The War dominated headlines in 1915 with news of bombs falling from Zeppelins and mounting casualties on battlefields where poison gas attacks were now common. Red Cross Nurse Edith Cavell was executed for aiding in the escape of allied soldiers from German occupied Belgium. Although neutral, America will cite the sinking of the Lusitania by a German sub on May 7 with the deaths of 1200 civilians, many of them American, as a reason for joining the entente in 1917. Many soldiers noticed how poppies grew on freshly disturbed soil in battlefields and cemeteries; the sight moved Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae to pen ‘In Flanders Fields’. His poem would inspire the wearing of poppies to remember those who died in the Great War and every war since.
Disasters outside the theatre of war were also making news: from finding ‘Typhoid Mary’, to the capsizing of the S.S. Eastland in Chicago harbour that killed over 800; and from an earthquake in Avezzano, Italy that killed thousands to the start of a genocide that would murder over a million Armenians.
D.W. Griffith’s feature film about the Civil War ’The Birth of a Nation’, released in February 1915, would become the highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind 25 years later. The Birth of the Nation’s epic storyline featured the rise of the Ku Klux Klan – a secret fraternity of southern vigilantes whose aim it was to restore Antebellum during the post Civil War Reconstruction. The organization had all but died out when The Birth of a Nation depicted the clan in a sympathetic light, spurring on a national revival of the movement.
Not all was bleak in 1915: the Kiwanis club was founded with the motto “…improving the world, one child and one community at a time”; the American economy boomed as Henry Ford’s millionth car rolled off the assembly line; the year also saw the introduction of the Raggedy Ann doll and the ice cream float. In February, San Francisco hosted the Pan-Pacific International Exposition where the Hawaiian pavillion introduced the ukulele – its distinctive sound could soon be heard in many dance bands accompanying Hawaiian songs. Also in the music world, the term jazz was first used to refer to music that came from New Orleans. However, despite the popularity of jazz and ukuleles, neither appeared in the top songs of 1915, which were all sentimental ballads about war: It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, There’s a Long, Long Trail A-winding, and, I didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.
New words in 1915 reflected the war and its effects (TNT, handicapped, bomber), many new words were contractions (uke, mum, pro), or contraction-like slang (tad, gig, frosh, a grand (referring to a thousand)), or were onomatopoeic (oomph, cushy, whump). Two exceptions were words to describe types of women typically featured in films of the day: Pollyana and Gold Digger.
Fashions changed noticeably in 1915 with shorter, fuller skirts, allowing freer movement for women who were taking on wartime jobs, including many occupations that were being vacated by men who were joining up. Fashion often took on militaristic features with tailored suits and hats that resembled peak hats or helmets. Although a somber palette was typical, the practice of mourning died out as an entire nation in black was depressing and bad for morale. Despite the somber, suity world of fashion, women’s faces began to be painted with cosmetics – rouge and lipstick (in brass bullet-shell containers) were especially popular purchases from the new beauty salons that were popping up on main streets.