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.
A NATION CHANGED
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. …