home | history

Life in the United States in 1901

In 1901, people in the US were able to buy more than they had in previous decades. More farm products were available in the cities, and there were department stores and mail-order catalogs. Shopping by telephone had begun. Homes had electricity, the electric light having the advantage of being without soot or the need to ventilate — while a few feared it, blaming it for fires, explosions and electrocutions, and some claimed that it caused freckles. There were electric trolley cars on which to ride to work or to stores or on Sunday outings. A Brooklyn baseball team name itself the Dodgers mindful of its fans dodging trolley cars.

Only a few among the middle and upper-class families had the comforts of central heating. In the winter months most of the nation stayed together around their stove, and people used iron ingots, ceramic bricks and soapstones as bed warmers. Without electricity, many in the West in rural areas used cow manure, "grassoline," for fuel.

In rural areas, many had to haul their water, and so too did some in the cities, where water was obtained from barrels filled by water-hauling tank wagons. Some tenement dwellers received their water from a tap in the hallway, or outside in the courtyard.

But by the turn of the century there was a better understanding of diseases and greater effort at prevention. In 1901 water supplies were being tested periodically to guard against water-borne infections. A nurse, Lillian Wald, had by now convinced the city of New York to hire nurses for its public schools, and this kind of "public health" nursing was spreading across the nation.

Despite centuries of preaching about the depravity of man, there was a good amount of cheer across the land, although people were working an average of twelve hours per day and six days per week. Coal miners might have been among the less cheerful, suffering and dying as they were in appallingly large numbers from both accidents and effects of the environment in which they worked.

There was still child labor, poor and immigrant children working alongside their parents, kids as young as seven or eight working twelve hours per day for low wages. Half the states had some sort of restrictions on child labor, such as a law that children work no more than ten hours per day. But only about ten states made a serious effort to enforce such laws. For factory owners, children were a cheap supply of labor, and employers preferred children for many jobs because their fingers were quick and nimble and because the children's small size enabled them to tend machines in cramped spaces. By 1900, 1.7 million kids under sixteen were employed in cotton mills in New England and in the South, and children were still working in West Virginia's coal mines. The view prevailed among some devout Christians that all this was good for the children because idle hands were the devil's tools.

Much of the child labor occurred with tenant farming. Sharecroppers were turning as much as half of their crops over to the owners of the property they worked. The debts of tenant farmers often matched or exceeded the income from their share of the crops they grew.

There was no social security for the aged. Families were obliged to take care of their aged and their handicapped. But the middle-class and people in big cities were enjoying more leisure. The middle-class had annual vacations. Many of them looked forward to going to a resort during the summer. On weekends they went to orchestral concerts in a park or city center. They went to vaudeville shows, to amusement parks or to a local baseball game. During the summer a family might go fishing or boating. Family picnics were also popular, as were community socials.

Much in entertainment was home-made. Very few people had a phonograph, but there was an abundance of store-bought sheet music. A family's girls might play musical instruments. Families frequently gathered around a piano, organ, or pianola for sing-alongs. The most popular song in 1902 was "In the Good Ol' Summertime," which that year sold a million copies in sheet music — a song that evoked in many city people a nostalgia for the rural towns where they had strolled through shady lanes. Another popular song was "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." Soon to follow were songs such as "Sweet Adeline," "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider," and "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." People in middle-class families played lawn games such as croquet or lawn tennis. Girls, along with their mothers, spent leisure hours doing needle crafts and reading religious novels. Some among the middle-class read westerns such as The Virginian, or they read sentimental sagas or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Some read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Red Badge of Courage, and some read from among Horatio Alger's 135 novels.

Men courted women in the parlor or on the front porch of the young woman's home, sometimes singing songs, playing their banjo or guitar, or they went strolling to the village green. As yet, women did not go driving off in automobiles. The automobile, "or horseless carriage," was just beginning to make its appearance in the United States, disturbing the city traffic of horse-drawn wagons and bicycles. In San Francisco and Cincinnati a speed limit was established at eight miles an hour. Debates in bars and at dinner tables arose over whether the horseless carriage or the horse was better transportation. Animal power, it was argued, was better on mud-slick roads. With automobiles, some said, city streets would have less horse manure and smell.

In the inner-cities, blue-collar men might find a little leisure away from home having a beer in a local saloon – frowned upon by the middle-class, who did most of their drinking with their dinners at home or at clubs. In some inner cities, saloons were community centers where workers picked up their mail, left messages, had access to a telephone or learned what work was available. The saloons provided water troughs for horses and a free newspaper, and the saloon often cashed a check or lent money. Some sold cigars, cigarettes, headache powders and bonbons nicknamed wife pacifiers. In the immigrant sections of working-class Chicago, saloons outnumbered grocery, meat or dry-goods stores. Fraternal organizations met at saloons. And in some saloons, union meetings, ward and precinct politics and even weddings were conducted.

At the turn of the century, more women were finding work outside of their homes – the result of enlarged office bureaucracies and the coming of the typewriter. Women had become a third of the nation's clerical workers. Women were also filling positions as telephone operators. And teaching, once a male preserve, was now 86 percent female – but still managed by male principals and superintendents.

Widespread among Americans was a desire for self-improvement. Christianity contributed to the striving for self-improvement. Churchmen were joining educators, social scientists, and writers in fretting over what was called the youth problem, and concern over boys turning bad through idleness motivated helped the passage of compulsory education laws. Since 1890 the number of students attending high school had been rising an average of around thirty percent per year, and high schools were increasing in number at an average of nineteen percent per year. The number of college graduates was also increasing: from a mere one percent of the population in the 1870s and on its way to eight percent by the 1920s.

Many Americans gave credit to Christianity for the nation's prosperity, and they saw their own material successes as God's reward for their virtue, industry and thrift. While church attendance was declining in some of the more technologically advanced European societies, in the United States the number of churches being built increased and church memberships were growing.

It was common among middle-class parents to try to put the fear of God into their children, and God and morality reached the children in the schools through the McGuffey Readers, with titles such as "Respect for the Sabbath Rewarded" and "The Bible the Best of Classics." These books suggested that to succeed one had to be sober, frugal and energetic, and they suggested that prolonged poverty was a sign of God's disapproval.

Women wanting to appear morally decent were wearing dresses that went to the ankles, even when playing tennis. A short skirt was one that exposed the shoes. If they wished respect, they wanted to be virgins until marriage. The common age for marriage among the middle-class was around 22. Those from blue-collar families, money concerns often had them waiting until their early thirties.

These were times when it was illegal for people to discuss birth control, including a doctor with a patient. It had become illegal for a library to have a book on contraception. Anthony Comstock was the well-known fighter for morality. He disliked profanity and obscenities. In 1873 founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and he would be made a special agent of the United States Postal Service. He opposed the works of Margaret Sanger. Sanger was twenty-one at the turn of the century, a nurse in New York who began advocating birth control, which was available to the affluent but not to the poor, and she was arrested for sending birth control literature through the mail.

An evangelical crusader, Carrie Nation, was doing what she called the work of the Lord. With the preacher Billy Sunday she fought for prohibiting the drinking of alcohol. She and five hundred of her followers invaded taverns, breaking bottles of liquor, mirrors and wooden kegs of beer. One of Carrie Nation's motives was to stop men from beating their wives, done mainly when they were drunk. For many women the prohibition movement was their only hope against such beatings, except for choosing the economic hardship that went with walking out on their marriage.

Despite all the efforts at morality, unwanted pregnancies were numerous, and abortions were common – the Michigan Board of Health in 1898 estimated that one-third of all pregnancies were artificially terminated. Abortions were inexpensive (ten dollars being the standard rate in New York and Boston). Divorces were also on the rise. By 1915, the United States would have the highest divorce rate in the world, with one in seven marriages ending in divorce. In Los Angeles the rate was one in five, and in wicked San Francisco one in four. The United States was experiencing the results of a sense of freedom greater than many other nations.

There were denunciations of those following the trend of not taking Scripture literally — word for word. Among the denouncers was a popular athlete turned evangelist, Billy Sunday. He had been a farm boy from Iowa and a hard-drinking, woman-chasing outfielder for the Chicago White Stockings. But he had a change of heart. He described the big city as Babylon and himself as brawling with the devil. He preached with emotion and a rapidity of words, mixing wisecracking, slang and baseball terms, attacking rum, prostitutes, card playing and gambling. He attacked science, Galileo, Plato, Darwin, intellectuals in general and the modern world. He admitted that he knew nothing about theology, and he knew little if anything about epistemology, but he felt qualified to denounce Christians who no longer believed in heaven and hell. He was quick to proclaim his patriotism, and he announced that immigrants complaining about working conditions should "go back to the land where they were kenneled."

CONTINUE READING: Race Relations, 1901

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.