By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Kathrine Esten, and Rebecca Simons
Imagine a United States embroiled in a deadly pandemic, divided over something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask. Or imagine a United States drawn into distant military conflicts despite deep societal tensions at home. Or imagine Americans going into a presidential election wishing that the previous four years had never taken place.
We’re not discussing 2020. This is 1920. Starting on October 1, the Gibson House Museum, a historic house in Boston’s Back Bay, is featuring a new outdoor exhibit titled “1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal.”
The exhibit follows the Gibson family and their staff through three waves of dramatic societal change that preceded the election of 1920: the Influenza Pandemic, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the First World War. The impetus for the project came after the Gibson House Museum was forced to close to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Museum staff wanted to find a way to remain connected and relevant to the neighborhood community.
While these areas of study are fascinating under normal circumstances, their centennial anniversary comes at a time when the lessons of the past are more relevant than ever. Seeking to understand the Gibson family’s eagerness to embrace a “return to normalcy,” the staff and interns at the Gibson House Museum found themselves reflected in an America burdened with instability and social tension.
An Internship in the time of COVID
A summer internship at a museum usually sees students immerse themselves in the material culture: giving tours, handling artifacts, etc. This summer, the Gibson House Museum interns — Kathrine Esten and Rebecca Simons of UMass and Betsey Donham of Smith College — never
had a chance to visit the museum in person. Nor did they meet one another face-to-face. Instead, they completed all research remotely, communicating via text, email, and video calls.
As interns immersed themselves in 1920, it was impossible to separate their research from events they were experiencing in everyday life. For instance, renewed interest in the 1918 Influenza pandemic gave rise to a plethora of articles, recorded lectures and presentations on the topic. In Rebecca’s introduction to her blog post about the influenza virus, she noted that “much like the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic… [the influenza] turned daily life upside down.” Betsey pointed out that discussions of the suffrage movement often fail to recognize the racial inequalities perpetuated by white suffragists and the undeniable racism enshrined in American institutions. Kathrine cited a 1918 Boston Globe article about the end of the First World War that said the past couldn’t be saved; the future would need to be “something radically different.”
However, public historians can find hope in the new opportunities which come with a remote internship. Without the cost of a Boston commute, the three interns (who were scattered far from the city itself) took an internship not normally possible during the summer. Operating on virtual schedules, Kathrine, Betsey, and Rebecca developed remote working skills likely to be critical in the years to come. And perhaps most significantly, the interns found ways to work together despite being far apart. The interns shared digital archives access, texted about interesting discoveries, and built a cohort with a clear goal: finishing blog posts and an outdoor exhibit on the “New Normal” of 1920.
Learning from the Past
What does it mean to study a past of societal chaos when the present is far from stable? For the intern team, it meant searching for lessons the Gibson family, their staff, and Americans of 1920 could teach.
Of course, there are limitations to how relatable the Gibson Family is for most Americans today. Because of the Gibsons’ wealth and social status, they were less likely to be affected by the pandemic of their era. A society column in the Boston Post from October 1918 speaks to the privilege of upper-class Bostonians who could “bask in fresh air, sunshine and nature” outside the city. It’s not hard to look at the massive crowds fleeing America’s urban centers in the early months of the pandemic to see a parallel.
Similarly, the suffrage movement in Boston found its support among lower-class individuals that would have worked for the Gibson family. White, upper-class women, including the eldest Gibson daughter, fueled an anti-suffrage movement; one can only imagine how they’d view demands for societal reckoning today.
But we can see how information about the pandemic and masks was made freely available to many Bostonians through a “cottage” on the Boston Common. Constant policy attention to store hours and building occupancy limited the spread of the pandemic at times, but leniency could be devastating. Health officials believed public gatherings, like the celebration of the end of the war on November 11, 1918, and the holiday season, continued to circulate influenza among the population.
Collective organization for social change can also create a model for future generations. We know today that the suffrage movement in Boston and in the broader United States was ultimately successful: in 1920, the U.S. ratified the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s suffrage. (Of course, restrictions, such as poll taxes and various education requirements, excluded a large percentage of women of color from voting until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)
And a city may be able to remove some physical aspects of change: dismantling naval yards or cleaning up after peace parades. But even when the fighting is over, the war is not. “The real war is just beginning,” The Boston Globe wrote in 1918. “The war against ignorance, the war against poverty, the war against prejudice, the war against disease… The world of 1914 was one thing. The world of 1920 will have to be something radically different.”
Americans in 1920 did not want to dwell on the misery, panic, and uncertainty of the previous few years. The dream of a “return to normalcy” launched Warren G. Harding to the presidency, but our research shows that the United States never truly reverted to what it had been. There isn’t any reason to believe that we can go back to what the world was like before 2020 — but this change isn’t an end. Perhaps the Gibson House Museum will return to look at our “New Normal” in 2120.
“1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal” is on view through December 17 in the courtyard of the Gibson House Museum and related blog posts on the Boston and Gibson perspective on the end of WWI, suffrage, and the Spanish flu can be found on the Gibson House Museum’s blog.
Meghan Gelardi Holmes is the Curator of the Gibson House Museum and an alumna of the UMass Public History program. Kathrine Esten is a graduate student in public policy at UMass Amherst. She is a 2020 alumna of the undergraduate history program. Rebecca Simons is a history major at UMass Amherst with a concentration in public history, and Spanish.