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Editorial: Across the pond, an era of great change

Did you take a break from your New Year’s resolutions Sunday evening? You know, the ones in which you vowed to spend less time on the couch, less time in front of the TV, less time chowing on non-kale-related snacks?

If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you know what we’re talking about. The third season of the BBC soap kicked off in the United States Sunday, and for devotees who have waited months for the show’s return, it was about time. For the uninitiated, Downton Abbey is an early 20th-century drama centered on life inside a grandiose British estate. Viewers follow the travails of the idle rich (upstairs) and the enormous crew of servants (downstairs) who help them eat, dress, socialize and . . . well, it’s hard to say what else goes on most of the time.

It’s easy to while away a Sunday evening imagining yourself among the fancy folks at Downton, but this week’s episode got us thinking: What was going on across the pond – in New Hampshire – in the post-World War I era?

At Downton Abbey, the wealthy characters speak of the quick pace of change beyond their walls. (As the Shirley MacLaine character keeps reminding everyone, it’s 1920, for crying out loud!) Here, things were changing swiftly as well.

At the end of World War I, the state’s onetime economic engine – textile mills – had become uncompetitive, much like the farms before them. Mill towns and farm towns grew depressed, and population growth slowed. (In 1920, there were less than half a million people in the state – and just 22,000 in Concord.)

Eventually, the mills were replaced by different sorts of manufacturing – and automobile-based tourism – but there was a long stretch of economic uncertainty across the state.

Folks listened to jazz, ragtime and the music of Broadway musicals. They read Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They watched Charlie Chaplin movies.

New Hampshire women – like those across the country – had spent decades fighting for the right to vote and hold political office – fights they finally won in 1919. The impact was immediate: In the next election, women were elected to the New Hampshire Legislature and won offices within the political parties. Feminism was apparent elsewhere too: Women asserted their right to dance, to drink, to smoke, to work, free of many of the rules of previous generations.

After World War I, the state was home to a short-lived Progressive Party and a new moderate wing of the Republican Party that would control state politics for generations. In those years, much of the impetus was to break the grip of the powerful railroad bosses and to improve life for farmers and factory workers.

In the years after World War I, architect William Butterfield was leaving his mark all over New Hampshire, in grand public buildings that stood the test of time. Among them: Manchester’s Central High School, Pittsfield’s town library and Weare’s Stone Memorial Building.

In the western part of the state, the new MacDowell Colony, created by Marian MacDowell in honor of her composer husband, was providing seclusion for generations of artists to do their work – musicians, writers, painters and more. And up north, the recently-passed Weeks Act – which created the White Mountain National Forest and 48 others in the eastern United States – was already having an impact.

Perhaps most dramatically, there was a post-war effort at reforming education – after World War I had shed light on glaring weaknesses in the state’s schools. Hundreds of volunteers and draftees in the war effort were discovered to be unable to read or sign their enlistment papers. From that came the Great School Law of 1919, which called for minimum spending by school districts, a minimum number of school days per year, a new state board of education and a commissioner to maintain standards for teachers and principals. To help pay for all the improvements: a statewide property tax.

The tax, alas, proved controversial and didn’t last. Some things, it seems don’t change much at all.

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