It can be said that the Twentieth Century began in Cincinnati at a humble Over-the-Rhine tenement at 23 Green Street. That is where, at 12:04 a.m. on Tuesday, 1 January 1901, Sylvia Beck took her first breath—the first Cincinnati baby of the brand-new century.
The building in which Sylvia was born still stands, a four-story brick building at the corner of Goose Alley. It was on the third floor of this building that Emma Kuchenbuch Beck delivered her fifth and penultimate child, assisted by a midwife, Eva Winter. Perhaps, as in the movies, father Leo Beck, a salesman of leather goods, was sent to boil water. Sylvia’s siblings included Charles, 8; Marcella, 6; Irene, 4; and Victor, 2. (A sixth child, Dorothy, would be born in 1902.) The Cincinnati Post [7 January 1901] proclaimed Sylvia to be a happy baby:
“In very good humor with the world as she entered, she has given, since then, every evidence of the pleasure she feels in living, and her nine pounds of happy babyhood promises to develop into perfect womanhood.”
Sylvia, as it turned out, developed into a stenographer and secretary. She never married, nor did her sister, Dorothy. Brothers Charles and Victor and sister Marcella married, then divorced and moved home. Only sister Irene seems never to have returned home after her marriage in the 1920s.
The 1940 Census finds the family living in St. Bernard at 4405 Sullivan Avenue. Mother Emma heads the household. Leo died in 1925. According to the Census, Charles sold insurance, Victor worked in salvage and Marcella was a bookkeeper for a hardware store. Dorothy was unemployed. Marcella’s 14-year-old daughter, Mary Taylor, rounded out the household. Sylvia, aged 39, was a secretary for the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, a job she would hold for much of her adult life.
When Sylvia was a new baby, her father invited Cincinnati Mayor Julius Fleischmann to her christening. According to the Post:
“The Mayor mailed a reply, writing in a happy vein; but said he could not be present. But he sent a great bunch of American Beauties to the christening Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Catholic Church, Green and Bremen streets. The ceremony was witnessed by a large throng.”
Later that year—one wonders whether Leo Beck was angling for a city contract—Sylvia sent Mayor Fleischmann a gift. The Cincinnati Post [7 September 1901] reported:
“The first baby girl born in Cincinnati in the new century, Sylvia Beck, daughter of Leo H., 23 Green Street, Tuesday sent Mayor Fleischmann a present of a fine canary bird in a gilded cage. It is a sweet singer and brightened up the City Hall with its warbling melody.”
The available documents tell us so little about the lives of people listed in their columns. Was Sylvia Beck a Reds fan? Did she go for Cincinnati chili? Did she, as so many Cincinnatians, vacation in the Smoky Mountains? We cannot ask her.
Sylvia died, aged 89, on August 13, 1990. She is buried, with most of her family, in Saint Mary Cemetery, St. Bernard. She was survived by nieces and a nephew. The Cincinnati Post, to its credit, remembered Sylvia’s special significance and, under a headline of “Sylvia Beck, century’s 1st,” explained in some detail why someone born in 1901 was the first child of the Twentieth Century:
“The 1901 birth date made Miss Beck the first baby born in this century because, according to the World Book Encyclopedia, “the years from 1-100 after the birth of Christ are called the first century; from 101 through 200 was the second century.” By extension, the 20th century is made up of the years 1901-2000.”
Just 10 years later, of course, the Post forgot the World Book Encyclopedia, and declared a baby born on January 1, 2000 the first baby born in the Twenty-First Century. The Post paid absolutely no attention to whatever baby was born first on January 1, 2001.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities