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National Contexts – Turn of the Century America

America was at a turning point and the verge of a new century. Although tragedy and uncertainty threatened America, it was a time of prosperity and innovation.

There were an astonishing number of new inventions and enterprises were opening up everywhere. People felt excited by the new possibilities in America. Progress was something people believed in because it was everywhere.

Pessimism and self-pity was not in style. The Declaration of Independence was still read out loud on the Fourth of July. Between 1800 and 1900 America had become the most prosperous nation on earth. America had the largest industrial and agricultural economy, the highest per capita income and the highest level of education. America could have been described with characteristics such as optimism, hope and buoyancy. For the United States, everything seemed to be going just right.

By 1899 a series of tragic events would test the attitudes of the people. An explosion occurred in a coal mine in Utah, a devastating hurricane hit Texas, two brutal wars were fought overseas and assassins plot to murder the president of the United States.

In 1896, President McKinley had lead America out of the worst depressions it had ever experienced. McKinley was characterized as a man with an iron hand with a velvet glove. People, who took six months to travel in a covered wagon, could now travel in six days over land on a train.

There was unprecedented event in human history with the scientific, technological and industrial revolution. Americans believed that the inventions of the day were going to make them smarter, happier and healthier.

The electric light and popular music celebrated breakthroughs. This period in America is compared to that of the Renaissance. Everything since this period has been engineering. Motion pictures were new and the telephone was considered a miracle. Before this most people could remember hard work, dirtiness and disorganization.

While America was dreaming of the future, the world around them was changing leaving a troubling undercurrent of anxiety and doubt. Nowhere in America was progress so striking than in San Francisco. Fifty years before, prospectors had arrived for gold. Now, at the turn of the century over 350,000 people lived in San Francisco. San Francisco was a city that attracted artists, writers and bohemians.

The limits of progress were also being exposed with the cutting of about one-half of the forest. There was questioning of progress as it had been conventionally understood. People started to talk about conservation.

By 1900, the fortunes of Americans had far surpassed the fortunes of many European dukes. Elaborate parties and homes were part of America. There were millionaires before the days of income taxes. Bank music was very popular. Americans were also starting to listen to sheet music. The music industry was on the rise.

A summer heat wave lasted through September of 1900. The city of Galveston disregarded a report of a hurricane forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite daily warnings, life went on as usual. Galveston lost between six and seven thousand people out of a population of 36,000. It was the worst national disaster in the nation’s history.

America went beyond their own border to the markets of Asia. America was also competing with other countries such as England. In 1898, America went to war with Spain and managed to defeat the 400 year-old empire in just 113 days.

All at once America had control of the Spanish colonies on both sides of the globe including the Philippines with over 100 islands as a gateway to the markets of China. In 1899, the Philippines started to form an army to fight the United States in 1900. According to America, a superior power was fighting an inferior people. There was a no holds barred war with the Philippines.

Most women by law and custom were dependent upon men. In some states a woman could not own property. Everything a woman earned belonged to her husband. A woman’s only hope was to make a good marriage. Every state but four refused women the right to vote. At the turn of the century, America was starting to witness upper class talented white women who were knocking at the door of social and professional power. Women were coming out of the shadow of men. They were demanding careers. During this time, there were guardians of public morality. But the conventions of the day were being challenged.

Americans were still rural people. They were farmers and small town folk. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. Women still cooked over wood fires and washed clothes over tin basins. Typhoid and infant death was common. The home, family and community still provided comfort but there was a wave of rural people moving to the city. New York was the largest city in the United States.

In addition, the largest wave of immigration was happening. One-third of the population in New York was foreign-born. Many native Americans feared the immigrant and blamed them for hunger and poverty. From New York, millions of immigrants moved out west. Many people worked in mines and industrial factories. Conditions in the city were terrible from the smell of waste of humans and horses.

From the 1800s, the problem of race would continue on to the next century. Scenes of colonial superiority were displayed. Races of the world were catalogued with white Americans and white Europeans on top and Africans at the bottom. There was a belief that the Black people were inferior, ignorant, foolish and childlike. Blacks were trapped in a hostile world and were denied the freedom that other Americans took for granted even the right to vote. Blacks were treated as non-citizens.

After the Civil War, African Americans had voted, sent representatives to serve Congress, served as sheriffs and justices of the peace, and sat along whites on juries, school boards and city councils. By 1900, through poll taxes, literacy tests and dozens of other schemes southern whites had stripped African Americans of their most basic rights as citizens.

By 1900, the south was segregated and southern whites resorted to terrorism. There were a series of people lynched and the majority of people lynched were African Americans. This was a period of demoralization for the Blacks but they were not slaves.


-Content prepared by Geri Robles.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

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