Monday, January 2, 2017

A Day in the Life

by Erin Doane, curator

Old newspapers are great sources of information. If you read a newspaper from a single day you can get a fascinating glimpse into the past that hints at the large historical picture. Thanks to websites like Old Fulton New York Post Cards ( a lot of historic newspapers are available now to the public. I found a full 12-page issue of the Elmira Star-Gazette from January 2, 1917 on the Fulton site. So, what can we learn about life in Elmira 100 years ago from the local paper?

Front page of January 2, 1917 Elmira Star-Gazette
The typesetting staff must have been having a rough day.
They got the date wrong on the front page.
The Great War was headline news
While the United States did not official join the fighting in World War I until April 6, 1917, the war was still major news. The newspaper’s top story was about the Allied forces’ rejection of a German peace proposal. They considered the rigid proposal “empty and insincere.” Germany was unwilling to give concessions and insisted on keeping Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine under its control. Even after two years of fighting and a total of over one million dead and wounded on both sides, England, France, and Russia refused to give the proposal any consideration. 

People were feeling the effects of the war locally. Prices of rubber footwear and other products were rising because of war shortages and Elmira lawyer Richard H. Thurston had just learned that his nephew Charles Thurston Bowring had been killed while fighting in France.

Lawmakers were trying to make changes in the New Year
On January 1, Republican Charles Seymour Whitman began his second term as governor of New York. In both houses of the state legislature, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. In the new term, the legislature would be considering many new bills. There would be attempts to impose censorship on motion pictures and efforts to both legalize and prohibit the showing of movies on Sundays. There were proposals for compulsory military training in public schools and for requiring state farms to provide produce to state institutions. Legislators would also take up the question of enfranchisement of women, or giving them the right to vote.

On a national level, some bills set to come before Congress could change election laws. There were proposed limits on campaign contributions. Individuals would not be able to contribute more than $5,000 to a presidential campaign and corporations would be prohibited from contributing at all. Also, election betting and advertising of election odds would be a felony if upcoming bills were passed.

The weather was typical for the season
Tuesday, January 2 was a cloudy day with a temperature around 35 degrees. The ice on the Chemung River was thick enough to ice skate on between the dam and Rorick’s Glen and there was enough snow to enjoy coasting, or sledding, in the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, most kids wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy free time outdoors. The schools were back open that morning after a 10 day holiday break.

The snow and ice did cause some problems, however. Just a day or so earlier several youngsters coasting over in Pine Valley ran into a concrete horse block and suffered severe sprains and bruises. A car and a delivery truck went sliding on the ice and collided at the corner of Railroad Avenue and West First Street in Elmira. In another incident, five-year-old Robert Mooney stepped off an ice wagon and ran across Grand Central Avenue. He slipped on an ice covered snowbank and was run over by a police auxiliary automobile. The boy wasn’t seriously hurt; only one of the front wheels ran over him.

There were a ton of things to do for fun in the city
Back 100 years ago there was little danger of not finding anything to do in Elmira. The paper is filled with entertainment options. The YMCA presented a pet and hobby show and a gymnastic exhibition and the Business Women’s Club held a dance at the Federation Building. The Mozart Theater was hosting the play “Puddin’ Head Wilson” based on Mark Twain’s novel, “Other Man’s Wife” was playing at the Lyceum Theater, and there was a vaudeville show at the Majestic.

Boxing and bowling were particularly popular. There were several small articles about the results of boxing bouts. Elmira boxer “Cyclone” Williams was defeated by Harry Boyle in Binghamton in a bout that fans called “one of the classiest that has been staged in the city for many months.” Bowling scores from various local teams were also reported. The new bowling alley had just opened at Morrow Manufacturing Company’s plant and Tool Room #1 team was at the top of the rankings.

Individuals also attended all sorts of other events from card parties and bridal showers to dinners and bon fires, many of them held in private homes. This leads me to the next thing I learned about people back then...

Everyone was up in each other’s business
Did your out-of-town niece visit over the holidays? Did you have a nice dinner with six of your closest friends? Did you have an emergency appendectomy? Well, if you did, you very well could have ended up in the paper. This one issue alone has pages and pages of social announcements. There are listings of births, engagements, weddings, and funeral, as is typical in our newspapers today, but there was also more personal information. For example, everyone got to know that Mrs. O.D. Shoemaker of Van Etten was staying with Mrs. John Bigley while Mrs. Shoemaker’s daughter was in the hospital here and that Mr. and Mrs. William B. Howe of Euclid Avenue spent New Year’s with Mrs. Margaret Howe of Binghamton. Who cares? Well, apparently the readers of the Star-Gazette did.

People are just people no matter the time period
I think ultimately what I learned about life here 100 years ago was that it was not that different from the way things are now. The newspaper ran advertisements for groceries, undergarments, records, and miracle cures. It listed commodity prices and stock market reports. It published editorials, funny stories, comics, and recipes. The classifieds were filled with employment opportunities, apartments for rent, and miscellaneous items for sale. People lost jewelry and found stray dogs. They offered painting and handyman services and bred ferrets for sale as pets. They read world, national, and regional news but seemed most interested in what was happening in their own hometown.

Oh, and one more thing I learned…

Everyone was constipated


  1. The Old Fulton website is a fabulous source of information! I especially enjoy the personals as I glean specific details about my ancestors' way of life. Thanks for sharing this!