With 2018 upon us, we might learn a few lessons in Tampa from where the city stood at this moment 100 years ago. A ready guide for such an exercise, thanks to grainy microfilm at the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library, is the Jan. 1, 1918, edition of what was then The Tampa Morning Tribune.
The differences a century makes are obvious. We liked to get our footwear fixed back then rather than throw it away, for example, judging from all the shoe-repair shop advertisements. Attention to every aspect of the business shows that citrus was the king of the economy. And railroad gangs were busy laying track outside Tampa while the two lines that employed them kept plans close to the vest.
The most striking take-away, though, from these very wide, type-heavy newspaper pages is one we should appreciate today: A community and a nation pulling together.
It took a war, of course, World War I, and God forbid we should ever face such a sweeping global conflict in the nuclear age.
The year 1918 opened with headlines featuring the war within the war that was the "Bolsheviki" forces of Lenin and Trotsky overtaking the Cossacks of Old Russia — and the rift this opened in the alliance fighting the kaiser’s Germany. The message of the day from U.S. leaders was, "Don’t trust the Russians."
But whatever the catalyst, the contrast between the unity of then and the division of now serves as a reminder that we’re capable of better things. Many have tried and largely failed to invoke the rallying power of war to achieve progress during times of peace — the book The Moral Equivalent of War, for example, declaring a war on war in 1910, and President Jimmy Carter’s appropriation of the term during the energy crisis of his one-term administration.
This old Tribune edition is rich with examples of calls to selflessness, even if a few might be laced with self-interest.
"Our President asks us to economize, to save" in support of the war effort, the Tampa Water Works Co. pronounces in an ad. So quit wasting money on bottled water, the company urges: "Tampa City Water has been tried and tested and found pure and wholesome."
On conserving resources for the war effort, The Tampa Gas Co. declares, "Team Work Will Win" in an ad written as a formal resolution. One stanza reads, "Our sons must be sent — so coin must be spent."
A news article notes that the United States is shipping 1,500 farm tractors overseas "for use to increasing (sic) the French food crops." And stacked headlines on a single front-page story read, "New year must be one of saving to win the war"/ "People must buy fewer luxuries and more federal bonds"/ "Economy is big factor"/ "Federal Reserve Board urges fewer public improvements except those necessary."
Americans today, of course, are still fighting battles. Some 2,500 service members have died just in the half-dozen operations still ongoing in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as Tampa Bay Times military writer Howard Altman chronicles here each Sunday.
But these operations make relatively few headlines and touch few American lives directly, concentrated as they are in many of the same dedicated families of volunteers, generation after generation, and targeting an enemy — jihadis — who may never leave the battlefield.
So in an era when Americans can’t agree on what’s real and what’s fake in the public square, when our lawmakers slap themselves on the back for passing something, anything, even if it’s just a rich-person’s tax cut, when the Gilded Age dawning in 1918 is trumped by a modern-day concentration of even greater wealth in even fewer hands, reading an old newspaper makes one long for a time when the nation at least had a focus.
A few other lessons emerge from this exercise, too.
These weren’t the good old days. Women and people of color were all but absent from the crossroads of the community that was — and still is — the newspaper. But there is an eerie echo in a year-end news report on how people died in Tampa during 1917.
The major killer then was said to be tuberculosis, with twice as many "colored" people felled by the disease as whites. A century later, TB may have been all but eliminated as a fatal scourge in Tampa but another has emerged: A record 38 people were murdered in the city during 2017 — 26 of them black.
Another lesson from the headlines of 1918: The components of economic prosperity are a fleeting thing.
Writers gushed over the march of those railroad tracks, the near-guarantee of a U.S. Navy installation at today’s MacDill Air Force Base, Sulphur Springs as a new movie mecca, and an all-time record year for hand-made cigars from Tampa, with so many sold that the taxes were credited with directly aiding the war effort.
Not to mention citrus, whose decline has just been slower.
It’s all an argument to make economic diversification a full-time pursuit today, no matter how glowing the projections for 2018 — the governor who will leave office touting low Florida unemployment, the mayor who declares the swagger is back, the billions of dollars in planned downtown investment.
If we need any more reason to take with a grain of salt any prediction that the future looks bright, consider, finally, this headline from Jan. 1, 1918:
"Florida soon to have perfect system of highways in all sections."