Newspapers Were Just As Obsessed With the Last Great American Eclipse As They Are With the 2017 Event

Max Kutner

The last time that a total solar eclipse crossed over the entire continental United States, in 1918, newspapers big and small covered the phenomenon. Reports described the crowds that gathered on streets to look up at the sky, and The New York Times called the event “a spectacle indescribably unusual and magnificent.”

The August 21 eclipse will be the first whose path of totality will cross the country since the one on June 8, 1918. In the days leading up to the earlier eclipse, newspapers printed the expected path of totality and advised readers on how to view the phenomenon safely, much as news outlets are doing now.

The Chicago Tribune published an illustration of the path, with the headline, “Sun and Moon Stage Big Show Today.” But the paper added in a sub-heading, “Chicago Has Poor Seat.” A similar headline appeared in The Atlanta Constitution: “Sun to Be Hidden and Lights Needed in Atlanta Today.”

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Warnings about viewing the eclipse were common. The Kansas City Star advised readers, “All observers of that phenomenon should be urgently warned against looking at the sun without smoked glasses or developed photographic film, even when only a small rim of the sun is visible.” The paper claimed that after a 1912 eclipse above Europe, people reported 3,500 cases of blindness. A headline read, “Has Everyone His Smoked Glass Ready?”

A jeweler named R.M. Sawtelle took out an advertisement in the East Oregonian the day before the event, stating, “At each recurring total eclipse many persons are blinded or partially blinded.” The jeweler went on to say that he had received “a big express shipment of especially prepared solar glasses,” available to customers for 10 cents each.

The press ramped up its coverage of the eclipse after it occurred. Writing for The New York Times, Samuel Alfred Mitchell, then director of the Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia, called the eclipse “the great astronomical event of the year 1918” and said it had left “in the minds of the party of the United States Naval Observatory the memory of one of the most exciting days ever spent.”

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In New York, Mitchell wrote, conditions for a partial eclipse were “perfect.” There, he said, “large crowds gathered in Times Square and at other vantage points on roofs and at the seashore to observe the phenomenon.” Newsboys apparently rented smoked glass for “a nickel a look,” and some observers watched the eclipse through the reflection of a store window on Broadway and 40th Street, in order to protect their eyes.

A day later, William Wallace Campbell, then director of California’s Lick Observatory, wrote in the Times that in Goldendale, Washington, spectators had been concerned that clouds would obstruct their view. “The prospects for a clear sky were apparently hopeless during the long hours of waiting, almost up to the time of totality,” he wrote. Then, about a minute before the moon passed in front of the sun, the clouds cleared just enough for them to view the spectacle. Everything went dark. “The reading of newspaper print would have been difficult under the open sky,” he wrote. “The chickens retired as if for the night. They were heard to give the morning cock crows before emerging a few minutes later. It was probably the shortest night in all their lives.”

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City workers view a solar eclipse from their office roof on April 9, 1921. Three years earlier, newspapers had reported on the eclipse of June 8, 1918, the last one to cross the entire continental United States until August 21, 2017. Topical Press Agency/Getty

The phenomenon was less enjoyable for Lieutenant Henry A. McCarron, a member of the Aviation Section of the United States Signal Corps, then part of the Army. During the eclipse, the pilot was flying 7,000 feet above Fort Sill, Oklahoma, which was in the path of totality, according to a letter he wrote, details of which the Times printed days later. 

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“I was requested,” McCarron wrote, “to take an officer of the post on a short flight so that he might observe the total eclipse of the sun through glasses.” When the eclipse happened, he wrote, “the sun was completely shaded, leaving only a silver-like crescent. The earth below was purple, the sky dark blue and it was becoming darker every moment.”

Then, he continued, “just as I was beginning to appreciate the rare phenomenon, I was brought to my senses by a report louder than that of my motor’s exhaust.” The plane lurched and plunged into a nosedive. The reason, the pilot realized, was that one of the “drift wires” had broken. “I could hear the frightened yells of my passenger above the screech of the wires,” he recalled in the letter. The plane plunged thousands of feet, to “within 100 feet of the ground,” before he could pull up and land it safely in a field.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s Dayton Daily News featured the headline, “Thousands Gaze in Wonder as Old Sol is Eclipsed by Moon Saturday.” According to the article, “Street corners were literally blocked with awry-necked people gazing at the sun to behold the phenomenon. A headline in The Denver Post read, “Thousands Point Glasses at Sun to Watch Eclipse,” and the newspaper reported that police had planned to keep crowds quiet so that astronomers could properly observe the passing moon.

The Chillicothe Constitution, in Missouri, reported, “Hundreds of Chillicotheans stood on their lawns and grouped together on the street corners late Saturday to view the first eclipse of the sun which hasn’t appeared in this country since 1900.” The Alliance Herald in Nebraska said that “one of the largest crowds ever seen in Alliance” viewed the eclipse. Those two papers, as well as The Topeka State Journal, reminded readers that it would be a century before Americans would again be able to view an eclipse of that magnitude. As The Topeka State Journal put it, “Not until 2017 will another total solar eclipse be visible over so large an area of this country.”

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