DECADES, like people, have an inflated view of their own worth. The 1890s are no different. Nor should they be. The 1890s was a remarkable decade filled with tumult and contradiction and change - a decade during which the American frontier died, the nation flexed its chauvinistic muscles and stretched imperially, racism was made the law of the land, populism had its heyday, urban America began to take shape and more.

To be sure, causes of these tides were buried in the past, in earlier decades. Still, they came to be in the last years of the nineteenth century. Thomas Beer called it "The Mauve Decade." Foster Rhea Dulles called them "The Imperial Years." And, Richard Culter called the decade "The Gay Nineties." Cutler coined the phrase for a series of cartoons that began to appear in the old Life magazine in 1925. The phrase stuck. But the Nineties were anything but gay.

Ever since the first intruder from Europe arrived in America, the men and women who followed pushed across the land to settle and to build and, for some, to grow restless and to push westward again. The census report of 1890 registered the end of this vast movement. Though there was still abundant free land in the West, there now was enough occupation so "that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line."The historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the frontier's end his thesis. And, it was true, the ceaseless expansion of a continent was ended. American would have to stretch in other ways beyond 1890.

Vital Statistics

Population: U. S.

1890 - 63,056,000

1900 - 76,094,000

(Chicago and Philadelphia pass the million mark in 1890 census)


1890 - one out of 17 marriages

1900 - one out of 12 marriages

Federal Government Employees

1881 - 100,020

1891 - 157,442


1891 - 1900 inclusive:3.68 million

The end came, too, for cowboys and Indians in abloody way. On December 15, 1890, a fearful white government ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who engineered the slaughter of Custer and his command at Little Big Horn in 1876. Sitting Bull was killed. Two weeks later, the U. S. Cavalry battled and massacred 200 Indians, including women and children, at a wind-swept, frozen hunk of South Dakota which Stephen Benet cried out for in the last line of his poem "American Names": "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee."

And two years later on the dusty torn streets of Coffeyville, Kansas, the happy-go-lucky Dalton gang was gunned down. "Unlike the James and Younger gangs," says Beer, "they (the Daltons) didn't blow unarmed children to rags nor did they kill their mistresses in farewell as did the unlovable Tumlinson, once something of a hero. They were amiable and rather mannerly bandits, on the whole, and yet no ballad bears on their name . . . Jay Gould (a bandit of a different kind and more successful) died eight weeks later in civilized New York, and in his bed."

Some notable events at home: Sears Roebuck Company opens a mail-order business, Whitcomb L. Judson patents the zipper, aluminum ware is introduced into the kitchen, the Daughters of the American Revolution was founded, Henry Ford builds his first car, Tammany is overturned, Congress creates the Weather Bureau, Carnegie endows

Carnegie Hall, rubber surgical gloves are first used in the United States, Idaho, Whoming and Utah are admitted to the Union, and 120 starlings are imported from abroad and released in Central Park.

With the frontier gone a subtle restlessness began to move Americans. It also activated latent social and political viruses. One such was populism, an amalgam of southern "reconstructed" folk and western rural people. The populists, many of whom were dirt poor, had the notion that government ought to look after the people. They met in convention in Omaha in 1892 and proposed a graduated income tax, the secret ballot, direct election of U.S. senators, the eight-hour day, recognition of labor and the right to organize, a one-term presidency, free and unlimited coinage of silver and government ownership of the railroads and such communications as the telegraph.

Their presidential candidate carried four states and garnered twenty-two electoral votes that year. Grover Cleveland won. It then was all down hill for the populists. The movement faltered and, essentially, failed.

Some notable sports events? James Naismith invents basketball in 1891 using a soccer ball and peach baskets. In 1892 "Gentleman Jim" Corbett defeats John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight boxing title, in 1893 Johns Hopkins and Yale play the first hockey game in the U.S., in 1894 the U.S. Golf Association is founded and the U.S. Open is first held in 1895, in the same year the country's first professional football game is held at Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and a Duryea wins the first American car race from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois, with an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour.

Populism was not the only thing to fail in the 1890s. Labor, struggling at organization, had two severe and disastrous strikes. In 1892, at Homestead, Pa., workers struck Carnegie Steel to gain union recognition.There was violence. Several persons died, militia was called out and the strike failed. Two years later in 1894 the American Railway Union, headed by Euguene V. Debs struck the Pullman Company. Cleveland sent in troops. The strike was boken. Five thousand were made homeless. And Debs was arrested and defended by a young Clarence Darrow.

The poor failed, too. In 1893 the nation suffered its worst economic depression. In the panic and stock market crash, 600 banks closed, 15,000 commercial houses failed, and seventeen railroads went into receivership. By 1894 unemployment was at 18.4 per cent - over 4 million. The depression lasted three more years. To protest their plight, Ohio businessman Jacob S. Coxey led a ragtag army to Washington. It failed, too. Coxey was arrested and found guilty of "unlawfully trampling on the grass." Meanwhile, the rich got richer - three marriages cemented three fortunes of $30 million, 28 million and 25 million respectively. And it was in 1892 that Mrs. William Astor invented the "four hundred" cliche of social snobbery.

Some notable events from abroad: Capt. Alfred Dreyfus is framed in France and deported to "Devil's Island," Gaugin settles in Tahiti, Diesel patents his internal combustion engine, the first modern Olympics are held in Athens, the Klondike gold rush begins, Queen Victoria has her Diamond Jubliee, and the Lumieres invent the motion picture camera, Roentgen discovers X rays, Marconi invents wireless telegraphy, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky formulates the principle of rocket propulsion, Becquerel discovers radioactivity, J. J. Thomson discovers the electron, Pierre and Marie Curie discover radium and polonium, and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin builds just that.

Amid the tumult and the turmoil of the 1890s came the crucial election of 1896. The country was divided over the silver vs. gold issue. The poor, notably the populist farmers, believed that the free coinage of silver would cure their financial woes.

The Republicans nominated the conservative progold William McKinley. It was all rather straightforward. Not so the Democrats. The convention divided on the money issue. Cleveland, a gold man, lost control and the convention itself lost its heart to a dark horse 35-year-old political orator who intoned: "You shall not place a crown of thorns upon the brow of Liberty or sacrifice mankind upon your cross of gold." And so it was that William Jennings Bryan, the greatest political orator American has produced, was nominated. He failed, too. McKinley won.

An age of: Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ibsen, Hardy, Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Degas, H. G. Wells, Yeats, Puccini, Chekhov, Strindberg, Hamsun, Matisse and Rodin, Pissarro, John Dewey and the establishment of the Nobel prizes.

Another latent virus got activated in the 1890s - racism. At home, it took a virulent turn and the decade became the nadir of black history in America. In the first six years of the decade more than 1100 lynchings were recorded. In May 1896 the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld a "separate but equal" segregation doctrine for railroads. Over the next four years, all southern states enacted new constitutions incorporating Jim Crow laws. By the end of the decade, the disenfranchisement of blacks was complete in the South. And the federal government began enforcing segregation in Washington, D.C. The outlook for blacks was dire.

There was still another virus activated in the last decade of the nineteenth century - a sense of manifest destiny. "So it was that the changing tide of events, and of public opinion, in the early 1890s," says Dulles, "set the stage for America's imperial years. The concept of racial superiority merged with its historic sense of national mission to bid America to take up its taks of world regeneration."

McKinley had said that he would not be jingoed into war. But he was. And after the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor the United States went off to fight "the splendid little war," as Teddy Roosevelt called it. Roosevelt led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. Commodore Dewey entered Manila Bay, took eight slight casualties and destroyed ten Spanish ships. U.S. troops sang, "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" and the bands played, "Rally Round the Flag, Boys."

The Treaty of Paris concluded the Spanish-American War, and the U.S. came to possess Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It also picked up Wake Island and annexed Hawaii along the way. Spain's presence in the western hemisphere was all but ended, and the United States became a world power.

So all the seeds of content and discontent, of invention and convention were sown in the last decade of the nineteenth century for those who followed in the twentieth.