I think we can all agree that a century is a long time. But when it comes to advances in society and technology, some centuries are much more different than others.
Got to thinking about that the other day when I was musing about what was going on around my neighborhood in this small corner of northern Illinois. I imagine that to younger generations, 1923 must seem to be the misty, distant past. But to me, sure, it’s 100 years ago, but it doesn’t SEEM like that long ago.
My parents were both born well before 1923 and, in fact, would get married just seven years later. My grandparents were all born well before the turn of the 20th Century as were the old folks around town when I was growing up.
Back in the 1950s, we’d ride our bikes in our small-town Memorial Day Parade, led by a color guard of young, fit American Legion World War II and Korea vets—many of whom were born in the 1920s—while the aged veterans of World War I rode in cars and waved at the watching crowd. These days, it’s getting to be that the aged vets riding in the cars are Vietnam vets and the color guardsmen are veterans of Desert Storm and those 21st Century conflicts.
So while time is catching up with us Baby Boomers, it still doesn’t make 1923 seem that far in the past. After all, a century before my generation, the first cohort of that post-World War II Baby Boom, was born was almost unbelievably divorced from life at that time. In 1946, society was well along the road to modernity. In 1846, the frontier was still moving west, Mexico still owned what is today the U.S. Southwest (although our war of conquest of it had begun in April), sailing ships were built of wood, the telegraph was just two years old, and the telephone’s invention lay three years in the future. Individual transportation and farm work depended entirely on horses, indoor plumbing was far in the future and safe and sanitary municipal water supplies were virtually non-existent. Air travel consisted of a few hot air balloon enthusiasts.
By 1946, the internal combustion engine had long supplanted horses to power vehicles and farm equipment; virtually every household was connected to the national electrical power grid meaning not only towns but individual homes enjoyed electrical lighting; indoor plumbing was the rule and not the exception; home refrigerators and washing machines were the rule not pricy exceptions; passenger airplane networks spanned the entire globe as did fleets of steel-hulled ships. Far more people lived in towns and cities than on the farm. 1946 was, in fact, a completely different world from a century before.
But looking back a century from today, we really can’t say that. Plunk someone from 1923 down in 2023 northern Illinois, and while the changes would be startling—and not a bit confusing—the commonalities would perhaps be just as surprising.
Many of the issues back in 1923, at least according to articles in the Kendall County Record, sound remarkably familiar.
Take, for instance, the problems we’re having with guns these days. Guns were a problem back then, too. As Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall noted in the paper’s Jan. 10 edition: “The Chicago Tribune and the Herald-Examiner are putting on drives to stop the indiscriminate sale of firearms and skeleton keys. These are commendable acts and should receive the support of every citizen. There is too much lawlessness made possible by these sales.”
It was a prescient comment because in the paper’s Aug. 29 edition, Marshall reported: “We had a murder in Kendall county last week. The killing was the result of a revolver, or automatic, in the hands of a man who was not authorized to carry a ‘shooting iron.’”
Turned out a dispute between workers on the new concrete highway being built between Yorkville and Oswego that year turned violent, leading to the shooting and to the perpetrator getting 16 years in the state pen over in Joliet.
Which brings us to another similarity of those days of the Roaring ‘20s with this day and age: road construction, which these days seems to be going on 365 days a year.
Back in 1918, Illinois voters had passed a $60 million bond issue to build a network of “hard roads”—concrete highways—designed to link every county seat in the state. By 1923, construction was well along on the project, with Route 18, nicknamed the Cannon Ball Trail, being built through Kendall County as it linked Chicago with Princeton in western Illinois
The route went west from Chicago to Aurora following, roughly, the CB&Q Railroad right-of-way. From Aurora, the route ran south along the west side of the Fox River on modern Ill. Route 31 to Oswego, where it met modern U.S. Route 34 for the run west past Yorkville on to Plano, Sandwich and on west. By late 1923, the route through Kendall County was mostly paved and ready for traffic, with the rest of it completed the next year.
“Illinois already has a running start toward breaking her own world’s record for hard road construction mileage within a single year, and 1923 already looms as a red letter period,” Marshall marveled in June. “In 1922, when the world’s record was broken by the completion of 722 miles of road, there was built up to May 24 only 51.98 miles, as compared with this year’s record over the same period of 114.95. At present there are employed 7,000 men, 1,650 teams, and 87 [concrete] mixers in addition to the vast volume of other necessary equipment.”
And then there’s our modern problem of drug trafficking. These days it mostly consists of drugs being smuggled into the country across our northern and southern borders. During the 2022 fiscal year, nearly 35 tons of illegal drugs were intercepted along the nation’s northern border while 143 tons were seized at the nation’s southern border and another 150 tons were seized in coastal and interior areas.
In February 1923, Marshall observed: “The use of drugs and the increase in the number of addicts are matters which are causing much comment and agitation in medical circles. We hope that success will attend the efforts of leaders in Chicago’s organization against the use of drugs in their latest declaration of war.”
But the biggest drug problem a century ago was the illicit use and production of alcohol. Prohibition was in effect and illegally trafficked and consumed alcohol was a huge problem, even—or maybe especially—out in rural areas. Kendall County was, in fact, a hotbed of bootlegging with illegal stills producing illicit alcohol on industrial scales. Aided by better roads and fast, dependable and affordable cars and trucks, bootleggers found little Kendall a great place to do business.
In March 1923, a task force of federal officers and county sheriff’s police shut down a large Plano speakeasy operation and then raided the Schickler farm on the west side of the Fox River at Oswego, where they destroyed a modern still turning out 23 gallons a day.
“The work of Sheriff Barkley and his deputies in the cleaning up of several of the illicit liquor places of the county is to be commended,” Marshall commented. “They went after the job in a systematic manner and accomplished the results they sought. Kendall county can afford to be clean and should be. But the efforts of the law enforcement officers should not lag–it is said that two of these places grown where one is closed as in the case of the blades of grass…The worst time for this particular kind of law-breaking is in the summer months when many of the former Aurora bootleggers take up their station along the cement highways and peddle their nefarious stuff to those who have the right password.”
And finally, there is a spirited national discussion going on right now over abortion and, relatedly, birth control. Just like there was 100 years ago. Record Editor Marshall was a mild birth control skeptic who pointed out the rich would always have access to it when he wrote on Dec. 12: “The question of birth control is insistent in Chicago. There is one serious objection to its adoption—it would be practiced by those whose financial condition merits a large family and unsought by the illiterate and ignorant class where it should be practiced. But unscrupulous practitioners will help the wealthy while they laugh at those who are answering the impulses of natural instinct.”
Which sounds a lot like some of the arguments being issued these days after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to not only ban abortion but also, if they so wish, to restrict or even ban birth control.
So, yes, a century is a very long time. But as history has moved forward it seems as if the changes experienced over that most recent 100 year span have been a bit less startling in the ways they’ve changed our world.