100 New Years Ago – Under The Scope

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January always marks a new year around the world, even sometimes in China if the New Moon appears early.  Across the globe, it’s a time for both celebration of the upcoming year and reflection on the previous one.  And after reflecting, we often make resolutions to do better things in the future.  To make good resolutions, you really gotta reflect, and to reflect well you really gotta look back.  Sometimes, you wanna make such good resolutions that you look way, way back, even beyond the previous year–like even before you were born.  Or maybe it’s only me that does this.  Nevertheless, join me now in reflecting back to New Year’s Day 1923.

What was New Year’s like in PoV Country back then 100 years ago?  For answers, I consulted newspapers, like 1923’s first issue of the Thibodaux Commercial Journal, which reported that “New Years Was Marked as Usual.”  It was disappointing to learn that the day was nothing but the “usual,” but, after all, that’s kinda the definition of “tradition.”  Though apparently unremarkable to that Journal reporter, his column provides a poetic scene ripe for nostalgia:

“A number of bells rang out tolling the old and welcoming the new with joyous peals.  Whistles were blown and one whistle in particular seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of steam, and is said to have blown twenty-five minutes without let up.”  I imagine massive church bells swinging in their high towers and an historical factory or locomotive or even a steamboat blowing its noisy white plume straight up into the cold bayou air that midnight.  “Prospects for the new year look excellent, and if everyone will cease talking blue all will be well.”  Funny to hear the press criticizing negativism.  Seems like that sells newspapers nowadays.

In early 1923, Red Goose school shoes for husky boys and girls were on sale.  Dance, song, and comic selections of Columbia Records were 59 cents each while supplies lasted.  Cardui, the women’s tonic, was popular, and, at 19% alcohol, I’ll bet it cured a few men’s ailments as well.  After all, it was Prohibition back then.  Speaking of which, the Journal bemoaned the fact that law enforcement was refusing to enforce the national prohibition of alcohol (especially, I imagine, on New Year’s Eve).  “It is unpopular but it is law,” told an admonishing editorial.  

The new year in 1923 marked the first whole year that Louisianans lived under their new constitution–the 10th since statehood.  This one was particularly hurtful to people in PoV country, as it reversed a provision in the previous 1913 constitution that allowed French to be taught and spoken at public schools.  Thus began the “Time of Shame” (L’heure de la honte), when French speakers in Louisiana, especially colloquial Cajun speakers, were demeaned and pressured to speak English.  We’ve all heard stories of corporal punishment used on our parents and grandparents when they spoke French as school children.  It wasn’t until 53 years later–after a whole generation was forced by law to lose their native language–that a new constitution in 1974 would assert “the right of the people to preserve, foster, and promote their respective historic, linguistic, and cultural origins” in Louisiana.  (Thank you, Edwin.)  

Across the U.S., 1922 was a wonderful year to reflect upon.  Folks enjoyed the first fast food in the country–White Castle Hamburgers–as well as the first radio broadcast of a baseball game–Pirates vs Phillies.  Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin became movie stars in that year.  And fresh off a lecturing stint at Princeton University, Albert Einstein won his only Nobel Prize.

Internationally, it was the year that Chanel No. 5 was introduced.  But, unfortunately, world-wide reflections on the previous year were far from perfumy on New Year’s 1923.  The world was still reeling from the millions lost to the Spanish Flu pandemic.  In Russia, civil war saw the Red Army and White Army fighting for supremacy, as millions of their fellow countrymen succumbed to famine and died.  The Journal tells of “the deplorable and unmentionable conditions obtaining in Russia,” and seems to admonish supporters of bolshevism and communism both here and abroad, perhaps even in PoV country: “The sooner we cease living on false grounds, or delusions, and snares, the better for all concerned.”

French language loss, pandemic, Russia problems, fake news.  After 100 new years, it seems like some things have never changed.  But, after all, that’s kinda the definition of “tradition.”  On January 1st, 1923, “New year calls were in order throughout the day,” said the Journal, “and there were besides many family reunions.”  Yes, some things never change, but some things are good things—like visiting folks and family reunions at New Year’s, as well as shoes for husky boys, which I still wear.