This essay has been adapted from a “Spiel” delivered by Mike Pesca on his podcast, The Gist. An edited transcript of the audio recording is below, and you can listen to Pesca’s Spiel by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph and fast-forwarding to the 17:49 mark.
The Chicago Cubs, perhaps you’ve heard, last won the World Series in 1908.* Theodore Roosevelt was president back then.
But that’s sort of the egg avatar of historical insight. Craftier crafters of historical comparison might tell you that Roosevelt was president in 1908, but William Howard Taft—who, in 1910, became the first president to throw a ceremonial first pitch—was about to be elected. Then Roosevelt would go on a safari, come back, decide Taft had ruined things, and say that his one-time protégé was a “puzzlewit.” Taft responded by calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler.”
Or the cleverer historian might mention that in 1908 the Ottoman Empire was still in existence.
Fair enough. But we can do better than that, can’t we? We’ve had 108 years to think of better ways to tell you how long ago 1908 was. Here are some.
Sure, the Ottoman Empire was a thing. But so were the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Central Africa’s Wadai Empire and the Emirate of Jabal Shammar on the Arabian Peninsula. There were only about 60 countries in the entire world in 1908—60 places you might consider sending an ambassador if you were Washington. That doesn’t even count Newfoundland, which was a quasi-independent dominion of Great Britain, independent from Canada. There are now 192 countries in the United Nations. States proliferate easier than Cubs championships.
Forget countries—there were 85 known elements in 1908. Today there are 118 elements in the periodic table. To be fair, elements 95 through 118 literally didn’t exist in 1908—they were created in laboratories. The atomic model was devised by Rutherford only in 1911.
In 1908, the vast majority of Americans thought the Earth’s years numbered in the thousands. Just a few years prior, scientists suspected it may be the millions. But in 1907, Bertram Borden Boltwood used the half-life of uranium to place the Earth’s age at around 2.2 billion. He was off by about half—Earth is actually 4.5 billion years old, which means it even predates the Roosevelt presidency.
Scientifically, 1908 does have something in common with the present. There were only eight planets in 1908, and there are only eight planets now. Let us not speak of that benighted period, from the discovery of Pluto in 1930 until its reclassification as a dwarf in 2006, when we mistakenly thought we had nine.
In 1908, there were 88.7 million people in the United States, and more of them died of tuberculosis—around 67,000—than any other disease. The average age barely touched 50. This led to a strange and sad quirk in mortality statistics. The Bureau of the Census reported that nearly 700,000 Americans diedin 1908. Infants under the age of 1 accounted for 136,000 of those—roughly 20 percent of all deaths. If you had a family member die in 1908, it was more likely he or she was under the age of 1 than over the age of 70. Other causes of death in 1908: diarrhea and enteritis (52,000), typhoid (11,000), whooping cough (5,000), measles (4,600), diphtheria (1,500), abscess (514), carbuncle (203).
Sixty-six deaths of Americans in 1908 were officially listed as “suicide by crushing.” There were 2,468 suicides by firearms. Now it’s roughly 21,000, which means more Americans per capita take their own lives by firearm today than they did in 1908, even though conditions were demonstrably worse 108 years ago. We have Netflix; they had death by carbuncle. To be fair, I would say that the stigma around suicide has lessened and that government statistics have gotten more reliable, so maybe it’s not true that we have, on a per capita basis, outstripped our forefathers. On the other hand, we should also realize that guns have gotten more efficient, which is to say more deadly, so maybe there were actually more suicide attempts back then.
Some good news: Only 393 Americans lost their lives in car accidents in 1908. Why? There were almost no cars—the Model T began production in 1908. In addition, 1,696 people died by streetcar.
Because of inflation, a nickel then was like a dollar now. Let’s put this another way. A Seattle resident earning today’s minimum wage of $15 an hour and working 40 hours per week would have the spending power—if that was his wage back in 1908—of someone earning $750,000 in today’s money. Another way to put it: You would be earning more than the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, or Addison Russell do today. Three-quarters of the current Cubs infield would cost you $64,000 in 1908. In 2016 money, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw earned roughly $72,000 for each out he recorded in the regular season.
Speaking of the Cubs: The 1908 Cubs were decidedly uncursed. The World Series only started in 1903. It was won by the Boston Americans, who would later become the Red Sox. In 1904, there was no World Series. Then the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox won it in 1905 and 1906 before the Cubs took the series for two straight years.
Think about that: The World Series was won by Chicago teams three times in the first five years it was contested and twice in the next 107 years—results of the current year still pending.
In 1908, classical music was just known as music. Stravinsky’s The Firebird had not yet been composed, and Mahler’s eighth symphony had yet to premiere. Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, and Prokofiev had all yet to write some of their most famous works. In other music news, the Cubs could have heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” because that was written in 1908. Although no one would have heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the ballgame because it wasn’t played at ballgames until 1934.
The tallest building in Chicago in 1908 was 19 stories.
The following people still walked the Earth in 1908: Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Florence Nightingale, Henri Rousseau, Julia Ward Howe, Geronimo.
The following people, people who we know today as people who were old when they died, in some cases many years ago, had not even been born in 1908: Eva Braun, Perry Como, Errol Flynn, Eudora Welty, Mother Teresa, Jacques Cousteau, Howlin’ Wolf. Jessica Tandy was famous as an old lady when she died 22 years ago. She had not been born in 1908.
An American in 1908 of the same age that I am right now, 44, could have been born as the legally recognized property of another American.
1908 was closer in time to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson than it is to the presidency of Hillary Clinton, though both years are equally distant to the presidency of Donald Trump, because that is an event that will never come. Although, for many years, people though the same thing about the Cubs winning the World Series.
Correction, Oct. 25, 2016: This article originally stated that the Chicago Cubs last made the World Series in 1908. They last won the World Series in 1908. (Return.)