What was it like to live in America at the turn of the twentieth century?
It must have been an incredible experience. The feeling of energy would be intoxicating.
It was the age of the Second Industrial Revolution. The number and kinds of discoveries and inventions were staggering.
Marvelous advances in living conditions and lifestyles came about during that period.
The Second Industrial Revolution
The dates of the Second Industrial Revolution (1870 – 1914) span this period. In fact, it was while we were writing our article on protest songs that we got fascinated by this particular age.
The U.S.A., as we described then, emerged as the world leader in industry over the course of this epoch.
The movement of populations into our land by immigration away from European areas and the Westward migration within our borders was unprecedented.
At the same time, enormous progress in industry and technology was happening fast. It must have been stunning to experience that first hand.
Some major inventions that heavily contributed to better living:
- telephone – 1876
- light bulb – 1879
- airplane – 1903
- automobile – 1908
Man against the machine
In that post, we talked about the legend of John Henry. We had previously known the “Hammer Songs”, but it was only upon reviewing the stories that we realized a crucial point: what he did was a contest against a machine. He did win at the moment, but notably … it was ultimately the cause of his demise.
The tale was also a metaphor for all the working men and women (and children) in that late-century who became virtual slaves to industrialization. They labored extremely long hours in the factories of the growing Eastern cities and in Western mines.
Don’t forget the newly freed African American slaves who engaged in a vast northward travel toward a better life following the devastation of the South in the Civil War and the Reconstruction.
Extensive gains to America came with industrialization
Well, that’s a starter. But we don’t want to dwell entirely on all the inequities and bad stuff. After all, that was the subject of the “protest” post. We want to get on to praising and acknowledging the good stuff: the really true marvels of the age and advances to society.
Great waterwheels powered the cotton mills in the South and advanced sawmills. Along with the development of more sophisticated industrial tools and metal-casting improved the abilities of factories to output a greater variety of finished products faster. Ironworks applied to sea-going ships now rapidly replaced wooden hulls and sails.
The telephone revolutionized communication
Alexander Graham Bell is credited with being the inventor of the telephone in 1876. A number of inventors were working on similar or analogous devices, but he came through with the first useful working and patented project.
Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.Alexander Graham Bell, March 10, 1876, first telephone call (to his assistant)
By the next year, the first telephone line was built in Massachusetts. Regional lines made the distances between East Coast cities (1894, Boston and New York). First transcontinental line was achieved in 1915 (overhead wire).
He was an expert in the sciences of sound and speech as was his father.
The mother and wife of Bell were both deaf, stimulating his interest in the science of the problem and possible modes of assisting.
Having been born in Scotland, he moved with the family to Canada as a young adult, and then to Boston.
But we have to thank Thomas Edison, who rivaled Bell in his interest in devising a similar audio implement, for deciding we should all say “hello”.
If Alexander Graham Bell had his way, we’d be saying “Ahoy“, not “Hello” on our modern smartphones.
Electricity and then light
Ben Franklin’s shocking discovery
Benjamin Franklin discovered (since it is naturally occurring, he did not invent it) electricity. The famous kite experiment 1752: He flew a kite in a thunderstorm with a metal key attached to the strong. He got shocked.
Others had already been interested in the science in earlier years, in England. So it’s probably not correct to call Ben the only discoverer. Even in the ancient world, there were experiments.
But its a great story!
Of course, Franklin’s time was well before the period we are currently talking about. He was Colonial, after all!
But the discovery was crucial to modern civilization. And, the substrate of the invention of the light bulb in the late 19th century.
You have to have an energy source for the production of electricity. In the 1800s, coal was the most common way to produce electricity, especially in homes.
Over those years, the invention of other devices (see below) ensued from the key realization of electricity. However, none was as singular as lighting.
Lighting up the night world
A lot of inventors were working on the possible light bulb before 1879. Thomas Edison is often called the inventor because he made a better working model. This facilitated its commercial viability.
The impact on industries, businesses, and homes was immense. Now they could all run 24/7! (Although they did not use that term; we did, related to the computer and internet age … but that is a very different and very, very much later tale. As you know.)
A boomlet in electrical home appliances
The reality of electric lighting markedly stimulated interest in home electricity, but it still was well into the next century for electrically-powered appliances to predominant in personal dwellings.
Many finally got to the point of practical usability by the early 1900s.
James Spangler devised an early version of the vacuum cleaner in about 1908.
He started to develop it for the market in his company, the Electric Suction Sweeper Company.
Shortly later he sold the patent to William Henry Hoover, later redesignated as Hoover Co.
Gradually over the course of the later 19th century and early next century, a host of inventors and developers gave us quite a variety of electric home appliances.
|sewing machine||1889||Singer Sewing Co.|
|vacuum cleaner||1907||James M. Spangler|
|washing machine||1907||Hurley Co.|
|refrigerator||1913||Frank W. Wolf|
It took the creation of the grounded plug for it to be feasible to easily use small electric devices for use in houses. Philip F. Labre accomplished it in 1928.
Busy Edison also created the phonograph
Hey, we are being a bit self-serving by mentioning here another invention that Thomas Edison achieved. Though it did not have the vast importance of the light bulb, it sure brought joy to millions of people over the years since.
That was the phonograph! You may have noted that we have several articles on this website lauding vinyl records and the early development of the gramophone because we adore them. So we just had to give some more credit to the great inventor again. His “needles on cylinder” first appeared in 1887.
Its’ significance, however, should not be underestimated. It brought entertainment home.
The sky is the limit
The car became useful and ubiquitous long before anything could travel frequently in the air (and still doesn’t cheaply, to this day). So we forget that air travel actually got its major boost a few years before.
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright powered the first real airplane. The beach at Kitty Hawk, North Caroline got the nod for that one.
Who doesn’t know that riveting story?
Orville Wright at the controls. Wilber ran alongside at the start.
Like almost all inventions there were major contributions by other inventors and explorers before and after the unique claims in airplane history. It did take a while for a well functioning craft to take to the air in steady numbers. Developing warplanes soon had some limited appearances during World War I (1914 – 1918).
The first commercial airlines took off the year the war began. As you might expect, wartime definitely accelerated interest in achieving improved operation and practical usability. The U.S. Postal Service started airborne runs around the time the war ended.
Equally spectacular in American memories was the 1927 flight that Charles Lindbergh made nonstop and solo to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Mass production and the automobile
Without the age of petroleum, the automobile and America’s romance with it may not have happened. By 1860, oil wells had first developed and the age of petroleum products began. Oil fueled internal combustion engines at first and then gasoline in the last decade of the century.
Of course, we all know how it was mass production that made it possible to build the first cars, and at a price that became low enough, some people could actually afford it.
It was the Model T that Henry Ford designed in 1908 that catapulted the automobile into the forefront of American life.
He had it made on an assembly line, which transformed factory output.
The automotive industry would be the best example: all this production caused the striking rise in the importance and size of companies and their corollary unions. It appears to have also stimulated immigration, with the increased need for low-skilled labor.
The Age of the Consumer begins
Mass production resulted in a lot of goods to be sold and a rise in consumption. It has been argued that this also led to the need, or at least convenience, of built-in obsolescence.
Large department stores (think Macy’s and Gimbel’s) and chain stores (such as Woolworth’s) came on in the 1870s, arguably to the detriment of old-fashioned “mom and pop” shops.
You could buy on credit!
As a corollary, competition increased, resulting in the need for companies to uptick advertising their wares.
Also, rural folks were not left out: Sears catalog started in 1886.
It was the beginning of the upwardly mobile “middle class”.
Of course, it took many years for all these changes to really take hold in our culture. And, as you are aware, the arguments continue even now.
The day of big corporations
The innovation of inventions and investment in capitalism drove the young U.S. to the forefront of world economies.
We always make the error in our thinking that our current age is the only one in which pretty ripping political satire and voices can take center stage.
Actually it’s been going on as long as … pen and paper?
Here’s a political cartoon on the cover of our country’s first humor magazine, Puck, dating from April 6, 1901.
Columbia (the personification of America), admires herself as she puts on her new “world power” hat.
On the downside of the explosion in corporate growth, there was little regulation, which did start to limit them at the turn to the next century.
It was actually all throughout the almost half-century that followed the Civil War that big corporations were forming at a great pace in America. It was the “Gilded Age”. The term was coined by Mark Twain, signaling a veneer over suspected corruption and excess during the rapid rise of businesses.
So there was a mixture (what’s new?) of good and bad, up and down, during this incredibly important time. (And, of course, after the stock market crash in 1929, well, people were thinking differently about them. But that’s more stories for other days.)
Cities and skyscrapers
Cities boomed and skyscrapers grew. The world’s first very tall city building was built in Chicago, completed in 1885. The Home Insurance Building reached 10 stories (138 feet). Engineering advances in iron, and then, steel, made it possible.
The uniqueness of building for height and with new types of materials (metals) meant this was a new kind of architecture. In this case, pioneered by the Chicago School. The architect was William Le Baron Jenney.
The Flatiron Building is a striking triangle shape that was developed in Manhattan, New York City in 1902.
It attained 22 stories (285 feet). It, too, reflected the Chicago School of Architecture, which architect was Daniel Burnham.
To this day, it still provides a prominent and fascinating landmark in our modern age. And a continuing symbol of NYC.
You could occupy your evening guests for a while with a guessing game about which popular movies have included images of this building!
(Hint: It is the fictional site of the Daily Bugle, where the hero of Spider-Man works on his day job.) Go Spidey!
The drive for height also fueled changes in typical inner city residences. During the previous century row houses had become ubiquitous in areas of major Easter cities, like New York (witness the famous brownstones), Philadelphia, and Baltimore. They accommodated both the poor in tenements and the rich in more luxurious buildings.
By 1900 they were being built less commonly. Superseding them were multistory apartment buildings with interior entrances. Made possible by the same architectural achievements.
America’s favorite residential architecture
We never could quite understand why in this time period, the favored style of home architecture was British! Why hadn’t American already designed its own unique forms?
We don’t know, except that the Victorian styles were overwhelming after the Civil War even through the start of the next century.
The commonly named Queen Anne form grew out of earlier renditions and became particularly associated with finer homes in the U.S.
Ornate and intricate, they were symptoms of the “Gilded Age”.
So-called because of a somewhat gaudy exterior that could symbolize the masking of significant societal problems:
The inequalities in living conditions and wages that accompanied the marked rise in numbers of immigrants.
To be fair, in truth (because we adore this style house), they could be mansions, but could also be more modest (somewhat, anyway).
The “Golden Door” of immigration
Immigration had been unregulated during the United States’ early story. In 1875 the Supreme Court declared it to be under federal jurisdiction, as individual states had been passing their own laws.
By the late 19th century, the U.S. was being looked at in the world as a desirable place to settle, the “land of opportunity”.
Most entered the country on the East Coast, through New York City. After 1892, this was generally on Ellis Island.
The height of newcomers from Europe was in 1907 when more than a million arrived.
Our country has had a checkered relationship with the ease of allowing new people in and moving restrictions.
Clearly a land of immigrants throughout its history, it nevertheless has varied in how open the door is.
The Statue of Liberty – a gift from France in the 1880s. It is near Ellis Island. Today they are part of the same National Monument.
Pictures that look like you, and move
Wait, let’s talk about the fun stuff. Not just the practical advances that made a new country great. And always associated difficulties. Let’s ignore them for the moment and enjoy the age for the good that came with it.
Photography came in (in the 1840s) before the Civil War. We know that because we have photos from then!
Moving pictures first appeared in the 1890s.
Guess who invented the first motion picture camera?
Answer: Thomas Edison. Yup, you’ve heard of him already, right?
On this, he worked with his assistant, W. K. L. Dickson, who was also a photographer. Their Kinetograph debuted in 1888.
Why Edison got into this endeavor is an interesting tale. Remember the phonograph, that he had invented about a decade earlier?
The story goes that he wanted to get motion pictures going to accompany the music from the phonograph! Today, we are so enamored of “movies” that we consider the music as the accompaniment.
What the duo produced in the late 1800s were short segments called “living pictures” and were a novelty. It was some years and many developments later that full-fledged story-telling movies came about.
That first narrative movie was finally created in 1903 and is The Great Train Robbery. It is about 10 minutes long.
It was photographed and directed by Edwin S. Porter, who previously had been a cameraman for Edison.
Hey, it’s a Western! It’s a “hold-up” movie about the “Hole in the Wall” gang of Butch Cassidy fame robbing a train. And it has a surprise ending. What? You’ll just have to watch it and find out.
Before you go
We’ve gone over mostly the positive about the onslaught of the industrial age. And alluded to some of the downsides. We haven’t ignored that: which we did address in our post that was about the patriotic nature of protest songs.
Do you like reading about some of the fascinating historical decades our country went through? If so, you may like to look back from the time of this current article to Colonial Times. Also, the turn of the 20th century (the subject of this post) and WW 1 led right into one of the most uproarious decades in the U.S. story: the 1920s.
Of the more recent times, the 1950s was the link between the years of the Second World War and the way-out Sixties that followed. Do you agree that is was the time the American Dream was fulfilled for many people?