1910s

Capturing the Total Eclipse of 1918

1918 Solar eclipse painting by Howard Russell Butler (Source: Wikipedia)

On June 8, 1918, Washingtonians looked to the sky hoping to see… well… something. But, many weren’t quite sure exactly what. As the Evening Star noted:

“There was a great craning of necks on the streets. Many a citizen who had read about the eclipse and forgotten about it, wanted to know where the aeroplane was…. One woman called up The Star and wanted to know whether the Marine Band ‘is playing on the eclipse.’ A reporter carefully explained that the Marine Band sometimes played on the Ellipse.”

For scientists at the U.S. Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue, however, there was no confusion. The day marked an extraordinary astronomical event -- a transcontinental total eclipse -- and they pulled out all the stops to document it.

Cartoon from the front page of the Afro-American newspaper, July 25, 1919.

Red Summer Race Riot in Washington, 1919

By all accounts, Saturday, July 19, 1919 was a hot, muggy night in Washington, D.C. The stifling heat probably didn’t help the disposition of patrons in the city’s saloons which, in this era of early-Prohibition, could only offer the tamest of liquid refreshments. (Though, undoubtedly many barflies acquired stiffer drinks at one of the city’s many speakeasies.) It probably didn’t help matters, either, that many of the soldiers and sailors who had recently returned home from the battlefields of World War I were struggling to find work.

The day’s Washington Times reported that Mrs. Elsie Stephnick, a white woman who worked in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, had been assaulted by “2 negro thugs” on her way home from work the previous evening. The paper noted, “This is the sixth attack made on women in Washington since June 25 and while the police are working day and night in an effort to arrest the negro assailant of the women, only two suspects are in custody.”

The Women's Peace Party and Pacifism During WWI

American delegates to the International Congress of Women which was held at the Hague, the Netherlands in 1915. (Source: Library of Congress)

Two years before the United States entered World War I, women in Washington were gathering to protest the practice. As The Washington Post put it, “War was declared on war.”

The Women’s Peace Party was formed January 10, 1915 at a conference at the Willard Hotel. Speakers included Jane Addams, a pioneer of social work and feminism, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage, and other representatives from throughout the country, including two delegates from the District’s branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Over 3,000 attendees unanimously agreed on a “peace program,” to end the war practically.

Test tubes containing bovine tubercular bacteria. (Source: Library of Congress)

"Tony's Lab" and World War I Germ Sabotage in Washington

In the fall of 1915, Anton Dilger was looking for a house to rent in Washington. With the help of his sister, Jo, Dilger decided on a quaint white house in the 5500 block of 33rd St., NW, not far from Chevy Chase Circle. It was a comfortable place in a new neighborhood and had a basement that could serve as a home research laboratory. Anton proudly listed himself as a physician in the Washington City Directory, in effect putting out his shingle in the nation’s capital. However, Dr. Dilger didn’t see many patients. He was busy with more nefarious pursuits.

The Silent Sentinels

Women suffragists picketing in front of the White house on "College Day" in 1917. (Source: Wikipedia)

At 10 o’clock in the morning on January 10, 1917, twelve women from the National Woman’s Party took up posts outside the White House entrances. They stood in silence, wearing purple, yellow and white ribbons, and holding large banners, which read: “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?”

The idea behind the vigil, which organizers planned to continue on a daily basis, was to make it impossible for the President to enter or exit the executive mansion without being confronted with the suffrage question. Though tame by today’s standards, The Washington Herald called the effort “the most militant move ever made by the suffragists of this country.”

By the fall, many of the picketers had been jailed and reports of prison abuse hit the newswires.

The Howard University Fight Over Vaccination

Image of a gravestone of someone who allegedly died of vaccine poisoning at school (Source: Thomas Boudren, An Open Letter to the Governor and Members of the General Assembly of Connecticut, Bridgeport, Connecticut: Press of the Farmer Pub., Co., 1911)

Prior to 1909, Harry Bradford had almost never landed himself on the paper. He appeared in the Washington Post once, when it announced that the Kensington Orchestra was going to be performing in the near future. (Bradford played violin.) But other than that, nothing. And yet, in 1910, Bradford’s name was in all caps on the front page of the Post. “Bradford told to quit,” the headline read.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s Education at Frank Holliday's Pool Hall

In 1910, the Howard Theater was founded in the Washington's Shaw neighborhood, and it soon became the premier black theater in the country, helping launch the careers of many African American performers. But for Duke Ellington, who was a fixture in the neighborhood as a kid, the pool hall next door to the theatre did more to shape is musical sensibilities.

Ice Carnival at the Tidal Basin

People ice skating and walking on the Tidal Basin, year unknown. [Estimated to be between 1900 and 1930] (Image source: D.C. Public Library, Special Collections.)

We’ve written earlier about how the Tidal Basin was the site of a popular public beach in the 1920s. In the decade before, however, it hosted another source of popular entertainment: ice skating. In 1912, it was the site of an elaborate “ice carnival,” with thousands of Washingtonians showing up to skate, sled, and have an evening of wintry fun.

In the 1900s, the Tidal Basin freezing was a rare treat. Unlike the Potomac River, when the enormous basin froze completely, it had a smooth surface, turning it into a gigantic potential ice rink. The absolutely frigid temperatures of the winter of 1912 gave D.C. residents ample chance to take advantage of this. For several weeks in January and February 1912, D.C. was subjected to “the coldest temperatures of the 20th century.” It was a cold spell to put the polar vortex to shame. On January 14, 1912, the low was -13 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which has never again been reached in the District, and which is rivaled only by one freezing day in 1899. Pipes burst, gas meters iced over, and milk bottles froze, with “the cream [swelling] out into a solid cylinder two inches above the mouths of the bottles.”

Obviously, people were pretty miserable. But the upside of this was that for several weeks, the Tidal Basin was completely frozen, creating perfect skating conditions. Many people had already ventured out onto the ice on their own, but some District officials had bigger plans.

Remembering Arlington's John Lyon

In honor of Veterans Day, the Arlington Historical Society is having a talk about Arlington's fallen sons of World War I tomorrow night at Marymount University. To get you ready, we sat down with the speaker, Annette Benbow, and she told us about one of the men, Lt. John Lyon. Watch the video above and then click through for more information.

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