Life at the Turn of the Century | Morality, Feminism and Class | Race Relations | Hardship and Disease | Hope for a Better Life | Reforms and Theodore Roosevelt | the Panama Canal | Roosevelt presidency to 1908 | The Taft years | Taft out, Wilson in | Wealth Division and Labor Unrest.
A Sunday crowd overflows the playing field in Boston prior to Game 3 of the 1903 World Series between Boston and Pittsburg
At the turn of the century, three in five in the United States lived in a town having a population of less that 2,500. The United States of America was still more rural than urban, but it was already a world leader in industry, the US benefiting from both a great abundance in natural resources and an economy organized by giant corporations. The United States led the world in the production of iron and steel, and it led Britain in manufacturing, the US in 1900 having 23.6 percent of the world's total against Britain's 18.5 percent. note1
The United States produced half the world's cotton, corn and oil and a third of its coal and gold. The self-sufficient diversified farm was giving way to specialized commercial agriculture. And the unfavorable balance of trade that had plagued the United States since its independence had been reversed.
In rural areas, many people were poor. In inner cities, over-worked factory workers lived in crowded and unsanitary tenements. But, in general, at the beginning of the century people in the US were able to buy more than they had in previous decades. More farm products were available in the cities. With the rise of industry had come an increase in the variety and abundance of goods. There were department stores and mail-order catalogs. Shopping by telephone had begun. Electricity was reaching more people in the cities, the electric light having the advantage of being without soot or the need to ventilate – while a few feared it, blaming it for fires, explosions and electrocutions, and some claimed that it caused freckles. There were electric trolley cars on which to ride to work or to stores or on Sunday outings. A Brooklyn baseball team acquired the name Dodgers from the ability of its fans to dodge trolley cars.
Running for re-election, McKinley spoke of the prosperity that had come to the United States during his four years in office.
Middle and upper class Anglo-Americans were feeling brash and optimistic. Despite centuries of preaching about the depravity of man, they were cheerful. And among the cheerful in 1900 was the Republican president, William McKinley. He was running for re-election, and he boasted of the pride and prosperity that had come to the United States during his four years in office.
City folks were enjoying more leisure. The middle-class had annual vacations, and many of them looked forward to going to a resort during the summer. On weekends they went to orchestral concerts in a park or city center. They went to vaudeville shows, to amusement parks or to a local baseball game. During the summer a family might go fishing or boating. Family picnics were also popular, as were community socials.
Much in entertainment was home made. Very few people had a phonograph, but there was an abundance of store bought sheet music. And girls of a family played musical instruments. Families frequently gathered around a piano, organ, or pianola for sing-alongs. The most popular song in 1902 was "In the Good Ol' Summertime," which that year sold a million copies in sheet music – a song that evoked in many city people a nostalgia for the rural towns where they had strolled through shady lanes. Another popular song was "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." Soon to follow were songs such as "Sweet Adeline," "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider," and "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." People in middle-class families played lawn games such as croquet or lawn tennis. Young girls, along with their mothers, spent leisure hours doing needle crafts and reading religious novels. Some among the middle-class read westerns such as The Virginian, or they read sentimental sagas, or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Some read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Red Badge of Courage, and some read from among Horatio Alger's 135 novels. And people conversed more than they would decades later.
Men courted women in the parlor or on the front porch of the young woman's home, sometimes singing songs, playing their banjo or guitar, or they went strolling to the village green. As yet, women did not go driving off in automobiles. The automobile, "or horseless carriage," was just beginning to make its appearance in the United States, disturbing the city traffic of horse drawn wagons and bicycles. In San Francisco and Cincinnati a speed limit was established at eight miles an hour. Debates in bars and at dinner tables arose over whether the horseless carriage or the horse was better transportation. Animal power, it was argued, was better on mud-slick roads. With automobiles, some said, city streets would have less horse manure and smell.
At the turn of the century, more women were finding work outside of their homes – the result of enlarged office bureaucracies and the coming of the typewriter. Women had become a third of the nation's clerical workers. Women were also filling positions as telephone operators. And teaching, once a male preserve, was now 86 percent female – but still managed by male principals and superintendents.
Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.