1910s

Back of peoples' heads in the foreground with a large boat in the background.

"More Tons, Less Huns": World War I Shipbuilding in Alexandria

World War I fueled a rapid buildup in industrial production and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding. Alexandrians rejoiced when the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation came to their city but the enthusiasm would not last.

Red Cross Demonstration in D.C. During 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 1918)

Then There Were No Coffins

In the fall of 1918, a deadly influenza epidemic raged in Washington, D.C. Entire families were wiped out; some people died within a day of showing symptoms. City officials, meanwhile, had a difficult job: figuring out what to do with the bodies.

The Howard University Fight Over Vaccination

Image of a gravestone of someone who allegedly died of vaccine poisoning at school (Source: Thomas Boudren, An Open Letter to the Governor and Members of the General Assembly of Connecticut, Bridgeport, Connecticut: Press of the Farmer Pub., Co., 1911)

Prior to 1909, Harry Bradford had almost never landed himself in the paper. He appeared in The Washington Post once, when it announced that the Kensington Orchestra was going to be performing in the near future. (Bradford played violin.) But other than that, nothing. And yet, in 1910, Bradford’s name was in all caps on the front page of the Post. “Bradford told to quit,” the headline read.

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

Damaged records from the 1890 census. Most of these records ended up being destroyed. (Image source: National Archives)

Just Stick It in the Basement: Before the Archives

Today, the founding documents of America - the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights - are on display at the Charters of Freedom exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Tourists from across America and the world make pilgrimages to see the most revered documents in American history. Extensive preservation measures have been put in place. But this wasn’t always the case. For most of our nation’s history, these charters, now considered priceless, were kept with the United States’ other government documents - that is, shoved wherever officials could find space. Before the National Archives was founded in 1934, these documents were stored essentially at random, in basements, on walls, or even piled in hallways.

January 14, 1915 Washington Times ad about Leo Frank.

The Leo Frank Case

Have you ever heard of Leo Frank? His case, a lesser known piece of American history, had tremendous long-lasting impact on the nation -- leading to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and reviving the Ku Klux Klan. There’s also a Washington, D.C. connection.

In 1913, Leo Frank, a young Jewish man originally from New York, was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory he managed. After a month-long trial, with prejudice heavy in the air, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. Due to the judge’s fear of mob violence, Frank and his family were not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.

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