiers.
Today, the novel’s Wikipedia article barely contains any information, while its Goodreads page has 1,131 user ratings. For comparison, the most famous fellow World War I-set novels include 378,971 user ratings for All Quiet on the Western Front and 281,251 for A Farewell to Arms.
This 1921 analysis by Harold Norman Denny criticized Three Soldiers for an excessive focus on the negative in its tale of combat soldiers, particularly galling when the novel’s author himself did not serve in combat but rather was an ambulance driver.
Mr. Dos Passos has combed the army for every rotten incident that happened, could have happened, or could be imagined as having happened, and welded it into a compelling narrative. He pictures this conglomeration as the army. This was not the army, of course, any more [sic] than a graphic description of Jefferson Market Police Court would do for a picture of New York.
“Three Soldiers” purports to be a description of the actions and reactions of men in the combat forces; even to describe them on the battlefield, and in so doing it makes them out abject or malignant. The offense of the book is that Mr. Dos Passos does not know what he is talking about. He was a non-combatant.
Then again, when Bruce Springsteen began writing his iconic songs about cars and the open road, he didn’t know how to drive.
One Soldier on “Three Soldiers”
Published: Sunday, October 16, 1921
As life tamped down in 1921 under Prohibition, people sought to live vicariously through the uninhibited characters of stage and screen, characters this New York Times Magazine article called “the masher and swashbuckler.”
“The leaden lid of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ has been hammered down on us so tightly that the explosion of our suppressed healthy animality may become a classic example of Dr. Freud’s dictum: the way to revitalize an instinct is to suppress it.
Don Juan, d’Artagnan, and Bluebeard have invaded New York from beyond the artistic three-mile limit. [Those first two are references to the 1921 Broadway productions of Don Juan and The Three Musketeers, though I couldn’t ascertain the Bluebeard reference with certainty.] In film circles… there is talk of screening the life of that philanthropic highwayman, Robin Hood. [1922’s Robin Hood would star Douglas Fairbanks.]
The columnist Benjamin de Casseres then added this kicker:
If there is anybody missing, I haven’t heard of him. Satan?
One wonders if something of the opposite has happened these days. Part of the reason The Jerry Springer Show was cancelled in 2018 after 27 years was because audiences no longer felt the same need to turn towards the entertainment world to see deubachery like cheating on your spouse with an adult film star or vile language, when the president was doing the same. As Springer himself said, Donald Trump “took my show and brought it to the White House.”
And one of the most popular television shows to emerge in 2020 was the wholesome Ted Lasso.
Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler
Published: Sunday, October 9, 1921
This 1921 article was already calling Babe Ruth a “legend,” even though he hadn’t even won his first MVP award yet.
I think most people are hero worshippers, don’t you? Only nowadays they do not pick their heroes from the ranks of soldiers and senators. Five years of war gave us no outstanding figure, but one year of peace gave us Babe Ruth! Foch merely saved the world. The Babe has founded a legend. His is the fame of Ulysses and Charlemagne and Chaplin. His deeds will be told from father to son. His place in history is secure. He’s a hero.
That prediction came true, as Ruth remains one of the most famous athletes ever, even today. Similarly, the one other contemporary reference in that excerpt, Charlie Chaplin, remains one of the most famous movie stars ever.
But 1921 was before Ruth won his lone Most Valuable Player award in 1923, before Ruth’s famous called shot home run in 1932, before his iconic (though possibly apocryphal) line about how he justified earning more money than President Hoover during the Great Depression because “I had a better year.”
Reminds me of when Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf in 1993 called Michael Jordan “the greatest athlete to ever play a team sport”… and then MJ went on to win another three championships and two more MVP awards after that.
Also, the idea that World War I produced “no outstanding figure” is sad but perhaps true. Arguably the most famous such figure may have been Alvin York, the Medal of Honor-winning soldier whose life story was turned into the movie Sergeant York, which won Gary Cooper the 1942 Academy Award for Best Actor. Still, if you ask the average 12-year-old (let’s say), they’ve probably heard of Ruth but probably not York.
‘Heroes by Any Other Name’
Published: Sunday, October 2, 1921
This 1921 article said polo was gaining popularity, with 5,000 attending that year’s national championship in Philadelphia.
What went wrong over the past century? According to this article by Michael Barr for Texas Escapes, tracing the history of the sport’s rise and fall in the Lone Star State, the economic crash of the 1930s changed everything:
Polo grew in popularity throughout the 1920s…. Then came the Great Depression, and polo’s popularity with the general public declined. The sport seemed pretentious and extravagant at a time when many Americans were out of work and didn’t have enough to eat. And polo’s reputation never recovered, even in the economic boom of the post-war years.
Golf has long been considered a high-class sport as well, yet the sport’s popularity boomed with the ’90s-2000s superstardom of Tiger Woods, as January’s HBO documentary Tiger so effectively documented. Perhaps if polo could mint even just one certified superstar, that could begin to change its fortunes around. Think of skateboarding transforming from an underground subculture to part of the mass culture also in the ’90s-2000s, thanks largely to Tony Hawk.
The Popularizing of Polo
Published: Sunday, September 25, 1921
As the first multinational arms control conference in history approached in fall 1921, this preview article asked:
Will the spirit that defeated the work of Mr. Wilson [the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the country’s entry into the nascent League of Nations] also defeat the plans of Mr. Harding? After the disillusionment and reaction that followed the armistice [which ended World War I], can public opinion once more be raised to a level of clarity and strength that will make partisan issues and personal interests subservient to the welfare of the whole human race?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was yes. Or rather, it was yes… for a time.
The Washington Naval Conference would be attended by representatives of nine nations — Belgium, Britain, China, France, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, and the U.S. — and result in three major arms control treaties.
However, the treaties were not renewed and ultimately expired in 1936. World War II started in 1939, with U.S. involvement beginning in late 1941. It’s unlikely that the treaties would have prevented World War II even if they’d remained in effect, though, since Germany was not a party to the agreements.
The League and the Washington Conference
Published: Sunday, September 18, 1921
After World War I had ravaged the continent for several years, the summer of 1921 finally brought American tourists back to Europe.
While the war had ended in November 1919, summer 1920 tourism had still not quite recovered to the pre-war level, as this September 1921 New York Times Magazine article described.
Various reasons besides the high cost of transportation have kept him [a typical American tourist] mostly on his own side of the ocean since the end of the war. He was weary of Europe; there was a blight on its romance and a blur of its picturesqueness. He had discovered the unparalleled holiday charms of his own continent. He did not hanker for the dangers and discomforts that might beset him on the worn and shaken highways of unsettled lands.
But now he is back.
And how exactly did the post-war travel experience compare to pre-war?
The war has not really changed the quality or variety of Europe’s attractions for the tourist… but we seem just now rather difficult because Europeans have suffered hardships on so universal and overwhelming a scale that the little discomforts that annoy us are the happy accompaniments of normal times to them. When one gets out of the American track one sees at once how much less exigent are other travelers.
Without this resumption of American travel to Europe, the plots of The Da Vinci Code or Spider-Man: Far From Home could have never taken place.
Bored Americans Abroad
Published: Sunday, September 11, 1921
Ironically, this 1921 New York Times Magazine profile called Charles G. Dawes “the most powerful man, excepting the president, in Washington today” four years before he actually became vice president.
At the time, Dawes was the first director of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Budget, now known as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). No, he wasn’t the Treasury Secretary, a position which itself would raise some eyebrows if called the second-most powerful position in D.C. He was the head of a bureau within the Treasury Department.
Of course, it wasn’t Dawes’ position which merited him that superlative, but the man himself.
In part, the power Mr. Dawes has achieved is due to his own robust courage and vigor. He came reluctantly from a bank presidency to what he term “an ossified haymor,” and he came on the express stipulation that what he said had to go. President Harding agreed to that condition, and has stood by the agreement with a mild persistence which even his admirers had not suspected before he took the Executive chair.
(A haymow is the part of a barn where hay is stored. Presumably that word was much more commonly known back in the comparatively agricultural days of 1921.)
Dawes, this article claims, helped balance the federal budget.
As a result, the United States is now living within its income, and is spending actually less than Congress has authorized. Within three weeks after taking office Mr. Dawes was able to announce a saving of more than a hundred millions of dollars out of the appropriations… It is not necessary to set down here a detailed catalog of his economies, but some of the things he has done may be chronicled as indicating the remarkable power he wields. They indicate power, because Washington said at the outset they couldn’t be done.
It’s unclear how much this was actually Dawes’ doing. According to historical statistics from the OMB, the federal government ran a deficit in 1917, 1918, and 1919 during World War I, but then it ran a suplus in 1920 — the year before Dawes took office.
Dawes would go on to become the ostensible second-most powerful person in Washington in 1925, when he served as vice president for Calvin Coolidge. During the next four years, Dawes and Coolidge became increasingly distant, even publicly taking opposing stances on a farm bill. Coolidge didn’t run for president in 1928 and neither did Dawes, though he did serve for that year’s eventual winner Herbert Hoover as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Next in Power to Harding
Published: Sunday, September 4, 1921
In 1921, women were becoming more educated, getting married at later ages (or not at all), and having fewer children. Some considered this a crisis, though all three of those trends would become far more pronounced by 2021.
Getting together a variety of statistics which deal with the biological results of the higher education of woman, her growing economic independence and the wide range of activities from which she can now select her career, Professor Holmes [University of California zoology professor Samuel J. Holmes] scans all these closely and finds as the result that about 50 per cent. [sic] of college women remain unmarried, that the date of marriage among educated women and among those who are economically independent tends to grow later and later and their families smaller and smaller.
Holmes concluded, “There can be no doubt that the race is losing a vast wealth of material for motherhood of the best and most efficient type.”
If Holmes was merely concerned back then, he would have been horrified now. Let’s take each of those three trends in turns:
- About 50 percent of college women remain unmarried. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who are married has perpetually declined for the past six decades, to record low levels around now. The biggest drops haven’t been among the educated, though, but among the less-educated.
- The date of marriage among educated women and among those who are economically independent tends to grow later and later… According to the Census Bureau, the average age of first marriage has gone up significantly. In 1920, it was about 24.6 for men and 21.2 for women. By 2020, it had risen to 30.5 for men and 28.1 for women — both record highs.
- …and their families smaller and smaller. The average number of people per household has been declining for literally 160 years. In 1920, it was 4.34. In 2020, it was 2.53.
Is the New Woman a Traitor to the Race?
Published: Sunday, August 28, 1921
In 1921, a University of Wisconsin professor predicted that circa 2021, people would look back a century in time to that era’s immigration as the cause of America’s decline.
E. A. Ross, professor of sociology in the University of Wisconsin, with his study of the immigration problem in which he says:
“Not until the twenty-first century will the philosophic historian be able to declare with scientific certitude that the cause of the mysterious decline that came upon the American people early in the twentieth century was the deterioration of popular intelligence by the admission of great numbers of backward immigrants.”
Oh, and don’t forget about women.
Others have drawn alarming conclusions on the rise of the feminist movement, believing that its withdrawal from matrimony of thousands of the most intelligent women will greatly hasten the breeding out of the desirable types of citizens, while the undesirable continue to multiply and replenish the earth at top speed.
Actually, within a few decades, it’s projected that basically no type of citizens will “continue to multiply and replenish the earth at top speed.” The same New York Times which once published the above quotes is now publishing articles about how both the U.S. population and world populations have declined to their slowest growth rates ever, and will soon begin to decrease outright.
The great decline of the U.S. also didn’t quite happen. The U.S. is still the most powerful nation in the world militarily, culturally, and economically. (Although China’s economy is currently projected to overtake the U.S. in approximately 2028.)
Nonetheless, that satirical 1921 article projected a future world in which vegetables overtake humans as the primary source of earthly intelligence. That hasn’t happened yet, although it may happen on October 22 when this movie comes out:
Coming Era of Vegetable Supremacy
Published: Sunday, August 21, 1921