Travel with me back 100 years from last night. No matter what you were doing to usher in 2020, it probably couldn’t compare with downtown Salt Lake City at the dawn of 1920. The Deseret News described it as “a sort of Mardi Gras on Main Street.” Revelers wore masks and fancy caps “and an assortment of highly colored decorations.” They threw confetti on each other and made noise with cowbells, fish horns, tin cans attached to strings and ratchet wheels.
Police arrested only two people during all of this. One was a man who walked into a police station and voluntarily gave himself up, saying he was wanted for burglary. The other was a man arrested for drunkenness. Police credited prohibition for such an orderly celebration, even though the Volstead Act wasn’t to officially take effect until Jan. 17.
The 2020s will be the first of an endless stream of decades that offer people a clear glimpse into life a century before. Those glimpses will become clearer as the photos and films became more focused, and the recordings of voices and songs crisper, thanks to technological advances of a century earlier.
While the 1910s left us with a large store of photographs and some recordings and faded films, the 1920s, which roared in prosperity for some but left many others behind, was a decade in which life, for many, began to resemble the modern age. Many bought their first car. In November of 1920, women would vote for president for the first time and station KDKA in Pittsburgh would begin the first commercial radio broadcast. By the decade’s end, many people had telephones and were, for the first time, eating cheeseburgers and going to movies. Penicillin was discovered, commercial planes droned overhead and sports was big business.
Life would seem to be changing faster than people, and their sense of morals, could keep up.
At the turn of the century 20 years ago, I mused in a column that, should life expectancies grow again by as much as they had in the 20th century, people may live to be 150 or older by 2100. I wondered how attitudes might be different today if we had more of the sage voices of the past — great and great-grandparents — giving us their perspective on things from politics to public morality.
Now, it appears I was too optimistic about a growing lifespan. In the United States, at least, life expectancies have begun to retreat slightly.
However, as time goes on, the people of a century past — preserved in film and on recordings, will begin to speak to us in clearer tones about their lives, values and hopes. Will we listen? And if we do, will we learn from what they thought was responsible behavior, how they felt about family and how they defined happiness?
Not everything will be worth keeping. Their feelings about race, for instance, might horrify us. But are there valuable things we have forgotten? In our crass, social-media driven world, have we left some important values behind?
You don’t get a sense of everything that lay ahead in the newspapers of a century ago. You do see things that seem ironic today. The front page on Jan. 1 featured a story about how Germany, fresh from defeat in the great war, was focusing on pacifism, work, economy and thrift for the future. There was no mention of President Woodrow Wilson. He lay incapacitated in bed following a massive stroke, but the public was unaware. Cable news wasn’t hounding the White House, demanding to know his condition.
But it’s hard to escape the general feeling of optimism in those old pages. An editorial that day said, “as a nation, we enter upon the New Year with confidence.” Looking back, there were good reasons to say that.
The year 1920 must have seemed light years better than any dim memories of 1820. Likewise, this morning life seems far better than what we can see of 1920.
But there is more to progress than just technology and invention. Will we listen to everything the past has to offer as we guide the world into the future?