1910s vs. 1920s United States in Call of Cthulhu - A Quick Overview

The default era in the Call of Cthulhu RPG is the 1920s. The 1930s, a common era for pulp campaigns, is another well known era. I've kicked off a 1910s campaign. One of the things that I'm working on is making the period stand out differently. This is an incredibly brief, stream of consciousness capsule - any of these paragraphs could be an entire post - or book! This is a fairly US-centric blog post.

What are the important differences? Let's start off with the my starting year of 1914. Very quickly, immigration is going to drop off. The Great War helps bring about a drop-off, with European nations occupied with war. However, immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 will do even more of a job in slamming the door on immigration, specifically targeting "undesirable" immigrants such as Italians, Slavs, Poles, and Jews from Eastern Europe. It also reinforced bans on Asian immigration.

Politics are a bit different. The German, Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires will all fall as a result of the Great War. A variety of new nations will emerge from these empires.

One thing about 1920s characters is it is easy to explain any previous military experience - having served in the Great War. The United States was officially neutral in the Great War until 1917 and did not engage in earnest until 1918. Prior to that it had a fairly small military. With that caveat, there are some military conflicts the United States was involved in. 1898 saw the Spanish-American War, giving the United States an empire. Many of these acquisitions were no happier about being part of the United States than they were as being part of the Spanish Empire. The military was actively involved in suppressing rebellion in places like the Philippines and Cuba. The United States occupied Nicaragua in 1912, an occupation lasting until 1933 (with a brief break). The US also backed the independence of Panama from Colombia to facilitate the building of the Panama Canal. The United States became involved in the Mexican Revolution, including a 1916 Punitive Expedition (which is an important aspect of the 1920s Trail of Cthulhu adventure Many Fires).

Economically, the Great War introduces rapid inflation which continues after the war. A dollar in 1914 is worth $1.16 in 1917 and $1.37 in 1918. It peaks in 1921 with a 1914 dollar worth nearly twice that of a 1921 one -  $1.94.  It dips a bit as the decade continues - in 1928 dollars, a common starting year for Cthulhu campaigns, it is worth $1.73. Economics seems boring from an RPG perspective, but it caused quite a bit of pain, especially in cases where payroll did not keep up with inflation. This was a major contributing factor of the 1919 Boston Police Strike, with Boston's police officers living on poverty wages. While employment was good during the war, after the war the US economy struggled to absorb returning veterans. There was a brief recession from August 1918 to March 1919 followed by a more severe one (sometimes considered a depression), from January 1920 to July 1921. After this the Roaring Twenties kicked off, economically speaking.

This era saw much more anarchist activity and the socialist party was very active. 1910 saw the first socialist elected to the US Congress, with the election of Victor Berger as a Representative from Wisconsin. He ran afoul of the Espionage Act in 1919 and was blocked from his seat. Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president several times, getting 6% of the vote in 1912 - and was arrested in 1918 for violating the Sedition Act.

Race relations were not particularly good during this era. (Nor were they good in the 1920s for that matter). President Wilson was racist, even by the standards of the day. He introduced segregation to the Federal government - as a result of Reconstruction, the Federal government was actually integrated far more than society at large. Wilson also fired 15 out of 17 African-American supervisors within the Federal government. The Great Migration began in 1916, with many African-Americans  moving out of the rural southern United States. 1919 unfortunately saw the "Red Summer", with many race riots. To quote W.E.B. DuBois's poem "Returning Soldiers":
We return
We return from fighting
We return fighting
Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.
Not all states allowed women to vote in the 1910s - prior to 1910 only four did. Voting rights were inconsistent - none in some states, presidential elections only in others, primaries, in others, etc. It wasn't until 1920 that the passage of the 19th Amendment granted women nationwide full voting rights.

The technology isn't radically different but there are some highlights. There is no consumer radio. The best that can be done for portable music is the 78 rpm disc record - often no more than 3 minutes in length per side. The automobile is present but not to the dominant levels that the 1920s will see. Movie studios began moving from New York to California in the 1910s. Longer films ("feature length") came to prominence in this decade and it was the 1910s that saw actors getting credit for their roles.

This is a stream of consciousness post so it's hard to think of a good way to close, as I jump from topic to topic. But one thing which comes to mind - Americans loved to drink. As I've been diving through 1910s Boston Globe issues on line, I've been seeing a lot of advertisements for beer and spirits - some on the front page. Some fortification is probably in order before facing a shoggoth...

Photo Credit - Tremont Street, Boston, circa 1910. Boston Public Library.


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