Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

American Century with an Explosion of Innovations, the First Decade Set into Motion What We Now Know as Pop Culture

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

American Century with an Explosion of Innovations, the First Decade Set into Motion What We Now Know as Pop Culture

Article excerpt

In 1904, when America was raring to claim the new century as its very own, Edward V.P. Schneiderhahn saw the future at the world's fair in St. Louis -- and blinked in disbelief.

"The picture is grand. The scale immense," he wrote in his diary. "Illumination at night was wonderful. . . . It is difficult to select adequate terms."

For seven months Schneiderhahn, a young Missouri lawyer, recorded the "unthinkable magnificence" of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. He gawked at its automobiles, aircraft, electric lights, moving pictures, turbine engines, sewing machines and wireless telegraphy.

"Words fail. . . . Never expect to see anything so grand again."

Oh, but he would. The 20th century had just begun. And many Americans believed their nation now had the brains, the government and the moral authority to redefine the world.

Two songs that year captured the spirit: "The Yankee Doodle Boy," by George M. Cohan, and "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis," in which a restless wife leaves her husband so she can frolic at the fair. Indeed, the fair signaled to ancient powers in Europe that the United States had come of age and would not be slowed.

But where were we headed, exactly?

As fairgoers strode the grounds, they munched on ice-cream cones and hot dogs -- two new snacks that later gave rise to the fast-food culture.

A vaudeville act featured "Dancing Girls" in risque attire. "What a shame," Schneiderhahn wrote. Impressionist paintings left him wondering "why an artist should delight to choose mean topics." As for the motor cars, the diarist mused: "A whole city of these puffing, mad and stinking ugly things would not look very well."

Cars. Mass media. Movies. The urge to "Americanize" foreign cultures. So many aspects of today's national persona were conceived in that first decade of the 20th century.

It's been called America's century.

At first blush, its beginning and end hardly seem compatible. But the story in between is linear. Events of one decade forge attitudes in the next. The American psyche in 1999 -- how we today think and dream and view our role in the world -- is but the logical result of it all.


If there's one lesson of the century, it's that awesome achievements almost always produce results good and bad. Schneiderhahn sensed this; Americans have witnessed it to this day.

Their government went from progressive reformer to midcentury warrior to what some regard as a big, fat meddler. Technology, once thought to benefit everyone, became a threat to some livelihoods and life itself. Conveniences exploded, but community eroded.

As author David McCullough sees it, we are the nation we dreamed of being in 1900.

"We wanted wealth. We wanted power, conveniences, personal liberties, public education for anyone -- and we got it," the historian said. "But I think they'd be disappointed at how we've used those things. For every gain, there's been loss."

Time travelers from 1900 would be thrilled by what we now take for granted: Social Security, paved highways, straight teeth, painkillers, even Kleenex.

"But I'm not sure they'd be impressed with us as people," said McCullough. "They'd wonder why so many families break up (and) why we don't work as much with each other.

"I think they'd find us rather soft and spoiled, not very colorful . . . We can run our personal computers, but can we milk a cow? Can we deliver a baby? They'd be amazed how easy we have it, physically."

In 1900, the nation was only five generations old, 76 million strong and bursting out all over.

Immigrants had helped fatten the population 20 percent in just the past decade. And the century arrived with as many Americans living west of Indiana as east.

Our democratic experiment struck Indiana's U.S. Sen. Albert Beveridge as positively divine. "God has marked the American people as His chosen nation," he gushed.


History stamped two faces onto that first decade.

One was Theodore Roosevelt's -- rugged and grinning, hero of the Spanish-American War, lover of jujitsu, still the youngest president ever.

The other face belonged to the fictitious Gibson Girl, whose porcelain skin and demure expressions epitomized the woman of the leisure class. She was the antithesis of today's working mother. Drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, she was stately but delicate and she kept her ruby lips closed.

These were The Good Years, as Walter Lord titled his 1960 book on the era. Good years, that is, if you were male, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (those were the men whom, in Beveridge's view, "God has been preparing to govern savages and senile peoples").

If you were a child lucky enough to survive infancy -- one in seven did not -- grueling work lay just ahead. In 1910, 20 percent of children aged 10 to 15 were "gainfully occupied" in full-time jobs. Many worked 60-hour weeks.

When a boy in a Georgia mill was asked if he'd rather spend his summer playing, he said, "I don't know how."

Child labor. Filthy factories. Uneducated immigrants jammed into flats. Huge corporate profits. Excesses of the Gilded Age spurred demands to improve life for "the common man."

Reformers grabbed the torch of a new generation. And Roosevelt slung it with the gusto of a big-game hunter, which he was.


Sworn in after the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt followed a bland parade of post-Civil War presidents whose inaction allowed John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and other industrial titans to set the national agenda.

But that was the 19th century. This was the 20th.

"New political fashions had come together," writes Paul Johnson in A History of the American People. They included causes alive today: trust-busting, conservationism, better schools for the underclass and, as Johnson puts it, "the notion of educated purposeful elites as `guardians' of the people."

It was the Republican Roosevelt who set that big ball of government rolling, although it started small. He called for federal inspections of meat. He put legal teeth in antitrust laws. He embraced national parks. He even unfurled Old Glory beyond its own shores, not only as a Rough Rider on San Juan Hill but also as the political engineer of the Panama Canal -- a project no other country could or wanted to complete.

Weeks after taking office, Roosevelt made clear he was unlike any president before him. He outraged Southern newspapers by inviting a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House.

In no way were these good years for black Americans.

McClure's Magazine reported in 1904 that the status of blacks in the South had gone nowhere since the Civil War. Nine in 10 inmates at Southern penitentiaries were black. Strangled by poverty, poor schooling and Jim Crow segregation, most black males died before they were 35. Something had to be done, urged McClure's, a leader in the new art of muckraking.

Fortunately, the decade also brought forth the insights of W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. He prophesied that our biggest domestic struggle of the century would be "the problem of the color line."

In 1904, America's all-male electorate, white and black, supported Roosevelt for another term.


American ingenuity had already performed miracles: lighting the night with incandescent bulbs, linking voices by telephone, connecting all corners of the nation with 193,000 miles of railway.

When the century turned, author Jack London penned an essay on "The Shrinkage of the Planet." How wondrous it was, the Californian wrote, to live in a world where "every part knows what every other part is thinking or doing."

Anything looked possible. Pundits predicted that science by the year 2000 would eradicate cancer, hunger, poverty and even differences in skin color. All warring would cease. "Man will see around the world," the Ladies' Home Journal forecast in 1900.

Perhaps the wildest notion of all came true quicker than anyone expected, on Dec. 17, 1903.

It seemed so ludicrous, The Associated Press report wound up in the trash in most newsrooms.

Bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville Wright had their contraption aloft for 59 seconds -- the first human-carrying ascent of a motorized, heavier-than-air craft. It was just one of several innovations from the first decade that altered life for the rest of the century.

Two years later, Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity. Two years after that, David Kenney patented the electric vacuum cleaner. Two years after that, Leo Baekeland invented the first plastic and Lee De Forest patented a triode vacuum tube that amplified radio signals, spurring the arrival of widespread broadcasting.

Automobiles provided yet another link between once-isolated communities. The elite's toy became a working-class option in 1908, when Henry Ford unveiled his "car for the great multitude," the $850 Model T.

Every achievement heralded the promise of a perfect society to come. Beneath optimism, however, stirred anxieties that this shrinking planet just might disturb the sanctum of our homes.

Telephones, for example, "allowed strange men to court your daughter without stepping into your house," said Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the Annenburg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even the $1 Kodak Brownie camera, which in 1900 brought simple photography to average families, carried the risk of letting others in on your clownish behavior and beach poses.

Moving pictures triggered other concerns. By 1909, when filmmakers produced fuzzy features lasting 15 minutes, one in four Americans visited a movie house every week. Crime, mayhem and slapstick dominated the screens.

Crusaders argued that 15 minutes was ample time to warp young minds or encourage who-knows-what. The Independent, a society magazine, urged calm: "The fad will die out in the next few years."

Instead, movie-going enjoyed the longevity of telephoning, motoring, snapping pictures and reading sensational newspapers -- all of which captivated the middle class by decade's end.

And, eventually, it all merged into a single concept.

Popular culture.

Today, the term needs no definition. After all, what shapes America more than popular culture? What dictates the marketplace, leisure time, work habits, criminal habits and elections? What most threatens our moral fiber?

Popular culture, right?

Funny, but that term didn't exist when America's century began.

Library of Congress Photo: (b/w) Teddy Roosevelt retired as assistant secretary of the Navy to form the cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. He became president in 1901.

Special 1. Photo: (c) Car grille

2. Photo: (c) Telephone

3. Photo: (c) Movie reel

4. Photo: (b/w) Hot dog

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