New Year’s Day 1921

A Glimpse at Life in Kalamazoo a Century Ago

New Year’s Day is a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the (hopefully) better days ahead, especially this year. But as we struggle to avoid the crowds, today seems like an especially good time to look back and see what life was like in Kalamazoo a century ago.

“A Year of Progress and Optimism”

The year 1921 was the time of our grandparents and great grandparents. Just imagine… many homes in our area, especially those in rural regions, had no electricity at the time. Streetcars were still in service, radio was in its infancy, and television was only a dream. Much has changed during the past hundred years and the speed at which things change can seem overwhelming. On the other hand, maybe some things haven’t really changed all that much.

So, what exactly did our world look like on Saturday morning, January 1, 1921 – one hundred years ago today? A quick glance through the New Year’s Day issue of the Kalamazoo Gazette gives us some perspective.

Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding inauguration, March 4, 1921. Harding at right in back seat; Woodrow Wilson at left. Public domain photo.

Nationally, Warren G. Harding had just been elected to succeed Woodrow Wilson in the U.S. presidential election, the first time in the U.S. that women had the right to vote. Population in the United States was 108 million, a third of what it is today. Kalamazoo was Michigan’s seventh largest city with roughly 48,000 residents (current population is about 76,000). There was no Downtown Social District in those days. Nationwide Prohibition was in full effect, but that of course was nothing new for the locals. Kalamazoo County had been “dry” since 1915.

New Year’s Eve 1920-21 was a relatively quiet one in Kalamazoo. Steady overnight rain was blamed for dampening many of the local celebrations, although the downtown theaters were “crowded to capacity” and several of the New Year’s night dances were reportedly well attended. The New Year’s Eve boxing show at the Armory was a major attraction that also drew large crowds. But heavy downpours during the evening hours did away with much of the snow, so nobody was ice skating and there were no nighttime sleigh rides.

Kalamazoo’s civic leaders looked ahead to 1921 as a “Year of Progress and Optimism.” Local clubs such as the Kiwanis, Exchange Club, Rotary, and the Advertising League saw the upcoming months as “a year of opportunity.” The Kiwanis club began its annual drive with hopes of raising $25,000 for charity. Classes at Parsons Business School were set to begin on Monday, January 3rd.

1921 kicked off a year of “double holidays,” that alone a reason to celebrate. New Year’s Day fell on a Saturday, which gave most workers two vacation days in a row. Similarly, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Christmas resulted in Monday holidays, which gave many workers extended weekend time off.

Handley-Knight touring car - 1921
Handley-Knight touring car, Kalamazoo, MI. 1921. Free Library of Philadelphia.

Automobiles were all the rage. Roughly 367,000 autos were registered in Michigan in 1920 and that number would double within the coming three years. (Today there are more than 3 million cars registered in the state.) Kalamazoo’s ninth annual auto show at the Armory promised to be “bigger and better than ever” as many new models were being introduced. The idea of adding corn alcohol (ethanol) to motor fuel was floated for the first time in January to help ease an impending gasoline shortage.

R.E. Fair’s new Ford sales and service station, claimed to be one of the largest of its kind in Michigan, opened for the first time at the corner of Portage and South streets. The new “fireproof” dealership offered Ford trucks, tractors, coupes, sedans, touring cars, and runabouts from $395. A 1919 Ford Roadster on their used car lot was priced at $200, while a 1920 Dodge touring car in like-new condition went for $850. The same building now houses Okun Bros. Shoes.

Kalamazoo Gazette ad
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 January 1921.

Many Kalamazoo store owners would begin their annual January clearance sales on Monday with attractive price markdowns. Herschfield’s offered men’s fur-collar overcoats for $68.50, while Lew Hubbard menswear offered two of its finest $45 suits for $55. J.R. Jones & Sons began its January clearance sale with women’s tailored suits more than half off, and Gilmore Brothers Department Store offered special prices on women’s fashions in their second floor showroom with dresses from $18.75 to $75. Men’s shirts at Gilmore’s were $1.59.

The Home Furnishing Store on North Burdick Street offered new sofas for as little as $27. An eight-piece dining room set with a buffet china cabinet, table, and six chairs was on sale for $249. Victrolas ranged from $25 to $400 at Grinnell Bros. One report suggested that these devices could be used in schools to aid students’ learning. To keep the home fires burning, coal was available from the Daniel Harrington Coal Company for $12 per ton, while the Kalamazoo Ice and Fuel Company offered “good coal” at $10 a ton.

For sports fans, the football season came to an exciting climax when the University of California defeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl by a score of 28–0. Slugger Babe Ruth, boxer Jack Dempsey, golfer Ted Ray, and the Thoroughbred racehorse Man o’ War topped the sports headlines, as did competitive swimmer and Olympic medalist Ethelda Bleibtrey.

Bronson Park
Bronson Park. KPL catalogue number P-420

Anticipation was high for singer and actor Fiske O’Hara—nicknamed the Irish Tenor—who was about to make an appearance at the Fuller Theater on Burdick Street. Harry Beach offered “A Record for Every Taste” at his Music Shop (formerly Fischer’s) inside the First National Bank building, while folks still argued over whether jazz music would live or die.

Kalamazoo Sled Company’s famous No.7 coaster sleds were going for 75¢ each at the Edwards & Chamberlin Hardware Company, the larger No.15 was just a dollar. Many Kalamazoo merchants and manufacturers had begun placing “Made for You in Kalamazoo” labels on their correspondence to help promote local products.

Kalamazoo Public Library photo
Kalamazoo Public Library Archives Photograph, uncatalogued.

In an effort to expand and update library services, Kalamazoo Public Library’s chief librarian Flora B. Roberts arranged for Chicago librarian Elizabeth Wales to spend two months in Kalamazoo helping train much needed prospective librarians. Fourteen new volumes were on display at the library during the first week of January for patrons to examine, including Careers for Women by Catherine Filene, a “rough and ready” western called Wunpost by Dane Coolidge, and Music Appreciation for Little Children by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Those titles would be available for checkout after January 8th.

In retrospect, the new year was one of difficulty and perseverance. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported that 1921 had been a time of tremendous challenge, “twelve months of depression, the most serious of the reconstruction era.” Still, folks continued to look ahead “in quiet optimism” with the hope of better times to come, just as we’re all doing today. Happy New Year, everyone.

Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2020.



“Keep Lid On, U.S. Warns Celebrators”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 31 December 1920, p.1, col.3.

“Civic Leaders See 1921 as Year of Progress and Optimism”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 January 1921, p.1, col.3.

“Business In State Due For Big Revival”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 31 December 1921, p.1, col.2.

“City Leaders Sound Note of Optimism”

Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 January 1922, p.1, col.1.

Census Records

1920 United States Federal Census
Statistical Abstract of the United States
: 1921
United States Census Bureau.


State Motor Vehicle Registrations, by Years, 1900 – 1995
United States Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration

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