By Aaron Boyes and Sean Graham
Welcome to the First Decennial(?) Year in Review: Winners at War (100 Years Later) bracket. In 2013, we had an idea to do a recap of 1913. The idea came out of our frustration with the annual recap columns that declared winners and losers, often before the year is even over. As historians, we felt that the only way to truly assess a year’s significance was through the benefit of time. And with that, an annual(?) tradition was born. Each December since that fateful first edition, we have convened to determine the most important event from 100 years ago. Over the past 3 weeks, we have gone back and completed the decade by looking at 1910, 1911, and 1912. And today, we put them against each other in an effort to determine the most significant event of the 1910s. To recap, here are the past winners:
1910: Binder Clip Patented
1912: Titanic Sinks on Maiden Voyage
1911: First International Women’s Day
1913: Zipper Patent
1914: First Successful Non-Direct Blood Transfusion
1915: Women’s Suffrage Legalized in Kingdom of Denmark
1916: Margaret Sanger Opens First American Birth Control Clinic in Brooklyn
1917: Russian Revolution
1918: Spanish Flu Pandemic
1919: First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight
Our two ‘rules’ through this series have been that no events from the first world war were eligible, nor would we have repeat winners. We have forgone the classic four-bracket model, and instead we seeded the 10 events. They will go head to head in a single-elimination format to determine the most important event of the 1910s.
(10) Binder Clip Patented
Aaron: In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seems eerily relevant. Each year, between 3 and 5 million people catch the seasonal flu, and between 250,000 and 500,000 of these cases are fatal. The Spanish Flu, however, was much worse. The virus spread around the world and infected close to 500 million people – for perspective, the estimated population of earth was 1.8 billion. That means that slightly less than one-third of all humans alive in 1918 contracted the flu and between 50 and 100 million of them died.
(Editor’s note: Aaron wrote the following in December 2018, proving once again that historians make TERRIBLE prognosticators: “With hope, virologists are able to determine the exact cause [of the Spanish Flu] and we can prevent another devastating flu season.”)
Louis E. Baltzley patented the basic design of the binder clip in 1910; he was granted the US patent number 1,139,627. As Sean so accurately pointed out in our original bracket, binder clips are everywhere despite the fact that you personally never seem to buy them. If you work in an office, like I do, binder clips are especially ubiquitous and necessary. Some people, like Sean, even use them as their “wallet”.
This first contest is the definition of a mismatch. And this is why those games on a Tuesday night in October, despite Sean’s most vehement objections, are important: you amass enough wins and you get the top seed so that you play a weaker opponent in round one! [Editor’s context: Aaron and Sean constantly debate the merits of an 82-game NHL season] I believe that the Spanish Flu easily wins this matchup. The spread of the flu in 1918-1919 was so devastating, so much so that cases were found on every continent except Antarctica. The Spanish Flu remains one of the worst pandemics in recorded human history. Contrast that to the binder clip, which, while useful, doesn’t even compare.
Sean: 82 games is garbage. Fire Bettman. Liberate the NHL!
Your use of the word ‘easily’ is offensive here. Yes, the Spanish Flu was a terrible event and has been helpful to contextualize the current world in which we live (good prognosticating there Kreskin), but it was a one-off. It happened and then it stopped. Binder clips, on the other hand, are a daily fixture. And yes, I use one as my wallet. When I take it out, I notice that other people are looking at me, clearly thinking “I should do that.”
Aaron:I hate to break this to you, but when people look at you and your wallet, they aren’t thinking “I should do that”; they’re thinking “What the [expletive deleted] is that guys doing?” I will backtrack a little and retract my “easily” statement; however, I stand by the Spanish Flu. It may have been a one-off that disappeared, but when close to 100 million people die it’s significant. The binder clip, while extremely useful, did not save 100 million lives.
Finally, I’ll give you that 82 games is a little much – although the NHL season is my entertainment from October to June. A 68 game season would be ideal.
Sean: It may have saved the freshness of 100 million bags of chips, though.
Spanish Flu Pandemic Wins (88-77)
(2) Women’s suffrage
(9) Zipper patented
Sean: Last week during a virtual board game night, I was discussing these brackets and giving a bit of a rundown of some of the past winners. When I got to the zipper patent, I was chastised by the group, who believed that there is no way that this rose to the level of the most significant event of a given year. My response, which was our justification at the time, was a simple question: is there a day in your life where you do not use a zipper?
The zipper’s ubiquity is really its strength. We are confronted with zippers on a daily basis, which is remarkable given that the design was not patented until 1913. Before that we only had buttons, a reality that I’m glad I missed. Sure, the zipper doesn’t have the immediate impact of some of the other events on this list, but its universal use by billions of people each day make it a strong contender, a fact belied by its low ranking here.
Women’s suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark, on the other hand, did have that immediate significance that we so often discuss in these brackets. As we discussed last week with maternity benefits in Australia, once women won the right to vote, political priorities shifted to address this new, and powerful, voting bloc. And as we have seen, not only in Denmark, but around the world, as women fought for their right to vote, new policies and programs were increasingly implemented. And while some of these may have been classified as ‘women’s issues,’ they were to the benefit of society as a whole.
When we started the brackets in 2013, our only rule was that we would not discuss events directly associated with the First World War, with the justification that we thought they might dominate the discussion and our friends with Canada’s First World War were doing a much better job than we could have in analyzing the war, but after Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark won for 1915, we created a new rule: no repeat winners. Since women won the right to vote in multiple countries in the latter part of the 1910s, we wanted to ensure, like with our decision on the First World War, that there was always something new to talk about.
Because of that, though, I think I have to go with suffrage in this matchup. Despite the remarkable level of usage for the humble zipper, I would have to argue that there is a wider societal significance to suffrage. But this does lead into a question that we will have to address through the rest of the bracket: are we assessing suffrage in Denmark only? Or does the fact that we created a rule that meant suffrage in other countries were ineligible mean that Denmark is standing as representative of a broader global suffrage movement? After all, only one of the 10 winners prompted a rule change.
Aaron: I hate buttons. I wish it was socially acceptable to have a dress shirt with a zipper on the front rather than buttons – million dollar idea! Copyright! No duplication! I especially hate buttons on my daughter’s clothes since they are smaller and I simply don’t have the manual dexterity required to properly fasten them. And, like Sean, I stand by our conclusion that the zipper was the most important event from 1911. It was also our first winner and so it will always have a special place in my heart.
But, it can’t win this match up. Without implementing our second rule of no repeat winners Women’s Suffrage would have certainly won multiple times. In 2020 here in Canada it is insane to think of women not having the right to vote; and yet we often forget that women couldn’t vote in a federal election in Canada until 1917, and even then it was restricted to women who had a family member fighting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It was not until 1918 that women were granted the full right to vote in federal elections – women could vote in provincial elections in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in 1916.
The Kingdom of Denmark was far ahead of many countries by granting women the right to vote in 1915; although, and I don’t want to be that guy, but even Denmark was “behind the times” since New Zealand granted women the right to vote in 1893. But, since we make the rules (and continuously break or bend them), I vote for women’s suffrage in this match up.
Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark Wins (121-99)
(3) First Non-stop Transatlantic Flight
(7) First Direct Blood Transfusion
(8) Birth Control Clinic
Sean: I have, rightly, been criticized over the past seven years for my desire to advance all things aviation related in these brackets. I am completely amazed by aviation – it’s as close to real magic as we get. While some may bristle at that comment because it is basic physics, I will say again that we climb into a metal tube and go 35,000 feet in the air. That’s incredible. When the technology got such that a plane could travel across the Atlantic Ocean – which, nobody ever realized, is big water – it took what at the time was a journey measured in days/weeks to a journey measured in hours. And that’s pretty cool.
In this matchup, though, it’s going against two events that were also revolutionary in their fields. Non-direct blood transfusions, arguably, violated our no First World War events rule, but its broader significance to science and health forced our hand. Besides, if you’ve ever had a family member who has been the recipient of a blood transfusion, you can’t be dismissive of its historic significance.
Similarly, Margaret Sanger opening her birth control clinic in New York was a major step forward, especially considering the societal context of the time. In an era where the Catholic Church was more powerful than it is today and almost 60 years before the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Sanger took a great personal risk in establishing the clinic and forcing a wider public discussion on women’s health.
Between the three, I am, as always, pulled towards the transatlantic flight. Maybe this is influenced by contemporary events, but when the aviation industry went away, for some reason I really felt it. In the past couple years I’ve made 10 transatlantic flights – mostly for work – but the pandemic felt more real to me as airlines slowed and, in some cases ceased, operations. How vital these international links have become to international economies and cultures makes me think that transatlantic flight is essential.
Aaron: Live look at Aaron:
Sean picked a planes-related event to win?? I have literally never been more shocked in my entire life. Unfortunately for him, I disagree, and not for any revenge reasons. I personally like the First Non-Direct Blood Transfusion in this match up even though it really flirts with breaking our no First World War events rule. Before this historic medical breakthrough millions of wounded soldiers died due to blood loss and, without access to a full hospital, a blood transfusion was simply out of the question. By making the procedure “mobile” – i.e., being able to store blood and use it when needed rather than having a person available to donate on the spot – saved countless lives in combat in the First World War and beyond. But it was not limited to just war that the non-direct blood transfusion is important. During pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu and COVID-19, there is a strong need for blood, and by showing that non-direct blood transfusions are possible countless lives have been saved.
Sean: Wow – Aaron doesn’t think an aviation thing is important
Certainly I don’t want to position myself as being against blood transfusions, but I really don’t think the non-direct transfusion was as revolutionary as transatlantic flight. After all, blood transfusions had been an established part of medicine for 250 years by the time this new method was established. That doesn’t diminish the importance of being taken into the field, but it wasn’t as revolutionary as successfully flying across the ocean in the midst of a major wave of development within aviation. And I think a genuine case can be made for the economic and social benefits that this ease of movement created go beyond the act of flying itself. Besides, the growth of aviation eventually brought us the greatest film of all time, so surely you can’t be serious in your assertion that the blood transfusion deserves to move on..
Aaron: Maybe why I am not as excited about the transatlantic flight is because I have personally never done it. The furthest I have flown is to Oranjestad, Aruba, a flight that lasted about 5 hours. I actually enjoy flying, even though it has been quite limited. I could be persuaded by a strong case by you, Sean.
Aaron: Ok, I’m with you.
First Transatlantic Flight Wins (120-119-80)
(5) Titanic Sinks on its Maiden Voyage
(6) First International Women’s Day
Aaron: In 1917, after more than 450 years of monarchy, the Russian Empire collapsed, which brought about extreme economic, political, and social upheaval across Eastern Europe. The Russian Revolution did not occur because of one single event; rather, it was a combination of many competing pressures that finally exploded into full-blown revolution. The Russian Civil War (1917-1922) was a significant outgrowth of the revolution, which resulted in a Bolshevik victory and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage en route to New York. At the time, it was the largest passenger ship ever built; some considered it unsinkable. Four days later, on the evening of April 14, disaster occurred: the Titanic struck an iceberg and, shortly after 2 am (ship time), sank. Of the more than 2,000 people on board, only 710 survived. The sinking of the Titanic remains one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in human history. As a direct result of the sinking, countries around the world introduced stricter safety measures, including 24-hour radio observations, to avoid another tragedy.
The first International Women’s Day was held on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. On that day, over 1 million men and women participated in the celebration of women and the demand for gender equality. The idea for such a day was the brainchild of Clara Zetkin who, in 1910, tabled the idea for a Women’s Day to be celebrated around the world. In 1913, the day was moved to March 8, where it remains an important date on the calendar.
Determining a winner in this match up is somewhat more difficult than I initially thought it would be. All three have a strong case to move on. I’ll admit that when I first sat down to write this I was leaning toward the sinking of the Titanic, largely because of how well known it is, and my admitted fascination with the disaster. But the more I thought about it, I realized that it was not as significant as the first International Women’s Day or the Russian Revolution; and with that, I have to pass on it.
Having the Russian Revolution and the First International Women’s day against one another is a great match up. Both had significant international impacts and changed the shape of the 20th century. However, despite the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the fact that we still celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, I feel that the Russian Revolution wins the head-to-head, albeit barely. The Russian Revolution upended the geopolitics of Europe for over 70 years, and the Soviet Union, the major outgrowth of the Revolution, played a role in most of the essential events of the 1900s.
Sean: I realize that over the past 30 years, the genuine fears that people felt during the Cold War have increasingly been minimized – when you’re 6 years old and doing a fallout drill, I would think that that is somewhat jarring, despite the way we like to make fun of some of the videos from the era. But, as you mentioned, the Soviet Union ‘took down that wall’ and doesn’t exist any more. Obviously the Soviet Union was incredibly influential in the 20th century, but in assessing longevity, International Women’s Day has 30 more years. So on that alone, I think it has the stronger case.
Aaron: Longevity is certainly a crucial aspect in these brackets, otherwise none of these events would have won. However, I am taking the approach of “how many people did this event impact”, and in that context I feel that the Russian Revolution has a wider impact. Millions of people were thrown into chaos in 1917, and the ensuing 80+ years. I would love to see International Women’s Day have the same reach as the Russian Revolution – it’s about damn time that we as a society take equality seriously – but I don’t think it is at the same scale yet.
Sean: The only way you can argue scale is if we accept that Vladimir Putin is really just an extension of the Soviet-era Kremlin.
Aaron: He is.
Sean: Well, it’s a good thing we are socially distancing, because if we could go outside right now, he’d be coming for us.
Russian Revolution Wins (101-99-86)
(1) Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark
(3) First Transatlantic Flight
Aaron: We flipped a coin to see who got to do the PLANES event. Well actually my daughter flipped the coin and once she did she asked, “Daddy, which did you pick?” And I said, “Tails.” My daughter: “Then that’s what it was” (having never looked at the coin). This was by FAR the most fair way of doing it.
Sean: Collusion! Fake news! Sad!
Aaron: Since the coin landed in my favour I chose the PLANES! event because I wanted to try to convince myself that it should advance. In the iconic words of Bart Simpson, “I can’t promise I’ll try. But I’ll try to try.”
It really is incredible that we went from the first successful heavier than air motorized flight in 1903 – in which the Wright Brothers flew slightly over 800 feet – to a transatlantic flight – a distance of 3,401 km! – in only 16 years. And, most remarkable to me, is that the design of the aircraft that made the first flight to the one that crossed the Atlantic wasn’t (from an untrained eye) drastically different. The first crossing took 16 hours; the same today can be accomplished in less than 5 hours, and all in modern comfort. As much as I like to give Sean a hard time, his idea that flying is as close to magic as possible isn’t that far off.
Unfortunately, and I sincerely tried to convince myself otherwise, I have to go with Women’s Suffrage on this one. Women having the right to vote was a game changer, both in Denmark where it was enacted and within this very bracket, as we had to invent a rule of no repeat winners. That carries a lot of weight here. Also, voting is a human right whereas flying is a privilege. Women voting changed the political and social culture across the world. I know that Denmark wasn’t the first to grant women suffrage, but it was an important milestone in 1915. I’m sorry, Sean. I feel like I let you down.
Sean: Yes, you really did. For shame!
In the interest of once again reminding people that flying is crazy – WE DON’T HAVE WINGS!!! We were not meant to take to the sky – particularly not with an open bar and access to the entire Melissa McCarthy filmography. This is not to discount suffrage – it is a fundamental human right – but the act of taking human beings in the air and crossing an ocean is an achievement on a monumental scale that I’m not sure can be paralleled.
Aaron: I think you’re too hung up on “in the air” part. Humans have crossed the ocean for centuries, and it was a marvel when they first did it in a wooden boat. But the right – and I can’t stress that word enough – to cast a ballot, to choose ones representative, is monumental for human societal development. As we mentioned in previous brackets, women gaining the right to vote altered not only how many ballots were cast, but the entire political agenda in countries. I like that I can fly to almost anywhere on the planet, but I like being able to vote more; and for that I have to, once again, respectfully disagree.
Sean: Too hung up on the in the air part?!?!?!?!? That’s the entire point! It’s ‘PLANEFULLY’ obvious.
Aaron:Did you just make a plane-based pun?
Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark Wins (144-140)
(1) Spanish Flu Pandemic
(4) Russian Revolution
Sean: So here we have a match between a disease that killed 50 million people and a nation that killed an estimated 20 million people under Stalin. Good thing we’re doing these brackets as a way to cheer people up.
Between the two, the scale of the Spanish Flu and its remarkable relevance to contemporary events leans me in that direction. If we had been doing these brackets a year ago, I probably would not have felt it held the same significance to contemporary life as it does today. Perhaps that’s because I’m not a scientist or historian of infectious disease, all of whom have studied the pandemic in 1918 and for years have used its example in their efforts to prepare us for the inevitable next pandemic.
The Revolution, on the other hand, had between 7-12 million casualties, not to mention the millions that were killed by the USSR, so in terms of deaths, perhaps there isn’t as great a difference as we first thought. When we think of overall significance, then, perhaps we need to look at the Revolution’s uniqueness. Pandemics, unfortunately, are part of nature and have emerged with great regularity in human history. But the Russian Revolution, and the nation it unleashed on the world, is one of a kind.
Aaron: If this recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how interconnected we are and how devastating these viral outbreaks can be. The Spanish Flu is even more intriguing because it followed immediately after, if not concurrently, with the First World War and the stresses that the global conflict caused. People around the world, already war fatigued, now had to fight a deadly virus; I can barely handle staying at home and the number of cases of COVID is much, much lower than the Spanish Flu. Also, anytime millions of people die in such a short span, that’s pretty shocking to humans and human society.
Sean: Like during a revolutionary war? Which caused global economic insecurity? Increased militarization and fears of future conflict? Established rampant distrust within the international community? And gave us this guy?
Aaron: When you put it that way, I can see how the Revolution can be seen as more influential, especially on a longer scale. Besides, I’m kinda tired of talking about pandemics…
Russian Revolution Wins (134-133)
Enrico Palazzo Pre-Memorial Super-Mega-Ultra-Celebrity-Pro-Am-Championship
(2) Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark
(4) Russian Revolution
The Case for Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark:
When we think about modern democracy, we often think back to ancient Greece, but even here women were denied the right to vote. Only in matriarchal societies, such as several Indigenous communities around the world, did women have a say in community business. Overall, though, women were systematically excluded from political life. That’s why it is so important that the Kingdom of Denmark granted the right to vote to women in 1915. In assessing this, though, we have to look beyond Denmark and note that it was an example within a wider trend during the decade. Women won the right to vote in several countries through the decade, including Norway in 1913, Estonia and Latvia in 1917, Austria, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and the United Kingdom in 1918, and Luxembourg and Sweden in 1920. Some of these came with restrictions that were later removed, but in taking a holistic approach, we can see that suffrage was very much an international movement that shaped the decade. It was so influential that we even had to implement the creed of no repeat winners specifically for this category – our Canadian-centric lens likely would have picked Women’s Suffrage in Canada as the winner of 1917 without the rule.
The Case for the Russian Revolution:
With the First World War raging, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 represented a major turning point in global affairs. Not only did it significantly alter the Allies’ prosecution of the war, but also set a course that would indelibly etch the conflict’s aftermath. This included land cessation that the new USSR would take strive to rectify over the next 70 years. With the country’s power and influence established, the USSR emerged as the world’s number 2 superpower, engaging in a 40-year staring contest with the United States. The Cold War, despite having its 2 protagonists, was a global contest that included armed conflict. It was rare that a country could maintain any sort of neutrality in this quest for global influence. That’s why it wasn’t just military power, but also soft power as economic structures, trade patterns, and cultural exchange that became part of the Cold War canon. Sure, it is mostly studied for its role in the second half of the 20th century, but it could not have attained that level of significance without the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917.
Sean: So this is what it all comes down to. This is why we lifted all those weights and ran all those miles in the offseason, for moments like this.
Aaron: This is why we played those Tuesday night games in October!
Sean: Between the two of these, there is little doubt in my mind that suffrage is the bigger event. The Russian Revolution may be ‘flashier’ and get more attention (the number of Russian spy movies v. the number of suffragette movies is astonishing), but in shaping the day to day lives of people around the world, there is no contest. Women winning the right to vote altered political platforms and political representation and, as a result, has a greater role in shaping our day-to-day lives in 2020 than a Revolution that Sarah Palin could have watched from her balcony. There is no question that the Revolution set a course for the 20th century that touched all corners of the world, but so too did suffrage, which, unlike the Revolution, continues to influence global political, economic, and social structures.
Aaron: I am in complete agreement with you, Sean. The case for women’s suffrage is much stronger, in my opinion, than the Russian Revolution. Both dramatically changed the course of society, but suffrage really did so on a global scale. Beginning in the 1910s, millions of women around the world slowly gained their right to vote, which, as you said, forever altered the political landscape. Also, while the Russian Revolution spurred on the creation of the Soviet Union, the USSR collapsed in 1991, while more countries around the world are once again slowly granting women the right to vote.
Sean: So after 7 years and 10 brackets we’re just going to agree? WTF?
At least it wasn’t something to do with PLANES!
Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark Wins (148-107)
After looking at all the major events from the 1910s, Women’s Suffrage in the Kingdom of Denmark has won and is the most important event of the decade.
Aaron Boyes is a historical researcher with a PhD from the University of Ottawa.
Sean Graham is an editor with Activehistory.ca and host of the History Slam Podcast.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October 28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.