America at the Turn of the Century

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Court of Honour and the Liberal Arts Building (1893 Chicago World's Fair)
The Court of Honour and the Liberal Arts Building (1893 Chicago World's Fair)

American Society
The turn of the century was a time of transition in America. America was changing from a rural society to an urban, industrial society. In 1890 America’s population was almost 63 million; by 1900, it was nearly 76 million. More and more people were living in cities. Almost 20% of Americans lived in cities of more than 100, 000 people. More than 6 million people lived in the cities of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. City living helped to break down the strict morality of the 19th century (the Victorian period).

There was conflict between business and labour in cites and in the country. Strikes by workers for better wages and working conditions were met with violence from companies. Big railroad and steel companies dominated the economy, and the government passed anti-trust laws against corruption in business. With urbanization, there was growing concern about the environment, and so President Roosevelt set aside more than 200 million acres of land in order to preserve America’s wilderness. Americans thought that these and other social problems need to be solved, and so social reform became an important idea in this period.

The Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, was an important expression of America’s spirit at the turn of the century. Ideas about America’s place in the world, attitudes about race, and American progress were central to the exhibition.

Race Issues
Racism was a strong force in American life. Jim Crow laws and etiquette restricted the freedom of blacks in the South. The Mississippi Plan was implemented in 1890 to prevent blacks from voting. It forced African Americans to take reading tests. In 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy vs Ferguson. The court said that racial segregation was acceptable if services for whites and blacks were equal (known as “separate but equal“). In 1906, anti-black riots took place in Atlanta, Georgia. Other new Americans faced racism. Segregation of Korean, Chinese and Japanese students in San Francisco schools was briefly implemented in 1906.  At the same time, immigration to the US was increasing. In 1892, Ellis Island in New York opened. It was the landing site for immigrants. More than 20 million new Americans entered the US through Ellis Island.

American Expansion: The Eagle Stretches Its Wings 10, 000 Miles

Politics, War, and Expansionism
In 1890, the American government announced that the frontier was closed, and in 1893 a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner gave an influential lecture on the importance of the frontier in American history. He believed that free land in the west had been an important influence on American character, especially individualism and strength.  Turner’s lecture was given at the 1893 Colombian Exhibition, a world’s fair that showed America’s growing political, economic, and cultural influence. In 1890, Indian leader Sitting Bull was killed, and Indians were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, concluding the Indian Wars.  The Spanish-American War began in 1898. Americans were greatly influenced to go to war by newspaper editorials and reports. In the war, the US conquered the Philippines, Guam, and Porto Rico. The US annexed Hawaii in 1898. President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. He was succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt, who announced the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904; it stated America’s claim to police the Caribbean and Latin America.

Technology, 1870-1910
1873: typewriter
1876: telephone
1877: phonograph (first disc player, 1887)
1880: hearing aid
1884: roller coaster
1885: first skyscraper built, Chicago
1888: Kodak camera
1889: dishwasher
1891: escalator
1892: first gasoline car
1893: zipper
1898: submarine
1902: air conditioning
1903: first air flight, Wright brothers
1903: Panama Canal started (completed 1914)
1908: Model T car

For more details, see American Experience: Technology Timeline, 1752-1990