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Standard Railway Time

In the 19th century in America, time was determined by the sun. Towns and cities set their public clocks according to when the sun reached its zenith at “high noon.” Thus, even cities that were separated by only a few miles had their clocks set to different times. Railroad stations had multiple clocks, one for each railroad that used the station and one for local time.

Individuals had their choice of sources for the correct time: clocks on church towers and town halls, watches in jewelers’ windows, or factory whistles and bells. Large cities had time balls that would rise and drop every day at noon, by which city dwellers could set their watches; the ritual survives in the annual New Year’s event in Times Square.

Time became standardized when Western Union’s New York time ball dropped at noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883. Standard Railway Time was put into effect after a decade’s discussion among railroad executives, scientists, civil engineers and meteorologists, without benefit of either federal law or public demand.

Many cities and states resisted Standard Railway Time for years, for various political and religious reasons; these dissident voices were finally stilled, and Standard Railway Time made into federal law, with the Standard Time Act of 1918 – the first year in which the US also experimented with nationwide Daylight Savings Time.

(Schlereth 29-31)

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Garveyism

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, America experienced a sudden surge of both white supremacy and black nationalism. While the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan managed to briefly dominate politics on the West Coast in the early 1920s, black nationalism swept the entire country as Pan-Africa movements emerged around the globe.

The most influential nationalist organization of the 1920s was the United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA. It was created by Marcus Garvey, a Caribbean immigrant, and became known as Garveyism. Garvey was a flamboyant character who excelled at staging elaborate public displays of pageantry and black pride. UNIA officers wore elaborate, full-dress military uniforms, and Garvey himself wore a Napoleon-style admiral’s hat with a giant plume. Although the displays were over-the-top, they derived their power from the fact that they in no way resembled mainstream white American culture.

The UNIA promoted economic self-sufficiency as well as black cultural pride. The basis of Garvey’s economic plan was practical: UNIA dues were to be invested in a line of steamships, the Black Star Line, that would establish commercial ties between black America and black Africa. This would enable blacks around the globe to grow strong and prosper together.

Garveyism spread rapidly throughout the country. It took only seven members to start a chapter, so the tiniest black communities of the midwest could organize and be part of the movement. Small-town chapters flourished everywhere, even in the most remote locations, and in the big cities formal membership was huge. At its height in early 1921, UNIA Division 156 in Los Angeles had about 1,000 members on its rolls.

In the summer of that year, Division 156 president Noah Thompson traveled to New York to represent LA at the UNIA national convention. The reports he sent back home were disturbing. Two days of the convention were spent discussing how many buttons should be on a certain officer’s uniform. Worse, when Thompson asked to see the ships of the Black Star Line, for which $250,000 in UNIA dues had been invested, he received evasive answers. Officials refused to discuss the Line’s finances. It soon became clear that the UNIA was broke, its dues invested in a few rickety ships that were worth only scrap.

The LA chapter promptly announced its independence from the national group and formed a new group, the PCUNIA, or Pacific Coast Universal Negro Improvement Association. The New York office decertified Division 156 and barred its former officers from membership in the new, officially-sanctioned LA chapter, which could only come up with about 100 members.

Nevertheless, Garvey himself remained a popular figure; the next summer, when he visited LA for the first time, he was given a hero’s welcome. But the UNIA’s accounting problems were never resolved. Eventually, Garvey was deported on charges of mail fraud, and Garveyism faded from the scene.

Black nationalism did not expire with the demise of Garveyism. Instead, it would continue to grow and flourish in new forms and under new leadership throughout the century.

(Flamming 136-140)

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Small-Town Sophisticates

Fans of the 1920s remember the Algonquin Round Table as a group of the finest literary minds of the era, who met regularly to conduct challenging discussions on art and philosophy. It was through the influence of this small circle of big-city literati that American manners and morals began to shift so dramatically during the Jazz Age.

This is an inaccurate impression.

The Jazz Age began in middle America. The hair-bobbing, cigarette-smoking, Charleston-dancing girls of the small towns and cities of the Midwest were a much greater force in the 1920s than the handful of Hollywood stars or New York personalities who occasionally made headlines. The revolution of manners and morals was a grass-roots movement that started with the citizens on Main Street.

Among these citizens was a man named Harold Ross. Born in Colorado and armed with a high-school education, heĀ  worked for a series of small-town newspapers, served in the Army, and eventually found his way to New York, where he worked as an editor. He married a reporter named Jane Grant; the couple bought two brownstones in Hell’s Kitchen, knocked down the adjoining wall, and then began hosting big all-night parties that soon attracted some of the city’s up-and-coming young writers and artists. In 1920, some of these friends began to meet with Harold and Jane for lunch at New York’s venerable Algonquin Hotel. When the hotel management moved the group to a large circular table in the middle of the Rose Room, the Algonquin Round Table was born.

The Round Table participants included popular newspaper writers and columnists like Alexander Woollcott and Franklin Adams, editors like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, and press agents John Peter Toohey and Murdock Pemberton. These individuals were primarily small-town folks, born and bred, who had somehow ended up in New York and gained a measure of sophistication in the process. Rather than discussing great art and lofty ideas, they primarily told and repeated wisecracks: intelligent and wordy small-town folks poking fun at the cultural conventions that all of them shared.

A group of friends being clever over lunch would never have gained national attention if not for the fact that each of the group members was uniquely associated with the popular press. These people didn’t wait for fame, they went out and created it themselves. Within weeks, Adams and Woollcott were reporting the group’s witticisms in their own columns; Toohey and Pemberton began feeding stories about the group to their friends in various editorial departments. Frank Case, manager and part owner of the Algonquin did his part: he quietly bribed columnists to report on “overheard” wisecracks.

This shameless self-promotion paid off; by the mid-1920s tourists were dropping by the Algonquin at lunchtime to get a glimpse of these supposedly cutting-edge intellectuals, and in 1924 Ross and Grant were able to raise $45,000 to start a new magazine called The New Yorker. With the self-conscious sophistication of small-town kids newly arrived in the big city, the magazine’s editors promised their new venture would not be edited for “the old lady in Dubuque.”

With thoughtmakers like these leading the way, small-town Americans were soon taught to think of the Jazz Age as a phenomenon that had begun in New York City.

(Zeitz 79-86)

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