When 1917 began, the United States was still involved in the conflict with Pancho Villa in Mexico. The American public was aware of the conflict of Europe but still not war hungry. Instead they were preoccupied with their everyday lives. They had just elected the first woman to Congress, Jeanette Rankin from Montana (who won even though women weren’t allowed to vote,) and Woodrow Wilson was sitting in Washington after winning the election on his “he kept us out of war” campaign. Puerto Ricans had just been granted citizenship, allowing them to enter the continental United States without clearing immigration.
The average American made between $1,000 – $2,000 a year ($20,390.09 – $40,780.17 today.) But the cost of living had risen steeply with the rest of the world at war. In New York, there were riots over the prices charged for food when compared to only one year before:
2 pounds of onions = .06 cents vs. 2 pounds of onions = .40 cents
4lbs of potatoes = .08 cents vs. 4lbs of potatoes = .28 cents
2.5lbs of meat = .40 cents vs. 2.5lbs of meat = .60 cents
4lbs of bread = .12 cents vs. 4lbs of bread = .37 cents
1/4lb of butter = .08 cents vs. 1/4lb of butter = .14 cents
1lb of cabbage = .02 cents vs. 1lb of cabbage = .20 cents
Women stormed city hall and demanded a reduction in prices. Read more about the Food Riots here.
Only 4.7 million automobiles were registered in the country (plus almost 500,000 trucks) though there were 103.3 million people living here, meaning about 5% of Americans had cars compared to population of 326 million with approximately 236 million vehicles or 80% today.While cars weren’t as popular, the telephone definitely was. According to AT&T, by 1904 there were already over 3 million phones as well as thousands of independent telephone providers. That number only grew as phone service improved, including the first coast-to-coast call in 1915.
The first jazz record was commercially released that year. By the Original Dixieland Jass Band, the song was called “Livery Stable Blues” and appeared on Victor Records. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band still exists today (though with a new line-up of course.)
The bestselling book in 1917 was H.G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through which was not a science fiction title but rather a novel of the war-time experience in England. The book had a long shelf-life and was particularly popular in Britain and Australia. Other popular authors were Zane Grey (western), Ethel M. Dell (romance and ultimately a film,) and Ernest Poole (who won the first Pulitzer Prize for a Novel with My Family.)
But the war was nearing our shores. On March 1, 1917 the newspapers published articles relating to the Zimmermann Telegram. It wasn’t too long after that that war was officially declared.