Modern history

To Be Different from What Has Been

Butchers' carts and icemen's carriages moved sluggishly behind the great houses as Dr. Vansant strolled back toward his home. The Gothic towers of the University of Pennsylvania, modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, swam high in the brightening sky. A neighborhood park was still but for wrens flitting between trees and the statues of Charles Dickens and Little Nell. The peace of Saturday morning reigned at the City Hospital and Almshouse, where the doctor had interned and knew well the nightly bellowing from delirium tremens in the drunk wards and the miserable shrieking in the madhouse. Dr. Vansant's colleagues, the alienists, believed mental illness could be cured by cleansing blasts of cold water and a stay in the sylvan country. Whether this was true or not, the suburbs now surrounded the Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Dr. Vansant hurried along, his mind wandering with protective concern for the children, especially the girls sleeping in close, hot quarters on the third floor—Mary Eugenia, twenty-two; Louise, seventeen; and Eleanor, eleven. The doctor was heartened that his son Charles, the oldest, a month from his twenty-third birthday, had his own house now in West Philadelphia and could take care of himself. The boy was showing the independence of manhood, and even, to the doctor's delight, had a “special girl” who would soon become something more.

Early risers respectfully tipped their hats to the doctor, whom they saw often in dark suit and derby hat, carrying his black bag, making his rounds in a hansom cab. His seersucker summer going-to-the-seashore suit was a sign of wealth. Lightweight suits were unheard of at the turn of the century outside the deep south. Most men possessed only one trusty, heavy blue serge.

Number 4038 stood in the deep shade of American sycamores. Behind the wrought-iron fence rose the perfume of a small English garden. The Packard, one of the first automobiles on Spruce Street, was parked in back, at the servants' entrance. The house was only twenty feet wide, yet, reflecting the hunger for space as the first professional class sprawled westward, it was immense beyond the façade, stretching a hundred and twenty feet back, an imposing five thousand square feet in all.

In the kitchen the doctor found the plain cook, who handed him a cup of café au lait, the American breakfast drink of choice, although sometimes to settle his nerves the doctor sipped the new decaffeinated brew, Sanka. Hearty aromas rose from under the hand of the fancy cook—a breakfast of grilled plover or filet mignon, littleneck clams, mushroom omelets, and robins' eggs on toast was typical in the Vansant household, where the doctor broke the fast in the traditional nineteenth-century manner, with locally harvested foods. Boxes of Post Toasties and Kellogg's cereals were on hand for the children: John Kellogg's Corn Flakes in particular had taken over the American table in the past decade with claims of healthfulness and efficiency for the twentieth-century family in a hurry.

Louisa, too, had succumbed to modern touches: one of the first electric refrigerators, new from Chicago; an electric stove; a toaster. The whole country marveled at the gadgets science had supplied for the kitchen. The servants baked fresh bread each morning, but the bin also was stocked with “white bread,” one of the new “pure” factory-made foods said to be an improvement on nature itself, a wonder of machine efficiency, milled with the wheat germ removed. Not until the next year, when half of American men weren't healthy enough to fight in World War I, were white bread's nutritional deficiencies recognized. Dr. Vansant had never heard of a “vitamin,” nor had anyone else.

As the lilting voices of the girls trailed through the rambling Victorian, Charles clattered into the kitchen, joining the family for breakfast. The children were uncommonly excited that morning, and Dr. Vansant responded severely. He commanded the dining room table with stern visage, demanding silence while the servants brought silver trays of food. “If the children were not sitting at the dining room table before Dr. Vansant himself was seated at the head of the table,” a relative recalled, “they were sent to their rooms without eating. The doctor was a true Victorian patriarch.”

As breakfast commenced, Dr. Vansant, without lifting his eyes from the Ledger, swiftly corrected his daughters' posture. The hollow of their backs could not touch the chair. A man was the lord of his castle and his domain extended not just over the children. Were Louisa to venture a comment at table, it was not unusual for Dr. Vansant to silence his wife with an abrupt “Ta-ta, Lulu, I don't believe it was your turn to engage in conversation.”

Mary Eugenia bristled at her father's dominance of her mother. That year she marched in a suffragettes' parade in downtown Philadelphia. She cheered when President Wilson, in a speech in Atlantic City, promised his support for women's right to vote. Dr. Vansant had little sympathy for the rights women were claiming in those days. His plans for the futures of Mary Eugenia and Louise were one year of finishing at a fine college in Massachusetts (Wellesley for the former, Smith for the latter), then back to Philadelphia to attend the Pierce Business School until the right man came along. It had been necessary only for the boy, Charles, to receive a full university education.

It was a man's world in 1916. Father answered his divine calling by working outside the home, providing for his family while also serving society's greater good. Eugene was part of America's first bourgeoisie, the white Anglo-Saxon professional class whose sons would prosper in the Ivy League, on Wall Street, and in corporate boardrooms in the first half of the twentieth century, who would entrench their families as the American elite. At 4038 Spruce Street, all such dreams rested on the boy.

Mother's mission was in the home, the sacred crucible of Victorian life. Louisa was the family chronicler, creating meaning and a sense of place. In her home she expressed the richness and variety of life in a wealth of different rooms that were just beginning in those days to be swallowed up, one by one, by the modern “living room.” There was the music room, where Mary Eugenia, Louise, and Eleanor practiced the piano lessons published daily in the women's section of the Ledger, and there was the library, study, and conservatory.

But it was in the parlor, where strangers and social inferiors were not invited, that the story of the family was told. In the parlor the woman of the house expressed, through carefully chosen antiques, heirlooms, photographs, daguerreotypes, travel curios, and objets, a series of complex and interwoven feelings intended to be experienced as art—a room telling a silent story that only family and dear friends of fine sensibilities were entitled to hear. The story told in the Vansant parlor, typical of the Victorians, was of the preciousness and loss of children. Photographs of Mary Eugenia, Louise, and Eleanor in a rowboat with Dad and Patty, the family terrier, on the lake in the Poconos, the lake where Father proposed to Mother. The girls in long white dresses at the summer home in Cape May. A grinning Charles and his friends from prep school, arm in arm on the deck of the steamer Belfast in morning suits, white pants, black vests, Arrow collars, and ties, sailing the Atlantic for a grand tour in 1912, after the Titanic sank. There, too, were black-rimmed photographs of two sons, Eugene, Jr. and William, who had succumbed to pneumonia and whooping cough in infancy.

Louisa was so firmly rooted in the sturdy brick fortress on Spruce Street, it was difficult to leave to set up housekeeping in a hotel, and the shore itself was vaguely threatening. Young Americans in 1916 rediscovered swimming as it was invented by the Romantics—not to traverse water but to explore every sensation of the soul. The serene and reclusive sought Lord Byron's “rapture on the lonely shore/there is society where none intrudes/by the deep Sea, and music in its roar.” Sensualists “rolled in the sea, shouted like a savage, laved [their] sides like a bull in a green meadow, dived, floated and came out refreshed.” Romantic artists and poets threw themselves upon the waves “for the thrill which the very real possibility of drowning offered.”

There was little wonder the late Victorians of Old Philadelphia were uneasy in the presence of the great heaving form of the sea and the restlessness it inspired: It was so un-Philadelphian. In the terra firma of Louisa's parlor on Spruce Street was a life inscribed by a constellation of virtues, certainties as fixed and brilliant as the stars. Philadelphia was the most comforting of big cities to call home. It proudly termed itself “the most Chinese of American cities,” changeless behind a great wall of contentment and ritual and shared belief. Louisa believed in love, beauty, honor, duty, piety, and honest work. If God didn't exist (and many since Darwin were sadly skeptical), the morality of the Holy Bible was nonetheless absolute. England and France were suitable addresses, after which the sole civilized point on the map stood, according to turn-of-the-century Philadelphia writer Christopher Morley, “at the confluence of the Biddle and Drexel families . . . surrounded by cricket teams, fox hunters, beagle packs, and the Pennsylvania Railroad.” Law or medicine, her husband's profession, were the solid occupations, followed by banking and insurance. The military or national politics were out, for they removed a man from Philadelphia. Louisa knew with certainty that the social Five Thousand never divorced. (And in the rare case that someone did, it was not with the indiscretion of the middle class).

Novelty was frowned upon, be it embodied by Whitman, Audubon, Eakins, or Joseph Leidy, who had introduced to the world the idea that a species of monstrously large reptiles not described in the Old Testament had existed on the far shore of the Delaware River. From a backyard in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, Leidy assembled the bones of a creature taller than a house, which he said had the pelvic structure of a bird, the tail of a lizard, and walked upright like a man, foraging with armlike limbs. This, Leidy said, was a Hadrosaurus foulkii, what he called a dinosaur, whose existence suggested the unimaginable idea that the world was millions of years old and had not been made exclusively for human beings.

Philadelphia in 1916 defined itself proudly as a place lost in time, an island of Victorian virtue in a sea of American change. That year a journalist from Harper's Weekly visited the city and found the forces of tradition resolute, the nibbles of modern erosion few. “The one thing unforgivable in Philadelphia is to be new, to be different from what has been.”

When Philadelphians ventured beyond the wall each summer, they moved in flocks to safe and sedate places favored by other Philadelphians—Northeast Harbor, Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Maine, and Cape May. The classic Philadelphia outing—in the words of Dr. Vansant's colleague Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, contemporary of Freud and famed founder of the “rest cure”—was a leisurely walk in the woods after which “the servant busied himself with the lunch, and put the wine to cool in the brook.”

It was an unspoken rule that a proper Philadelphian did not swim in the ocean. The upper classes rode horseback, painted portraits, went on hikes and walking parties. To swim was decidedly middlebrow, messy, and perhaps dangerous. The sea held mysteries a Quaker saw no sense in divining. Philadelphia's first Jersey shore summer refuge was Long Branch, and there, according to Charles Biddle, father of Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, occurred “the archetypal confrontation of Quaker caution and the wild waves.”

In Louisa's day, it was frowned upon for both sexes to be in the water at the same time, even a body of water as big as the Atlantic. Ocean swimming was chaste. In her time European women entered the ocean in horse-drawn “bathing machines,” small, roofless cabins on wheels complete with windows and drapes, where a modest woman could enjoy the healing waters of the sea free from prying male eyes.

The modern beach was a hedonistic Xanadu that shocked her and Dr. Vansant. In the caress of the warm sea (which the Romantics equated with sex), the styles and mores of the past were relaxed, flesh bared, the cult of the body risen, Pan idealized, Venus reborn. To the sea, young men and women vanished in roadsters, entwined in the privacy of a movable parlor. At the ocean they kissed in the seaside bathhouses where burlesque postcards were sold. Women sheared their hair, smoked cigarettes, and drove automobiles. Young women bared arms and shoulders to the sun and waves. The power of the female form inspired gawkers, shocked or aroused. There was alcohol, dancing, suggestive songs. Lousia and Eugene, like many Americans, could deny “the problem of the young” until F. Scott Fitzgerald raised the banner for wanton youth in 1920 in This Side of Paradise, revealing that most nice girls in fashionable cities had kissed many boys. Yet at the seashore in 1916 there was ample evidence of the new freedoms to worry them. The dissolution of the formal nineteenth-century world they knew was first revealed at the beach, as if the restive ocean were the agent of change and the shoreline the advance guard.

The most shocking development was in the water, where the rising hems of swimming costumes became a battle line drawn by the Victorian establishment. In that summer of 1916, there was a cultural revolution over the ideal female form—the cover-all Victorian skirt-and-trouser bathing costumes gave way to lithe, form-fitting swimsuits, and the modern American image, practical and sensual, was born. The appearance of languorous female arms, legs, and calves as public erotic zones roused a national scandal. On Coney Island, police matrons wrestled women in the new clinging wool “tube” suits out of the surf. In Chicago, police escorted young women from the Lake Michigan beach because they had bared their arms and legs. In Atlantic City, a woman was attacked by a mob for revealing a short span of thigh. The American Association of Park Superintendents stepped into the fray with official Bathing Suit Regulations, requiring trunks “not shorter than four inches above the knee” and skirts no higher than “two inches above the bottom of the trunks.” Police took to the beaches with tape measures and made mass arrests.

Louisa, reading the newspaper, worried about the potential ruckus awaiting at the Jersey shore. Atlantic City—the glittering sea metropolis of four hundred hotels and fifty thousand guests only ten miles south of tiny Beach Haven—was a seat of the rebellion, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletinreported. Under the headline “Startling Hosiery Fad Rules the Beach,” the Bulletin noted that ladies wore bathing socks rolled down instead of up, exposing the knee. This moment was a turning point in American fashion; once that line was crossed, more flesh and less fabric became the style of the twentieth century. “The very modish thing . . . is reminiscent of the Highland laddies in the wee kilties, which permit the air of Heaven to play freely on their braw limbs,” the Bulletin noted. “The mode is popular among the damsels who have dimples in their knees . . . The lifeguards are primed to remonstrate if the craze continues. ‘It draws too many sharks,' they explain.”

It was Dr. Vansant's masculine privilege to read the Public Ledger uninterrupted each morning at breakfast. Sometimes he retired to his Morris chair in the library, a cozy, dark, wood-paneled room decorated specifically for the man of the house, who had time for the leisure of reading. Here were displayed his fine old books, his busts of Shakespeare and Aristotle, his collection of minerals (to illuminate his interests in learning, history, and the natural sciences), his humidor, and his stack of Saturday Evening Posts to be perused as he sat by the small fireplace, swept clean of the ashes from December's chill. The furniture and objets—heavy wooden European pieces, silver ice bucket with carved lion's-head handles—expressed the grandeur of the past.

The newspaper lay on the ottoman, raising a dusty smell of lead ink, and Dr. Vansant could not have been blamed if he lifted the broadsheets with trepidation. Big headlines, photographs, advertising, telegraph dispatches from Europe—it was all new, as startling as the messages it conveyed. The narrow columns of gray nineteenth-century type had never revealed a world so consistently urgent, not during Reconstruction or the bank panic of 1893 or even the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881, during Vansant's first year of medical school. For much of the nineteenth century, the Philadelphia Public Ledger had greeted Eugene like a genial friend, the voice of Republican saneness. A visitor at the turn of the century observed: “Philadelphia has its own dry drab newspapers, which are not like any other newspapers in the world, and contain nothing not immediately concerning Philadelphia. Consequently no echo from New York enters here—nor any from anywhere else.” Lately, the Ledger's companionship had failed the doctor.

Across the Atlantic, south of Neuve Chapelle, France, the British were firing a million shells a day, lighting the night sky for thirty miles “brilliant as if with the glare of the aurora borealis.” The Germans, in a triumph of military science, had recently turned air into a weapon, poison gas. The federal income tax, levied for the first time in 1913, was soon to be doubled to pay for increasing government expenses, including construction of the Panama Canal. The Treasury Department announced a new tax on inheritance over $50,000, and the doctor's fortune far exceeded that. The tax would compromise the legacy he planned to leave his children.

The doctor thought of his son when he read that Wilson was being pushed toward war on two continents. Declaring he would rather be judged by the “verdict of mankind” than by the election of November 7, the President had dispatched the 1st and 2nd infantries of the Pennsylvania National Guard from Philadelphia to Texas on troop trains as a protection force against the border raids of the Mexican Pancho Villa.

In Philadelphia, forty thousand machinists were expected to strike that morning for the rights to an eight-hour workday and overtime—unheard of and excessive rights, the doctor believed, advocated by the Democrat Wilson. What had happened to the rugged, self-reliant Republican nation Dr. Vansant had known? The city grand jury was investigating the “slaughter” of sixty-three pedestrians by motorcars in the past six months. Angry motorists were running down staid pedestrians and poky horse-carriages in a war over the streets. Many men and women simply didn't know how to operate the fast, jerky machines. Motorcar salesmen were supposed to provide five lessons before letting a man leave the dealership, but salesmen often skipped the last few sessions, the Ledger reported gravely, inspiring the newspaper to publish a daily driving lesson. That morning's tip concerned a fundamental element of driving in reverse: One must stop before moving ahead for “the car cannot move in two directions at once.”

The doctor found no succor from the sports columns either. Grover Cleveland Alexander suffered a rare loss to the New York Giants as a Phillies infielder “stuck his finger into a hot grounder and was added to the hospital roll.” The proud Philadelphia Athletics were walloped by the Yankees 7–0 despite the presence in the A's lineup of the game's greatest slugger, Frank “Home Run” Baker. (Babe Ruth was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series that fall, and was said to have a promising swing.)

Dr. Vansant was proud of his famous neighbor, Professor William Curtis Farabee, who returned from South America having discovered “the Garden of Eden of British Guiana.” The explorer added to the archaeological museum's peerless collection a few shrunken heads of the Jivaro and measurements of the limbs of the Macusl, Wapiatiana, Prokoto, Zapara, and Asumara tribes. But Dr. Vansant was astonished to read that many Americans were disappointed in Farabee's expedition. It was a great age of exploration, when Peary reached for the North Pole, and many believed Farabee had set out to find “the lost world” of Jurassic dinosaurs on a remote Amazonian plateau discovered by the British Professor Challenger in 1912. Dr. Vansant was mystified that the average man didn't seem to understand that both the Jurassic dinosaur and Professor Challenger were fictions in Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 bestseller The Lost World. Indeed Dr. Vansant was frequently struck by the ignorance of the public in scientific matters.

Aside from the report on infantile paralysis, which, to his relief, had not reached the southern Jersey shore, the doctor was keenly interested in the War Department's recent analysis of the new class of German U-boats, said to be the most devastating marine weapons ever invented. They were capable of crossing the Atlantic entirely underwater, and according to the Ledger, mid-Atlantic seaports such as Baltimore, Atlantic City, Wilmington, and Cape May were the most likely targets of attack, for much of the nation's coal, iron, oil, and munitions was produced within an eighty-mile radius of Philadelphia.

The family had been disappointed when the doctor announced that they were not going to their summer home in Cape May, with its Baltimore and Philadelphia society, Queen Anne mansions, and familiar rhythms. Charles was especially dejected; he cherished his hours sailing in his own boat. Louisa, however, was relieved, for she fretted about her son's safety in the sailboat, far at sea. Given the headlines in the Ledger, Dr. Vansant thought Beach Haven, a remote, little-known family resort, was a prudent choice—the safest possible place.

An editorial in another newspaper that summer left the doctor pondering the new century. Noting an unusual occurrence of wars and revolutions, strange crimes, divorces, heat waves, and unforeseen hurricanes, the editorial writer pondered the possibility that technology had destroyed a natural equilibrium, setting something amiss in this “erratic era”:

Mariners tell of strange storms arising, seemingly, from convulsions beneath the deep rather than in the heavens above. Can it be that the forces of destruction let loose by man have been mighty enough to throw the terrestrial adjustment off its balance and put the universe out of whack? Is it possible that our submarine prowlings and torpedoings have disturbed the Atlantic currents, or displaced the Spanish mainspring? Something certainly is wrong somewhere, and it would seem to be up to the geodetic gentlemen to solve the matter 'ere we monkey further with forces that may turn upon us to our complete annihilation.

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