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  •   1900-1910
    Starting From Zero

    First in a series

    (By Vivienne Flesher for The Washington Post)
    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 20, 1999; Page C1

    What it felt like . . .

    Back in the first decade of the 20th century, the Oughts, the Good Years, the Age of Confidence. People fought over solutions, not problems: the gold standard vs. free silver, the flying machine--tool or toy? And Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts, started digging the Panama Canal and sent the Great White Fleet around the world.

    What it felt like just to walk down the street on a morning in early spring?--the smell of dank, dark wool and the ragged sparking of streetcar wires, men with derbies and level stares, women holding skirts above the muck and manure, immigrants audacious with ambition, the dead sweet smell of coal smoke, and soot on the last yellow, melting snow . . .

    Back when health, wealth and happiness seemed not just possible but inevitable and there were Gibson girls with their confident, lifted hair and their hands in fur muffs . . . photographs of families lined up from tallest to shortest, like organ pipes . . . the whistle of stiff bristle brushes on porch floors . . . wiseacres saying "Make like a hoop and roll out of here" . . . grimy children crippled in textile mills . . .

    John D. Rockefeller said, "God gave me my money." Things were dark and deliberate. Fathers knew best.

    You want to know what it felt like to have the nervous system of a striker wrecking two trains near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., or a baseball player sleeping in barns and living on bread and beefsteak, or a schoolteacher thinking about the science of Marie Curie and the bared legs of Isadora Duncan, and then going home to hand her sealed pay envelope to Father.

    In 1900, there were 75 million people in the 45 states and by 1910 a million immigrants a year, and who knows what it felt like for each one of them?

    Davy Jones, outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, in "The Glory of Their Times":

    "Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn't have the mass communication and mass transportation that exist nowadays. We didn't have as much schooling, either. As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other. Now people are all more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity--that kind of stuff. In everything, not just baseball."

    You already know Teddy Roosevelt shot bears and the Wright brothers flew an airplane on that cold beach in 1903. You've seen the crowd photographs. Everything seemed to happen in crowds: the masses huddled in slum flats, the sea-bathing ladies in bloomers, boys in knickers playing marbles. Things flashed around in newsreels: horses, smiles, top hats, parasols and dimity dresses.

    Theodore Roosevelt and family
    Theodore Roosevelt with his family in 1903.
    (Courtesy Harvard College Library)

    Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana announced: "God has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of . . . ."

    Henry James said: "The will to grow was everywhere written large, and to grow at no matter what or whose expense." The expense of the working man? The immigrant? The farmer? Anarchists and atheists? The conquered Filipino?

    But what it felt like is lost and gone forever, O my darling Clementine.

    No telling what it was like for W.K. Vanderbilt--the dining room of his Newport "cottage" had bronze furniture and Algerian marble walls--or for farmers driven off the land by railroads, or for parents with children dying of diphtheria, whooping cough, typhoid and malaria. Or terrified families dressing up for the minister's visit. Or blacks: W.E.B. Du Bois, who went to Harvard and then studied racial theory in Germany, said American blacks had "two-ness--an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings."

    But you have ideas. You have an idea of ashmen and icemen. The circus with miraculous foreigners in tights. Croquet. Resort hotels that burned down. So many blind people, harelips, clubfeet, hunchbacks. Chestnut trees. Hydrangeas. Vaudeville comics: "I sent my wife to the Thousand Islands for a vacation: a week on each island." Dogs: Loyal Newfoundlands and smart pugs are good with children.

    On Sunday afternoons, Aunt Lil sings " 'Tis the Last Rose of Summer." You cringe when the high note nears. Your mother mouths at you: "Don't." With the gramophone you can listen to Caruso singing "Vesti la giubba." He always makes the high note. Machines will solve all our problems.


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