Have a drink with: The 1919 Anti-Mask League
NO BARS, okay? NO.
Ask them about: Coughing in large groups
Since COVID-19 became a public health emergency in March, different cities and states have responded with protective measures, many of them including a recommendation or a requirement to wear a mask when in proximity to other people. These mandates have drawn protest from opponents, many of whom feel that masks are unnecessary, ineffective or a violation of individual rights. We can take a lesson from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, during which relaxed mask requirements may well have contributed to a resurgence of the virus in the San Francisco area after an initially successful lockdown period.
During the 1918-1919 flu, many Americans were big fans of masks – Red Cross workers made sure they were making and distributing tons, the Levi Strauss company went from making jeans to mask production, and as Atlas Obscura has pointed out, some people even masked their pets. But the flu roared back after an initial lull in illness, and a portion of Bay Area residents were not at all eager to mask back up. In language that could well have come from modern news reports, anti-maskers complained about masks being useless, about “political doctors,” and about “an infringement of our personal liberty.” In January 1919, a crowd of more than four thousand people gathered at a local rink to protest the passage of the city’s mask ordinance.
The Flour Rioters of 1837
Bread, meat, rent and fuel
Ask them about: sourdough starter?
In the pandemic months of 2020, one of the most initially surprising facts of life was the desolation of the supermarket baking aisle, with flour in desperately short supply as we all stress-baked our way through isolation. It isn’t the first time flour availability has been top-line American news, either. New Yorkers were obsessed with rising prices and short supply of flour in 1837, too – and that time, it led to a very contentious, very powdery riot.
Have a drink at: Your College Dining Hall
Cabbage: now with extra protein!
Discuss: FOOD FIGHT
Today, a college’s dining hall is part of its overall outreach in the competition to attract students, and to keep them happy and achieving while they’re on campus. So much is put into the food and the architecture that travel magazines and college prep companies actually rank colleges by the quality and appeal of their food. This is a far cry from the college dining experience of the nineteenth century: in the summer of 1828, students at Yale College got so upset with their dining experience that they undertook a group protest that came to be known as the “Bread and Butter Rebellion” or the “Stomach Rebellion,” and it got so heated that the university president had to expel everybody to get them to cool the eff down.
You can see why a pasta station may be a better solution.
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: The West Point Cadets of 1826
Cold cuts, eggnog, muskets.
Ask them about: really aggressive wassailing
“1408. No cadet shall drink, nor shall bring, or cause to be brought, into either barracks or camp, nor shall have in his rooms or otherwise in his possession, wine, porter, or any other spiritous or intoxicating liquor; nor shall go to any inn, public house, or place where any of those liquors are sold, without permission from the Superintendent, on pain of being dismissed the service of the United States.”
Article 78, General Regulations for the Army, 1825
No one was really looking forward to Christmas at West Point in 1826. While in past years there had been a blind eye towards a nip on Christmas or July Fourth, in 1826 everyone was painfully aware that superintendent Lt. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer intended to put a solid end to any holiday drinking, and had forbidden not only alcohol in the cadet corps but tobacco and cards as well. Staff were on sharp lookout for any smuggled wine or whiskey.
Just a couple days before Christmas, the cadets decided to celebrate the holiday in a warmer, more festive manner than Thayer had in mind: with an eggnog party in the wee hours of Christmas Day. Three cadets collected contributions from their dormitory mates and, with civilian overcoats over their uniforms, they quietly headed to Martin’s Tavern, across the river near present-day Peekskill. Bribing the cadet at the dock for use of a skiff, they returned with two gallons of alcohol and the firm resolution that “there’ll be a good Christmas at West Point this year.” Nor were they the only cadets to visit local taverns for supplies.
Have a drink with: Edwin Forrest & William Charles Macready
The play’s the thing…
Ask them about: Dead sheep as theater criticism
The New York Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Casear, in which the emperor bears a striking and not unintentional resemblance to Donald Trump, was hounded by controversy throughout its run. On June 16th, the performance was interrupted by protestors after Caesar’s assassination scene, with a right-wing activist climbing onstage to call attention to the “political violence” of the production.
This is not the first time American theater – or American Shakespeare performance, for that matter – has been a forum for bitter fighting over contemporary politics. When actors rallied near Manhattan’s Astor Place in support of the Public Theater shortly after the contested performance, it was no doubt with some specific history in mind: namely, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which a nasty feud between Shakespearean actors led to an actual battle between New York’s elite and a burgeoning nativist movement.
Have a drink at: The Central Park Zoo
Ask about: Does the gift shop sell firearms?
Highly partisan news engineered to manipulate media and line the owners’ pockets has become particularly virulent in current politics – and, thanks to the wackadoo likes of Alex Jones, highly visible as well – but it is not the first time this has happened. Manufacturing news whole cloth – for personal gain, sensationalism, manipulation or pure amusement – is nothing new. The New York Herald, under the 19th century management of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was a regular exercise in information manipulation and partisan journalism. And if you think the gay frogs were a bad trip, just consider the rhinoceros that wrecked Manhattan.
Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”
Ask them about: Background checks
If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.
Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.
But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.
Have a drink with: Halloween hooligans
Trick or treat, smell my feet…
Ask them about: Mayhem, outhouses, peanut scramble.
It was 1933, and Charles J. Dalthorp had had it. Writing in the Journal of Education in 1937, the superintendent of schools in Aberdeen, South Dakota, bemoaned the Halloween holiday and its attendant juvenile warfare. Describing the aftermath of the day he calls “Hell-o-e’en” (get it?), he writes that the police in Aberdeen are, plainly: “out-generaled, out-manoeuvred, and finally view the results of battle in large property losses, a complaining citizenry, and a smug but triumphant army of boys who have outguessed the law enforcement agencies.”
Surely he’s overreacting, right? This must be the sort of pearl-clutching exaggeration one expects from days gone by. What adorable mischief did the little scamps get up to?
[I]n 1932, the grand and glorious Hallowe’en brought general property damage in excess of five thousand dollars, and left the streets and avenues in the city strewn with 135 truckloads of junk and refuse.
All of this occurred in a town with a population of less than 18,000 people.
Suffice it to say helicopter parenting was not a thing in the 1930’s.
Have a drink with: William Randolph Hearst
“…an especially dangerous specimen of the class.”
Ask him: How’d you like Citizen Kane?
Kentucky’s William Goebel, who has the unfortunate distinction of being America’s only governor to be assassinated in office, was shot by an unknown gunman in January 1900 during the recount of his own contested election. The author and satirist Ambrose Bierce tactlessly commented in the New York Evening Journal:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
Bierce was at the time a columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and neither was his employer was any fan of President McKinley’s; one of the Hearst papers famously ran an anonymous column in 1901 urging that “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”
Suffice it to say that when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in September 1901, folks remembered what they’d read in the paper.