Living in Cin: Happy Old Year!

We’re celebrating 1922 only a century late, but just in time.
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Photograph by Hatsue

I have absolutely no desire to live in 1922 instead of 2022, and neither do you. We might sometimes feel attracted to the “simpler times” of a century ago, when the air was cleaner and the streets were safer and Cincinnatians were friendlier, but wait—were those things really true? Sure they were, if your last name was Procter, Kroger, Nippert, Moerlein, or anyone listed in Mrs. Devereux’s Blue Book of Cincinnati.

Ordinary people, though, couldn’t afford simpler times. The air was foul, the streets were a car/horse/pedestrian death match, and if everyone was so damned friendly back then, why did Cincinnati Bell’s newspaper ads warn people to stop their “abusive language” or their phones could be confiscated? Even Mrs. Devereux’s snooty little book printed those ads, so don’t get cocky, you Nipperts and Tafts.

Like Jail in Monopoly, let’s “just visit” the Cincinnati of 1922 from a safe distance of 100 years. What did people think were the notable events of that year, and do we care about any of them today? It’s easy for us to see the differences between then and now, but trickier to place them too solidly in the Better or Worse column. Our blurry impressions from 1922 are of speakeasys and flappers, of people holding newspapers the size of bathmats, and of life moving jerkily in black and white. Let’s try to bring back some of the color and sound. Put on your VR goggles.

Prohibition was just two years old in 1922, but its failure was already fully mature. Cincinnati’s moonshiners and bootleggers were routinely getting busted and quickly popping back up like Whac-A-Moles. (“No comment,” said George Remus.) Cincinnati police, however, were not the ones doing most of the busting. Cops from Milford kept upstaging them, thanks to a legal fluke.

Milford’s tiny sliver of land in Hamilton County gave it authority to enforce liquor laws countywide, letting its officers march into downtown and drag moonshiners back to Milford courts. Cincinnati suffered a loss of face, plus a loss of money. Big money. Mega fines levied on Cincinnati booze barons were pouring into Milford’s treasury by the barrel. After the Ohio Supreme Court gave its blessing to this practice of legal carpetbagging, other county-adjacent townships like Loveland and Cheviot suddenly got super-patriotic.

Was Prohibition our biggest collective embarrassment of 1922? Only if you don’t think about the Queen City’s subway. In case you don’t know: Cincinnati spent many years and many millions of dollars trying to build a subway system, but eventually abandoned it. Miles of zombie tunnels sit silently under our streets today.

Numerous incidents in 1922 should have confirmed how hopeless the project was, but they didn’t. Along McMicken Avenue in Brighton, for example, several buildings mysteriously developed large cracks. A number collapsed. Residents and businesses had to bug out, and some companies went bankrupt. Was it mere coincidence that this all happened directly above a newly-dug subway tunnel? City leaders, with a straight face, called it an Act of God; really, everybody, the disaster was from long-existing underground seepage and couldn’t possibly be blamed on the digging and dynamiting. The perfect solution? Do even more digging and dynamiting, so that the subway tunnels “offer a barrier.”

Now would be a good time to mention the well-funded Study of the Feebleminded, conducted in 1922 by the city’s Mental Hygiene Council. The report mentions nothing about anyone in charge of our subway. As a bonus absurdity, Cincinnati had recently been visited by the chief engineer planning Japan’s first subway for Tokyo, and he declared our work as “the best he has seen in this country.” That didn’t make the report either.

Moving on to a prouder event from 1922: the opening of our first airport. Cities everywhere were scrambling to become airplane-friendly, and although Cincinnati was facing a huge budget shortfall with mass layoffs—thanks for everything, Milford—the Chamber of Commerce eagerly plunked down $20,000 for a large field in Blue Ash. That’s $352,709.52 in today’s dollars, but remember: It’s less than Cincinnati spent just a few months ago to make our city manager go away after not quite a year on the job. The new airport held a day-long dedication, climaxing with the arrival of Cincinnati’s first air-delivered mail. Although Blue Ash seemed destined to become the permanent location for our airport, only frisbees and drones are flying there today at what’s known as Summit Park. The big job ultimately went to Lunken, until Boone County snatched it away.

Also in 1922, from a small building on Blue Rock Street in Northside, a radio station named WLW began broadcasting. It pumped out 50 puny watts, with maybe 50 people listening. I hear it’s doing better now. Other Cincinnati launches from 1922 include downtown’s Masonic Temple and the now-defunct Vernon Manor (The Beatles slept there!), the now-gone Norwood Chevrolet assembly plant, and the not-gone Empress Chili, originator of the eternal This is actual chili / No it isn’t battle. Ohio State University also opened its famous “horseshoe” stadium in 1922. That’s in Columbus, I know, but my wife is from there and I get points for mentioning it.

The Cincinnati Reds got off to a terrible start in 1922, losing 10 of their first 11 games. Sound familiar? Resist making jokes about how nothing has changed in 100 years, because the team got better fast and finished in second place in the league. Baseball itself is what changed—back then the World Series ended on October 8. Let that sink in: The baseball season used to be over before Columbus Day instead of after Election Day.

Should we bother with movies from 1922? Everyone ignores them today because they’re silent and in black and white, which is Kryptonite to anyone under 60. I must, however, point out one important exception. Nobody saw this film at the time, but that’s what happens when a court orders every reel to be rounded up and destroyed. The German-made Nosferatu was the world’s first vampire movie, establishing every cliché of every vampire movie you’ve ever seen. But it was such an obvious rip-off of the novel Dracula that Bram Stoker’s widow had it legally crushed. Surviving hidden copies didn’t reach America until 1929 and took decades longer to reach Cincinnati. Today you’ll find Nosferatu on many best-movies-of-all-time lists. It’s dated, but still deeply, deeply creepy. Naturally, I recommend it.

Some other notable moments from the year: Cincinnati’s first armored car was delivered to Procter & Gamble, specially built to thwart Butch & Sundance-style payroll robberies, which were still a thing in 1922. The No. 1 song on the charts was Fanny Brice singing “My Man,” a cringeworthy song about her lovin’ dat man even when he beats her. The State of Ohio gave us 1922’s Miss America, along with Mister America, President Warren G. Harding. The Cincinnati Fire Department retired its last remaining horse, Bob, and announced that he was happily moving to a farm upstate—that’s how old that lie is.

How about some 1922 consumer prices? Prepare to cry. A loaf of bread at Kroger was 8 cents, a carton of eggs 25 cents. Shillito’s had crochet bedspreads for $1.98. Men’s shoes at Potter’s on Fountain Square were $5.85, but $2 more for women (as usual). A new Buick went for $1,175. If you earned a respectable $4,000 in wages, the 1922 income tax rate was 4 percent, rising to 8 percent after that.

Your IRS Form 1040 (this includes all the Schedules and everything) was two pages! OK, you win: Times were simpler.

Divorce in 1922 was uncommon enough to be news. Fannie P. McClure of Greenlawn Avenue in Evanston got a headline simply by suing her husband for alimony. Over on the next block, a happier headline was the birth of Alma and Bill Kappelhoff’s new daughter, Doris. Their cute baby eventually generated more headlines than everyone in Evanston combined when she became Doris Day, one of the century’s best-known entertainers. Who saw that coming? Other unnoticed births of the year include Carl Reiner, Judy Garland, Kurt Vonnegut, Redd Foxx, Ava Gardner, and one person who is still with us as we go to press: Norman Lear.

Midterm elections in 1922 were quite different from our own recent follies, especially in the way late-night results were announced. Radio was too new to spread the word, and newspapers were morning-after. How was it done? Giant colored lights were installed atop the city’s tallest building, the Union-Central Tower (now the PNC Tower). They were visible from our famous surrounding hills, and The Cincinnati Enquirer printed a guide for interpreting the various blinking or solid colors. Just think how helpful this was for anyone who needed to quickly declare the election was rigged.

One hundred years from now, assuming there’s some species of Cincinnati Magazine that can look back at 2022, what changes will be notable? When people see the word “Skyline,” will they wonder why it’s capitalized? Will “Graeter’s” look like a typo? How many Reds and Bengals stadiums will have been demolished and built and demolished again? When readers in 2122 see the word “Kardashian,” they might think it was a brand of carpet. One hundred years from now, the only familiar person from 2022’s In Memoriam segment might be Queen Elizabeth. That’s almost guaranteed, since some elderly people will remember meeting her when they were kids.

Centuries. They grow up so fast, don’t they? Happy New Year, Cincinnati, 100 times over!

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