The easy answer is because it’s a hundred years ago, and looking back exactly a century is always fun and fascinating.
But the more deeply I looked into the newspapers, the more interesting the year became. In 1921, the World War — not yet numbered, with the hope there would never be another one — was not completely over. The Allies demanded that Germany pay all the costs of rebuilding, while Germany argued that the country simply couldn’t afford the bill. The punishing and staggering total assessed by the Allies helped to drive Germany into the era of National Socialism, leading in mid-1921 to the election of Adolph Hitler as leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party — the Nazis — with absolute powers as party chairman. The events of 1921 led in large part to World War II and the Cold War.
Labor and management were at odds across the country, and a strike at John Morrell and Co. escalated to martial law when Iowa’s governor sent in troops. Unemployment was rising, with soldiers coming back from Europe to find jobs scarce and wages falling. As men returned from the war, women who had achieved some measure of independence through war work were being shuffled back to the kitchen. No one quite knew how this new amendment giving them the vote would work out. Were women to be allowed to serve on juries? And if so, would they have to be given extra breaks by the court, so they would have adequate opportunities to powder their noses? (The consensus was that “lady jurors” got no extra privileges — but only because lighting in courtrooms was generally so poor that powder on noses was unnecessary anyway.)
The nation was well into the Prohibition era, struggling with a crime wave brought about by making alcohol illegal, but starting to tiptoe toward a change of policy by making beer available by prescription.
Coming off a spectacular season in 1920, Babe Ruth announced he would break his own record — and did, hitting 59 home runs. (He wouldn’t achieve his career high — 60 home runs in a single season — until 1927.) The eight Chicago White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series went on trial, were acquitted, but were banned from baseball anyway.
Warren G. Harding was inaugurated and promptly turned his administration over to the self-benefiting cronies and crooks who made Teapot Dome the scandal of the 1920s. Congress was frequently at a standstill, debating peace terms and bonus payments for veterans — but making little progress — while cutting taxes for the wealthy. Immigration was an issue, with tight limits being set on who could come to the United States, how many, and from where. Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti went on trial and were condemned to death more because they were Italian than because they were guilty of murder during an armed robbery. The international economy teetered in a precarious balance that would smash by 1929, with consequences which would last for decades.
There were fears of a national typhus plague, said to be brought to the U.S. by immigrants, and the reality of a local scarlet fever outbreak was terrifying in a pre-antibiotic era. There are frequent articles about the need for a “pest house” (isolation hospital) in the city, unsurprising in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic. Obituaries for babies, toddlers, children, and young mothers were as frequent as those of the elderly.
And there was rampant racism, unrest, and violence. While the newspaper reported with surface accuracy and seeming objectivity on events like the Tulsa race riots, it also ran an editorial about how northern cities could benefit from the experience of their southern neighbors on how to handle “the Negro problem”. There are stories about a “most entertaining program” about a “darky” family. In fact, 1921’s racism is even more disturbing to the modern mind because it was so casual — and so clearly not an issue to the editor.
In Ottumwa, the school district was absorbed in the task of moving Adams School in order to construct the new Ottumwa High School. Citizens fussed about the lack of street paving, the ruts on rural roads, the need for better housing, what to do about garbage, and how to draw more tourist and convention business to the city.
In short, things were an awfully lot like now. I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting Ottumwa in 1921. You may find yourself thinking, as I did, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”