SO IT’S THE dawn of the ’20s, and just about everything seems to be full-on, topsy-turvy, whack-a-doodle upside-down.
The north end of downtown Seattle is being radically transformed, in a way that’s left it, for many old-timers, sadly unrecognizable. White-hot socialist leanings — and a hostile, authoritarian reaction to same — dominate presidential election talk; a national outbreak of what can best be called the Politics of Fear sours civil discourse.
Nationally, racism — overt and subtle — and a pronounced fear of “otherness” smolders; patriotism and xenophobia are locked in an unholy alliance that rattles perceptions of proper “citizenship.”
All of this occurs in the wake of a prominent local pol’s unsuccessful attempt to parlay local concerns about global issues into a national presidential campaign that ultimately fizzled.
All told, it’s enough to make one wonder whether the American experiment was just that, and whether it can survive.
The thing is, we’re speaking here not about today, but about the beginning of the previous ’20s — those “Roaring” ones of historical fame.
At the crack of 1920, nervous Northwest residents — no doubt sweating up an incredible funk in all those heavy woolen garments — sat in the departure station for a thrill-ride decade that would prove among the most memorable, in ways both quirky and oddly familiar, in the region’s history.
History suggests that folks in our very places back then were scratching their heads: What in the name of Eugene V. Debs was the world coming to?
With hindsight, we now know. But should we care?
Well, yes; lessons abound. For those of us mired in the puzzlement of present-day life in the upper-left corner of a nation that to many seems to be lurching off-course, a clear rearview image can serve as a source of either comfort, or despair — depending on one’s degree of faith in the capacity of humans to learn, grow and advance rather than lather, rinse, repeat.
The optimists among us cite the past to make the point that the nation, and especially this trunk-rotted portion thereof — has gone through some certifiably crazy times before, and lived to tell the tale over a few too many pints of bitter draft beers in Pioneer Square.
Pessimists might point to the same events as evidence that we as a species barely have advanced at all, and are stumbling through what amounts to a nihilistic simulation in which we repeat the same mistakes, with demonstrably awful consequences.
Some of us prefer to keep one leg in both of those lanes, realizing that history, as some wise cat once said, “doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
With that in mind, before plunging into our own likely decade of consequence, let’s take a shallow dive into the gene pool of Northwest civilization at the dawn of the last ’20s.
Two caveats: This is a selective dip, not intended as comprehensive. But it is not ancient history, by any stretch. Some of the splashes made by our forebears in this era — only several generations ago — remain societal undercurrents today.
FOR STARTERS, THE Roaring ’20s could not have been what they were without Americans pausing to cast stones back at the Terrible Teens. Politics in the early decade was dominated by full-throated retribution for what were seen as “radical” excesses of the previous one.
This was inflamed by the trauma of calamities both natural (a flu epidemic killed 1,600 souls in Seattle in 1918-19) and strictly man-made (the “Great War,” aka World War I, ended on Nov. 11, 1918).
Americans in 1920 arguably felt exposed, realizing more fully than ever that they could not remain insulated by oceans from larger global evils. And, as is often the case in periods of broad fear in American civic life, folks didn’t handle it well. Too many of them channeled fear into attacks on perceived threats (insert first rhyme here).
That was especially true in labor-activated Seattle, population 315,000, where the failed/famed General Strike of 1919 had just drawn global headlines. The strike, one of the first citywide work stoppages in a major U.S. city, spurred fears that a Bolshevik Revolution was about to sweep the land, and that it would be launched from — where else? — the clammy shores of Puget Sound.
Those post-strike days of 1919-21, a period that historian Robert K. Murray, chronicler of America’s “first Red Scare,” aptly described as a “period of national hysteria,” brought brutal crackdowns on trade unionists, socialists both real and imagined, anti-conscriptionists and other peaceniks — even prominent left-leaning religious figures.
Anna Louise Strong, a 1919 strike leader, activist Seattle Union-Record journalist and leftist standard-bearer who penned the famous strike rallying cry about an emergent labor movement leading “no one knows where!” (interpreted by many — mistakenly, she would write later — as a reference to pending global revolution) was driven from the city and ultimately fled to Europe, Russia, then China.
Her then-influential, now-forgotten father, the Rev. Sydney Dix Strong, pastor of Queen Anne Congregational Church, watched in despair as a broad social-welfare network built over the previous decade by himself and peers was summarily dismantled; by 1924, his congregation shrinking from hundreds to dozens, he was pushed from the pulpit from which he had spent years espousing the “heaven on Earth” rewards of compassionate collectivism.
Civil liberties were similarly under attack nationwide, with many figures declared enemies of the people by politicians and government prosecutors who operated with newfound, “superpatriot” zeal.
Locally, citizens as seemingly harmless as Louise Olivereau, an unassuming clerk with the local Industrial Workers of the World office, was arrested at her Wallingford home and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison under the Espionage and Sedition Acts passed during the heat of the war. Her crime: distributing leaflets urging young men to become conscientious objectors to the war.
A group of Seattle “Minute Men” banded together with the aim to root out German spies (which it never found). It was part of a national vigilante force called the American Protective League, which aimed to “turn every loyal American into a voluntary detective.” Squealing on one’s neighbors became a thing.
In some corners of the Northwest, vigilantism turned fatal, including the now-famed (and oft-mythologized) “Centralia Massacre,” a bloody confrontation between Wobblies and American Legion men that left six dead in 1919.
Nationally, the Ku Klux Klan (then a powerful component of the Democratic Party) was on the march, leading an anti-immigrant furor inflamed by a 1920 bombing on Wall Street blamed on Italian-immigrant anarchists. President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department launched the “Palmer Raids,” which rounded up and deported more than 500 suspected radical immigrants nationwide.
The general political furor would result in the Immigration Act of 1924, a quota-setting law aimed at Asians and Eastern Europeans. The idea: to Keep America Great through “ethnic homogeneity.” The movement was abetted by the widespread embrace of pseudoscientific hokum about nonwhite racial inferiority.
SOME LOCAL POLITICIANS rode this hate wave to brief prominence. The early decade saw the launch of what would be a failed presidential campaign by Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson, who had taken a particularly hard line against the Seattle Strike, exaggerating its perceived revolutionary intentions to shocked East Coasties.
The strike’s peaceful comportment (no one was killed, injured or really even menaced), Hanson declared, was all part of the conspiracy by the slippery commies: “Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence,” he wrote. “The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet.”
Hanson, proclaiming himself America’s law-and-order guy, toured the country and cashed in by calling for hangings or life sentences for Wobblies and other radicals. But his campaign was kaput by the time of the Republican Convention of 1920, where former Ohio newspaperman(!) Warren G. Harding — despite apparent squishy personal moral standards, a surprise darling of the newly hatched Christian fundamentalist movement — won the day and later captured the White House.
Harding’s odd marriage with the religious right was a matter of political convenience; when he died in 1923 (less than a week after feeling ill after addressing a crowd of 25,000 at Husky Stadium, where he predicted statehood for Alaska), it was a Seattle man, the Rev. Mark Matthews, of First Presbyterian Church, who eulogized him as a “Christian gentleman and Christian brother.”
Matthews placed his own mark on the city in the ’20s. One of his chief crusades was against the evils of alcohol, reflective of conservative thought during the national Prohibition era launched with passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920. Speak-easies (illicit booze dispensaries) were rife in American cities, including Seattle, which had a head start, of sorts. Washington had mostly outlawed the sale of liquor in 1916.
Bootlegging and smuggling booze by boat, foot and other means from Canada became a bustling Northwest industry during a decade of prohibition. The king of Seattle bootleggers was Roy Olmstead, a Seattle policeman, who learned the ins and outs of booze smuggling on the side of the law, then nimbly applied those skills to evading it. He ultimately would be drummed out of the force, wiretapped by the feds, indicted and sentenced to four years at McNeil Island, where he served 35 months and emerged a declared Christian Scientist and teetotaler.
ANOTHER STAUNCH OPPONENT of public boozing proved to be a landmark politician: In the midst of public tussles over alcohol, Seattle in 1926 elected as mayor Bertha Knight Landes, an influential Women’s Civic League leader who had claimed the City Council leadership in 1924. The first female mayor of a major U.S. city, she promptly fired the police chief for looking the other way at liquor sales. Landes lost a bid for reelection after advocating public ownership of utilities such as City Light (a major issue of the day).
Her reign made national headlines, but was less shocking in Washington state, which had long been a national leader in advocating civic rights, including the right to vote, for women. A civic father, Arthur Denny, had proposed voting rights for women as early as 1854. They were granted statewide in 1910, a decade before ratification of the 19th Amendment ensured the right for U.S. women.
But, as in other parts of the country, this regional progressive bent had strict limits, often defined starkly by race. The 1920s in Seattle saw the continuation of long-established ethnic segregation, with sizable populations of native, Black, Asian, Latino and Jewish residents shoehorned into established neighborhoods such as the International and Central districts. The city, notes University of Washington historian James Gregory, for most of its history has been “as committed to white supremacy as any location in America.”
Beginning in 1924, the practice of adopting race-based loan restrictions and racially restrictive covenants, collectively known as “redlining,” was formalized in many Seattle neighborhoods and King County suburbs. Contractual language containing these racist restrictions on home loans was rendered unenforceable by federal legislation in 1968 and banned statewide in 1977, but lives on in language contained in some property deeds.
At the same time, the city’s residential landscape was being altered in ways far more permanent: The third and final phase of the Denny Regrade, a three-decade project to sluice out, scoop up and haul away an additional 5.7 million cubic yards from an area north of downtown proper, was launched in 1928. Earth from an area bounded by Fifth Avenue, Westlake Avenue and Virginia and Harrison streets wound up at the bottom of Elliott Bay.
It was part of a broader campaign to boost the city’s profile beyond the region. The Seattle Chamber during the 1920s labeled Puget Sound “The Charmed Land,” touting the topography and a burgeoning infrastructure highlighted by rail improvements and, in 1928, the dedication of a new southside air strip by William E. Boeing.
Boeing, then still of Seattle, in 1921 won the first of what would become a city mainstay: government contracts, in this case for 200 planes to carry mail. In 1928, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange — a landmark for a Seattle decade that had begun with economic struggles caused by postwar downturns in lumber and shipbuilding.
The latter parts of the decade saw a blossoming of expanding Pacific trade and development of steel and other industries, all assisted by power from new City Light dams on the Skagit River. In this environment, labor rebounded to hold on as a significant political force; the decade saw the ascension of Seattle’s Dave Beck as a leader within the national Teamsters union.
CITIES AND REGIONS, of course, are not defined purely by economics and politics. The 1920s in many ways today are considered a “golden” foundational period for Seattle’s arts scene.
Jazz, in particular, flourished, thanks to underground-nightclub growth during the speak-easy era. The decade also saw the birth of longstanding institutions such as the Henry Art Gallery (1927) and the collection that would become the Frye Art Museum on First Hill.
Seattle’s Civic Center, which included an auditorium, ice arena and outdoor field on the area known now as Seattle Center, was dedicated in 1928 under the Landes administration. Civic Auditorium morphed into the Seattle Opera House, now Seattle Opera Center. A collection of painters including Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson and Paul Horiuchi thrived in the city.
Seattle ended the decade with a population of about 365,000, having added about 50,000 residents — close to the same number who have arrived here in the past decade just to work at Amazon.com. (The city’s present population has leapt by nearly half a million in the past six years.)
What lessons do we take away from the previous ’20s as we embark on the next? Historical lessons — and especially the actions they provoke — are often personal, but some general points can be made.
One is that “fringe” politics, especially in the Northwest, are for better or worse a consistent thread in the moral fiber. For those who view them as destructive — and some elements described above inarguably qualify — one lesson is that politics of fear and hate should be identified, quickly and publicly, and exposed to the disinfectant of public sunlight.
Some victims of discrimination, hate crime or guilt by association of this era later lamented their choice — often made to save face, protect professional reputations, or keep employers or institutions in good standing — not to take their case to the people.
Another, broader lesson is that we are not the first local population to be fearful, doubt the future or even question whether it will take us to a place of honor 10 years down the road.
Like our forebears a century ago, the place we wind up in a decade hence, for better or worse, might not be one we fully recognize. No matter how many of our messy fingerprints are all over it.