Now and Then: Are we living through an unprecedented time … again?

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

These are unprecedented times, which call for extraordinary actions – including another pandemic-themed column. This month, we present some random notes on our nation’s history with economic and health crises. Depending upon your perspective, this will either make you feel much better about our current situation or much worse. Either way, it might add a little historical perspective for PR pros as we advise their clients.

– From 1636 to 1698, Boston endured six epidemics of smallpox. The one in 1721 was so bad that most people fled the city.

– The country’s first significant financial crisis began in 1785. Four more followed quickly, and 16 of the next 25 years would be marked by economic turmoil.

– In 1835, the Bank of Maryland collapsed. Citizens, convinced they had been scammed, attacked the houses of the bankers. The state militia was called out, killing some 20 people and wounding many more.

– In 1837, the Great Plains suffered through a smallpox epidemic, one of several that contributed to the decimation of the Native Americans. That same year, the Panic of 1837 occurred.

– The Panic of 1837 was horribly misnamed. In fact, the recession lasted for about seven years, during which time more than a third of the banks failed, millions of people were unemployed, and civil unrest was widespread. The difficult time is more accurately summed up by the historian’s book titled, “America’s first Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political and Disorder after the Panic of 1837.”

– 1837 also saw the Flour Riot, and no, it was not any fun.

– There have been multiple cholera epidemics around the world and in the U.S. Groups held responsible for starting the various outbreaks include Jews, gypsies, Indians, Filipinos, the Irish and the poor. Some American scientists blamed African Americans for causing cholera, while Tunisians blamed Europeans. Whoever was to blame, President Polk is believed to have died from it, along with millions of others.

– The Panic of 1873 lasted about four years, with the New York Stock Exchange closing for 10 days.

– Yet another panic occurred in 1893, again lasting about four years. In some states, the unemployment rate topped 25 percent, and the supply of gold reserves fell so low that J.P. Morgan had to give the government a bailout.

– The big picture: If you were born in1835 and lived to be 65, you would have lived through 16 recessions.

– Although smallpox has largely been eliminated in the U.S., there have been numerous epidemics. The last major domestic event occurred in Boston between 1901-1903, and had an estimated a 17 percent fatality rate.

– In 1920, Edith Wharton published what many consider to be her masterpiece, a book about the flu pandemic of 1918. It was titled, “The Age of Innocence.”

– In 1929, the Great Depression – ah, never mind.

– From 1949 to 1960, there were four recessions.  Although the 1960 one was brief, Nixon, who was vice president at the time, believed it cost him the election, because voters blamed their woes on the Republicans.

– There were two recessions between 1980 and ’82. Unemployment reached almost 11 percent, and for six quarters, the GDP was negative.

– In 2013, CBS ran a program on the JFK assassination; it was titled, “When America Lost its Innocence.” The Orange County Register also called the event  “the weekend America lost its innocence.” The ‘60s, they added, were “a time Americans came to question almost everything we had once taken for granted.”

– After the September 11 attacks, a senior Time magazine essayist, (among others), declared the event marked “the end of the age of irony.” Before the attacks, he explained, “the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.”

– Not to be outdone by her elders, a 25-year-old journalist wrote of the attacks, “Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will get serious. Maybe we’ll stop acting so jaded.”

– In 2012, a movie titled, “The Age of Deceit” was released.

– Earlier this month, the Fort Worth Business Press’  Robert Francis wrote an insightful column noting the sudden surge in the use of the words “unprecedented” and “uncertain.” Just for fun, I typed “unpr,” and sure enough, Google’s third search response was “unprecedented times.”

– In March, author and speaker Simon Sinek released a video out titled, “These Are Not Unprecedented Times.” It’s has more than more than 270,000 views – and just wait until we’re able to start holding conferences again.

Unprecedented or not, these are definitely difficult times for many. Please be kind to one another.