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The Good Years
From 1900 to the First World War
By Walter Lord
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 Walter Lord
All rights reserved.
A New Year
"There is not a man here who does not feel 400 per cent bigger in 1900 than he did in 1896, bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically, bigger in the breast from the fact that he is a citizen of a country that has become a world power for peace, for civilization and for the expansion of its industries and the products of its labor!"
—SENATOR CHAUNCEY DEPEW
A FINE, DRY SNOW powdered the sidewalk as William J. Witt and Anna Waddilove, two young German-Americans, entered Liederkranz Hall in Jersey City and stood before the Reverend Rufus Johnson of Trinity Baptist Church. Dr. Johnson eyed his watch for a few moments, then began reading, and pronounced the Witts man and wife at 12:01 A.M., January 1, 1900. The time was important, for the Witts wanted to be the first couple married in the twentieth century.
They were a year too soon. Actually the new century would not begin until 1901. As the newspapers patiently explained, the first century obviously ended with the year 100, so the nineteenth had to end with the year 1900.
Still the Witts weren't convinced, nor were many other sentimental German-Americans. After all, the Kaiser himself said this was the day, and in Berlin at this very minute thirty-three guns were saluting the new era. Addressing his officers, Wilhelm promised the rebirth of "my Navy," so that in the coming century Germany might win "the place which it has not yet attained."
Elsewhere, mathematics prevailed, and the big celebration was postponed for another year. Except for the Witts, Jersey City had an uneventful New Year's Eve. The Metropolitan Wheelmen of Boston bicycled quietly to Newburyport. In St. Louis Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lawler held a candy pull. In New York financier J. Pierpont Morgan played solitaire in his library. Downtown some merrymakers roamed Wall Street, drowning the Trinity chimes with fishhorns, but most people were satisfied with less. At the 28th District Republican Club, the members sipped hot punch while President Charlie Hecht rendered "When the Swallows Homeward Fly."
Yet the idea would not die that there was something special about moving into 1900. That irrepressible brigade who write letters to the London Times fired salvo after salvo, arguing that this was indeed the turn of the century. "If," explained the Reverend Grimley, Rector of Norton, "a bride in her hundredth year were to pass from the altar of my church to the vestry, she would give as her age to be entered in the register 99. Her hundredth year would be labeled 99 until its very close."
In New Orleans, a city endowed with a keen sense of romance, people also felt that 1900 marked a fresh start. A boisterous crowd swarmed along Canal Street, gaily saluting an open carriage of girls at the corner of St. Charles. The girls opened up on them with Roman candles. If this wasn't launching a new century, the police shuddered to think what next year would be like.
The New York Tribune sensed it too. "No new century began yesterday. Avoid all delusions on that head," intoned the editor, "but those who had to date anything found that there was a queer sensation in writing '1900,' and they felt that something momentous had happened to the calendar."
So in the end the Kaiser, with his flair for the dramatic, was right. A new century is something that's not measured but felt. And nearly everybody felt that New Year's 1900 was a milestone—a time to relish past accomplishments, a time to thrill to the promise of the future.
The newspapers did plenty of both. The New York Times on December 31, 1899, devoted nearly four editorial columns to a review of the Nineteenth Century. It proudly paraded the list of inventions—steam engines, railroads, telegraph, ocean liners, telephones, electric lights, even the cash register. They would pave the way for even greater advances. "We step upon the threshold of 1900 which leads to the new century," concluded the editorial, "facing a still brighter dawn of civilization."
Sunday sermons struck the same note. The Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis could scarcely contain himself: "Laws are becoming more just, rulers humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart becoming at once more just and more gentle."
No wonder hopes were high. From coast to coast, the country had never seen such good times. The Portland Oregonian called 1899 "the most prosperous year Oregon has ever known." The Cheyenne Sun-Leader agreed: "Never has a year been ushered in with more promise." The Louisville Courier-Journal: "Business in Louisville was never better, if as good." The Boston Herald perhaps summed it up best with an interesting thought: "If one could not have made money this past year, his case is hopeless."
For a man with a little talent, there seemed no limit. Andrew Carnegie, the gnomelike Scotch steelmaster, saw his annual profits double. Coal operators had the best anthracite year in history. The slump of 1893-95 was all but forgotten—since those dreary days Southern cotton goods were up 92 per cent, manufactured exports 88 per cent, glass output 52 per cent. No one noticed that the glass production record was achieved with the help of a ten-year-old child who had to tie stoppers on three hundred dozen bottles a day.
Even the usually discontented farmers were happy. Kansas barns bulged with a bumper corn crop. The cities and towns of the Midwest enjoyed a fantastic Christmas season. A Minneapolis jeweler figured that on one day during the holiday rush his diamond sales ran at the rate of $2,400 an hour.
Sales were high, but prices were low—just the way the system was meant to work. A Chicago couple furnishing a home could easily get a mahogany parlor table for $3.95 ... a sofa for $9.98 ... a brass-trimmed bed for $3. Food wasn't much of a problem with corned beef selling at 8 cents a pound. Clothes were equally reasonable—in Denver turtleneck sweaters were eight cents apiece, felt hats 89 cents, top-quality suits $10.65. Wages might be modest by later standards, but a man from Birmingham, Alabama, could still celebrate New Year's respectably, when six-year-old whiskey cost $3.20—for four quarts.
In Washington President William McKinley contentedly faced his annual New Year's reception, when the whole public could file by for the handshake the President so enjoyed. It was another election year, but there were no worries this time. The informal partnership between business and the Administration had proved itself. William Jennings Bryan, the young Democrat who made Wall Street shiver in '96, seemed as remote as his discredited platform of free silver. McKinley could stand with perfect confidence on the brief, irrefutable slogan "The Full Dinner Pail."
But prosperity was only part of the story. An endless stream of exciting discoveries offered concrete evidence of the abundant life ahead. The new X-ray was revolutionizing surgery. Walter Reed's experiments might end yellow fever. The caterpillar tractor would lighten farm work. The gramophone and Pianola would bring joy to the home. Electricity promised untold wonders—not just light but help on all sorts of household chores; some man had even invented a toaster.
Best of all was the motorcar. Its growth had been phenomenal. On April 1, 1898, an adventuresome soul bought the first American machine ever made specifically for sale. By 1900 some eight thousand cars sputtered about the country. Over one hundred taxis graced the streets of New York; Chicago even had a motor ambulance.
The new invention did pose some problems. "The operator," explained one writer, "must combine the intelligence of the driver with that of the horse." Tires cost $40 apiece. In New York cars had to stay out of Central Park, carry a gong, and keep under nine miles an hour.
More fundamental, according to McClure's magazine, was the difficulty of finding suitable terminology: "The French, with characteristic readiness in getting settled names for things, have formally adopted the word 'automobile' for the vehicle and 'chauffeur' (stoker) for the driver. But we of the English tongue are slower."
All this only added to the intrigue. Still a rich man's toy, anyone could see that the motorcar would someday belong to everybody. Already eighty firms, capitalized at more than $380 million, were banking on it.
Countless miracles, boundless prosperity—they would go on and on—it was that simple. And perhaps this feeling that everything was so simple contributed most of all to the optimism and confidence that greeted the twentieth century. Wealth was simple—small boys grew up on Horatio Alger: if you were good and worked hard, someday you would be rich. Rules were simple—nice people didn't mention sex, and even smoking was questionable. President McKinley once cautioned a photographer, "We must not let the young men of the country see their President smoking." Pleasures too were simple. New Yorkers might rave about the Floradora sextet, but most people made their own amusement. Seymour, Connecticut—a typical small town—had its own orchestra, drama group, German band, and Gilbert and Sullivan troupe.
Government especially was happily simple. In 1900 the Navy Department's budget was $55 million. Sixty years later, a single atomic submarine cost as much. Washington offices were pleasantly informal—one administrative clerk liked to keep a hen by his desk. Kind, portly President McKinley was the most accessible of men. "It is not always necessary, though better, to make an engagement to see the President," wrote White House correspondent Albert Halstead. In launching an abortive drive for the 1900 Democratic nomination, Admiral Dewey blandly explained, "Since studying the subject, I am convinced that the office of the President is not such a very difficult one to fill...."
By the same token the future was simple. The rewards would go to the virtuous. "A certain manly quality in our people," observed commentator John Bates Clark, "gives assurance that we have the personal material out of which a millennium will grow."
And what would this millennium be like? As the new century dawned, wise men gave their prophecies and predictions. Perhaps inspired by Mr. and Mrs. Witt's marital enterprise, Mayor Lawrence Fagan of Hoboken saw a "Greater Jersey City" which would eclipse New York across the Hudson. Professor John Trowbridge of Harvard envisaged a nation-wide network of trolley car lines, binding the country together. Edward Everett Hale thought that by 1975 people might be shot through a tube from Texas to Georgia. Russell Sage thought millionaires were safe, for "they are the guardians of the public welfare." John Jacob Astor predicted a pedestrian's paradise—transparent sidewalks high above the traffic. Ray Stannard Baker, a crack reporter of the day, saw the traffic problem itself nearing solution: "It is hardly possible to conceive the appearance of a crowded wholesale street in the day of the automotive vehicle. In the first place, it will be almost as quiet as a country lane—all the crash of horses' hoofs and the rumble of steel tires will be gone. And since vehicles will be fewer and shorter than the present truck and span, streets will appear less crowded."
Only a few great men refused to peer into the crystal ball. Thomas Edison explained, "I don't care to play prophet to the twentieth century: it's too large an undertaking." When asked about the mission of the dramatist of the future, George Bernard Shaw acidly replied, "To write plays." The New York World regretted that the young Irishman didn't take himself more seriously.
No such reticence from H. G. Wells, who was easily the most prolific prophet around. For six consecutive issues the North American Review carried his lively "Anticipations." Later events showed some to be a little visionary: for instance, the Anglo-American republic centered east of Chicago. Others were somewhat myopic: "Probably before 1950 a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound." Others were just plain wrong: "I must confess that my imagination, in spite of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea." But many of Wells' predictions proved amazingly accurate. He didn't guess the words, but he certainly saw air-conditioned houses ... detergents ... suburbia ... thruways... "togetherness" ... do-it-yourself ... and that idea breathlessly voiced by market researchers some fifty years later, "the vast stretch of country from Washington to Albany will be one big urban area."
Unlike some of the seers, Wells thought there would still be wars. On land, victory would depend on balloon power; on the sea, a light ironclad equipped with a murderous ram. "Unless I know nothing of my own blood," he explained, "the English and Americans will fight to ram."
Here was a revealing observation. It unconsciously gave away the one belief above all others that obsessed many minds as the twentieth century began. This was the conviction that the British and American people were bolder, braver, truer, nobler, brighter, and certainly better than anyone else in the world. As the New York Evening Post pointed out in its New Year's Day editorial on the Boer War, "Englishmen have, on the whole, taken their unexpected disasters in South Africa in manly fashion. One can imagine what would have happened in France under similar circumstances...."
It naturally followed that the future belonged to the Anglo-American "race." Together with the Germans, explained Professor John W. Davis, they were "particularly endowed with the capacity for establishing national states, and are especially called to that work; and therefore they are intrusted, in the general economy of history, with the mission of conducting the political civilization of the modern world." Kipling was less pontifical:
Take up the White Man's burden—Send forth the best ye breed ...
In taking up the burden this New Year's Day, both Britain and the United States had more than they bargained for. The British were getting nowhere with the Boers in South Africa. The Americans were having little better luck in the Philippines, that trying legacy from the Spanish-American War. And in each nation many people smirked at the other's embarrassment. Sober minds tried to put things in proper perspective. Harper's Weekly urged Americans to mourn the British defeats, "if we have a proper pride of race." Good Englishmen gave an older brother's advice on the Philippines. "I think," Colonel The O'Gorman told young Senator Albert Beveridge during a fact-finding trip to the Far East, "you must do nothing but fight them. When we are in a row with Orientals, that is the way we do. They do not understand anything else."
Senator Beveridge returned convinced. By now he was intrigued by the opportunities offered by the whole Orient. Here was the market America needed when she could no longer absorb her own production. "And just beyond the Philippines," he reminded the Senate, "are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either."
Secretary of State John Hay had his eyes on China too. This very New Year's morning the papers happily announced that Hay had won all the great foreign powers to his Open Door policy. Under its terms each country gave the others equal trading rights in any "sphere of influence" it enjoyed in China. A happy solution for everybody and especially for America—the last power on the scene and the only one without a sphere of influence.
But more than trade was involved. Entirely apart from the commercial aspect, there was something exciting about the Open Door idea ... something that caught the nation's imagination. Suddenly expansion was no longer a matter of grabbing territory; it was part of the duty of guarding the weak.
"It would be difficult to do a greater wrong to the people of China than to leave the nation to itself," declared D. Z. Sheffield in the January, 1900, Atlantic Monthly. "Here is the substance of the matter: China needs protection and guidance even to the point of wise compulsion."
And there was no doubt who had the responsibility. As Senator Beveridge explained, "God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned.... He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples."
So the American traders, diplomats, soldiers, and missionaries marched off to the Orient—parvenu imperialists but with a sense of lofty mission. And even as they went, success seemed in the air. "There are many signs of times," concluded D. Z. Sheffield, "which assure us that the day is not distant when China will be delivered from its effete civilization and will come under the power of those motives which have their source in the vital truths of the Christian revelation."
Excerpted from The Good Years by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1960 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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