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The Year 1873 in History

Corruption in the Grant administration made the headlines. The 1872 Credit Mobilier scandal (cheap or free railroad stock to congressmen) continued to be investigated. It became apparent that while Grant may have been a good general, he was a poor president. However, his second term was just beginning.

The so-called Panic of 1873 was the first since the Panic of 1857 (which was two decades after the Panic of 1837). In 1873 the problems were centered in and about the stock market. Farmers reacted against the railroads' tariffs, and certain other railroad policies, not to overlook a generally poor reputation for integrity, caused many railroad stocks and bonds to drop. European investors, who had been a major force in the stock market (and who were major investors in the various Western mines, including Comstock Lode enterprises and, in the 1890s, Cripple Creek, Colorado mines), withdrew much capital, causing prices to fall even further. On September 18th, Jay Cooke & Company, agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, failed. Black Friday, September 19th, saw stocks fall precipitously. Numerous banks and brokerages houses failed, primarily in New York City. The stock exchange closed for 10 days, but the damage was done, and by the end of the year an estimated 5,100 businesses failed and millions were thrown out of work. The depression lasted through 1877. Wages dropped 20% to 25% and the prices of many goods and services fell as well. America went through a period of deflation.

Henry Clay Frick used the financially difficult times to acquire much of the coal (for making coke) land near Connellsville. Coke was sold to Pittsburgh steel furnace operators, who found it to be superior to that acquired elsewhere, and Frick became a millionaire by the age of 30. With Andrew Carnegie, he later established the Carnegie Company, which operated the Homestead Works. In his mansion, Frick installed a large Welte orchestrion to play music for his guests, who sat on chairs covered with elephant hide leather. A small but high quality art museum in New York City keeps his name alive.

In San Francisco, the world's first cable car system went into operation in 1873. Subsequently, cable car lines would be installed in other major cities including Omaha, Seattle, Denver, and Los Angeles. Later, all would be torn up, except San Francisco's, which became a major tourist attraction, and is now a national historic site.

Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne, was published. Among popular songs of the year were Silver Threads Among the Gold and Home on the Range (published as Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam). Music in the home was often provided by a parlor reed organ or a piano. Reed organs were a booming industry with all sorts of conflicting claims, much like the patent medicine trade (whose advertisements dominated many newspapers).

Anthony Comstock (1844-1916), a nearly illiterate school dropout who trashed a saloon at age 18, induced several Republican congressmen and senators to sponsor a bill making any and all sexual material unmailable. Other legislators feared to oppose the bill lest they be denounced for favoring sin and it became law in 1873. The Comstock Act penalized birth control advice, discussions of abortion, and medical texts without distinction; scholarly books and The Lustful Turk were equally illegal. Comstock used political clout to obtain a highly placed and well paid job in the Post Office, enforcing his own law. He induced the government to fire Walt Whitman for Leaves of Grass; he made a federal case out of the inoffensive painting September Morn; he denounced photographs of athletes in trunks as obscene.: he vainly tried to close the World's Columbian Exposition for the Egyptian cooch dancers. He attacked Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the reverse of his design for the Expositionís prize medals. He boasted later of destroying many tons of "obscene" material (including medical texts), of imprisoning over 3,600 people, even driving some to suicide. George Bernard Shaw labeled his policy "Comstockery", and America became for years a literary laughingstock. Despite its flagrant violation of the First Amendment, The Comstock Law has never been repealed, only modified.

On November 1, 1873, Secretary of the Treasury Richardson directed the Sub-Treasury to pay out the long accumulated subsidiary silver coins to the government creditors in amounts of not more than $5 to any one person. However, it was soon learned that these instructions were premature and were revoked. Apparently, all records concerning how many coins were paid out were suppressed or destroyed; thus, there is no way of knowing the amounts involved.

In Nevada, the Comstock Lode was going strong, but optimism did not prevail as the price of silver continued to decline on world wide markets. In the same state, a new silver strike was made in the Panamint Mountains. The more silver was mined, the lower its price fell in terms of gold, contributing to economic hardship.