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1900: A Year in the Life of America

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What was Life Like for Your Ancestors in 1900?
Think expensive presidential campaigns, controversial military involvement, fast-moving technology, monopolies, and immigration are issues new to American life? You might be surprised to learn that they also defined the turn of the century in 1900. Learn more…

Expensive presidential campaigns, controversial military involvement overseas, prosperity, fast-moving technology, monopolies, immigration, natural disasters. Sound familiar? Although we may not wear corsets, we are facing a technological revolution, and many of the issues and realities facing turn-of-the-century America are still with us today.

Americans in 1900 emerged in an increasingly complex world, a world quickly moving toward the unknown. These were our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. These were our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers. With optimism, tempered by a vague sense of anxiety, they realized that a cultural revolution was at hand.


As 1900 opened, society reflected — much as we did with the turn of 2000. "What did the 1800s bring us?" they asked. "What have we achieved, where are we going?" It was a time for looking back to a century of rapid transformation and looking forward to the changes still to come.

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Americans were optimistic in 1900. For most of them, life was better materially than it had ever been. This was a time of prosperity — a new materialism, available leisure time, and vacations for the emerging middle class appeared. America was now the world's most affluent country. Access to electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing was not widespread, but most people felt that such conveniences were just a matter of time.

For every American, including the working class, there was "possibility." Anything was possible in America. This was the place of the self-made man, the American Dream, "rags to riches."

Economy and Technology

With this prosperity and possibility came jobs. Still largely a rural society, Americans increasingly moved to the city looking for work, armed with a belief in the possibilities and a strong work ethic. Alongside them came nearly a half-million immigrants in 1900, also seeking a better life.

America's Industrial Revolution produced much prosperity and leisure, but also much poverty and disillusionment. Tycoons such as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie amassed fortunes greater than many European nobility. But in the same cities, factory workers and coal miners, often children, slaved for perhaps $1 to $2 each 12-16 hour day. With no safety net, many workers just couldn't make it — nearly a third of 1900's immigrants headed back home. Awareness of poor working conditions and unfair wages increased. Concern that trusts and monopolies were taking advantage of workers led to the first large-scale organized labor strike in 1900, an event that impacts industry even today.

But technology didn't stop for anyone, even in 1900. Recent advances included phonographs, light bulbs, typewriters, machine guns, skyscrapers, telegraphs, diesel fuel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, microphones, and aspirin. In 1900, a train could bring you the same distance in six days that a covered wagon brought you in six months. Cross-continental travel became easy for almost anyone.

As Henry Ford produced the first Model T, automobiles were looked upon generally with both interest and disdain. Though autos traveled twice as fast as horses, only 8,000 cars and about 10 miles of paved roads existed in 1900 America. Adding to the technological fervor, that year's Paris Exposition showed off exciting new inventions like moving sidewalks, wireless telegraphy, powerful telescopes, and the first escalator. To cap it all off, 1900 ended with the first overseas telephone call.

Society and Politics

In the face of ever-expanding industry and invention, America found itself an emerging world power. Having never participated in a military operation outside of the Western Hemisphere, the country now found itself engaged in two. Both the Philippines conflict and the Boxer Rebellion in China produced much debate among Americans about the country's military actions.

At home, "anti-imperialism" became one of the touchstone issues in America's first hard-fought, expensive Presidential campaign. After the candidates spent millions, the voting ultimately resulted in William McKinley's re-election as President and Theodore Roosevelt's election as Vice President. Also throughout 1900, the U.S. continued to struggle with issues of women's suffrage and civil rights.

America's leadership found themselves in precarious times. Several world political figures had been recently assassinated by anarchists who believed that all Western heads of state should be eliminated. In 1900, assassins killed King Humbert I of Italy, made an attempt on the Prince of Wales and the Shah of Persia, and targeted President William McKinley. On September 6th of the next year, McKinley was shot at Buffalo, New York's Pan-American Exposition. He died a week later.

Entertainment and Leisure

But optimistic Americans were unaware of what the future held for their President. With an emerging middle class, time saving technologies, and more leisure time, they enjoyed a variety of past-times. Vaudeville and theater were popular, as were outdoor band concerts across America. People played and sung the music of John Philip Sousa and Scott Joplin in concerts and at home — the popularity of sheet music and home pianos meant that many across the country were now singing the same songs. Phonographs and records also provided music for those who could afford it. Movies became wildly popular when available, although they were actually short, seconds-long films called "views." The idea of "motion pictures" was dazzling to Americans in 1900.

Such technologies amazed 1900 America the way many of us still marvel at today's developments like computerized everything and genetic research. In fact, 1900's attitudes, culture, and economy were more like today than we might believe. In their wonder we see a reflection of ourselves, marveling at what human minds have created. Looking with excitement, and a little fear, toward future advancements and a world we know is coming but can't even imagine.

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This article was written by staff.

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