Citizens Research Council of Michigan


Spring 1916 in Detroit got off to a bad start. During the night of March 21 and into the next day, nearly 10 inches of snow fell on the city in a record springtime storm, giving the primitive snow removal methods of the day (horses, wagons, men with shovels) all they could handle. But it was not all bad: On March 22, with the drifts still deep on the ground, a new organization was chartered that would help make government in Detroit and Michigan more efficient and accountable—and even help to improve snow removal.

The second decade of the 20th century in America was marked by transition. A nation primarily rural in 1900 would be primarily urban by 1920. The products of industry, which had been largely directed at agriculture, mining, and lumbering in the previous century, were now bringing about the development of cities. Such a major shift could not occur without tension between the old and the new.

New Technology

THE RISE OF THE AUTOMOBILE. The most dramatic change was the prolifera­tion of the automobile. By some estimates, the automobile overtook the horse as the principal mode of transportation in 1916. A photograph of the downtown of any large city at the time reveals a chaotic mixture of pedestrians, horses with wagons, horses with riders, streetcars, and automobiles. The auto would make its biggest impact on the City of Detroit.

THE IMPACT OF ELECTRICITY. The extension of electric power was enabling many technological advances. At first, homes were wired for electricity in anticipation of a few lightbulbs. But now there was a whole new set of demands on electric power. Clothes washers with electric wringers were becoming available. The patent for what was to become the Kelvinator electric refrigerator was obtained in 1914, followed soon by the Frigidaire. Electric irons were also finding their way into American homes. The workload of the housewife was being lightened by machines. Urban women, who were also freed from farm tasks, were asserting themselves in society and political affairs, the most obvious evidence being the push toward woman suffrage and the movement toward family planning.

Major Changes at Home and Abroad

PROHIBITION AND WOMAN SUFFRAGE. The tension between the old and the new was nowhere more obvious than in the debate over Prohibition. The battle be­tween the wets and the drys had been waged for many decades and by 1916, the “tem­perance” movement had allied itself with woman suffragists in a strategy to amend the U. S. Constitution, both to give women the right to vote and to ban the production and sale of alcoholic beverages.

WAR ON THE HORIZON. The international front was also the scene of a major shift. Although America had a strong isolationist streak, the war raging in Europe was causing many to reassess the wisdom, or even the possibility, of retaining a neutral stance toward the combatants. The loss of American lives on the Lusitania in May 1915 made the Great War relevant to many in a way that it had not been before. “He kept us out of war” was President Wilson’s campaign slogan going into the 1916 elec­tion, but it came with no promise that the U. S. would not enter the conflict.

Life in 1916 Detroit

THE MOTOR CITY. In early 1916, Detroit and the nation were rapidly adapting to the automobile. Henry Ford had introduced mass production to the auto industry and the millionth Model T had come off the assembly line in the new plant in High­land Park. With a price of $345, the Tin Lizzie was more affordable than any other car before its time and its impact on the nation and, especially its hometown of Detroit, was being felt.

INCREASED MOBILITY was not the only effect the auto was having. The growth of the auto industry and its rising wages (Ford’s $5 a day wage had gone into effect in 1914) were attracting large numbers of workers and their families. The population of Detroit, which had been 285,704 in 1900, was 734,562 in 1916 and would be over a million in five years. The im­migrants were coming from everywhere, but principally from rural America and from Europe. The main wave of Black immigration from the South was yet to come, but it had started. Such growth was placing a strain on the city to provide services needed to accommodate the new arrivals. Government structure and proce­dures needed strengthening if they were to be up to the task.

POPULAR CULTURE. Motion pictures were attracting ever larger audiences. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Birth of a Nation, with Lillian Gish, was the subject of major contro­versy stemming from its sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan. (Klan member­ship in Detroit was on the rise and the KKK would become a significant political force in the 1920s.) Other popular pictures were The Foundling, with Mary Pickford, and A Fool There Was, with Theda Bara as the “Vamp.”

Booth Tarkington was the most widely read author, following his 1915 best-seller, The Turmoil, with an even bigger hit, Seventeen, in 1916. Other best-selling authors were Michael O’Halloran and Gene Stratton Porter. Carl Sandburg had just released Chicago Poems and Detroit’s own Edgar A. Guest had released his first collection of poetry, A Heap O’ Livin’.

Popular songs included M-O-T-H-E-R (popularized by the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker), Paper Doll, and Keep the Home Fires Burning. Recorded music was selling more each year and the disc was overtaking the cylinder in popu­larity. Best-selling records were Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Ragtime music was nearing the end of its peak popularity, but perhaps most foretelling was the sheet music release of Jelly Roll Morton’s Jelly Roll Blues, a harbinger of the Jazz Age.

APRIL 1916. In April, Detroiters were looking forward to warmer weather and such treats as taking the Columbia or the Ste. Claire downriver to Boblo Island, having a soda at Fred Sanders’ Pavilion of Sweets, or making a Boston Cooler (probably named after Boston Boulevard, just north of Grand Boulevard) made with Vernor’s Ginger Ale. They would not, however, be able to cross the bridge to Belle Isle. The bridge had burned the year before and a temporary replacement would not be finished until July.

On April 13 the Detroit Tigers played the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Hopes were high for the Tigers as they had placed a close second to the Bos­ton Red Sox in the American League in 1915 and had won their season opener against Chicago the day before. But, despite a line-up loaded with three future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Harry Heilmann), and a 5-run ninth inning, the Tigers dropped the game 8-6.

Meanwhile, 280 miles to the east, in offices donated by the First and Old National Bank at 100 Griswold Street in Detroit, the lights were coming on for the first day of operation of the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, a little organization with an outsized agenda.

This is the story of that organization, which ultimately became the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

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