Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Americans underwent a dramatic transformation in self-conception: having formerly lived as individuals or members of small communities, they now found themselves living in networks, which arose out of scientific and technological innovations. There were transportation and communication networks. There was the network of the globalized marketplace, which brought into the American home exotic goods previously affordable to only a few. There was the network of standard time, which bound together all but the most rural Americans. There was the public health movement, which joined individuals to their fellow citizens by making everyone responsible for the health of everyone else. There were social networks that joined individuals to their fellows at the municipal, state, national, and global levels. Previous histories of this era focus on alienation and dislocation that new technologies caused. This book shows that American individuals in this era were more connected to their fellow citizens than everbut by bonds that were distinctly modern.
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About the Author
Steven Cassedy is Distinguished Professor of Literature and Associate Dean of the Graduate Division at University of California, San Diego.
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How Trains, Genes, Pineapples, Piano Keys, and a Few Disasters Transformed Americans at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
By Steven Cassedy
Stanford University PressCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
"To Push Back the Shadow upon the Dial of Time"
The Astonishing New Facts of Life and Death
At the end of 1921, New York City hosted an extraordinary event. Mayor John F. Hylan declared November 13–19 "Health Week." Two floors of New York's premier exhibition hall, the Grand Central Palace (right next to Grand Central Terminal), were given over to what was billed as "the largest health exposition ever attempted." Thousands attended the exposition. To help draw in crowds, organizers offered a "Health Clown" and "Health Characters." There was a Harbor of Child Health, where the Child Health Family resided. "Happy," a member of that family, appeared as a sailor. Baseball great Babe Ruth and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey were on hand to sign autographs (though it's hard to see how either could have served as a model for healthy living, even in those days). Visitors had a chance to gawk at "fat men and women" who for the past three weeks had participated in a weight-loss competition. The winner of the "perfect baby contest" was announced (William Yarnias, eighteen months old). And of course no health exposition would be complete without a finalist in the quest for the perfect woman's foot—to demonstrate, as the reporter for the New York Times put it, "that the world is as romantic as in the days of Cinderella and the Prince." The honor went to Miss Elizabeth Doyle, nurse.
The United States Public Health Bureau and other New York City departments participated, as did social service, charity, and business organizations. There was a plan to set up educational displays and activities throughout the city: "diet squads," blood pressure machines, and nutritional demonstrations, including animals. Proceeds from ticket sales were to be used to fund public health organizations and activities at the local, national, and international levels.
But none of this was the big news. "Health Week" was actually just the middle segment of an entire "Health Fortnight." It had been preceded by an international conference, called the "Health Institute," and it was followed by the Fiftieth Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. The big news came at that meeting.
The APHA had been founded in New York City in 1872. It was the first public health organization in America, at a time when the very concept of "public health," with its emphasis on sanitation, preventive medicine, and collective responsibility, was a novelty. In November of 1921, at the Hotel Astor, the association was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The Jubilee meeting brought together some of the most distinguished figures in the field. On the program were dozens of speeches, including some with such deadening titles as "Sanitation of Bath-Houses at Public Bathing Beaches," "Proper Size of Sand for Rapid Sand Filters," and "The Prevention and Cure of Rickets by Sunlight." But two caught the attention of the press. Dr. Mazÿck P. Ravenel gave the Presidential Address, titled "The American Public Health Association, Past, Present, Future." Like other top officials of the association, the president was partly interested in boosting the achievements of his organization—and why not? This was a celebration, after all. But he also used the occasion to give a capsule history of medicine over the previous half-century, speaking above all of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Each achievement he listed—the discovery of a pathogenic microorganism (staphylococcus, streptococcus, pneumococcus, the Asiatic cholera spirillum, the tuberculosis and diphtheria bacilli)—represented a victory, imminent or current, over an illness that had threatened populations for centuries.
One passage in his speech was particularly striking. Telling his audience about the journals the APHA had published during its fifty-year history, Dr. Ravenel was moved to say this:
In comparing the earlier volumes with those of to-day, one is struck by the fact that the most important topics discussed in the early years are scarcely ever mentioned now. The first volume, published in 1873, is given up largely to yellow fever and cholera. One finds it hard to believe that cholera was at that time widespread in the United States, and that it existed in more than two hundred towns and cities of the Mississippi Valley.
The other presentation that found its way into the newspapers was the keynote speech at the opening banquet. Dr. Stephen Smith was a founder of the association, and on the evening of November 16, 1921, his topic was "A Half Century of Public Health." While Ravenel and others celebrated the concrete achievements of medicine and public health over the previous, extraordinary half-century, Smith looked at the larger ramifications. Let's say you believed that European and American medicine had practically obliterated the ravages of infectious disease. What did that mean for you? It's a simple question, and Dr. Smith had a simple answer: a longer life—a much longer life.
Smith spoke specifically of the drop in the death rate, making an astonishing observation. "The steady fall of the death-rate," he said, "until it has nearly reached the vanishing point, suggests the possibility of its passing that point. What a tremendous result!" "Vanishing point"—meaning immortality? Well, almost. "We have too long been content with the false code of the Mosaic law," he said a little later, "that limits life to three-score years and ten, with a possibility of reaching four-score years." Thanks to modern science, however, we know what the limit should be. "Biology teaches that the normal and potential life of man is one hundred years; that every child born is adapted in physical construction and function to live a century."
In honor of the Jubilee celebration, the APHA published a volume of essays, titled A Half Century of Public Health. Included in that volume was an expanded version of Smith's Jubilee speech, in which the association's elder statesman explained the scientific basis for his extravagant claim. It was this: the normal life span of any vertebrate, he believed (drawing on the work of famed British paleontologist Richard Owen), is five times the number of years it takes for that vertebrate's bones to develop fully. Human bones take twenty years to develop, so the normal human life span is a century. What the past fifty years have shown, he maintained in the speech, is that "all deaths occurring at an earlier age are due to conditions existing which are not compatible with the construction and functions of the human organisms." And so he proposed that, to mark the anniversary, the APHA should dedicate itself to raising "the standard for the length of life" by thirty years. Maybe he wasn't talking literally about immortality; he was talking about "life that suggests immortality."
No one could have been a better spokesman for this cause. Smith was almost 99 years old when he gave this speech. An editorial in the New York Times, titled "All in a Lifetime," picked up the veteran doctor's fondness for Biblical reference. "What preventive medicine and sanitation have done in the span of that one life to push back the shadow upon the dial of time—as the shadow receded on the dial of King Hezekiah of old—so that there is prospect for a longer enjoyment of that birthright, is one of the brightest chapters of science," and all thanks to the scientific advances that Smith and Ravenel had mentioned in their speeches. Dr. Smith "happily illustrates" his own theory of longevity, the editor said.
The editor jumped the gun on this point, as it turned out, for Stephen Smith died the following August, about a half-year short of his biologically allotted century. Still, his achievement was impressive, and the press celebrated him, both before and after his ill-timed demise. How had he made it to such an advanced age? He had plenty of advice for whoever would listen: lots of milk, not too much meat, plenty of sleep, no spirits or stimulants. He even recommended short skirts for women—not, heaven forbid, because he found them eye-catching (which in 1921, with hemlines almost up to the knee, they certainly were), but because he thought they were less likely than long skirts to carry dirt and bacteria from the street into the home.
At the first annual meeting after Smith's death, the APHA adopted a resolution to honor its founder. It noted that, in many parts of the world, over the previous seventy-five years, fifteen years had been added to the average life. It noted, too (though without statistics to support the claim), that the gains in the most recent twenty years had outstripped those of the previous fifty, adding that these gains were continuing "at an accelerated rate." It reiterated the claim that modern science had overturned "the scriptural ideal of three score years and ten." And finally it issued the prediction "that within the next fifty years as much as twenty years may be added to the expectancy of life which now prevails throughout the United States." The resolution pledged the efforts of the association to the attainment of this goal, slightly more modest though it was than the one Dr. Smith had issued at the Jubilee meeting.
Unhappily, both Dr. Smith and the association were wide of the mark, and by a fair amount. According to much more recent figures, expectation of life at birth in 1922 was indeed approaching 60, but fifty years later, in 1972, it had risen only to slightly over 70 (71.1, to be precise, averaged for both genders): a single decade instead of two or three. How disconsolate Dr. Smith and the APHA members would have been, with their fondness for scriptural allusion, to know that "three score years and ten" was pretty much what the average American would get (at birth) a half-century in the future.
Still, as more recent figures also show, the assessment of the fifty years leading up to the Jubilee was essentially correct. Beginning around 1880, life for the average American—physical life—changed dramatically for the better. People in the United States began to live longer, and fewer died in childhood. The pace of change was especially pronounced between 1880 and 1930, though it was not precisely moving "at an accelerated rate," as the APHA resolution in 1922 had held; it began to slow about ten years after the resolution was passed.
Nowhere was the transformation in human life more eloquently and forcefully expressed than in an essay written for the same Jubilee volume by Dr. Charles V. Chapin (1856–1941), one of the most influential figures in the history of public health. Chapin had spent virtually his whole career in Providence, Rhode Island, where he served as superintendent of health from 1884 until his retirement in 1932. He looked back at the movement he had led, describing its various phases and his own participation in those phases. The essay is considered a classic, succinct history of the Public Health Movement in American cities. In the concluding section, Chapin announced the movement's achievements. The section is worth quoting at length, because it's difficult to imagine a more eloquent and stirring testimony to the transformation that American society had undergone in a mere half-century. Chapin restricts his discussion to the public health work of cities and states.
Thus have cities and states sought to control disease. The yellow fever nightmare will terrify no more. There has been practically no cholera since 1873. Smallpox, which in former epidemics sometimes attacked half the population, is a negligible cause of death. Typhus fever is a very rare disease. Plague has not been able to gain a foothold....
Typhoid fever is a vanishing disease. The diarrheal diseases caused four times as many deaths fifty years ago as now. Scarlet fever mortality has fallen ninety per cent. Diphtheria has decreased nearly as much, and the mortality from pulmonary tuberculosis has been cut in two. Infant mortality in our better cities has dropped fifty per cent. Not all this, it is true, is due to conscious community effort, but is in part, dependent upon economic and other unknown causes. Nevertheless, if only one half of this life-saving is to be credited to health work the dividend on the money and energy employed indicates good business.
Figures do not measure the terror of epidemics, nor the tears of the mother at her baby's grave, nor the sorrow of the widow whose helpmate has been snatched away in the prime of life. To have prevented these not once, but a million times, justifies our half century of public health work.
This was all good news. Dazzling news, if you had been around for over fifty years and could remember an era when the conditions that Dr. Chapin and others were now describing were not present—when life on average was significantly shorter, when many children died in infancy, when the next outbreak of infectious disease could occur without apparent cause at any moment. Dr. Smith had emphasized personal responsibility as the key to a long life. Chapin emphasized the network: collective, public action directed by (in this case) municipal authorities. Both were right: collective action was essential, but so was individual responsibility, as we'll see.
What Statistics Show today
Were the celebrants at the Jubilee right?
Let's consider just two rudimentary measures of a population's health: expectation of life at birth and infant mortality, using only averages and leaving out variations based on gender, ethnic group, geography, income, and educational level. Expectation of life at birth is the average number of years people who are born in a particular year can expect to live. Infant mortality is the number of children born in a particular year (usually reckoned per thousand) who die before their first birthday. According to figures from the 1990s, the trend in life expectancy and infant mortality from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century looks something like this: modest improvement (greater life expectancy, lower infant mortality) through the early nineteenth century, a setback from about 1840 until about 1870, "sporadic" improvement until about 1880, and then truly dramatic improvement.
Expectation of life at birth rose from 38.3 in 1850, to 39.4 in 1880, to about 54.1 in 1920. The largest jump over a single decade (for years ending in zero) between 1850 and the end of the twentieth century occurred from 1880 to 1890. That jump was 5.8 years. The largest jump over a twenty-year period (for years ending in zero) from 1850 till well into the twentieth century occurred between 1880 and 1900. It was 8.4 years.
Infant mortality fell from 229 per thousand in 1850, to 225 per thousand in 1880, to 86 per thousand in 1920. By the end of the twentieth century, it stood at 7 per thousand. The largest decline over a single decade (for years ending in zero) between 1850 and the end of the twentieth century occurred from 1880 to 1890. It was 64.7 per thousand. The largest decline over a twenty-year period (years ending in zero) during the same century-and-a-half occurred between 1880 and 1900. It was 96.1 per thousand.
In sum, the averages tell us this: starting sometime around 1880, whether you lived in the city or the country, whether you were rich or poor, well educated or illiterate, male or female, white or nonwhite, you were likely to live longer—even significantly longer—than your parents; you were more likely—even significantly more likely—to survive infancy than your parents had been; and, finally, your children were more likely—even significantly more likely—to survive infancy than you yourself had been. Those are essentially the transformations in American life that Stephen Smith and others were vaunting in late 1921 at the meeting of the American Public Health Association.
So the question is, how did the public come to know the good news? We today know that ordinary people in 1921 had a solid foundation for the belief that they themselves stood a good chance of living to a substantially more advanced age than their parents and grandparents, and for the belief that their children were much more likely than children of previous generations to survive to adulthood. But what were the sources of these beliefs in that era?
There appear to be three principal sources. One is vital statistics produced in the era we're discussing. The second is the public health campaign, which I'll describe in the next chapter. The third is path-breaking scientific research in the early twentieth century that promised either to extend human life for more people to conventionally recognized limits or to extend human life generally speaking beyond all conventionally recognized limits. I'll describe this, too, in the next chapter.
Excerpted from CONNECTED by Steven Cassedy. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Usage ix
Part I Body and Mind
1 "To Push Back the Shadow upon the Dial of Time": The Astonishing New Facts of Life and Death 3
2 The Biological Self 17
3 Sex O'Clock in America 45
4 The Neurophysiological Mind-or Not 66
Part II The New Physical World
5 The Network of Spatialized Time 95
6 The Networked House and Home 116
7 The Globalized Consumer Network: From Pineapples to Turkey Red Cigarettes to the Bunny Hug 142
Part III The Secular, Ecumenical Collective
8 Race Goes Scientific, Then Transnational 177
9 Religion Goes Worldly, Ecumenical, and Collective 218
10 Citizen, Community, State 246
Conclusion: Who You Are 267