vol. 5, #21,
You're probably familiar with the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Surely the most interesting, most challenging, and scariest times are those that bring one dramatic change after another. As the new century approaches, I've been thinking about how far and fast America has changed in the past 100 years. We've gone from the creation of moving assembly lines at the beginning of the century to protests against multinational manufacturers at the end of it, from awe at the first airplane to complaints that scientists can't get Mars missions right, from trench warfare to nuclear weapons, from Hollerith cards used in the 1890 census to computers and the net, from the first beginnings of the movies to radio, television and a full-blown culture of entertainment. Our great grandparents would have trouble recognizing the world we live in now.
And yet, for all that, they would find America of 1999 easier to live in and comprehend than the America of 1800, because the truly quantum changes in our daily life occurred not in our century but in the 1800s. The way people lived in 1800 hadn't changed significantly from the way people lived four hundred years earlier.
In 1800, United States territory extended west to the Mississippi; by 1900, the only parts of North America we hadn't claimed were Mexico and Canada. This was despite the fact that in 1800, nobody could travel faster, or send messages faster, than horses or boats could carry them. There weren't any railroads at all until the 1820's, and no continental railroad until 1869. When gold was discovered in California, most 49ers sailed around the tip of South America to get to California, though some docked in Panama and struggled through malaria-ridden jungles to ports on the other side of the isthmus.
Those who moved west in the early 1800s were effectively lost to their families, since going back for a visit was a major undertaking, and the only communication was by letters, if you could find someone to carry them. It wasn't until 1861 that telegraph wires stretched across the continent (making the Pony Express, created in 1860, no longer necessary).
Even Americans in 1900 would have found it hard to comprehend the sheer physical labor, the unrelenting drudgery, of daily life in 1800. Picture hauling all your water from wells, because public reservoirs and waterworks were only beginning to be developed. Picture clearing your land and plowing it with nothing but a wooden plow and oxen or horses -- John Deere's metal plow didn't come along until mid century. Picture raising your own animals and butchering your own meat, gathering eggs, milking cows, churning milk into butter. Picture raising your own fruits and vegetables, preserving and pickling and smoking all your own food, because canning factories didn't come along until 1820 and artificial refrigeration wasn't available until the 1860's. Picture boiling tubs full of water to do laundry, wringing it by hand, and heating irons in the fire to press it.
Americans' homes were minimally comfortable in 1800, drafty, lit by candles or kerosene lanterns, heated by fireplaces or Franklin stoves that burned wood they had to chop themselves; by the end of the century central heating systems had been created and electric utilities had begun to wire entire cities. By 1900, much of the work women had done at home -- spinning, weaving, quilting, clothes-making, canning, baking bread -- was being done in factories; women could shop for those goods in the new department stores (Macy's, 1858) or dime stores (Woolworth's, founded 1879), or order them from the catalogs of Montgomery Ward (1872) or Sears Roebuck (1895). Mail service was steadily extended throughout the century until in 1896, Rural Free Delivery brought mail to even the remotest-dwelling Americans.
Leisure time grew through the century, not just for housewives, but for working men and children, as the ten hour day and limits on child labor were introduced, and employers began to routinely offer two-week vacations. Hotels and resort communities sprang up, public libraries were built (some with Andrew Carnegie's bounty), museums, orchestras, parks and playing fields were created by city governments, compulsory school attendance laws were passed, and land-grant colleges were created. By 1900, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia were national parks, and vacationers could take pictures of their scenic grandeur with the new Kodak cameras.
Our culture of entertainment was already beginning to take shape by 1900. All our major sports were in place: major league baseball in 1876, basketball in 1881, pro football in 1895. The first Sunday comics section had apeared by 1895. Chautauqua offered traveling lectures and concerts, and traveling theatrical companies brought melodrama and Shakespeare to mining towns and farm communities. Vaudeville was in bloom by the close of the century, and by 1900, newfangled moving pictures had been added to the mixture of acts. One could argue that the first mass medium had been created, the Associated Press, founded in 1848, which made it possible for the exact same news items to run in thousands of newspapers throughout the country.
And of course we grew, astoundingly, in those hundred years. In 1810, there were just 7.2 million Americans, all clustered along the eastern seaboard. By 1900, there were 75 million of us, and, since Congress had repeatedly granted public land to settlers at $1.25 per acre, the population center of the country had moved from Maryland to Indiana. In 1800, 3% of us lived in cities; by 1900, 33% of us did, much of that urban population consisting of millions of newly arrived immigrants from eastern Europe. The invention of elevators and structural steel allowed cities to stretch infinitely to accommodate their new population, by building upward as well as outward.
In 1800 Americans were mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Slaves counted as 3/5 of a person in our Constitution, and women had no legal right to vote, to be educated, or to own property. By 1900 our population included millions of Catholics and Jews, and millions of Italians, Irish, Germans, Swedes, Russians, and Poles. Slavery had been abolished; despised Irish immigrants had achieved political power; women in some western states could vote. Women were attending college, joining the professions, and changing our public life -- Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, having fought for the abolition of slavery, had declared the Universal Rights of Women, Jane Addams had founded Hull House and Clara Barton had created the Red Cross.
Life span did not increase significantly during the 19th century -- malaria was a continuing problem in the southern states, tuberculosis was common, and periodic epidemics of yellow fever and cholera took thousands of lives. But increasing standards of public sanitation and public health discoveries of the 19th century made possible some of this century's gains. By 1900 vaccination had reduced the scourge of smallpox, required pasteurization of milk had cut down on food-borne illness, the first incubators were being used to save premature babies, and doctors had learned to wash their hands before treating each patient.
The 20th century has seen staggering amounts of change. And yet it doesn't begin to compare with the changes lived through by anyone born when Thomas Jefferson was president and dying when William McKinley was assassinated. Future shock may have been another of the inventions of the 1800s.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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