Martin Hutchens was at the vanguard of a word trend in 1925 and probably didn’t know it.
On Aug. 28, the Missoulian editor and publisher weighed in on the nation’s post-World War I economy. He was seconding comments made by Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine when he said the American farmer who "so prospered during the war had been paying for it since."
“Normal times are best, and American farming conditions seem to be just getting back to normal,” wrote the man named to the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame in 1974. “If it is not the old normal, then it may be regarded as a new normal now establishing itself and likely to last for some time.”
One of the pleasures of having 128 years of your hometown newspaper online is tracking the evolution of a word or term.
The suspicion that “new normal” is a modern phrase isn’t quite borne out in a search on missoulian.newspapers.com, as proven by Hutchens’ editorial 93 years ago. It would be accurate to say, though, that it has been popularized in the 21st century, a phenomenon not ignited so much by climate change but another world-changer.
Remember or not, we started reading about new normals regularly after the 9/11 attacks, in no more eloquent terms than those of David Foster, a national Associated Press writer. The Missoulian carried Foster's year-end reflection on Dec. 30, 2001.
“There is no pill to undo evil, no magic word to resurrect the good old days when jetliners didn't turn into bombs and anthrax didn't come in the mail,” Foster wrote. “Since Sept. 11, America has struggled to find a new normal, one that could wrap itself around the sharp edges of terror and war.
“We tried a thousand ways to adapt: We flew less and prayed more. We hoisted flags and draped holiday greens in red, white and blue. We canceled trips to Las Vegas and went to grandma's house instead. We gave blood, wrote checks to charity and dusted off atlases to find Kabul and Jalalabad. We cried. Day by day, we came to realize it wasn't just the world that had changed. So had we.”
Most early “new normal” references in the Missoulian had no relation to the term we bandy about today.
What’s now the University of Montana-Western in Dillon became Western Montana College in 1949. Before that it was the state Normal College, a common name for schools focused on training teachers.
It made for a delightful one-column Missoulian headline on Aug. 11, 1919: ”New Normal President Man of Wide Experience.”
Through the decades national wire services used the term on occasion. In 1934, during the Great Depression, the AP reported that mayors of 96 major cities agreed “the country is reaching a new normal level,” even while calling for a long-term federal jobs program.
In November 1946, President Harry Truman lifted wage restrictions and price ceilings that had been instituted during World War II. The AP polled sentiments of industry leaders, including Lee Hahn of the National Retail Dry Good Association, who spoke for clothing manufacturers and retailers.
"Prices doubtless may be expected to react nervously before they settle down to something like a new normal,” Hahn said, “but the consciousness that business concerns generally are too smart to price themselves out of their great markets give assurance that prices will not long continue out of hand."
The energy crisis caused nationwide gas shortages in 1973, leading to weekend and evening closures at more than half of all gas stations that summer. By Labor Day things were improving, but a spokesman for the American Automobile Association warned that many dealers had found they could sell just as much gas in less time.
“As a result, shorter hours at many stations may be the ‘new normal’ of the future,” the spokesman told Stanley Carr of the New York Times News Service.
Fifty-three years after Hutchens' editorial, the Missoulian returned to its own “new normal” world. In February 1978, staff writer Linda Robbins and photographers Harley Hettick and Bob Cushman visited Marshall Ski Area and talked to Don Erickson, a 24-year-old Missoula native who had lost his right leg to cancer in 1973. Erickson was teaching youngsters with similar disabilities to ski.
"Most people would say the students in Don Erickson's beginning skiing class are learning to overcome handicaps,” Robbins wrote. “According to Erickson, they're ‘just learning to live with a new normal.’"
Missoulian wire stories on global warming and retreating glaciers date back to at least 1933, when Dr. F. E. Matthes of the U.S. Geological Survey reported that Rocky Mountain glaciers had retreated as much as 50 to 75 feet in the past year. But not until 2008 did a local story apply “new normal” to the effects of climate change. On July 30, reporter John Cramer wrote about the Clark Fork Coalition's new report on global warming’s impact in western Montana.
The severe wildfires, heat waves and mild winters of the previous two years prompted the study, executive director Karen Knudsen said. Its aim was to examine "whether this was just an unlucky stretch of bad weather or a new normal brought on by a shifting climate."