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1881 was a common year starting on Saturday of the Gregorian calendar and a common year starting on Thursday of the Julian calendar, the 1881st year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 881st year of the 2nd millennium, the 81st year of the 19th century, and the 2nd year of the 1880s decade. As of the start of 1881, the Gregorian calendar was 12 days ahead of the Julian calendar, which remained in localized use until 1923.
- January 1–24 – Siege of Geok Tepe: Russian troops under General Mikhail Skobelev defeat the Turkomans.
- January 13 – War of the Pacific – Battle of San Juan and Chorrillos: The Chilean army defeats Peruivan forces.
- January 15 – War of the Pacific – Battle of Miraflores: The Chileans take Lima, capital of Peru, after defeating its second line of defense in Miraflores.
- January 24 – William Edward Forster, chief secretary for Ireland, introduces his Coercion Bill, which temporarily suspends habeas corpus so that those people suspected of committing an offence can be detained without trial; it goes through a long debate before it is accepted February 2.
- January 25 – Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell form the Oriental Telephone Company.
- February 4 – Linnington Manor burns to the ground; only William Linnington remains unharmed.
- February 13 – The first issue of the feminist newspaper La Citoyenne is published by Hubertine Auclert.
- February 16 – The Canadian Pacific Railway is incorporated.
- February 18 – Carlos Finlay introduces his discovery of the transmission of Yellow Fever by mosquitoes Aedes aegypti, in the Fifth International Sanitary Conference held in Washington D.C..
- February 19 – Kansas becomes the first U.S. state to prohibit all alcoholic beverages.
- February 25 – Phoenix, Arizona is incorporated.
- March 1 – The Cunard Line's SS Servia, the first steel transatlantic liner, is launched at Clydebank in Scotland.
- March 4 – James A. Garfield is sworn in, as the 20th President of the United States.
- March 12 – Andrew Watson makes his Scotland debut, as the world's first black international football player.
- March 13 – Alexander II of Russia is killed near his palace, when a bomb is thrown at him, an act falsely blamed upon Russian Jews. He is succeeded by his son, Alexander III.
- March 23 – The First Boer War comes to an end.
World's first regular electric tram
service started in Berlin
- July 1 – General Order 70, the culmination of the Cardwell–Childers reforms of the British Army's organization, comes into effect.
- July 2 – Assassination of James A. Garfield: United States President James A. Garfield is shot by lawyer Charles J. Guiteau in Washington, D.C. The wound becomes infected, killing Garfield on September 19.
- July 4 – Tuskegee Institute opens in Alabama.
- July 7 – The first episode of Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio is published in Italy.
- July 14 – Billy the Kid is shot and killed by Pat Garrett, outside Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
- July 20 – American Indian Wars: Sioux chief Sitting Bull leads the last of his fugitive people in surrender to United States troops at Fort Buford in Montana.
- July 23 – The Boundary Treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina is signed in Buenos Aires.
- August 3 – The Pretoria Convention peace treaty is signed, officially ending the war between the Boers and Britain.
- August 27 – The fifth hurricane of the Atlantic season hits Florida and the Carolinas, killing about 700.
- September 5 – The Thumb Fire in the U.S. state of Michigan destroys over a million acres (4,000 km²) and kills 282 people.
- September 12 – Francis Howell High School (Howell Institute) in St. Charles, Missouri, and Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, Texas open on the same day, putting them in a tie for the title of the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi River.
- September 19 – President James A. Garfield dies eleven weeks after being shot. Vice President Chester A. Arthur becomes the 21st President of the United States.
- September 20 – President Chester A. Arthur is sworn in.
- September 26 – Godalming in England becomes the first town to have its streets illuminated by electric light (hydroelectrically generated).
- October 5–December 31 – The International Cotton Exposition is held in Atlanta, Georgia.
- October 10 – Richard D'Oyly Carte's Savoy Theatre opens in London, the world's first public building to be fully lit by electricity, using Joseph Swan's incandescent light bulbs. The stage is first lit electrically on December 28.
- October 13 – Determined to bring about the revival of the Hebrew language as a way of unifying Jews, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda has what is believed to be the first conversation in Modern Hebrew, with friends living in Paris.
- October 26 – The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurs in Tombstone, Cochise County, Arizona, USA.
- October 29 – Judge (U.S. magazine) is first published.
- November – The Newcastle United F.C. is founded as the Stanley F.C., with a further name change to Newcastle East End F.C. the following year.
- November 3 – The Mapuche uprising of 1881 begins, with an attack on Quillem, Chile.
- November 9 – Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 premieres in Budapest.
- November 11 – The Clarkson Memorial in Wisbech is completed, and unveiled to the public.
- November 19 – A meteorite strikes the Earth near the village of Großliebenthal, a few kilometers southwest of Odessa, Ukraine.
- December 8 – Ringtheaterbrand: At least 380 die in a fire at the Vienna Ringtheater.
- December 25–27 – The Warsaw pogrom is carried out in Vistula Land, Russian Empire.
- December 28 – Virgil Earp is ambushed in Tombstone, Arizona, and loses the use of his left arm.
- Kinshasa (the capital of the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) is founded by Henry Morton Stanley, as a trading outpost called Léopoldville.
- On the Isle of Man (an internally self-governing dependent territory of the United Kingdom), the House of Keys Election Act extends the franchise for the national legislature, to spinsters and widows owning real estate of a certain value.
- Edward Rudolf founds the Church of England Central Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays (modern-day The Children's Society).
- The Pali Text Society is founded by British scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids, for the study of Pali (Ceylonese) texts.
- Some Vatican archives are opened to scholars for the first time.
- Abilene, Texas, is founded.
- Minto, North Dakota, is founded.
- Rafaela, Argentina, is formed.
- New York City's oldest independent school for girls, the Convent of the Sacred Heart New York (91st Street), is founded.
- Culford School, a public school in Suffolk, England, is founded as the East Anglian School for Boys.
- Leyton Orient F.C. is founded in London.
- January 9
- January 13 – Essington Lewis, Australian industrialist (d. 1961)
- January 15 – John Rodgers, American naval officer, naval aviation pioneer (d. 1926)
- January 17 – Antoni Łomnicki, Polish mathematician (d. 1941)
- January 21 – Arch McCarthy, American baseball player (d. unknown)
- January 23 – Luisa Casati, Italian heiress, artistic muse and patron of the arts (d. 1957)
- January 30 – Whitford Kane, Irish born American actor (d. 1956)
- January 31 – Irving Langmuir, American chemist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1957)
- February 1 – Dimitrana Ivanova, Bulgarian reform pedagogue, suffragist and women's rights activist (d. 1960)
- February 2 – Gustav Herglotz, German mathematician (d. 1953)
- February 4
- February 11 – Carlo Carrà, Italian painter (d. 1966)
- February 12 – Anna Pavlova, Russian ballerina (d. 1931)
- February 13 – Eleanor Farjeon, English children's writer, poet (d. 1965)
- February 17 – Bess Streeter Aldrich, American fiction writer (d. 1954)
- February 21 – Kenneth J. Alford, British soldier, composer (d. 1945)
- February 27 – Sveinn Björnsson, 1st President of Iceland (d. 1952)
- February 28 – Otto Dowling, United States Navy Captain, 25th Governor of American Samoa (d. 1946)
- March 4
- March 9 – Ernest Bevin, British labour leader, politician and statesman (d. 1951)
- March 10 – Thomas Quinlan, English operatic impresario (d. 1951)
- March 13 – Louis Chauvin, American ragtime pianist (d. 1908)
- March 17 – Walter Rudolf Hess, Swiss physiologist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1973)
- March 20 – Fritz Pfleumer, German-Austrian engineer, inventor (d. 1945)
- March 22 – Hans Wilsdorf, German-Swiss watchmaker, founder of Rolex (d. 1960)
- March 23
- March 25
- March 26 – Guccio Gucci, Italian fashion designer, founder of Gucci (d. 1953)
- April 1 – Octavian Goga, 37th Prime Minister of Romania (d. 1938)
- April 3 – Alcide De Gasperi, Italian statesman, politician (d. 1954)
- April 12 – Rudolf Ramek, 5th Chancellor of Austria (d. 1941)
- April 14 – Husain Salaahuddin, Maldivian writer (d. 1948)
- April 16 – E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, British politician (d. 1959)
- April 27 – Móric Esterházy, 18th Prime Minister of Hungary (d. 1960)
- May 1 – Mary MacLane, Canadian writer (d. 1929)
- May 4 - Alexander Kerensky, Russian politician (d. 1970)
- May 13 – Lima Barreto, Brazilian writer (d.1922)
- May 14
- May 19 – official birthday of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first President of Turkey (d. 1938)
- May 20 – Władysław Sikorski, Polish general, politician (d. 1943)
- May 30 – Georg von Küchler, German field marshal (d. 1968)
- June 9 – Marion Leonard, American silent film actress (d. 1956)
- June 17 – Tommy Burns, Canadian-born boxer (d. 1955)
- June 26 – Ya'akov Cohen, Israeli poet (d. 1960)
- July 2 – Royal H. Weller, American politician (d. 1929)
- July 4 – Ulysses S. Grant III, American soldier, planner (d. 1968)
- July 11
- July 22
- July 27 – Hans Fischer, German chemist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1945)
- July 28 – Günther Quandt, German industrialist, founder of the industrial empire that in modern times includes BMW and Altana (d. 1954)
- July 30 – Smedley Butler, United States Marine Corps general (d. 1940)
- August 3 – Nathan Post, 7th and 10th Governor of American Samoa (d. 1938)
- August 6 – Sir Alexander Fleming, Scottish biomedical researcher, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (d. 1955)
- August 7 – François Darlan, French admiral and 81st Prime Minister of France from 1941 to 1942 (d. 1942)
- August 8 – Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, German field marshal (b. 1954)
- August 12 – Cecil B. DeMille, American film director, producer (d. 1959)
- August 19 – George Enescu, Romanian composer (d. 1955)
- August 20 – Edgar Guest, English poet (d. 1959)
- September 5
- September 8
- September 11 – Asta Nielsen, Danish silent film star (d. 1972)
- September 12 – Daniel Jones, British phonetician (d. 1967)
- September 15 – Ettore Bugatti, Italian car designer, founder of Bugatti Automobiles (d. 1947)
- September 16 – Clive Bell, English art critic (d. 1964)
- September 17
- September 25 – Lu Xun, leading figure of modern Chinese literature (d. 1936)
- September 26 – Hiram Wesley Evans, American Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard (d. 1966)
- September 29 – Ludwig von Mises, Austrian economist (d. 1973)
- October 1 – William Boeing, American engineer, airplane manufacturer (d. 1956)
- October 4 – Walther von Brauchitsch, German field marshal (d. 1948)
- October 11 – Hans Kelsen, Austrian legal theorist (d. 1973)
- October 15
- October 22 – Clinton Davisson, American physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1958)
- October 25 – Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter (d. 1973)
- October 26 – Margaret Wycherly, English stage, film actress (d. 1956)
- October 28 – Vin Coutie, Australian footballer (d. 1951)
- November 4 – Gaby Deslys, French dancer, actress (d. 1920)
- November 5 – George A. Malcolm, American lawyer, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines and educator (d. 1961)
- November 8 – Robert Esnault-Pelterie, French aircraft designer, pioneer rocket theorist (d. 1957)
- November 12 – Maximilian von Weichs, German field marshal (d. 1954)
- November 14 – Nicholas Schenck, Russian-born film studio executive (d. 1969)
- November 15 – Franklin Pierce Adams, American columnist, poet (d. 1960)
- November 24 – Al Christie, Canadian-born director, producer (d. 1951)
- November 25
- November 28 – Stefan Zweig, Austrian writer (d. 1942)
- December 2 – Heinrich Barkhausen, German physicist (d. 1956)
- December 5 – René Cresté, French actor, director (d. 1922)
- December 3 – Henry Fillmore, American composer, bandleader (d. 1956)
- December 12 – Doris Keane, American stage actress (d. 1945)
- December 16 – Henri Dentz, French general (d. 1945)
- December 24 – Juan Ramón Jiménez, Spanish writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1958)
, painted 2–5 March 1881, only a few days before the composer's death
- January 1 – Louis Auguste Blanqui, French socialist, political activist (b. 1805)
- January 3 – Anna McNeill Whistler, James Whistler's mother, subject of his painting (b. 1804)
- January 21 – Wilhelm Matthias Naeff, member of the Swiss Federal Council (b. 1802)
- January 24 – Frances Stackhouse Acton, British botanist, archaeologist, writer and artist (b. 1794)
- February 5 – Thomas Carlyle, Scottish writer, historian (b. 1795)
- February 9 – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist (b. 1821)
- February 14 – Fernando Wood, New York City mayor (b. 1812)
- February 23 – Robert F. R. Lewis, American naval officer (b. 1826)
- March 13 – Emperor Alexander II of Russia (assassinated) (b. 1818)
- March 28 – Modest Mussorgsky, Russian composer (b. 1839)
- April 19 – Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (b. 1804)
- April 26 – Ludwig Freiherr von und zu der Tann-Rathsamhausen, Bavarian general (b. 1815)
- April 27 – Ludwig von Benedek, Austrian general (b. 1804)
- May 24 – Samuel Palmer, English artist (b. 1805)
- May 25 – Giuseppe Maria Giulietti, Italian explorer (b. 1847)
- June 6 – Henri Vieuxtemps, Belgian composer (b. 1820)
- June 28 – Jules Armand Dufaure, 3-time Prime Minister of France (b. 1798)
July – December
- July 1 – Baron Jules Dupotet de Sennevoy, French writer (b. 1796)
- July 14 – Billy the Kid, American gunslinger (b. 1859)
- July 17 – Jim Bridger, American explorer and trapper (b. 1804)
- August 11 – Jane Digby, English adventurer (b. 1807)
- August 15 – Alexandru G. Golescu, 11th Prime Minister of Romania (b. 1819)
- September 7 – Sidney Lanier, American writer (b. 1842)
- September 8 – Prince Frederick of the Netherlands, Dutch noble, general (b. 1797)
- September 13 – Ambrose Burnside, American Civil War general, inventor, politician from Rhode Island (b. 1824)
- September 19 – James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States (assassinated) (b. 1831)
- September 22 – Solomon L. Spink, U.S. Congressman from Illinois (b. 1831)
- October 3 – Orson Pratt, American religious leader (b. 1811)
- October 31 – George DeLong, American naval officer, explorer (starvation) (b. 1844)
- December 18 – George Edmund Street, British architect (b. 1824)