The 20th century slipped into Washington without a public relations strategy. There was no Steven Spielberg cinematic spectacle screened at the Lincoln Memorial, because Thomas Edison was still tinkering with motion picture technology. No pop music extravaganza choreographed by Quincy Jones, because Scott Joplin was just inventing ragtime. No Will Smith jokes--who ever heard of Bel Air?
Compared with the elaborate festivities planned to usher in the new millennium, Washington greeted the birth of this century with low-key salutations and scattered outbursts of merriment.
Many went to church to pray for the future. Anybody who made too much noise in the streets was arrested, following a special police order issued the day before. Of more immediate concern for some than a change in the calendar were issues such as tearing up the streets to bury electric lines--and the wild talk of tearing them up again to bury new telephone lines.
In some ways, the century is closing as it opened--only this time, the streets are being carved up for lines of the fiber-optic variety.
But it would be impossible today to make the observation that appeared in the Evening Times on the last day of the 19th century:
"It is so seldom we have a new century that it is a pity more attention is not to be paid to the event in Washington. Every District resident will mark with surprise the fact that here is an occasion which our professional celebration teasers appear to have overlooked."
The professional celebration teasers are making up for lost opportunities. The huge hype gap between then and now can't be explained simply by saying that a millennium is 10 times as tremendous as a century. A Victorian sense of restraint prevailed back then. This Dec. 31, President Clinton will party with the masses at the Lincoln Memorial. President William McKinley greeted the new century working quietly at the White House. When the clock struck midnight, he looked out the window at Pennsylvania Avenue, then wished his staff a happy New Year.
Of course, the scrupulously un-hyped anniversary occurred 99 years ago. Perhaps the country was more factual then, less craving of immediate gratification. Most people were willing to wait for the actual beginning of the century before celebrating it. The first day of the 20th century was Jan. 1, 1901, just as the first day of the next millennium will be Jan. 1, 2001.
New Year's Eve 100 years ago was considered almost entirely unremarkable.
That didn't prevent furious skirmishes on letters-to-the-editor pages between the few who ventured that perhaps the new century did begin in 1900 and those who pegged the magic moment as arriving a year later. People debated the date of Christ's birth and drew arithmetic diagrams to prove their cases.
An argument that carried the day was the dollar theorem. It went like this:
There are 100 cents in a dollar. The first cent is $0.01. The first cent of the next dollar is $1.01. Ergo, the first year of the next century must be 1901.
One hundred years later, newspaper reporters who carelessly refer to the coming new year as the start of the next millennium receive indignant e-mail from calendar vigilantes. Some things haven't changed.
In December 1900, Washington was partied out, which may explain the lack of fanfare for the new century, said Barbara Franco, executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. On Dec. 12 of that year, the District marked its 100th birthday as the nation's capital. All the governors joined McKinley for receptions, speech-making and a parade.
"There was much more concentration on celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Washington" than the new century, Franco said.
The arrival of the 20th century was not devoid of hype. Stores wove the theme into special sales. Hahn Shoes greeted the new century twice--once with a sale ("fine patent leather shoes at $2.85") on Jan. 1, 1900, and again on Jan. 1, 1901 ("The new century will find us even better prepared to satisfy your shoe wants.")
It would be a "prosperous century!" for Hahn, as its advertising predicted--until 1995, when the chain folded.
The Colored American, a newspaper that focused on the black community, used the occasion to boost circulation: "Whether this is the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century is a question in the minds of some," it editorialized in 1900, "but we think all agree without debate that now is the time to subscribe for the race's greatest advocate."
As 1900 wound down, the city's four daily papers and three weeklies began to crank out essays on the past century and the future of the nation. The news pages framed subtle changes in mores and ambitions as evidence of the dawn of a new age. A controversial study suggested that the "twentieth century girl" would drink more alcohol to deal with the stresses of gaining status in the work world. At least one paper said it no longer would print pages of names of society ladies who would be receiving guests on New Year's Day, a fussy custom that didn't survive the new century.
The essayists hailed a century of invention, naming the steam engine, electric power, the telegraph and the telephone among the greatest breakthroughs. The abolition of slavery was declared a great achievement, with the white papers more sanguine than the black papers about race relations. Writers bragged about the emergence of the United States as a power to be taken seriously.
"We have sanitation, surgery, drainage, plumbing--every product of science and accessory of luxury," editorialized The Washington Post. "It seems impossible to imagine an improvement on what we have. The improvement will come, no doubt, but he who undertakes to prophesy its coming and define its form will write himself an impostor and a fool."
The faith that things could only get better was widespread. But just as those in 1800 could not have imagined the marvels of 1900, so in 1900, the marvels of 2000 were inconceivable.
Franco sees a difference today in attitudes about the future. People aren't pessimistic about the new millennium, but they can imagine calamities. The 20th century illustrated how good things can get--and how bad. Now, instead of saying progress is inevitable and always good, Franco says, "there's much more caution."
The big night arrived on a Monday, the last night of the century of Grant and Lee, Thoreau and Melville, Douglass and Truth, Morse and Fulton.
Dec. 31, 1900, was cool but not too cold. Extra cars were pressed into service on the streetcar lines, and the hours of routes were extended past 3 a.m. The police doubled the number of officers on duty. Violence was not unheard of in this town; there had been 18 homicides the year before.
Many small private parties were held all over the city. Thousands of families spent part of the evening at church services. At the White House, "There was no special observance of the advent of the new century," The Post reported.
As midnight neared, St. Patrick's Catholic Church, at 10th and G streets NW, was packed from the big wooden doors to the communion rail. A crowd that couldn't squeeze inside strained to listen from outside. The Catholic church had gotten electric power only five years earlier, and tiny bulbs strung among the palms and blossoms at the white marble altar lighted the scene in a stunning application of the new technology. The sermon reviewed the achievements of the 19th century and offered reflections on the future.
Not everybody had a watch in those days. There was no public countdown that everyone could tune in to. The climactic moment was communicated by sound: The last century of the millennium arrived with shrieking whistles from steamboats on the river, trumpets blown by children in the street, bells ringing in church belfries. Firecrackers exploded, and some people set off rockets that left glittering blue trails.
The police let this din pass unchecked, then began cracking down on any overly boisterous revelries.
At 12:02 a.m., Henry Pettis earned the distinction of being the first person arrested in Washington in the 20th century. He was charged with firing his revolver into the air near Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Then, William L. Matthews tooted what reporters described as a "monster horn" at 18th and L streets NW. He was arrested, too.
Not long after that, an inebriated man made his way to the Sixth Street NW railway station and stared in puzzlement at several wooden clock dials showing the departure times of trains. He pulled out his watch and slurred, "When does this century start, anyhow?"
The next day, thousands of residents stood in line to visit the White House and shake McKinley's hand, a customary ritual of every New Year's Day before presidential security became a concern. The papers said the cabinet secretaries' wives sported "many handsome toilets," meaning: They looked great!
At the Sixth Street station, several wedding parties boarded trains with brides and grooms who had become the first wives and husbands of the new century. An unreconstructed 19th-century man, observing the scene, remarked, according to The Post, "Twentieth century or no twentieth century . . . people will get hitched. The twentieth century girl may sport her masculine attire, but she will sooner or later get into the rut in which humanity has stuck for centuries. . . . The man will continue to be the husband and the head of the family."
The Evening Star sent reporters into the streets asking people to predict the District's population on Jan. 1, 2001. Most of those quoted in interviews published Jan. 1, 1901, when there were 279,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census, guessed Washington would have 1 million to 2.5 million people.
For the record, J.D. Hird, a city chemist, came the closest, predicting that the District would have about 500,000 residents. The most recent estimate is 523,000.
Since that night, much has changed, but much hasn't. St. Patrick's Catholic Church is still here, its great wooden doors the same ones worshipers crowded through 99 years ago. The communion rail is gone, and the marble altar is modified. But on a quiet afternoon last week, it was possible to sit in a pew and imagine the sanctuary filled with people reflecting on a faraway future that is now.
As it does every New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's will offer Mass, although unlike the midnight ceremonies of a century ago, it will be at 5:30 p.m. because many worshipers today prefer not to tarry downtown late at night. The music will feature the "Te Deum Laudamus" chant, which dates back nearly a millennium and a half.
It will be a night to take stock, and to think ahead to another faraway future.
"These are moments in history that provide us an opportunity to consider what is most important in our human condition," said Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi, pastor of St. Patrick's, who will deliver the sermon. "Regardless of our faith, the Lord is working in all of us."
He is troubled that people's hope for the future seems tempered with more fear than it was a century ago. "That's why this is a fertile time for a national examination of conscience."
Since church is early, there will be time after prayer to make it to the Mall to party. The 20th century is--was--about having it all.
CAPTION: President William McKinley looked down this Pennsylvania Avenue and wished his staff a happy New Year in 1900.