Looking Back on 1915

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 1, 2016.

At the close of 1915, Exeter’s residents were mystified about the curious fickleness of winter weather. Christmas was unusually warm and the following day the temperature climbed into the 50s. There had been enough snow cover to promise a suitably white Christmas, but it all melted away before the big day. Then, within two days the mild temperatures gave way to pounding rain, sleet and finally blizzard-like conditions. Exeter News-Letter editor John Templeton summed it up with his headline: “Extraordinary Christmastide Weather” – a summation we could easily reuse 100 years later.

Our concerns about terrorism were similarly mirrored in 1915. Although the United States had not entered World War I yet (and wouldn’t until 1917), accounts of the new style of warfare were frightening. Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau, an Exeter native who was living as an artist in Paris, kept the town up to date on war news with her letters. In 1915, she and her fellow Parisians were terror-stricken by the threat of air raids. “You have read in the papers the episode of the attempted raids of Zeppelins on Paris,” she wrote, “when it was rumored that they were to come by night to throw incendiary bombs over the city, the military authorities put us all on drill to suppress all light which could guide them if they should come.” Numerous times in April, Bouguereau was awakened at night by sirens and rushed to the basement with her maid and cook. French artillery and biplanes chased the enemy away, she noted, “the Zepplins fled, doing some harm in the suburbs but none in the city.” 

When school opened on September 13 (not in late August as it does now), parents were reminded that all children attending public school were required to be vaccinated against smallpox – the only type of vaccination available at the time. “The law will be enforced,” the News-Letter firmly reminded everyone. This was still the Progressive Era and public health was one of the major social reforms. Two Exeter doctors took to the editorials to remind the public of the dangers of poor health. Dentist Dr. Gerrish reminded the forgetful that if you clean your teeth regularly you won’t need as much dental work. “Cleaning the teeth may be the most important and expert thing you can do,” he wrote adding, “Thus cometh the golden days of ‘prevention.’”

Dr. Otis had become one of the foremost experts in the fight against tuberculosis, which in 1915 was one of the common killers. It was, by this time, known to be caused by bacterium, Otis reminded people that TB was more common in people who did not maintain optimal health to begin with. His prescription for a healthy lifestyle: Clean air – get outside as much as often; Nourishing food – a mixed diet of meats, fats, starches; Rest – seven to nine hours a day; and Exercise – sports, walking, gymnastics preferably in the open air. It doesn’t sound much different from what we hear today, although modern doctors would add WASH YOUR HANDS.

Voters in 1915 – and these would all be men, remember – were looking forward to the first Presidential primary ever held. The radical idea of allowing voters to choose the candidates for election was another idea of the Progressive Era. Before this time, candidates were picked at the party conventions. However, the build up to the primary was nothing like it is today. The late months of 1915 had none of the horserace-like quality that we encounter now. It’s hard to spot any political news in November or December of 1915. If there’s any at all it mostly circles around the question of women’s suffrage. The ladies were tiring of not being part of the political process. Suffrage and the question of temperance were the most frequently discussed issues of the year. Drunkenness, even in a dry town like Exeter, was a problem out of control, just as today we’re facing a new round of heroin abuse. Their solution was to ban alcohol completely – a solution that would later prove unenforceable. Ours is to step up treatment for addiction. Only time will tell if this pulls us out of the quicksand.

There was much on the horizon of 1916 that was unknowable to Exeter’s people. There was no way of knowing how close the war was coming. Excitement about the upcoming Olympics due to take place in Berlin was dashed when the event was cancelled due to the war. The bright new Ioka Theater would be bankrupt by March, its owner Edward Mayer fleeing town to avoid his creditors. Still, 1916 began on a happy note with a special town meeting called for January 8th to accept a gift of a proposed town bandstand from Ambrose Swasey. Even while attending the meeting, they couldn’t forsee how beautiful that bandstand would be. Dedicated in August, it would still be beautiful 100 years later.

Photo: An early photo of the IOKA Theater, which opened November 1, 1915.


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