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Our Times
America at the Birth of the Twentieth Century
By Dan Rather

Chapter One: The Turn of the Century

The purpose of this narrative is to follow an average American through a quarter century of his country's history, to re-create the flow of the days as he saw them, to picture events in terms of their influence on him, his daily life and ultimate destiny. The aim is to appraise the actors of history and their activities according to the way they affected the average man, the way he felt about them, the ways in which he was influenced by his leaders, and in which he influenced them.

As democracy in America has expressed itself, the period 1900-1925 is unparalleled in the importance of the role played by the average man. He was the principal spectator; indeed, he was the whole audience. He not only watched the performance, but largely determined the actions of those who from time to time were upon the stage, regulated the length of their tenure in the spotlight, retired them to the wings, or summoned them back. It was his will or his whim, his applause, his disapproval or his indifference, that dictated the entrances and the exits. He himself was one of the performers--was in fact the principal performer in a more fundamental sense and more continuously than any of the actors; for the drama consisted essentially of the reactions of the average man to the actors and of the actors to him. This average man, this audience, was also in a true sense the author and the stage manager. In short, he was, as he himself would express it, "pretty near the whole show."

In habitat, this average American is universal. He may slur his r's in Georgia or grind them in Illinois; drawl the gentle r's of the Lone Sta' State, or describe himself as living in the Green Mount-in State. Geographically, he has no boundaries. But if the reader prefers to personify him and give him a local habitat, if he wishes to pick out one average American who shall typify all average Americans, he may take advantage of that statistical accident whereby every decade some small American community is elevated to a curious and, though irrelevant, nevertheless proud and interest-provoking conspicuousness, by emerging as the resultant of the labors of some hundreds of clerks in the Census Bureau. The town determined as the center of population of the United States in 1900 was named, as it happens, Columbus, in Indiana. It would be squeezing the last drop of significance out of a statistical coincidence to suggest that the town which happened to be the center of population was also the typical dwelling place, and had the typical surroundings, of the man who in the same year was the typical American. Yet a fair case might be made out to the effect that the typical American of 1900 had possibly more points of identity with the typical inhabitant of an Indiana community than with most other persons in other backgrounds. Socially, Indiana provided the dramatis personae of the novels and plays of that American writer who, more nearly than any other during the period this history covers, reflected typical American life, Booth Tarkington of Indianapolis. Politically, this average Indianan, with his neighbor in Ohio, determined the occupant of the White House for nearly half of all the years from the Civil War to 1925. In politics, the representativeness, so to speak, of the citizen of Indiana and Ohio was universally recognized, and won for him something close to omnipotence; for his ideas, his prejudices, his economic interests were universally considered and generally deferred to.

However, this suggestion is merely casual, and has no more purpose than to give some slight flesh-and-blood concreteness to what otherwise might be a rather indefinite abstraction, the average American. And in this narrative the average American is not a formless conception; he is the principal character. The reader may seem to lose sight of him for considerable stretches, but he is there, on every page.


If the American, reading the papers of New Year's Day, 1900, was more than commonly reflective over the serious aspects of the news, it was only partly because the sporting page and the comic strip had not yet arrived to overbalance the American newspaper on the side of the merely diverting. It was due also to the presence in the newspapers of that day and in the sermons of the day before, of a spirit of solemnity, occasioned by the coming of a new year and, as some said, a new century.

Throughout 1899 there had been much discussion as to what day and year marked the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. It was recognized by everybody as a turning point, a 100-mile stone. There was a human disposition to sum things up, to say who had been the greatest men of the century just closed, what had been the greatest books, the greatest inventions, the greatest advances in science. Looking forward, there was a similar disposition to forecast and predict. This appealed to nearly everybody, and to find people disputing the correctness of the date you chose for harking back or looking forward was an irritation. Wherever men met they argued about it. Editorials dealt with it, seriously or facetiously. Contentious persons wrote letters to the papers. Schoolchildren were set to figuring.

The learned editor of The Review of Reviews, Dr. Albert Shaw, settled the question for the readers of his magazine in January 1900. With somewhat the air of an Olympian so wise he can afford to be tolerant, he gently rebuked those who were disputing about so clear a thing: "There has been a curious misapprehension in the minds of many people, and even in print there has been a good deal of allusion to the year now ending [1899] as the closing one of the nineteenth century."

Having thus, in his capacity of commentator on events, recorded a dispute, which, because it existed, one must take account of, Dr. Shaw proceeded with an air becoming to unassailable authority, an air which seemed to say: "Of course, you understand I,m not arguing with you; I,m merely telling you":

A half-minute's clear thinking is enough to remove all confusion. With December 31 we complete the year 1899--that is to say, we round out 99 of the 100 years that are necessary to complete a full century. We must give the nineteenth century the 365 days that belong to its hundredth and final year, before we begin the year 1 of the twentieth century. The mathematical faculty works more keenly in monetary affairs than elsewhere; and none of the people who have proposed to allow ninety-nine years to go for a century would suppose that a $1,900 debt have been fully met by a tender of $I,899.


Among the more scintillating facets of the surface of life as reflected in the newspapers on January 1, 1900, the Indianapolis Journal recorded that "A. P. Hurst, a drygoods salesman from New York, interviewed at the Bates Hotel last night," assured the world that "The shirtwaist will be with us more than ever this summer. Women are wearing shirtwaists because they are comfortable, because they can be made to fit any form, and because they are mannish. Sleeves will be smaller, but still not tight.

"The shirtwaist," the confident Mr. Hurst assured a world too supine in its submission to the dogma that change is a cosmic law, "the shirtwaist has come to stay."

Concerning another institution there was an equally confident assertion of secure optimism as to the present and future state of trade. The advertisement of Budweiser--a name potent and far-flung in those days--took the form of a congratulatory telegram from the manufacturer:

New Year Greeting, Important Telegram St. Louis Mo., Dec. 31, 1899. J. L. Bieler, Indianapolis, Ind. Prediction of our last year's message pale [sic] in the presence of our trade reports for 1899. We have reached the highest point in our history. Our motto "Nothing is too good for the American people" has found prompt and generous response. In return we send with a hearty goodwill our wishes for a Happy New Year.

Adolphus Busch, President, Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.

Nobody in 1900 could have imagined that it would become necessary twenty-five years later to explain that the reference was to beer, real beer; to Budweiser, a brand name that blazed ornately before Prohibition in the windows of 10,000 saloons and blurred the landscape with its billboards; which was a national institution in much the same sense as baseball, ice cream, or the Ford automobile; which was the subject, during World War I, of a popular song:

Bud Budweiser's a friend of mine, friend of mine; yes, a friend of mine. What care I if the sun don,t shine while I've got Budweiser? That's the reason I feel so fine, feel so fine; yes, I feel so fine; For though Bill the Kaiser's a friend of Budweiser's, Budweiser's a friend of mine.

Liquor in various aspects occupied a good deal of the attention of the newspapers of January 1, 1900. The Boston Transcript sedately deplored the city's record of 26,000 drunks in a year, but believed that "an evil sure to exist under any circumstances can better be kept within bounds by restriction than by prohibition." The Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer reported the sudden death from impure whiskey of "eight prime young negroes"--a phrase recalling slavery. (There were localisms such as that all over the not yet standardized America of 1900.) The Wichita Beacon recorded that burglars in Davidson's saloon had robbed the slot machine of $8, but "did not disturb the stocks of liquor"--a discrimination which did not at that time necessarily reflect extreme abstemiousness but which in 1925 would have been inexplicable on any commercial basis. In Utica, New York, a liquor-dealer offered through The Press, "rye, bourbon, and Canada malt whiskey, $2 per gallon; strictly pure California wines, 75 cents per gallon." The Portland Oregonian reported a New Year's sermon: "The agitation against side entrances to saloons has not attained permanence and the recent organization of liquor-dealers to defeat reform has revealed the saloon in its true light as an institute of vice." As an antidote to organization and money on the side of the liquor sellers, there was just getting under way an organization on the other side, destined to be the nemesis of the saloon. The Washington, Pennsylvania, Reporter carried the announcement that "A meeting is called for Tuesday evening, January 2, 1900, at 7:30 at the First Presbyterian Church, to consider the question of the organization of an Anti-Saloon League." The Omaha World-Herald printed advertisements of "sugar, 4c. lb.; eggs, 14C. a dozen." The Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Gazette and Bulletin, "potatoes 35c. to 45c. a bushel, butter 24c. to 25c. a pound." The Dallas News, "top hogs $4.15." Wheat was 70 cents a bushel; corn, 33 cents; Texas steers, $4.25 a hundred.(*) The Boston Herald: "Boarders Wanted; turkey dinner, 20 cents; supper or breakfast, 15 cents." In the Trenton Times, the United States Hotel quoted rates of "$1 per day; furnished rooms 50 cents--horse sheds for country shoppers." In the Chicago Tribune, Siegel, Cooper & Co. advertised: "Ladies' muslin nightgowns, 19C.; 50-inch all-wool sponged and shrunk French cheviots, water and dust proof serges, all high-class fabrics, warranted for color and wear, 79c." In the same paper The Fair offered "women's shoes, worth $3, for sale at $1.97; misses' and children's shoes, $1.19." In the Decatur, Illinois, Review was advertised: "A good well-made corset in long or short style, all sizes; our price, 50 cents." Gingham was 5 cents a yard; men's box-calf shoes $2.50; "Stein-Bloch suits that were $13 to $17, now $10"; men's suits that were $8 to $13, for $5.50. "Ten dollar overcoats for six dollars." In the Los Angeles Express an advertisement said: "Wanted, Jan. 8, lady cashier for store; salary $8 a week; name 2 or 3 references." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch received within twenty-four hours 725 answers to an advertisement that had read:

Night Watchman Wanted--Must be fairly well educated, neat of appearance, able-bodied, and if necessary be ready to furnish bond; none but those who can show absolute proofs of their honesty and sobriety in all senses of the word need apply; hours, 6 to 6, Monday to Friday (off Saturday nights); 1 P.M. Sunday to 6 A.M. Monday; salary $15 per week; state whether married or single and inclose references. Address in own handwriting, H 789, Post-Dispatch.

In the Chicago Tribune a patent-medicine advertisement proclaimed: "General Joe Wheeler Praises Peruna." Similar testimonials were by three U.S. senators. One, from a senator from Mississippi, read: "For some time I have been a sufferer from catarrh in its most incipient stage. So much so that I became alarmed as to my general health. But hearing of Peruna as a good remedy, I gave it a fair trial, and soon began to improve. I take pleasure in recommending your great catarrh cure. Peruna is the best I have ever tried." The Duluth News-Tribune advertised a brand of tobacco as "not made by a trust," a form of commendation frequent in trade slogans of that time of antimonopoly sentiment. The West Chester, Pennsylvania, Local News reflected the preammonia, preelectric method of storing up coolness for the summer: "Horace Sinclair and William Tanguy are filling their ice-houses to-day with six-inch ice from the Brandywine." A Trenton, New Jersey, store, daringly unconventional, advertised a skirt, specially made for skating, "short enough to avoid entanglement with the skates." The fashion notes of the New Orleans Item praised lightweight skirts, "as they can be gathered up in the hand and kept clear of muddy pavements." The Tacoma News-Tribune described the preparations of many Tacomans to join the rush to the new Alaska goldfield, at Nome. The Wichita Beacon recorded a heated fight between those who wanted the proposed Arkansas River bridge wide enough to carry the streetcar tracks, and those who claimed the streetcars would frighten the horses. In all the advertising pages of the Baltimore Sun the word "automobile" did not appear, but there were columns of advertisements for broughams, rockaways, Germantowns, opera wagonettes, phaetons, buggies, runabouts, and tally-hos. The Tulsa (then Indian Territory, now Oklahoma) Democrat, at the time a weekly, had no January 1 issue, but on January 7, 1900, it devoted itself to some self-congratulatory statistics. The population had reached 1,340; President Kurn of the Frisco Railroad was quoted as saying Tulsa had become the biggest point of traffic origin in the Territory; the carload business for the week was given as: "Receipts: 1 car bran; shipments: 2 cars hogs, 1 car sand, 1 car mules." In the world of matters less exclusively commercial, the Democrat chronicled the approaching nuptials of Mary, daughter of Chief Frank Corndropper, the ceremony to include a transfer of several hundred ponies to the bride's father by the bridegroom (who must be a full-blood).


In his newspapers of January 1, 1900, the American found no such word as "radio,"(*) for that was yet twenty years from coming; nor "movie," for that, too, was still mainly of the future; nor "chauffeur," for the automobile was only just emerging and had been called "horseless carriage," when treated seriously, but rather more frequently "devil-wagon," and the driver, the "engineer." There was no such word as "aviator"--all that that word implies was still a part of the Arabian Nights. Nor was there any mention of income tax or surtax, no annual warnings of the approach of March (later April) 15--all that was yet thirteen years from coming. In 1900, doctors had not heard of insulin; science had not heard of relativity or the quantum theory. Farmers had not heard of tractors, nor bankers of the Federal Reserve System. Merchants had not heard of chain stores nor "self-service"; nor seamen of oil-burning engines. Modernism had not been added to the common vocabulary of theology, nor futurist and "cubist" to that of art. Politicians had not heard of direct primaries, nor of the commission form of government, nor of city managers, nor of blocs in Congress, nor of a League of Nations, nor of a World Court. They had not heard of "muckrakers," nor of "Bull Moose" except in a zoological sense. Neither had they heard of "dry" and "wet" as categories important in vote-getting, nor of a Volstead Act; they had not heard of an Eighteenth Amendment, nor a Nineteenth, nor a Seventeenth, nor a Sixteenth--there were but fifteen amendments in 1900, and the last had been passed in 1869.

In 1900, woman suffrage had only made a beginning, in four thinly peopled western states. A woman governor or a woman congressman was a humorous idea, far-fetched, to be sure, yet one out of which a particularly fertile humorist, on the stage or in the papers, could get much whimsical burlesque.

The newspapers of 1900 contained no mention of smoking by women, nor of "bobbing," nor "permanent wave," nor vamp, nor flapper, nor jazz, nor feminism, nor birth control. There was no such word as "rum-runner"; nor "hijacker"; nor "bolshevism," "fundamentalism," "behaviorism," "Nordic," "Freudian," "complexes," "ectoplasm," "brainstorm," "Rotary," "Kiwanis," "blue-sky law," "cafeteria," "automat," "sundae"; nor "mahjongg"; nor "crossword puzzle." Not even military men had heard of camouflage; neither that nor "propaganda" had come into the vocabulary of the average man. "Over the top," "zero hour," "no-man's land" meant nothing to him. "Drive" meant only an agreeable experience with a horse. The newspapers of 1900 had not yet come to the lavishness of photographic illustration that was to be theirs by the end of the quarter century. There were no rotogravure sections. If there had been, they would not have pictured Boy Scouts, nor state constabularies, nor traffic cops, nor Ku Klux Klan parades; nor women riding astride, nor the nudities of the Follies, nor one-piece bathing suits, nor advertisements of lipsticks, nor motion picture actresses, for there were no such things.

In 1900, "short-haired woman" was a phrase of jibing; women doctors were looked on partly with ridicule, partly with suspicion. Of prohibition and votes for women, the most conspicuous function was to provide material for newspaper jokes. Men who bought and sold lots were still real estate agents, not "realtors." Undertakers were undertakers, not having yet attained the frilled euphemism of "mortician." There were "star-routes" yet--rural free delivery had only just made a faint beginning; the parcel post was yet to wait thirteen years. For the deforestation of the male countenance, the razor of our grandfathers was the exclusive means; men still knew the art of honing. The hairpin, as well as the horseshoe and the buggy, were the bases of established and, so far as anyone could foresee, permanent businesses. Ox teams could still be seen on country roads; horse-drawn streetcars in the cities. Horses or mules for trucks were practically universal; livery stables were everywhere. The blacksmith beneath the spreading chestnut tree was a reality; neither the garage mechanic nor the chestnut blight had come to retire that scene to poetry. The hitching post had not been supplanted by the parking problem. Croquet had not given way to golf. "Boys in blue" had not yet passed into song. Army blue was not merely a sentimental memory, had not succumbed to the invasion of utilitarianism in olive green. G.A.R. were still potent letters.

In 1900, the Grand Army of the Republic was still a numerous body, high in the nation's sentiment, deferred to in politics, their annual national reunions and parades stirring events, and their local posts(*) important in their communities. Among the older generation the memories and issues of the Civil War still had power to excite feeling, although the Spanish War, with its outpouring of a common national emotion against a foreign foe, had come close to completing the burial of the rancors of the War Between the States. Such terms as "Rebel," "Yank," and "damn Yankee," "Secesh" were still occasionally used, sometimes with a touch of ancient malice. A few politicians, chiefly older ones, still found or thought they found potency in "waving the bloody shirt." Negro suffrage was still a living and, in some quarters, acrimonious issue.

The passing of the questions arising out of the Civil War, and the figures associated with it, as major incidents of politics and life, was one of the most marked of the many respects in which 1900 was a dividing year.


In 1900, America presented to the eye the picture of a country that was still mostly frontier of one sort of another, the torn edges of civilizations, first contact with nature, man in his invasion of the primeval. There were some areas that retained the beauty of nature untouched: the Rocky Mountains, parts of the western plains where the railroads had not yet reached, and some bits of New England. There were other spots, comparatively few, chiefly the farming regions of eastern Pennsylvania, New York State, and New England, where beauty had come with the work of man--old farms with solid well-kept barns, many of heavy stone or brick; substantial houses with lawns shaded by evergreen trees that had been growing for more than a generation, fields kept clean to the fence corners--areas that to the eye and spirit gave satisfying suggestions of a settled order, traditions, crystallized ways of life, comfort, serenity, hereditary attachment to the local soil.

Only the eastern seaboard had the appearance of civilization having really established itself and attained permanence. From the Alleghanies to the Pacific Coast, the picture was mainly of a country still frontier and of a people still in flux: the Alleghany mountainsides scarred by the ax, cluttered with the rubbish of improvident lumbering, blackened with fire; mountain valleys disfigured with ugly coal-breakers, furnaces, and smokestacks; western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio an eruption of ungainly wooden oil derricks; rivers muddied by the erosion from lands cleared of trees but not yet brought to grass, soiled with the sewage of raw new towns and factories; prairies furrowed with the first breaking of sod. Nineteen hundred was in the flood tide of railroad-building: long fingers of fresh dirt pushing up and down the prairies, steam shovels digging into virgin land, rock-blasting on the mountainsides. On the prairie farms, sod houses were not unusual. Frequently there were no barns, or, if any, mere sheds. Straw was not even stacked but rotted in sodden piles. Villages were just past the early picturesqueness of two long lines of saloons and stores, but not yet arrived at the orderliness of established communities; houses were almost wholly frame, usually of one story, with a false top, and generally of a flimsy construction which suggested transiency; larger towns with a marble Carnegie Library at Second Street, and Indian tepees at Tenth. Even as to most of the cities, including the eastern ones, their outer edges were a kind of frontier, unfinished streets pushing out to the fields; sidewalks, where there were any, either of brick that loosened with the first thaw or wood that rotted quickly; rapid growth leading to rapid change. At the gates of the country, great masses of human raw materials were being dumped from immigrant ships. Slovenly immigrant trains tracked westward. Bands of unattached men, floating labor, moved about from the logging camps of the winter woods to harvest in the fields or to railroad-construction camps. Restless "sooners" wandered hungrily about to grab the last opportunities for free land.

One whole quarter of the country, which had been the seat of its most ornate civilization, the South, though it had spots of melancholy beauty, presented chiefly the impression of weedy ruins thirty-five years after the Civil War, and comparatively few years after Reconstruction--an ironic word.

© 1995 C. Scriber's & Sons

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