This August, Americans across the country will have the chance to witness a rare celestial sight, as a total solar eclipse passes across the country on Aug. 21.
For most, August’s eclipse will be the first event of its kind within their lifetime, as the last total eclipse to pass over the United States took place in June 1918— and much like those eagerly anticipating the upcoming August eclipse, Americans in 1918 certainly took note of the once-in-a-lifetime event.
Here’s how Americans across the country anticipated and marked the last country-wide total eclipse, according to the newspapers of the time.
Preparing for the eclipse
Newspapers nationwide prepared Americans for the upcoming eclipse, discussing its scientific importance while emphasizing how even those without scientific training should be sure to witness the rare event.
“Nothing highbrow about eclipse; Child can understand it,” a headline in the Tacoma Times declared, going on to describe the event as “Moon slides in between us and sun; that’s all.”
Similarly, an article in Oregon’s Daily Capital Journal emphasized that “astronomical training is not necessary to study the eclipse,” encouraging readers to perform their own scientific observations during the event by using a white cloth and sticks to easily track the “shadow bands” that appear on the ground during an eclipse.
While some papers emphasized the eclipse’s wide accessibility, others took a far more existential approach. A piece in the Chattanooga News previewing the eclipse warned readers of the feeling of insignificance the cosmic event would bring, writing, “For the awful minute of totality, human beings may realize that they are but atoms of protoplasm on a bit of mould circling through space; ephemerae, existing for the beat of a bird’s wing, amid the endless swing of the universe.”
Regardless of one’s feelings about the eclipse, though, newspapers were quick to warn their readers about the dangers of viewing the event with the naked eye. The East Oregonian noted a “nationwide effort” to warn people against “viewing an eclipse with unprotected eyes,” while an advertisement for jeweler R.W. Sawtelle in the same paper used the vision-threatening danger as an opportunity to hawk their “Sawtelle’s Eclipse Glasses.”
Prior to the eclipse, newspapers emphasized that interest in seeing the event would be high — at least for the nation’s housewives. In an article titled “Dinner Pales as Attraction Beside Eclipse,” the Oklahoma City Times told male readers, “You needn’t hurry home to dinner tonight, as your wife will be too busy looking at the eclipse to put the substitutes on the table.”
“But never mind, for we are assured by the wise guys that we’ll never have another opportunity as long as we live to see such a sight as this eclipse,” the article continued. “And anyway, it doesn’t cost a cent.”
Indeed, the eclipse’s rarity was utilized to raise excitement about the event, with some newspapers pointing out the fact that it would not happen again for another 99 years — a seemingly distant future that has now arrived.
“Not until 2017 will another total solar eclipse be visible over so large an area of this country,” the Topeka State Journal wrote. “And it is rare that an eclipse track anywhere in the world offers so great a choice for accessible sites for observing the eclipse.”
But for average Americans, too, the eclipse was a popular success. The natural spectacle, which was declared a “special attraction” in some areas, drew large crowds from coast to coast. Crowds in the hundreds to thousands gathered in such places as Ashland, Oregon; Orlando, Florida; and Danville, Virginia, according to their local newspapers.
“One of the largest crowds ever seen in Alliance Saturday viewed the eclipse of the sun,” Nebraska’s the Alliance Herald wrote on June 13, 1918. “All those that did not have smoked glasses grabbed the ones held by some one else, no matter whether they knew them or not.”
As Americans dealt with the devastation of World War I, the excitement of the solar eclipse was reportedly a welcome respite, even if it couldn’t totally distract those on the home front from the War.
Idaho’s Montpelier Examiner said that though the eclipse was “a sight [the gathered crowds] will never forget nor regret,” the event “was itself eclipsed,” writing, “a glowing monarch of the skies is a small incident in comparison with the earth-rendering occurrences every day in France.”
“Nevertheless, the [eclipse] was entitled to notice if only because it carried with it no element or possibility of danger or injury to anybody,” the article continued.
Reaction in the animal world
Humans weren’t the only one to pick up on the eclipse in 1918, newspapers noted at the time.
“Birds went to nest and chickens went to roost,” New Mexico’s Western Liberal wrote about the eclipse.
The chickens appeared far livelier in Hood River, Oregon, the Hood River Glacier reported. “When the shadow contact was total, a rooster crowed and the call was taken up and sent back and forth over the valley by other rulers of barnyard harems,” the newspaper wrote.
Even Oregon’s moths were reportedly affected by the eclipse, the Glacier wrote, “immediately becoming active and beginning their deposit of eggs.”
Not all were impressed
Though the 1918 eclipse may have made quite a stir in both the human and animal worlds, some remained nonplussed by the once-in-a-lifetime event.
“A contemporary could see nothing good in the eclipse from a spectacular standpoint and is now urging that the government abolish its publicity department; quite a grouch; quite a grouch,” the East Oregonian reported.
The eclipse drew crowds across the country, but there was one spot in particular in which locals were largely unconvinced of its importance: New York City.
The New-York Tribune reported that “small groups of interested observers” gathered throughout the city in Riverside Park, the Battery and City Hall while noting that, for the most part, “New York went about its business ... with scarcely a thought for the greatest astronomical event of this generation.”
The New York Sun, too, reported that when it came to the eclipse, New Yorkers “paid less attention to it than [they] might have vouchsafed to a man having a fit on the corner.”
“[The] mass of the multitude gave the heavens a casual glance, concluded that the spectacle was not worth the eye strain and moved on its way to the movies,” the article read.