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The 1900s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview
American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, Victor Bondi, Richard Layman, Tandy McConnell, and Vincent Tompkins. Vol. 1: 1900-1909. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1994-2001 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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Entering the New Century

In some ways the 1900s were the last decade of the nineteenth century. The opulence and self-confidence of the wealthy, which had suffered a temporary, if severe, setback in the depression of 1893-1894, were back on display in Newport, Rhode Island, and other watering holes of the well-heeled members of high society. At the other end of the social spectrum, the everyday lives of working men and women were shaped by many of the same social forces that had changed the United States so dramatically in the decades after the Civil War. Big business grew even bigger, and the distance between rich and poor seemed just as great as it had during the 1890s, when social strife and violent clashes between labor and capital broke out with frightening regularity. Many of the habits, customs, and mores of the nineteenth century shaped patterns of behavior and belief in the new decade as well.

Changes in American Life

However, enormous changes were under way during the 1900s. The population grew substantially (by sixteen million from seventy-five million between 1900 and 1910), in large part because of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived every year on American shores. The process of urbanization, already well established in the nineteenth century, continued unabated, bringing millions of Americans into contact with complete strangers and reshaping the way they worked and lived. Women entered the workforce in increasing numbers as manufacturing and retailing expanded. The automobile, which in 1900 was an expensive commodity available only to the rich, was by 1909 becoming a method of travel available to the ordinary American at a reasonable price. The Wright brothers, who had started out as bicycle mechanics, successfully flew an airplane for the first time when they soared above the dunes for two minutes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The motion picture industry, though in its infancy during this decade, signaled the arrival of a new form of entertainment that would alter the way Americans spent their leisure hours. Household appliances, some of them newly invented, became accessible and affordable to a growing middle class. The vacuum cleaner was invented, and more and more homes had iceboxes, phonographs, telephones, and electric lights.

The Religion of Consumption

Earlier generations of Americans had embraced moderation, self-denial, thrift, and enterprise as a code of behavior for individuals and for society. But in the 1900s this "Protestant ethic," as the German sociologist Max Weber called it, was under assault. Simon N. Patten, one of the decade's most popular economists, argued that surplus wealth created energy, which could then be used in consumption, which then stimulated production and created more surplus wealth as society progressively improved. Patten thought women stored energy and men spent it, and that those who disagreed with him were afraid of consumption, or spending. "The habits, instincts, and feelings we have inherited from our forefathers are no longer safe guides for us to follow," Patten wrote in 1901. Where previous theorists saw scarcity as the iron law of economics, Patten and others preached a gospel of abundance and promised that Americans could spend their way to the promised land. All of this was set in the context of a changing economy, and it required both the manufacture and the eager purchase of goods by consumers. "Don't postpone your happiness," the trade magazine Thought and Work advised Americans in 1904. This was the decade when the department store emerged as the major retail force, and as a potent symbol of an economy that had grown proficient in the manufacture and delivery of consumer goods. Previously, there had been drygoods stores where people bought material for making clothes at home. They went elsewhere for candles, for lamps, for carpets, and for other goods. Now ready-to-wear clothing, along with a huge variety of household goods, was available under one roof, or from a single catalogue. The new religion was a success, the department store its new cathedral.


There was another side to America, however, one full of fear and anger. Because so much wealth and power were concentrated in the trusts and large corporations, laborers had little control over how, when, and for how long they did their jobs. There were numerous acrimonious strikes during this decade; the distance between capital and labor had never seemed so great. Many of these battles were fought over such bread-and-butter issues as wages and hours, but something equally important was at stake: how much control, collectively and individually, workers would have over their lives. These kinds of concerns propelled many workers into radical political and social organizations, from the Socialist Party to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Even for the well-to-do, it was an anxious time. One of the most talked-about ailments among the middle and upper classes of the 1900s was neurasthenia, a kind of nervous exhaustion that struck at those overcome by the frenetic pace of modern living. The "cures" sometimes involved using electricity, a use of technology to master human frailty. Women who were deemed to be suffering from neurasthenia were often confined to their homes to take the "rest cure."

Progress for Women

Since an 1848 conference in Seneca Falls, New York, many American women had been writing, speaking, and protesting in favor of equal political and social rights for women. This battle continued on many fronts in the 1900s, a time that also saw divisions appear within the ranks. Women made important gains within professions such as law and medicine, though they remained a small minority. In the 1900s women forced open the doors of some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and graduate schools, but also used women's colleges such as Bryn Mawr as a training ground for their strengthening push for suffrage. By 1910 women made up 40 percent of undergraduates in American colleges and universities. In the growing field of social work, women such as Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Florence Kelley were the acknowledged leaders. For working-class women there were battles of a different sort: for just wages, reasonable hours, safe working conditions, and recognition from the male-dominated trade unions. For black women these struggles were intensified by the blight of racism, even among those who proclaimed themselves allies and friends. Although women were divided in the 1900s, they were also forging personal and institutional bonds that would serve them well in future decades.

The New Immigrants

By 1910 nearly one-seventh of the population of the United States was foreign-born. In cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Saint Louis, immigrants and the children of immigrants made up the majority of the population. The United States had for decades absorbed substantial numbers of immigrants, but the quantity and diversity of the immigrant population in the 1900s created additional social and political tensions. Suddenly, on the streets of some American cities it was as common to hear Czech, Polish, or Russian being spoken as it was to hear English. Urban schools faced the challenge of teaching not only language skills and the three R's, but survival skills to children unaccustomed to city life. Municipal services were stretched beyond the breaking point. Labor unions struggling to gain better wages and shorter hours found their battle made more difficult by the steady flow of cheap labor from overseas. And urban political bosses quickly established a system of patronage and informal social services in return for immigrant loyalty at the polling stations on election day. Immigrants helped to make the neighborhood saloon a prominent feature on city streets, and a favorite target of temperance crusaders. Tensions over ethnicity, politics, jobs, and religion contributed to a steady growth in hostility toward immigrants during the 1900s.

Strategies for Improvement

A large group of Americans, primarily businessmen, believed that the cure for the country's problems lay in propagating middle-class values of efficiency and hard work. In business Frederick Taylor's theories of management found eager ears. Jobs were broken down into their component parts; a new class of middle managers and engineers took over day-to-day operations, animated by the belief that the company was a machine that could be run as a set of well-oiled parts. On another front, middle-class reformers began to establish themselves in immigrant communities in settlement houses so they could teach new arrivals how to be Americans. What these two strategies had in common was a belief that life was a struggle for integrity, morality, and success, a struggle people were capable of winning—if they conformed to middle-class standards.

Preparing for the Future

If there was discontent during this decade, there was also the prevailing feeling that change equated with improvement and progress. Americans faced the future with confidence. Their country was a major world power. The cities, despite their many problems, symbolized through their skyscrapers and symphony halls, their streetcars and subways, their movie houses and amusement parks, that a distinctive American culture was coming of age. Some of the leading manufacturers of the world were American, and entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford were using new production techniques to usher in an age of automobility for the masses. A fundamental optimism created a feeling that Americans were in control of their destiny, and that the future belonged to Americans to shape as they wished. As one prominent reformer of the decade recalled in his memoirs, "We felt that the world had been wished onto our shoulders."

Global Superiority

Indeed, some authors believe that behind the global expansion of the United States was the need to prove its superiority. In controlling the Philippines and parts of Latin America, the United States placed itself on a par with the European powers. But there was also a fear of "race suicide," most eloquently expressed in the 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" in which the United States and Japan agreed to exclude the Japanese from immigrating. This was also a time of racial ferment. The cakewalk, a dance that had begun in black communities in the previous decade, gained widespread popularity among whites. Ragtime was increasingly popular, as well, and black vaudevillian performers were among the most famous comedians in the world. Yet in 1900 New York City witnessed a huge race riot. There were also riots in Atlanta; Springfield, Illinois; and other cities.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"The 1900s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 1: 1900-1909, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468300168