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1914: End of the Victorian Age

World War I shattered the century-long European peace and began the continent's decline.
World War I shattered the century-long European peace and began the continent's decline.

The Napoleonic Wars closed in 1815 ushering in a relatively peaceful century for Europe. Conflicts continued, but none shattered society as the eighteenth century wars of empire, the French Revolution, and Napoleonic entanglements. World War I broke the peace and began Europe’s decline. Meanwhile, Americans continued to live life as before. However, the Wilson Administration’s progressive policies were pushing the country leftward. Meanwhile, culture and society moved forward as well. In the end, 1914 represented the end of the Victorian Age and the beginning of the modern era.

In early 1914, Victorian splendor dominated Europe. The continent celebrated modernity and obsessed over the latest fads and media obsessions. The Titantic’s sister ship, HMS Britannic, launched in February. Henriette Caillaux murdered a newspaper editor over the threatened publication of some old love letters. Anticoagulants were used in the first non-direct blood transfusion. The U.K. passed an Irish home rule bill. In many respects, it seemed a normal year with its scandals, technological advances, and quirks.

Europe’s tranquility ended in the Balkans. On June 28, Serbian teenage nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austria-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The murder led to a crisis as Austria-Hungary threatened Serbia. All the major powers became involved through the alliance system. By August, the great powers declared war on one another and the continent descended into darkness for four long years.

The United States decided to stay neutral in the conflict. The Wilson Administration wished to concentrate on matters closer to home. The Mexican Civil War threatened to drag the country into the bloodshed. President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize Mexican President Victoriano Huerta’s government. In April, Mexico mistakenly arrested eight U.S. sailors in Tampico. The commander demanded their release, an apology, and a 21-gun salute. Mexico refused to fire the salute at first. They complied two days later. In response, Wilson ordered the marines into Mexico. The United States occupied Veracruz and eventually became embroiled in a hunt for Mexican bandits. The ridiculous affair ended when Wilson took the United States into World War I in 1917.

Wilson’s Mexican policy was an abject failure. However, his progressive policies often bring praise from modern historians. He cut tariff rates, prosecuted monopolies, and ushered in economic reforms. In reality, his programs proved hit or miss. In 1914, Wilson inaugurated the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers. The agency has been successful over the last century. Likewise, the Federal Reserve opened for business in November. The institution was designed as a central bank with legal authority to print money. Progressives hoped it would usher in a new era of prosperity. In reality, the Federal Reserve’s impact has been spotty at best and the ability to print money is a grave danger to the modern world.

The Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission Acts were passed in 1913. The Clayton Antitrust Act was most important piece of legislation for 1914. The administration targeted monopolistic practices in the business world. The act outlawed monopolies, trusts, and cartels harmful to consumers. However, the act exempted unions. As a result, labor could organize, launch boycotts, collective bargain, and initiate strikes. The Clayton Antitrust Act essentially legalized union activity.

While Wilson revolutionized union activities, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line in Florida changed travel. The country's first federally licensed pilot, Anthony Jannus, transported passengers on his airboat for commercial flights. St. Petersburg mayor Abram Pheil was the first passenger. A century later, millions of commercial flights take place each year. The same week the airboat line began, the Ford Motor Company changed American work culture by offering high pay and fewer hours. The company suffered ridiculously high turnover as workers had the option of finding better work elsewhere. Manufacturing was a long, boring process complete with dictatorial overseers. As a result, Ford needed to adapt to keep their workforce from bolting. In response, they offered the $5 workday and cut shifts to eight hours.

Ford Motor Company workers did not unionize during this period. However, coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado did and initiated a work stoppage for better conditions, higher pay, enforcement of safety rules, and recognition of the union. The Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company attacked the strikers encampment. The campgrounds housed 1,200 workers and their families. The assault killed two dozen people, including women and children.

Charlie Chaplin supported workers' rights and leftist causes in his life. However, he was just starting out on the eve of World War I. In 1914, he made his screen debut in the 13 minute short Making a Living. The comedy also featured the Keystone Cops and one of their patented chase scenes. Chaplin's career spanned from the end of the Victorian Era through the 1970s. Six of his films are on the National Film Registry.

Like Chaplin, Chicago's Wrigley Field also debuted in 1914. The Federal League formed as a third major league to compete against the American and National Leagues. Chicago's entry, the Whales, played at Wrigley before the Cubs. The Federal League collapsed in 1915, so the Cubs moved to replace their rundown old home at West Side Grounds. The Cubs have never won a World Series while playing at Wrigley Field.

Baseball experienced a more important debut in 1914. George Herman Ruth appeared in his first major league game on July 11 for the Red Sox. Ruth began his career as a pitching phenomenon. He evolved into an elite pitcher for Boston before being shipped to New York and switching to the outfield. Ruth's success in New York made baseball the most popular game in America. One month before Ruth's debut, Pittsburgh Pirate great Honus Wagner collected his 3,000th career hit. Wagner remains the game's greatest shortstop and was the first player to collect his 3,000th hit in the 20th century. Wagner retired after the 1917 season as Ruth's career began to take off.

1914 marked the end of the old order and beginning of a new age. World War I obliterated the Victorian era. Likewise, Woodrow Wilson transformed the United States with progressive policies. The Clayton Antitrust Act legalized union activities while the Ludlow Massacre brought sympathy for workers. Ford Motor Company institutionalized higher pay for industrial workers and the eight-hour day. Babe Ruth entered baseball as Honus Wagner began his exit. By December, the world changed in ways no one could have foreseen in January.

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