1919: Mcsquared

Albert Einstein wasn’t a famous scientist in early 1919. His theory that massive objects such as the sun can affect space  was unproven. Most people believed, as Isaac Newton had stated, that 

Angel child holding the world in her hands, elements of this image furnished by NASA–an illustration of one frame of reference. But what if she threw the earth at you or away from you?

space was unchangeable. You know, heavenly. And with one way to observe it.

In 1905, Albert Einterin had proposed his Theory of Special Relativity, with acknowledged assistance from Dutch physicist Hendrick Lorentz.

This Theory dealt with light. Einstein proposed that light has the same speed no matter how it is observed. This is different than for example, a bullet shot from a moving train. To someone watching the train pass, the bullet would travel at its speed plus that of the train. Light however, doesn’t change speed. It won’t move faster if you shine a flashlight from a train (He came up with this theory while riding a train.) Thus, Einstein said, nothing can be accelerated to go faster than the speed of light. This theory also describes the famous E=mc2 equation showing that energy and mass are interchangeable. This equation is the basis of nuclear chemistry and nuclear bombs. Bombs either involve loss of mass due to fusion (creating a heavier element from lighter ones as powers the sun) or fission (busting an atomic nucleus into smaller pieces). In either case, mass is converted to energy in the process.

One consequence of Special Relativity is that time and space are not constant but can change relative to the observer. If a clock is moving along, as if on a train, time is “normal” to a person on the train. But to an observer, it appears to be moving slower…it contracts. If the train can reach the speed of light, time will appear to stop. Likewise, as the train moves away, it appears shorter in length (but not height or width). Near the speed of light, it will contract to have almost no length.

As for mass, which as we know is related to energy, it will get larger and larger as the train gains speed until the mass will be almost infinite. Another way to think of this is that the train will be so massive it will become unstoppable. The contraction in length and in time and increase in mass are called the Lorentz factor and can be calculated with an equation.

In 1916, Einstein proposed the theory of General Relativity: gravity is caused by curves in space and time. That’s right, attraction is not caused by masses acting on each other as Newton thought, but because objects bend space-time.

His ideas make sense–the sun can make a dent in space like a bowling ball or a heavy partner on a mattress. The dent can be thought of as pulling planets towards the sun as if they are circling a drain.

Einstein based his theory on observation of the orbit of the planet Mercury.

Gravity isn’t the force Newton thought it was. The bodies aren’t acting on each other. They are reacting to the dents made in space. Each plant makes its own little dent.

Here’s the Earth making a little dent in space circling around the Sun’s bigger dent. From https://theconversation.com/how-einsteins-general-theory-of-relativity-killed-off-common-sense-physics-50042

Instead of saying that the Earth and the Sun attract each other in a fixed stage-like realm, Einstein said that each warps the space and time surrounding the other. This is what Einstein called General Relativity. He took his inspiration from the orbit of Mercury.

One prediction of General Relativity was that light from the stars would be bent towards the sun as they passed it. (This was also predicted by Classical Gravity but not to the same extent.) He calculated that the shift of light from the Hyades cluster would be bent one two thousandths of a degree. Of course, the sun was too bright to be able to observe this, until the eclipse of 1919. Several British and Dutch astronomers saw this as a great time to observe the light as it passed by the sun. They devised an experiment where they would measure the light bending as it passed the sun during the eclipse.

To pinpoint the position of the Hyades in the sky, (British astronomer) Eddington first took a picture at night from Oxford. Then, on 29 May 1919, he photographed the Hyades as they lay almost directly behind the sun during the total eclipse… experienced that day. Comparing the two measurements, Eddington was able to show that the shift was as Einstein had predicted and too large to be explained by Newton’s theory.”

Another phenomenon predicted by Einstein that held true is that light will lose energy and change color (become more red) as it is affected by gravity.

Another key idea of General Relativity is the equivalence principle. Gravity pulling in one direction is the same to as acceleration in the opposite direction. A train accelerating forwards feels just like sideways gravity pushing you back against your seat. An elevator accelerating upwards feels just like gravity pushing you into the floor. (Elevators became popular in the 1880s.) Two difference forces might feel the same: this is sometimes called Einstein’s Elevator.

Today’s GPS devices rely on the precise measurements made by the theory of relativity.

The 1919 eclipse made Einstein famous. Most people didn’t really understand any of the science but they seized on it as a blow to the absolute world, including moral taboos and “absolute” roles for women they’d been raised with. It was particularly popular with the young who saw the universe as giving them permission to seek their own truths.

At the time, Albert was divorcing his first wife, a physicist, in order to marry his cousin, who he felt would take better care of him. Wisely, his ex had put in the divorce settlement that if he won the Nobel prize, she’d get half the money. He won the prize and never did publish anything as grand as those two theories developed while collaborating with his first wife, Meleva Maric. People, including their son, to speculated that the work was as much hers as his. She did get half of the prize money, but struggled financially for the rest of her life. And Albert was an absolute jerk to her. Read here for more.

1919: Yo-ho-ho

In many areas of the globe, before there was sugar on the table there was honey and/or maple syrup. Sugarcane was only found  in New Guinea and Southeast Asia. A clever chemist in India figured out how to boil the canes and evaporate the liquid until the sucrose crystallized. This made it easy to transport and sell. Sugar made its way to Europe around 700 AD. It was an expensive luxury. It wasn’t until Europeans took over the Caribbean region in the 1600s and turned it into sugarcane plantations with slave labor that it became widely used in the North–as a food and fuel commodity.

Molasses treacle in dish: 100 years ago, molasses was a commonly used sweeter

Sugar beets were made popular by Napoleon (early 1800s) but rapidly became more expensive than sugar from cane. In 1938, mechanical cane harvesters were developed in the United States, making sugar even cheaper to produce. Today, sugar is the world’s largest crop.

Molasses (called treacle in England) is the liquid left over after sugar cane is boiled and the sugar crystals and fiber removed, It’s the most nutritious part of the sugar plant, containing calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B6. It can even de-frizz hair.

How to make molasses.

Recipes, including shoofly pie.

All of this tasty goodness is not why I am writing about molasses. One hundred years ago on January 15, a Boston accident released 2.3 million gallons of molasses across the city’s north side, home to mostly Irish and Italian families. Shorty after noon, the locals heard a crash and a wave of molasses engulfed the neighborhood. Twenty-one people and countless horses were killed. Buildings and a train trestle were destroyed. The cause: a faulty molasses storage tank.

One hundred years ago, molasses was a popular sweeter. People bought it by the gallon. It was used in baked beans, barbecue sauces, and gingerbread as it is today. It was the sweetener of choice for coffee, pancakes, and cornbread. It was added to collards and carrots. It was THE sweetener. However, the molasses in this incident wasn’t for cooking and baking. The company which owned the tank, Purity Distilling Company, was in the rum and alcohol business. Yo-ho-ho as they sang in Treasure Island. Yes, rum is basically fermented molasses. It wasn’t a great business to be in at the time, considering that Prohibition was ratified on January 16, 1919. The company had supplied industrial alcohol to the military for the war but now the war was over. Thus, Purity Distilling Company wasn’t too keen to repair their leaking molasses tank, painted brown to hide the drips. They needed to make as much rum as they could before it became illegal.

A few days prior, they had a fresh batch of molasses delivered from Puerto Rico. It was still warm as it sat in the thin steel tank. Possibly, it was already fermenting and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid. It flows more easily under pressure (as does chocolate.) The molasses burst forth at a speed of about 35 mph. It crashed through buildings and knocked people and animals over. Then, as it cooled, it got sticky, trapping them like flies on fly paper. The combination made for the deadly spread of the molasses. All in all, it covered two city blocks. Click here for photos.

People stand by the busted molasses tank in 1919

The tragedy cost 100 million in today’s dollars. Although terrorism was blamed at first, the company was held responsible and fined. Residents of the neighborhood today claim they can smell the molasses on warm days. The tragedy is a reminder of why we need industrial safety regulations and is, in part, why we have them today.

Great video recounting the tragedy and adult and children’s books about the tragedy.

The 19th in 1919

Would you have enjoyed living 100 years ago, given the few rights for women, before the passage of the 19th Amendment? Why were women denied their rights? How was it acceptable? Standing in the way of rights for women was The Cult of Domesticity, a middle class social schema for white people in the US and England. Women were to act like pure, religious flowers with no rights and no responsibilities outside of the home. Their only weapon was their purity and shaming their husbands into civilized behavior. lot of this “look” was maintained by healthy middle-class wages along with poorly compensated servants or in the South, slaves. The Cult of Domesticity had its heyday between 1820-1860. It was fairly easy to get people to accept this idea for a while. However, both the Civil War and WWI relied on women to do men’s jobs, leaving women wanting their share of society. See photos here. 

Add to this mix the efficiency movement, encouraging productive lives for everyone.

The new wish for freedom as well as health made 1919 a time when corsets were falling out of favor, being replaced with bras and girdles. Women wanted undergarment freedom along with the right to vote!

Carrie Chapman Catt, who grew up in Charles City, Iowa, and graduated from Iowa State, was a leader in the Suffrage Movement, which, by 1917, was beginning to rely on militant protests such as hunger strikes and arrests as suggested by Alice Paul, shown below being force fed.

The car of choice for Suffragettes and about everyone else was a Model T. (Photos taken at the Henry Ford Museum.)

By 1918, president Woodrow Wilson, who had been a target of protests, agreed to support the cause. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed on June 4, 1919. It came after a push of nearly 100 years.

It then needed to be ratified. Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were the first states to do this on June 10.  At the end of 1919, 22 states had ratified it. 36 states were needed. This was achieved in August 1920. Women had won the right to vote.

It took until 1984 for all states to agree to ratify. Those in purple lagged behind.

1919 saw gains for women’s equality. Women have only recently had equal rights and these rights did not come easily, nor will they be easily regained if lost.

A teacher friend of mine asked her class if they had heard of the Suffragettes. All stared at her blankly. Not even 100 years has passed! 1919 and the 19th Amendment are too important to forget.

Modern playing card honors the Suffragettes.

In any case, 1919 stands out as a shot across the bow of the Cult of Domesticity. Let’s not go back in time.

100 years ago: Holiday postcards

 The first holiday postcard was printed in London in 1843. Holiday postcards were sent by the millions in the early 1900s. Popular themes were idealised rural scenes and women claiming their rights by directing where to put mistletoe. Their use diminished in favor of Christmas cards around 1909. The reason? Tariffs on German goods. The best cards with the highest quality printing came from Germany. However, in 1919, many were still sending postcards and a household would have a carefully preserved collection of postcards in a treasure box or album. During the holidays, they were displayed in the home.

Big hat and woman wielding mistletoe (in France). In the 1900s, European women were taking charge of their own lives.

The cards below were owned by my Aunt Lois and came from a box holding postcards and clippings marked from 1915-1927. None of them have dates on them but we can assume they are from around 100 years ago. The postal rate on each is a penny. The use of holiday postcards in which the stamp was one cent was prior to 1917. Click here for postal rates.

A snowy scene and an ode to the fir tree is shown below.

The idea of progress was big 100 years ago…always moving forward, each year better than the last, is hinted at in this card.

The simplicity of the split rail fence is reminiscent of early settlers–how very postcard!

The percentage of regular church goers, who might have sent a card like the one below,  was about the same 100 years ago as today, slightly lower than 40% of the US population.

Once again, evergreens and country=holiday wishes.

Here’s a card in Dutch. It says Jesus Christ yesterday and today the same forever.

And how about this one? (from the link below)

Because they were mass produced, old postcard aren’t worth much, between $1-20 each at best.  Believe it or not, I got a holiday postcard this year from my niece. Could they be making a come back?

Click here for many more cards.

1919: Life in the US–Health, hygiene, and a rural-urban divide

The influenza epidemic was raging in the winter of 1918-1919. Most of the deaths came from bacterial pneumonia following the influenza. Maternal mortality rates which had fallen to about 6 per thousand for white women and 14 per thousand for black women doubled during the flu epidemic. (Phylon (1960-)Vol. 38, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1977), pp. 259-266). If you are up for reading more about the pandemic, here’s a book about it. 

Infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and enteritis  (frequently associated with food poisoning) were the leading causes of death. Diphtheria was also common, Forty percent of deaths from infectious disease were those under age 5. Antibiotics weren’t widely used until the 1940s. My Granny Grace lost her baby brother during this time and my Grandma Gladys regaled me with horror stories such as puss dripping from people’s ears because there weren’t effective treatments for ear infections.

Nearly all women gave birth at home. Doctors made house calls and most doctors were trained as general practitioners. Sometimes, Mom was given a sniff of a pain killer such as ether or chloroform. A few women demanded a combination of morphine and scopolamine known as Twilight Sleep. These painkillers were later abandoned as being too dangerous. With the pain and dangers of childbirth being impossible to avoid, at long last, birth control (mostly condoms) was legal when prescribed by a doctor.

Cigarette smoking was gaining popularity because cigarettes had been distributed free to soldiers during WW1. (They’d also been given books and literacy also increased.)

Bacteria had been identified as causing disease and public health officials worked to teach proper hygiene. During WW1, many recruits were unhealthy and had terrible teeth. This resulted in a new emphasis in dental hygiene in 1919. Around this time, dental schools became affiliated with medical schools and universities instead of being independent and inconsistent in their teachings. A few years earlier, around 1900, only 7% of all people in the US brushed their teeth.  

In 1919, your toothbrush, if you had one, would look like this and be made of rubber.  (thanks to Wikipedia. for the image)

Thankfully, they chewed gum,

By 1930, about 65% of the population brushed regularly.

Public health officials worked tirelessly to et people to be more sanitary and to brush their teeth.

x-rays were newly discovered and blood banks were established. The whole notion of how babies were made on a cellular level gained scrutiny. With few regulations, plenty of quackery abounded. Radium was seen as a cure-all, although it was dangerously radioactive.

Most homes didn’t have a refrigerator until the 1940s. The most common refrigerant was ammonia, which, although still one of the best refrigerants out there, can kill you and stinks if there is a pipe leak. Ice boxes were used instead. Stoves of 1919 were flat glass gas heated ranges and smaller than the old types that used wood or coal. Click here to see stove photos. Coal still heated homes by heating steam for radiators. Rumor has it that Pella was blanketed in an unpleasant coal haze that could be seen for miles around. Having an easy to clean kitchen became important and tiles surrounding food preparation areas was an important part of a modern kitchen. Scrutable white tiles were de rigor in kitchens as well as bathrooms, where an elegant clawfoot tub under a window allowed homeowners to relax in luxury. 

Candlestick phones, telegrams, and letters were common forms of communication. Around 30% of homes had a telephone. Due to the high cost of wordiness with these devices and an appreciation for efficiency begun with the development of thermodynamics, brevity of speech was valued. I’ve written about this effect on literature here. This push for efficiency brought us assembly lines.

With the war over, Americans were restless for change. Women wanted equality. The Suffragette movement was in full force. 1919 would be the last year where women weren’t allowed to vote.  Labor strikes were a common occurrence. Women and laborers had held the nation together during the war. They wanted their share of the coming prosperity. Black Southerners moved to the North for work and to flee persecution. This was not always welcome. They burst into the North with music and art. Officially, this is called the Great Migration and you can listen to the music here. City folk were entertained with dance halls and movie palaces. Henry Ford flexed his muscle with the production of efficiently assembled, affordable automobiles, and decent wages. A better life seemed possible. For city folks,  1919 was bursting with promise.

Left out of much of the excitement were the rural folks–who made up about half of the population. Most still lacked electricity and running water. They hauled water, lit kerosene lamps, and used out houses. Despite hardships, those who had 40 acres or more had a sense of self sufficiency.

In 1919, there were many Black farmers. By the end of the next decade, they were driven from their land by lynching and other forms of discrimination, and would migrate to the cities, leaving rural America nearly 80% white. Today, only about 20% of US residents are rural.

1919: a hated ethnic group

 My house was built in 1919. I’d like to look at some events from that era. What was shaping the world when my house was built? What progress has been made, and not made?

Much has changed since 1919. Science has marched on, clothes have gotten more comfortable, lifestyles have evolved. In politics, not much has changed, unfortunately. Let’s begin with the grim and take a look at world events from 1919.

1919 marked the end of The Great War, known now as WW1, a war that saw tanks, trench warfare, submarine warfare, and poison gas. The war was viewed by most as “senseless slaughter” that set up many problems we still have today. There was no clear winner on Armistice Day (Nov. 11, 1918)

Some lessons were learned, at least for a while: don’t go to war when diplomacy might work and don’t start a war thinking it will be over quickly.  No, we didn’t retain the lessons but in 1919, there was all hope we would.

The adversaries in WW1 were Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the United States) and  Central Powers which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. With the end of the war, 1919 saw the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire (sometimes called the Turkish Empire, based around the Mediterranean).  These folks had helped defeat the Roman Empire. They had a large slaved-based army lead by sultans and a monarch ruling ruthlessly for hundreds of years. The Empire fell into a state of relative peace for a time and became anti-science, favoring religion instead. This area had been the cradle of chemistry, but science gradually slipped out of vogue as being worldly and not focused on god. Thus, the Ottoman Empire lost its edge. Napoleon took a good swipe at the Empire and when the Ottomans attacked Russia in 1914, other countries piled on to defeat them. Lesson learned here: don’t let religion rule over your scientists. 

The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. It was hard on Germany, put all of the blame on them,  and ignored the suffering and starving its citizens had endured.  In the United States, German-Americans were the most hated ethnic group. They were accused of being ruthless and cruel and called Huns, although they were primarily beer brewers. President Woodrow Wilson, in perhaps one of the only punctuation prejudices known to history, attacked their German-American self-identification, calling the hyphen a dagger and a weapon. The result was a loss of German-speaking communities, German presses, and even a loss of German last names as people changed the spelling to hide their their nationality: Huber became Hoover, Joder became Yoder, Muller changed to Miller, and even Haustein turned into Hausten. This pressure was pronounced in cities like Milwaukee. Less so in San Diego, where my family lived, thus no change in spelling, although a Navy captain changed his name to Hausten. Did you ever wonder why the element tungsten has the symbol W? It’s because the German term for the element was Wolfram, and Germans who discovered/isolated the element named it thus. In a fit of pettiness, the name was changed but the symbol was used far too much to meet the same fate.

Ethnic prejudices serve political advantage. They can unite people against an Other. Long term, they do nothing positive. This is one lesson we as a nation have not completely learned. At least we still send kids to Kindergarten, but the confusion on the periodic table of elements remains.


The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. It was hard on Germany, put all of the blame on them,  and ignored the suffering and starving its citizens had endured.  In the United States, German-Americans were the most hated ethnic group. They were accused of being ruthless and cruel and called Huns, although they were primarily beer brewers. President Woodrow Wilson, in perhaps one of the only punctuation prejudices known to history, attacked their german-American status, calling the hyphen a dagger and a weapon. The result was a loss of German-speaking communities, German presses, and even a loss of German last names as people changed the spelling to hide their their nationality, Huber becoming Hoover and Joder becoming Yoder, Muller changing to Miller, and even Haustein becoming Hausten. 












The Haustein’s of my last name didn’t feel the pressure to change. They were living in San Diego and didn’t feel the pressure that those in Milwaukee and St. Louis did. One family member who changed was in the Navy and lived in Hawaii.