The 20th Century: What's Worth Saving?

Things from the past 100 years we think are worth taking into the 21st century

| May-June 1999

Let's face it: The 20th century has been rough going. Auschwitz. Hiroshima. The Gulag. Chernobyl. AIDS. We've endured unprecedented levels of environmental despoliation, personal alienation, and human bloodshed. As The New Internationalist magazine notes, "Only the most blinkered, privileged observer could retain an unalloyed faith in the notion of human progress at the end of the 20th century." Yet at the same time great strides have been made in many fields, from social justice to medicine to pop music, largely through the vision of dedicated groups of people. Perhaps that is the century's most important lesson: No technology, no ideology, no social trend can dictate the future; it's the outcome of the choices we make, both personally and as a society. Only when everyone has a voice will we be able to decide which choices are the best ones.

To start the discussion, we've drafted a list of things from the past 100 years we think are worth taking into the 21st century.

—Research: Andrea Martin, David Alm, Mae Anderson, Megan Kaplan, Sara Rubinstein

Aikido
Devoid of offensive moves, devoted to cooperation rather than competition, and dedicated to peaceful cultivation of the spirit, aikido was the fruit of a midlife mystical experience. Morihei Ueshiba, a Japanese martial artist since his youth, had finished a sword duel in 1925 when he suddenly saw the world turn golden and heard the words "I am the universe." Ueshiba infused the peace and joy of the experience into an amalgam of jujitsu and sword techniques that became the most life-affirming (and fastest-growing) of all martial arts.



Alcoholics Anonymous
In 1935 a New York stockbroker named Bill Wilson, sober a year but craving a drink, stood by the bed of a desperate alcoholic named Dr. Bob Smith, talking about their mutual disease. Wilson's certainty that he could stay sober if he helped another drunk was the founding insight of Alcoholics Anonymous. The worldwide fellowship that resulted has saved innumerable lives. More than 1.2 million North Americans are involved in this vast network of mutual healing, with 600,000 more members overseas.

Antibiotics
When Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming went on vacation in 1928 and left his staphylococci sample uncovered, he returned to find a mold attacking it. That mold—penicillin—launched the first of several families of antibiotics, so named in 1943 by Selman Waksman, the Russian-Jewish immigrant who discovered streptomycin. The least complex and least expensive of life-sustaining technologies, antibiotics have their dark side—resistant bacteria and weakened immune systems—but continue to save lives and restore health to millions.

Appalachian Trail
The vision of Massachusetts regional planner Benton MacKaye, the Appalachian Trail was cleared and marked during the '20s and '30s by volunteer hiking clubs that lobbied hard to ensure that it would always remain open to the public. Stretching 2,159 miles along ridge tops from Georgia to Maine, the trail symbolizes America's this-land-is-your-land spirit and offers us all a chance to rediscover walking (even a few miles) as one of life's true satisfactions.

Baseball Radio Broadcasts
An aural art form was born on August 5, 1921, when the Pirates took the field against the Phillies in a game broadcast over Pittsburgh's new KDKA radio station. Tuning in to the calm cadences of an announcer ("Strike two on Sosa") punctuated by bursts of excitement ("A liner deep to the gap in left … way back … it's gone! A home run for Sammy Sosa!") remains one of summer's great pastimes.

Birth Control
The concept of birth control—that women (and men) have the right to choose how many children they raise—goes beyond oral contraceptives (introduced in 1960), condoms, diaphragms, and ancient herbs to a radical reframing of sex from straight-on reproduction to an expression of love and pleasure. The idea of sex education and freely available contraception was advanced by feminists like Margaret Sanger, who, in 1916, was arrested for opening America's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Even more radical was the idea introduced in the 1960s by members of the speculum-waving Jane Collective and advanced in the 1990s by the "do-me" feminists: that women are sexual beings—not just partners—who deserve to understand how their bodies work and what gives them pleasure.

Blood Banks
Four million U.S. patients a year are transfused with other people's blood, thanks to numerous scientific developments, including a blood-storage solution introduced in 1916. Dr. Oswald Robertson created blood depots during World War I, and a Leningrad hospital established the first blood bank in 1932. Five years later, Cook County Hospital in Chicago created the first U.S. version. We embraced the idea of sharing body products and parts when the government adopted a nationwide blood-collection program in 1940; organ donor registries continue the legacy.

Bungalows
These small one- or one-and-a-half-story houses, common throughout the Midwest, West Coast, and South, fulfill many families' dreams of having a home all their own. Modeled on traditional dwellings in India's Bengal region but borrowing from English country cottages and Adirondack summer resorts, bungalows became the most popular housing style of the century's first three decades. Built for as little as $900, often with mail-order plans and materials, they are usually packed with arts-and-crafts-style amenities: handsome woodwork, leaded glass windows, built-in buffets, cozy fireplaces and nooks. A new generation of homeowners is rediscovering their charms—which include the fact that their modest, efficient size fosters compact neighborhoods within walking distance of shops, cafés, and other urban pleasures.

Chrysler Building
It was the world's tallest building for about nine months, between its completion in 1930 and the topping-off of the taller (and duller) Empire State Building in 1931. No matter; the Chrysler, de-signed by William Van Alen, remains the unsurpassed symbol of New York sass, an Art Deco jazz baby whose gleaming spire radiates American confidence and optimism.

Coke Bottle
The heavy, green-glass six-and-a-half-ouncer—solid, sensuous, resembling the Gibson girls' hobble skirts—is still the only "classic" way to drink the brown stuff, now consumed one billion times daily around the world. In 1916, designer Raymond Loewy produced a bottle that could instantly be recognized, even in the dark or in pieces. It not only connotes Loewy's "most advanced, yet acceptable" design philosophy for future generations, but also evokes Co'cola's summery Southern origins.

Crossword Puzzles
Although word puzzles have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, The New York World published the first crossword, created by journalist Arthur Wynne, in 1913. Its popularity took off in 1924 when Simon and Schuster brought out the first crossword puzzle book. Never again would any bit of knowledge (two-letter river in northern Italy: Po) be considered useless.



Domestic-Violence Shelters
Once considered a character flaw rather than a crime, wife-beating has finally been recognized as a serious social problem that hurts 2 to 4 million U.S. women each year. Many victims endured abuse because they had nowhere to go, but in 1964 members of Al-Anon (the AA-inspired organization for relatives of alcoholics) established the first shelter for battered women in Pasadena, California. More than 1,200 shelters now exist across the country, and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 includes federal measures to aid victims.

Dr. Seuss
After rejection by 27 publishers, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street appeared in 1937, inaugurating our long-term love affair with Theodore Geisel's improbably charming characters, such as the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat (both 1957). The good doctor not only inspires TV-era kids to open books, his wacky wisdom sheds light on major issues (ecology, consumerism) and reminds young and old what's really important in life. Oh, the Places You'll Go!, his 1990 book, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for three years.

Earth Day
Conceived by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson and environmental activist Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, galvanized public support for cleaning up the environment. The results were almost immediate: The Nixon administration soon founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress passed landmark legislation to clean up America's air and water. Now celebrated in 140 nations with rallies, street fairs, and television specials, Earth Day is an annual reminder that environmental quality depends upon all of us doing our part.

Fashion Freedom
It's not always pretty (take double-knit polyester and pastel sweatsuits—please!), but the freedom to wear whatever the hell you want is liberating in a way our ancestors never knew. Flappers' skirts rose to the knee in 1921, revealing women's legs for the first time in Western history and offering independence from dress code tyranny—plus new freedom in walking, running, and dancing. Easy-care fabrics like nylon and (yes) polyester freed us from ironing, and a new, egalitarian view of footwear added to our comfort. Converse All Stars, designed in 1917, are now worn (with Chuck Taylor's hallmark star) by computer programmers worldwide.

Frisbee
This symbol of hippie-go-lucky recreation hit the stores in the '50s as the Pluto Platter, but became famous as the Frisbee (a nod to New Haven's Frisbie Pie Company, whose pie tins Yale students had sailed around their rooms for years). These flying saucers introduced Zen to the sports world: no score, rules, winners, uniforms, gear, or field—just endless, cheap, portable fun. In 1991, the Pentagon shipped 20,000 Frisbees to Saudi Arabia to raise the morale of Gulf War troops.

Gandhi's Satyagraha
Literally "the power of truth," satyagraha is Mahatma Gandhi's term for his resistance tactics, which not only drove the British empire out of India but also guided Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights struggle and supplied the philosophical backbone for social movements around the world. Gandhi conceived satyagraha in 1906 in South Africa, where he was a lawyer fighting for the rights of Indians. He drew largely upon India's ahimsa tradition but also was influenced by Tolstoy's writings and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. As historian William Shirer noted, Gandhi "taught us all that there was a greater power in life than force."

Gay and Lesbian Pride
On June 27, 1969, the New York City vice squad, conducting a routine raid on Christopher Street gay bars in Greenwich Village, met angry resistance at the Stonewall Inn. Customers shouted insults at jeering cops, hurled furniture, and refused to leave. The protests lasted all weekend. One year later the Christopher Street Liberation Day March launched a new tradition, commemorating Stonewall and what it now symbolizes: the rising spirit of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, who no longer need to shroud their sexual identities. An estimated 10 to 12 million will participate this June in Pride Week events scheduled in 250 cities around the world.

Girls' Sports
Maria Pepe (above) had played sandlot baseball in Hoboken, New Jersey, since she was 5, but when Little League time came, the 11-year-old was told that teams were for boys only. In 1972, inspired by the burgeoning women's movement, Maria and her parents took Little League to court—and won. That same year, Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, passed as an addendum to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, launching a new era of athletic equality. By 1997, more than 2.4 million girls were playing high school sports, an 800 percent increase since 1971.

Goddess Revival
UCLA archaeologist Marija Gimbutas turned historical scholarship on its head in the '70s and '80s with research that depicted peace-loving, cooperation-based, Goddess-worshipping societies in ancient Europe—which were overrun in the Neolithic era by Indo-Europeans who imposed patriarchal order. Gimbutas' vision of an earth-friendly, feminine-centered spirituality has sparked a religious awakening; an estimated 400,000 Americans now declare themselves neopagans, and many more with feminist or environmentalist leanings are helping revive Goddess worship.

Green Parties
Although there was little fanfare when Daniel Brélaz took his seat in the Swiss Parliament in 1979, the event marked the electoral emergence of a political philosophy that holds great promise for assuring that the mistakes of the 20th century are not repeated in the 21st. Now that green parties are partners in power in Germany, France, Italy, Finland, Slovakia, and Georgia, their message that everyday people's concerns and comfort should supersede demands for economic and industrial "progress" is gaining influence. Greens have pushed through pollution taxes in Germany; in the United States, 63 Greens hold elective office in 15 states and make up a majority on the Arcata, California, city council.

Harlem Renaissance
The burst of black, brown, and beige creativity in uptown Manhattan in the 1920s forever changed the image of the "negro." The work of writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes (below), Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay—written to the beat of jazz—was stylistically sophisticated without losing the rhythms and soul of everyday life. Their triumph stands not only as a rebuttal to white supremacy claims, but also as a model of how the downtrodden can give rise to great art.

Historic Preservation Districts
Local citizens raised a stink during the 1920s when Standard Oil Company razed old homes to build gas stations in the 18th-century heart of Charleston, South Carolina, prompting the city council to designate the nation's first historic preservation district (above) in 1931. While preservation campaigns go back to 1816, when Philadelphia's Independence Hall was saved from demolition, this was the first law to protect an entire neighborhood. New Orleans rescued the French Quarter in 1937, but the movement didn't take off until 1963, when a wrecking ball claimed New York's beloved Penn Station. Public outrage fueled the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which created federal provisions for historic districts.

Hollywood Screwball Comedies
Soon after talkies debuted in 1927 with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, the uproarious repartee of screwball comedies elevated screen conversation to art. Beginning with Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933), Hollywood led us laughing through the Depression, with fast-paced farces like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and A Philadelphia Story (1940), both starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. What screwball comedies lack in social commentary, they make up for with witty dialogue, anarchic humor, and lessons in the art of just having fun.

Hot Running Water
Most urban Americans had running water in their dwellings by 1900, but soothing, sensuous, steaming water—at the turn of a tap—had to wait until the 1930s, when the first inexpensive, free-standing water heater was introduced. Things got even better for all us hydro-hedonists in 1968, with the advent of the Jacuzzi whirlpool bath; if you don't have one at home, there's always the Y or a bed-and-breakfast.

Human Rights
In a century in which slavery was still legal until 1962 in Saudi Arabia (and is still tolerated in Mauritania, North Africa), and an outright white supremacist government ruled until 1994 in South Africa, the campaign for basic human rights is surprisingly young. Bolstered by the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights and abetted by global organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, activists continue to stand up to tyranny in courageous ways.

Ice Cream Cones
Arnold Fornachou operated an ice cream stand at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Legend has it that he ran out of dishes and turned to a neighboring pastry stand for help. When proprietor Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian immigrant, offered a rolled-up Persian wafer, a joyous summertime treat—and an ecological breakthrough: edible packaging—was born.

Internet
At least taxpayers got one thing in return for the trillions sunk into the Pentagon: the Internet, born in 1969 as ARPANET, a decentralized military communications system that worked even when parts of it were destroyed. Created by computer firm Bolt, Beranek, and Neumann in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the system had 15 sets of computers online by 1971, and 37 by 1973. But in 1983, the system converted to Transport Control Protocols—developed by European scientists to share research electronically despite incompatible operating systems—and laid the foundation for the Internet as we know it. Five years later, 60,000 computers were plugged in; today millions of civilians have global access to uncensored, nearly instant, and almost-free information.

Kansas City Jazz
A wide-open town in a region where people took Prohibition seriously, Kansas City in the 1930s boasted scores of rollicking nightclubs where jazz players blended swing with blues to create a jumpin' new beat. The Count Basie (right) Band burst onto the national scene in 1937, quickly followed by Jay McShann, Mary Lou Williams, and, later, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. K.C. jazz helped a generation of white fans connect their ears and minds to their feet and souls, and it still stands as an invigorating invitation to get up and dance.

Liberation Theology
Though the term refers most specifically to currents in Latin America that led Catholics to join movements for social justice and political freedom (outlined in Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez's 1971 work, A Theology of Liberation), religion's potential for sparking progressive social change is a worldwide phenomenon. Poland's Solidarity movement found inspiration in Pope John Paul II's 1978 election, and the movement that toppled East Germany's communist regime had deep roots in Lutheran prayer meetings. During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh led a group of nonpartisan Buddhists committed to helping the war's victims and coined the term "engaged Buddhism,” which has inspired a new, politically engaged spirit among Buddhists both East and West.

Mexican Murals
Some of the most life-affirming art ever created was painted on walls and the sides of buildings in Mexico during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s by muralists Diego Rivera (right), José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Rivera's deeply indigenous, pre-Columbian motifs, Orozco's acid caricatures of modern life, and Siqueiros' turbulent, surreal images of class struggle all conveyed strong leftist viewpoints and launched a tradition of socially inspired public art. It lives on in the community murals that bring splashes of hope to inner-city neighborhoods north of the border.

Morphic Resonance Theory
Nature has its own sense of collective memory, British biochemist Rupert Sheldrake declared in his controversial 1981 book, A New Science of Life. Sheldrake theorizes that all objects, from hydrogen atoms to hurricanes, are surrounded by "morphic fields," which shape their behavior by connecting them to other hydrogen atoms and hurricanes through history in ways that science cannot yet measure. While that sounds crazy to us, think how educated 19th-century folks might have reacted to the idea of TV images being conveyed across the electromagnetic spectrum. The implications of this theory are staggering, from predicting the course of hurricanes to explaining déjà vu. Sheldrake's thinking seems radical because he does not subscribe to orthodox scientific assumptions that the universe operates like a machine; instead, he sees it as more like a living organism.

Neon Lights
The first neon lamp—electricity shooting through a tube of neon gas—was put on public display in Paris in 1910 by inventor Georges Claude. Thirteen years later, Claude sold two custom-made signs to Earle C. Anthony for Anthony's Packard dealership in Los Angeles. Soon all Wilshire Boulevard was alight with "liquid fire." Defying darkness with streaks of color, neon adds an alluring dimension to evening street scenes.

New American Cuisine
Berkeley, the red-hot hub of movements for social change, set off a culinary revolution with the opening of Chez Panisse in 1971. Founded by Alice Waters, former food columnist for the underground San Francisco Express Times, the acclaimed restaurant showcases the bounty of organic and locally grown foods. Chez Panisse set the stage for a creative (and tasty) explosion of regional cooking across America and offered a four-star boost to sustainable agriculture. More than a thousand New American chefs are involved with the new Chefs Collaborative 2000 organization, which is promoting sustainable food choices for the next century.

Overseas Air Travel
The first round-trip transatlantic flight occurred in 1919 (eight years before Lindbergh) when British fliers captained a dirigible from England to New Jersey and back. But the real breakthrough in travel came in the late ’50s, when Boeing’s new 707 jet brought down the price of overseas airline tickets, allowing schoolteachers and plumbers to tour European capitals and college students to backpack through India. Although shorter trips are better left to speedy trains, affordable air travel transformed our culture, as people returned from abroad embracing ideas like acupuncture, inner-city revitalization, and sushi bars.

Paperback Books
What began as a risky venture in 1935 for Britain’s Penguin Books turned into a cultural revolution by the 1950s, largely due to the genius of Robert de Graff, who invented the mass-market book and founded Pocket Books in 1939. Paperbacks—printed on huge presses in large quantities at reasonable prices, and sold for the first time in drugstores and bus stations—democratized reading by putting more books into more people’s hands than ever before.

Photocopiers
The world’s first “Xerox” copy (a smudgy piece of wax paper that said “10-22-38 Astoria”) was the primitive result of New York chemist and inventor Chester F. Carlson’s (right) 1938 discovery (in his lab over a bar in Astoria, Queens) that you can use electrical charges and powdered ink to make instant, “electrophotographic” copies of documents. The first copier, the Model A, debuted in 1949; its automatic, plain-paper offspring arrived in 1959, adding to the paper glut but also launching a revolution in low-tech, DIY art and publishing.

Psychotherapy
Modern psychotherapy was born when Freud’s monumental The Interpretation of Dreams, the fruit of his own self-analysis, was published in 1900. In the years since, a vast panorama of therapies has sprung up, from Jungian and Adlerian to Rational-Emotive and humanistic, even as Freud’s reputation suffered assaults from many quarters. But the “talking cure” has transformed our civilization and improved our lives by making the once-unspeakable speakable and exposing hidden pain to healing.

Rocky and Bullwinkle
In the ’60s, everyone in the family was delighted by the TV adventures of this flying squirrel and slow-witted moose, the hapless spies Boris Badenov and Natasha who chased them, and the regular absurdities of “Fractured Fairy Tales.” Kids thought it was a great action-packed cartoon; grown-ups appreciated the wry humor and subtly sophisticated social commentary, not to mention the outrageous puns, such as one cliffhanger ending that promised a sequel: “The Snowman Cometh; or, An Icicle Built for Two.” The tradition continues: Homer J. Simpson’s middle initial (shared by Bart) is an homage to the J. of Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel—itself a nod to Bull winkle co-creator Jay Ward.

Shorter Workweek
The 1938 Wagner Act mandated a 40-hour week for most American workers,  bringing victory in a crusade for more leisure time that had begun 50 years earlier. Unfortunately, the U.S. movement stalled; Harvard economist Juliet Schor says Americans are working more hours per week than we did a generation ago. Fortunately, Europe’s  unions have continued the push—the Netherlands has a 36-hour week, and France is inaugurating a 35-hour week next year, followed by Italy in 2001.

Social Democracy
Coming to power in 1932 in the midst of the Depression, Sweden’s Social Democratic Party set out to steer a middle course between communism and capitalism by preserving free enterprise but promoting economic fairness through social programs, such as those that ensured access to health care and economic security in old age. After World War II, these policies spread through Western Europe and into other parts of the world. They’ve been turned back by the rise of global corporations—which, as French socialist leader François Mitterrand discovered in the early 1980s, can easily shift operations to another country—yet the belief that everyone deserves a share of the good life remains a powerful idea.

Solar Power
As early as 1904, a power plant in St. Louis was converting sunlight into electricity, but high costs meant that fossil fuels, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear plants dominated the 20th-century energy supply. Recent advances in photovoltaic solar cells (invented in 1954 at Bell Laboratories) coupled with increasing awareness of the environmental price tag of other energy sources bode well for the future: Sales of solar cells jumped 40 percent in 1997 alone, and half a million homes, mostly in remote Third World villages, use them for all their electrical needs.

South African Township Jive

An exhilarating amalgam of tribal chants and regional rhythms mixed with R&B, jazz, and rock influences, township jive was the sound track of black resistance during the dark decades of apartheid. The rousing 1985 anthology, Indestructible Beat of Soweto, brought this infectious, joyous music to the ears of the world, followed by Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland, which made Ladysmith Black Mambazo internationally famous.

Sticky Notes
These handy items, the result of the serendipitous marriage of a failed product (glue not sticky enough for its intended use) and a spiritual need (3M researcher Arthur Fry kept losing his place in the church choir hymnal when his scrap-paper markers fell out), almost didn’t happen. Even after Fry created Post-it® Notes, corporate executives tried to kill the project; it was resurrected when two salespeople on cold calls convinced secretaries to try the novel products and returned with orders. Since their 1980 introduction, we can’t seem to do without them—and we really can’t do without the human ingenuity and persistence that made them possible.

Traffic Calming
After a motorist ran over a child—the third young casualty in a single neighborhood—residents of the Dutch city of Delft took to the streets one night with wheelbarrows and cast-off lumber, constructing barriers to slow down speeding cars. The idea soon spread to nearby towns, and in 1976 redesigning streets to “calm” traffic became official policy in the Netherlands and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Now speed bumps, traffic circles, narrowed streets, and other designs that make cars, bikes, and pedestrians more compatible are becoming common throughout the world, including ambitious efforts in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. 

Trench Coats
London designer Thomas Burberry’s gabardine weatherproofs, first worn in the Boer War at the turn of the century, didn’t become “trench coats” until World War I: After distinctive “D” rings were added to attach grenades (in front) and a sword (in back), military officers wore the protective garment while fighting in the trenches. After the war, the coats—now associated with spies, foreign correspondents, and sophisticates everywhere—became fashionable, proving that stylishness and usefulness don’t need to be opposites.

Universal Suffrage
At the turn of the century, no country on earth offered women the right to vote. While Wyoming Territory embraced women’s suffrage as early as 1869, Norway was the first nation to do so, in 1913. It wasn’t until 1920 that most American women could step into a voting booth. And for blacks of both genders, polling places were off-limits in many states until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Zipper
In 1913, Swedish immigrant Gideon Sundback of Chicago’s Universal Fastener Company streamlined the firm’s complicated “Judson C-curity Fastener” into a slick little system dubbed the zipper by the B.F. Goodrich Company (which used it on rubber galoshes). Touted in the ’30s as the perfect closer for men’s flies (ruling out “The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray,” said one ad), the zipper continues to make coats warmer, pockets more secure, and toddlers a whole lot easier to dress in the morning.




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