U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Total Eclipse of the Past (Guest Post by William S. Cossen)

Editor's Note

This guest post comes to us from William S. Cossen, who graduated with a PhD in history from Penn State University in December 2016. He serves as the book review editor for H-SHGAPE (Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) and is a member of the faculty of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. His articles have been published in American Catholic StudiesThe South Carolina Historical Magazine, and U.S. Catholic Historian, and he has an article on Catholic labor schools forthcoming in The Catholic Historical Review. Cossen is currently revising his first book manuscript, which is titled Making Catholic America: Religious Nationalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. You can follow him at www.williamscossen.com and on Twitter @WilliamCossen. – Ben Alpers

With a few exceptions, solar eclipses have played largely peripheral roles in historical scholarship on the United States. Chief among these exceptions are historian Louis Masur’s 2001 book 1831: Year of Eclipse and journalist David Baron’s 2017 book American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. Masur’s work conceives of the 1831 eclipse as “metaphor and omen,” albeit one that had a significant impact on the beginning of Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia.[1] Baron argues in his book that “[e]clipses inevitably reveal much about ourselves, too. What we see in them reflects our own longings and fears, as well as our misconceptions.” The 1878 eclipse, Baron explains, provided a venue for the development of the scientific profession in the United States and demonstrated during the Gilded Age “how far the country had evolved intellectually.”[2]

Historian David Hengie writes that modern observers consider the eclipse “primarily as an astronomical phenomenon capable of being predicted and explained in impersonal fashion. In the past this was not commonly so.”[3] I would like to suggest that historians give renewed attention to the latter view when analyzing Americans’ reactions to eclipses, and I argue furthermore that eclipses, far from being simply astronomical events, are also constructed historically by contemporaneous actors. While there may be one physical path for any given eclipse, those viewing the eclipse along that path – even those standing shoulder to shoulder in the same city, in the same field, or at the same mountain observatory – conceptualize eclipses in vastly differing ways, which can produce marked effects in the vocabulary, cultural and intellectual expressions, and even the political environment surrounding the eclipse. Solar eclipses, politics, society, culture, and intellectual life mutually constitute one another, and their interactions have given rise to some surprising results, which are apparent in the last cross-country eclipse in the United States, which took place almost a century ago on June 8, 1918.

Bisbee (AZ) Daily Review, June 6, 1918

In the months leading up to the eclipse, scientists, newspaper editors, government officials, and business leaders helped prepare the American people for what promised to be a spectacular display. The eclipse was predicted to follow a path from Washington in the Northwest to Florida in the Southeast, traversing numerous states in between and making an impression on the many communities that turned out in droves to witness the moon temporarily blotting out all but the corona of the sun. Significantly, though, these communities and their residents made an equally powerful impact on the eclipse, investing it with political power amidst the stresses of global war. Building on a history of human interactions with solar eclipses reaching back centuries, the New York Tribune was confident that moderns had escaped the supposed superstitions of the past by embracing scientific observation and developing exacting mathematical calculations. The eclipse, though – or “the great astral pencil,” as another newspaper described it – was “still a bit creepy.”[4] Others described the uncanniness of solar eclipses in similar terms, with a Wisconsin observer noting that with one “total eclipse of the sun about forty years ago in this section” – presumably the 1878 eclipse noted above – “the earth became as dark as night; chickens went to roost and the cattle left the pastures for the barns. It was a weird sight, and the stillness of death covered the earth.”[5] Other contemporaries described eclipses in similar terms that melded peace with foreboding, light with darkness, life with death: “For the softly radiant face of the Queen of Night has given way to a visage as black as Death, which moves forward with a relentlessness which betokens the entire extinction of the King of Day….The faces of the beholders grow ashen, and their tongues are hushed in awe….[A]t times, however, there is a dead calm, as if nature herself were holding her breath.”[6]

For some locales, the 1918 eclipse was a chance to display civic pride and to engage in some municipal rivalry. Oklahoma’s Chickasha Daily Express instructed its “Boosters” in a tongue-in-cheek fashion to “get busy – Chickasha must have that total eclipse. We don’t want any half-way business about it.”[7] In a slightly more serious manner, Oregonians demonstrated mathematically their superiority to other eclipse-viewing communities by relating “the percentages of total eclipse for various points.” Portland achieved a 99% eclipse – first on the list – while residents of its East Coast counterpart, Portland, Maine, would have to be satisfied with a 60% partial eclipse.[8]

Albuquerque (NM) Morning Journal, June 8, 1918

For many, though, the eclipse was a chance to demonstrate, as with its predecessor of 1878, that modern science had put the universe within people’s grasp. As one commentator explained during the week before the eclipse, “Science today has three problems which may be studied to advantage during a total eclipse. These are, the search for a planet or planets between Mercury and the sun, the study of the corona and the making of observations which later may prove the truth or falsity of the Einstein doctrine of relativity.”[9] While the hoped-for planet Vulcan was not discovered, scientists were able to more closely study the corona, and the 1918 eclipse moved scientists one step closer to proving Einstein’s theory. Astronomers were energetic in their preparations for the eclipse. Over two years before the event, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific had already issued preliminary advice on viewing the phenomenon.[10] In March 1918, the same organization published a lengthy guide detailing driving directions, ideas for side trips for eclipse tourists, and tips on camping locations. Stanford University’s Sidney D. Townley warned “autoists” who were “not familiar with travel in mountainous or sandy regions, not to underestimate the time necessary to reach the path of totality.”[11] Community organizations such as the YMCA also “arranged to permit all those desiring to view the sight to do so” by offering up telescopes and “smoke glasses” – a standard, easy-to-make device for safely viewing eclipses – for the public’s use.[12]

While the 1918 eclipse has been, for lack of a better term, eclipsed by others that have been examined more closely by historians, this particular appearance deserves further attention for the role it played in shaping, at least temporarily, the vocabulary people used to describe political and foreign affairs. This, in turn, transformed the ways that people made sense of the eclipse. The total eclipse of 1918 occurred toward the end of World War I, and it is apparent that in the days and weeks surrounding the event, Americans experienced an intersection of astronomy, politics, and war. Sometimes this was explicit, as in the case of George H. Peters, an astronomer in the employ of the United States Navy, who produced lenses for scientific equipment using glass from Germany. The Peters-produced glass was then used “to great advantage by the United States navy.”[13] Similarly, the Navy provided security before the eclipse for scientists storing their equipment at the Baker, Oregon, fairgrounds.[14] Other times, the interaction between eclipse and war had less of a measurable impact on the battlefield and more on people’s understandings of the politics of the astronomical phenomenon.

Much of this interrelationship between the war and the eclipse was surely in jest, at least as far as press coverage went. Washington, DC’s Sunday Star described it as “a thoroughly patriotic eclipse, new time and all,” the latter a jab at the recently instituted daylight saving time. In the days following the eclipse, numerous publications offered versions of a play on the rhyming words “sun” and “Hun” to attack the German enemy. A portion of George E. Phair’s poem “Food For Fans” noted, “There was a time when an eclipse would stun / The man who gazed upon the darkened sun, / But not today, when half the bleeding world / Is trying to eclipse the flaming Hun. / Wherever Yank and Hun have come to grips / There is at least a partial Hun eclipse.”[15] An Illinois newspaper, expressing a somewhat common sense of disappointment at the cloud cover that obscured the eclipse from many Americans and, perhaps most disappointingly, from Denver astronomers who expended much time and energy in preparing for their observations, argued that “[t]he eclipse of the sun didn’t cause much excitement, but wait until we have the eclipse of the Hun.”[16] Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger also joined the anti-German punning: “It seems so simple, and yet no one said it: the Kaiser thinks Germany is the empire where the Hun never sets.”[17]

Some of the anti-German rhetoric, however, betrayed a darker attitude toward the enemy. The eclipse occurred during a period when German Americans were held in deep suspicion by the United States government and by much of the public. As historian Petra DeWitt explains, “World War I and the fear that the enemy would destroy American democracy and liberty increased the anxieties and suspicions nativists harbored toward foreigners.”[18] There was a generalized push through to eliminate German influence from public life. “Local and state governments,” historian Tammy M. Proctor writes, “moved to purge German language from school curricula and public buildings, while people of German heritage sought to prove their loyalty by changing their names or participating in ceremonies to kiss the flag.”[19] Just three days before the eclipse, the New York Sun reported that Mrs. William Jay, the chairman of the Intimate Committee for the Severance of All Social and Professional Relations with Alien Sympathizers, had been working to accomplish the “Americanization of German language theatres.” With a subheadline reading “Cut Out Enemy Tongue,” this article noted that Jay had “done much to bring about the total eclipse of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s former conductor, Karl Muck, now interned as an enemy alien.”[20] Additionally, an anonymous Indiana author attacked Kaiser Wilhelm II and characterized him as a treacherous, dishonest figure: “TOTAL eclipse of the sun / DUE this week / KAISE should keep track of the date / IT will give him a fine chance / TO do some of his dirty work. / HE wired to the kaiserin of a great victory / ON the Aisne / HE even lies to his wife.”[21]

For other Americans, the eclipse allowed them to blend their interest in the astronomical occurrence with patriotic values. Tennessee’s Greeneville Daily Sun reminded readers three days before the event, “We are hoping for a fair day on the 8th, when the total eclipse of the sun…is chronicled to take place. Also we must not forget the 14th, Flag Day, and put out lots of flags.”[22] Even the youngest citizens could share in the creation of an eclipse-inflected sense of wartime nationalism. A girl from El Paso, “little Miss Lucille Ware,” had a dream two nights before the eclipse that depicted “George Washington coming out in the center of it, dressed in red, white and blue costume, stretching forth both hands, and stars all around.” Ware’s vision of a nearly apotheosized Washington concluded when “the shadow cut off the light” from the eclipsed sun and “the father of his country bowed and disappeared.”[23]

While some may have been underwhelmed by the eclipse – one New York observer remarked on June 9 that the “next eclipse of the sun hereabouts is scheduled for August, 2017, and judging from yesterday’s performance in this latitude it will not be worth waiting for” – for a moment in the late spring of 1918, astronomy, war, politics, and nationalism converged in people’s conceptions of the universe and global affairs.[24] As other scholars have noted, eclipses have been seen as symbols of great change. I would argue, however, that we might take this one step further by considering them not merely as physical episodes or as figurative emblems of cultural and technological transformations but rather as historically contingent events that have played significant roles in helping American citizens forge new senses of collective identity.


[1] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 6, 9-62.

[2] David Baron, American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), 5, 6.

[3] David Henige, “‘Day was of Sudden Turned into Night’: On the Use of Eclipses for Dating Oral History,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 18, no. 4 (Oct. 1976), 477.

[4] “The Sun Goes in for Daylight Saving,” New York Tribune, June 2, 1918, 7; “Mysteries of Solar System To be Explored by Scientists During Total Eclipse of Sun,” The Oklahoma City Times, June 7, 1918, 9.

[5] The Watertown (WI) News, June 5, 1918, 2.

[6] “Plans Made for Eclipse,” The Hood River (OR) Glacier, June 6, 1918, 1.

[7] “Express Packagettes,” The Chickasha (OK) Daily Express, June 4, 1918, 6.

[8] “Oregon Ranks First in Eclipse Percent,” East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR), June 5, 1918, 1.

[9] “Sun’s Eclipse to be Seen Here on Saturday, June 8,” Weekly Journal-Miner (Prescott, AZ), June 5, 1918, 3.

[10] W.W. Campbell, “The Total Solar Eclipse of June 8, 1918,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 28, no. 163 (April 1916): 86-87.

[11] Sidney D. Townley, “Automobile Routes from California to the Path of Totality for the Solar Eclipse of June 8, 1918,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 30, no. 174 (March 1918), 147, 153, 154.

[12] “High Spots in the Cantonment News,” Free Trader Journal (Ottawa, IL), June 5, 1908, 2.

[13] “Lenses Made in United States,” The Ogden (UT) Standard, June 5, 1918, 2.

[14] “Big Preparations For Sun Eclipse at Baker,” The Evening Herald (Klamath Falls, OR), June 5, 1918, 3.

[15] George E. Phair, “Food For Fans,” The Topeka (KS) State Journal, June 13, 1918, 3.

[16] “On the Spur of the Moment,” The Richmond (IL) Palladium and Sun-Telegram, June 24, 1918, 6. On the mixed results of astronomers’ observations of the eclipse, see “Clouds Hide Sun’s Eclipse at Denver,” The Sun (New York), June 9, 1918, 16, which also recognized the impact of the war on the eclipse: “War conditions interfered with a number of expeditions from Europe which in peace time would have been sent here and made impossible an observation from Lick observatory. The famous observatory sent its most important instruments to Russia for the eclipse there in 1914 and has not since been able to recover them.”

[17] “Eclipse of the Hun,” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), June 10, 1918, 8.

[18] Petra DeWitt, Degrees of Allegiance: Harassment and Loyalty in Missouri’s German-American Community during World War I (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 5.

[19] Tammy M. Proctor, “‘Patriotic Enemies’: Germans in the Americas, 1914-1920,” Germans as Minorities during the First World War: A Global Comparative Perspective, ed. Panikos Panayi (Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 221.

[20] “German Language Theatres Attacked,” The Sun (New York), June 5, 1918, 7.

[21] “The Passing Show,” The Lake County Times (Hammond, IN), June 6, 1918, 4.

[22] “Pisgah,” The Greeneville (TN) Daily Sun, June 5, 1918, 4.

[23] “Dreamer Sees ‘Daddy Of His Country’ In Middle of Eclipse,” El Paso (TX) Herald, June 7, 1918, 1.

[24] The Sun (New York), June 9, 1918, 8.