1914 Seventy-five Years Ago

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No one seemed to realize how hard the depression of 1913-14 had hit the upper Midwest until Henry Ford announced on January 5 that his company would be hiring up to five thousand new men to accommodate its expansion from two shifts to three. Even more spectacular was the news that he would be paying every Ford worker five dollars for a day’s work, more than doubling the existing wage.

Crowds of up to fifteen thousand massed around the Ford employment office throughout the week, ignoring both the company’s notices that all hiring had ceased and the icy wind of a Michigan winter. Newspapers ran stories about job hunters who had spent the last of their savings to come to Detroit and would be unable to return home.

By the end of the week Ford executives were relieved to find only four thousand gathered outside their offices, but Monday morning brought the throngs back again, this time in a foul mood. The appearance of Ford employees filtering into the warm building fanned the crowd’s resentment. Pinning guards, employees, and police against the walls, the mob threatened to overrun the factory. It took the full force of a fire hose in nine-degree weather to end the demonstration.

The crowd’s dispersal signaled the last of the problems Henry Ford would have with the five-dollar day. Ford had estimated that increasing the payroll would cost his company ten million dollars a year, but the increased productivity of his uplifted work force cut that figure in half. The massive amount of free publicity arising from the innovative labor policy pushed the company’s market share to almost 50 percent and probably recovered the salary increase completely. Years later, when he considered the long-term effect of his decision, Ford wrote, “The payment of five dollars a day for an eight hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made.”

January 20: The Milwaukee circuit court declared unconstitutional a Wisconsin law requiring that men be certified free of venereal disease in order to receive marriage licenses. Although syphilis was alarmingly commonplace in the American population, the court judged that the law was an unreasonable impairment of the right to marry and discriminatory in that it required only men to be tested.

The motivations behind the law were to be as important as its provisions in the discussion surrounding it. The press had dutifully described the law as eugenic legislation, and indeed, the American eugenics movement favored the idea of prohibiting marriage to the diseased. Libertarians argued that the state was attempting to regulate the reproduction of its population, while the Virginia Law Register warned that “we may expect . . . statutes providing upon which side we must sleep and the kind, quality, thickness and texture of our underwear....” Legal scholars debated whether the law abridged rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court seemed to be following public sentiment, however, when it reversed the lower court’s decision later that year on the grounds that “society has a right to protect itself from extinction and its members from a fate worse than death.”

To an American in 1914 this would hardly have seemed an overstatement. Nineteenth-century studies had estimated that fully 10 percent of the American population was infected with syphilis. As late as 1918, nine years after the drug Salvarsan was discovered as an arduous but effective cure, every eighth man drafted for World War I had a venereal disease.

But more than public health was at stake. Syphilis was regarded as a dangerous symptom of imminent breakdown in a society that greatly prized individual discipline and family responsibility. Sexual diseases not only threatened the moral code but also seemed to show that the code was not working. In the face of this national affliction of body and soul, almost every state in the country had by 1945 followed Wisconsin in passing a mandatory premarital-testing law. By then, however, the universality of penicillin assured that these laws would no longer prevent anyone from marrying.

While dining in a fashionable New York City restaurant, the composer and conductor Victor Herbert heard the orchestra play several of his melodies. He knew that under United States copyright law he was entitled to royalties for this performance; he also knew that if he complained, he risked having his music banned from public performance, though he was one of the most prestigious figures in American music.

On February 13 Herbert and more than one hundred leaders of the music world formed the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to enforce the copyright laws. ASCAP also served as a convenient and inexpensive clearinghouse for copyrighted music, but most of the country’s hotels and resaurants continued to resist the organization for three years. It took a 1917 Supreme Court decision to guarantee that copyright owners could claim the right to control performances of their work. The tragedy of Stephen Foster’s life, even if he had continued to sign away his royalties for a pittance, would have been avoided if ASCAP had existed during his lifetime.