It's difficult to believe, but we're now a day away from the centennial of Carole Lombard's birth. And this seems as ideal a time as any to explore just what the nation, and world, were like when Jane Alice Peters arrived on Oct. 6, 1908 at 704 Rockhill Street in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Historically speaking, every year has some sort of importance, but many could argue that 1908 has a disproportionate share. And indeed, the year has a lot going for it. First, though, let's get an overview of what the U.S. was like in 1908. (The information is derived from a site called http://www.america1908.com, supporting a book by James Rasenberger called "America 1908," which from all descriptions seems worth checking out.)
* There were 46 states (Arizona and New Mexico were still territories, and Alaska and Hawaii were more than a half-century away from statehood).
* The U.S. population was 85 million, less than one-third of our current total, and was 90 percent Caucasian, compared to 75 percent today.
* Today, life expectancy is 78 years for whites, 73 years for blacks. A century ago, the respective numbers were 49 and 35.
* There were 20 million horses in the U.S. in 1908, nearly three times as the current equine total of 7 million.
* The average work week was 60 hours, compared to 40 today. In 1908, 20 percent of women worked; in 2008, it's 60 percent.
America was still a predominantly rural country in 1908, although urbanization was progressing quickly. A few people had automobiles, but the infrastructure of roads was a long way off. Most people traveled by train between cities, and within cities the preferred mode of transit was the streetcar, elevated train or, in a few places, the subway.
Leisure options were somewhat limited. Commercial radio was some 15 years in the future, and while motion pictures were increasingly popular, the product were two-reel shorts made by companies in the east and presented in small public houses called nickelodeons. More people attended stage shows. If you were a sports fan, chances are you watched baseball (more on the remarkable 1908 season later) or boxing.
While aviation as we know it began in 1903 with the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, it wasn't until 1908 that Orville and Wilbur really made an impact on the world. The Wrights promoted their invention with several flights in the Washington, D.C., area, and near the end of the year Orville astonished people by staying aloft for two hours and 20 minutes.
Politically, 1908 was a presidential election year, and just like this year, the public was asked to find a successor to a two-term Republican -- in this case, Theodore Roosevelt. The GOP nominated Roosevelt's handpicked choice, corpulent Ohioan William Howard Taft. Meanwhile, the Democrats held their convention in Denver, just as they did a century later, choosing William Jennings Bryan for the third time. Bryan, a populist, was one of the finest orators of his day. You can hear him in a July 1908 recording he made on "The Labor Question" (http://www.authentichistory.com/1900s/1908election/19080721_WJB-The_Labor_Question.html).
But as in 1896 and 1900, Bryan wound up on the short end, as Taft won easily. (He would eventually have a falling-out with Roosevelt, who believed he was too conservative on some issues and decided to run on the Progressive party ticket in 1912. The divided affections of Republican voters enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to gain the White House.)
There were some automobiles around in 1908...but for the most part, they were expensive items out of the financial reach of most Americans. That began to change, thanks to Henry Ford, who had dreamed of creating a car for the masses and finally hit the jackpot.
The first Model T automobiles came off Ford's production line in Detroit on Oct. 1, 1908, and were both inexpensive and amazingly efficient. While the model was refined and updated over the years, it remained essentially the same for 19 years, and more than 15 million were sold. (Incidentally, the Model T averaged about 20 to 25 miles per gallon of gasoline, although to be fair it was a far lighter and simpler vehicle than the automobiles of today.)
If you were black in 1908, chances are you were a generation or two removed from slavery. Many lines of work were closed to you, life was strictly segregated (particularly in the south), and in more than half the states interracial marriage was forbidden by law. The most visible black American in 1908 was a boxer named Jack Johnson, who in December became the first member of his race to win the heavyweight title by defeating Australian Tommy Burns (though he wasn't officially recognized as champion by some until he defeated former champ Jim Jeffries in 1910).
I earlier noted the baseball season of 1908, one of the greatest in history. It's now basically remembered as the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series (a drought that will now extend into at least 2009 after they were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series), but the season had much more than that -- airtight pennant races in both leagues, brilliant performances and controversial plays. (Incidentally, earlier in the year the song "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," now baseball's anthem, was introduced.)
As October dawned, the American League was up for grabs among Cleveland, Detroit and the Chicago White Sox. On Oct. 2, Cleveland's Addie Joss pitched a perfect game against the Sox, whose ace, Ed Walsh, struck out 15 in defeat. Meanwhile, Detroit kept winning, and the Tigers would edge Cleveland for the pennant by a half-game (in those days, rained-out games were not made up).
Chicago’s other team, the Cubs (who then played on the West Side, as Wrigley Field was still some years in the future), was battling the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates for National League honors. At the end of September, Pittsburgh and New York were in a virtual tie for first, with Chicago a half-game back. The Pirates faded in October, and the Cubs and Giants met in New York on Oct. 8 in a rescheduled game. It had been rescheduled because on Sept. 23, Giants' rookie Fred Merkle was ruled out for failing to touch second base before the winning run had touched home plate -- even though Merkle was trying to escape an array of fans who had swarmed onto the field. Chicago won the de facto playoff 4-2, then defeated Ty Cobb and the Tigers to repeat the result of the 1907 Series.