Being twenty-something in 1910
Most of my primary characters fall in the 20-40 age category. The three protagonists are in their twenties. So, I have thought a good deal about what life was like for them in 1910 St. Louis. I think they must have reveled in the newness of the twentieth century and all that they saw around them.
Tom Brokaw has famously said that the generation that fought World War II was the “greatest generation.” The folks I’m writing about in 1910 would have been the parents of that generation. They may or may not have been “great,” but they saw great things. Imagine that you were born in the latter decades of the 19th century. My main characters were born in the 1880s. Most of America was rural. One of my main characters comes from a dairy farm north of St. Louis, along the Mississippi. Another comes from Fulton in Callaway County, a small town by our standards but home to Westminster College, the state Mental Asylum, and the Missouri School for the Deaf. A third character is from a German immigrant family that would have arrived in St. Louis just before he was born in 1885. They were not poor immigrants, but they would have sought out a German neighborhood in St. Louis. They all would claim fairly “normal” backgrounds but for one characteristic: they all three graduated high school—something only a single digit of the population could claim.* Therefore, they were well-educated for the day.
What is interesting about this generation is the change they saw around them. This is the generation that saw and drove the first automobiles, that saw and maybe rode in the first airplanes. It was the generation for whom electricity and telephones became the norm. They haven’t done so by 1910, but they will hear the first radios and see the first televisions. They will fight World War I and see the world begin to change in scary ways. They will try to survive the flu epidemic that soldiers bring home from Europe. They don’t know it yet, but the Great Depression will wipe out much of the economic progress they will take for granted in the first third of the century. Then, they will watch their children fight World War II.
The generation of twenty-somethings in 1910 were the generation that saw change, change in the world and change on the street corner. Not all of it was going to be pretty, but in 1910, it must have seemed very exciting to live in the fourth largest city in a country that seemed itself to be on a happy course.
In St. Louis, the change will be even more downhill than in the country as a whole. The twin influences of prohibition and World War I will take a real toll on St. Louis civic life and prosperity. Both events are related to the strong German presence in the city. It is possible to describe St. Louis City history as gaining significant energy with the World’s Fair of 1904 and peaking just before World War I.
At the same time, people have a great capacity to take change in stride and continue to live in the moment. People worry about the same things in every generation: jobs, children, romance, safety and security. Some of what you see on this site reflects big social change; some of it simply reflects every day life.
*You can find educational stats in Census Bureau documents, if you can find the Census Bureau documents, which seems to get harder every day. There is a National Center for Educational Statistics that has held onto some data.