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America 1900 : the turning point /
Judy Crichton.
1st ed.
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 1998.
342 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
0805053654 (alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 1998.
0805053654 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [307]-324) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

New Year's Day


* * *

On January 1, in Washington, D.C., a fresh fall of snow about an inch deep was brightening the city. Skaters were out on the Potomac and in Rock Creek Park, horse-drawn sleighs moved through the woods in splendid isolation. At the Capitol, where the old gaslight posts had finally been removed, cinders were being scattered on the icy steps. With Congress in recess and the federal bureaus closed, the city was even quieter than usual. But midmorning the Sabbath-like stillness was broken by the warning gongs of trolleys as crowds crammed on streetcars heading for the White House.

    The diplomatic corps was out in full regalia; there were more women wearing tiaras in the morning than even the oldest reporter could recall. Elegant carriages, their wheels creaking on the hard-packed snow, with coachmen and footmen on the box, jockeyed for position on Pennsylvania Avenue. At the edge of the city, in a curiously shaped modern studio, Frances Benjamin Johnston, the idiosyncratic, cigarette-smoking photographer, was preparing for President McKinley's New Year's Day reception. On Johnston's calendar was the simple notation, "WH." America's court photographer, she had been in and out of the White House for years, but this morning she would leave her cameras home.

    Down the Mall, on the second floor of the crowded Executive Mansion, President and Mrs. William McKinley, surrounded by friends and aides, were greeting cabinet members and their wives in the presidential library. The reports from the Philippines that morning had been unsettling. A rebel plot had been uncovered in Manila and native spies were reporting that two thousand armed insurgents were strengthening artillery placements outside the city. But as the presidential party waited for the signal to make their way down the central stairs and into the Blue Room, McKinley seemed unperturbed.

    Two thousand citizens were already standing by the gates in an arctic wind, waiting to pay their respects. The president had never been more popular, and the reception this morning promised to be as splendid as any ever held in the White House. As the diplomats and their wives were ushered into the East Room, it was clear their attendance was more than just a courtesy call. America was no longer an upstart republic; it had emerged from the Spanish-American War as one of the richest and most powerful nations on earth. If there were misgivings among the Europeans over this shift in world affairs, and indeed there were, the mood among the Americans was triumphant.

    When Senator Chauncey Depew of New York declared, "There is not a man here who does not feel four hundred percent bigger in 1900, bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically that he is a citizen of a country that has become a world power," he reflected the feelings of millions of people. In the year-end roundups published in newspapers that weekend, one state after the next reported an unprecedented level of well-being. And the staid New York Times reported a "prosperity panic on Wall Street."

    At the start of this election year the Republican party had an enormous advantage. But on New Year's Day, no one knew for sure, not even McKinley, whether he would run for a second term. It was the great question of the day. As the Marine band played "Hail to the Chief," the president and his wife, following the cabinet, threaded their way past favored friends into the Blue Room where thousands of tiny electric bulbs were woven through the smilax and jungle of palms. Ida McKinley, in a new, mauve-colored brocaded gown with diamond ornaments on the bodice, settled into a chair by her husband's side.

    The president's wife was a pale and fragile woman, given to seizures and nervous complaints. Over the past three years Mrs. McKinley had stood up to the demands of the White House better than expected, but there was speculation now among Republican leaders as to whether she had the strength to face another term. The president himself was uncertain. After thirty years of marriage, Ida remained at the center of his life and he would do nothing to jeopardize her health.

    When the McKinleys first met, Ida was a great beauty, rich and headstrong and somewhat spoiled, but McKinley didn't notice. He was a Civil War veteran just starting out as a lawyer. One year after they married, Ida gave birth to a baby girl, Kate, who was said to look much like her father. But Kate died when she was only four, and a second child lived only five months. Ida never really recovered. In recent years she had grown exceedingly nervous and only the president seemed able to settle her down.

    New Year's Day, however, as the receiving party moved into place, the press noted that Mrs. McKinley's face was flushed with pleasure. She loved these state occasions. For all the talk about the democratic spirit, there was widespread fascination in 1900 with the American equivalent of court life and the prerogatives of privilege. Newspapers around the country carried in detail exquisite descriptions of the women's gowns, their jewels, the feathered aigrettes worn by congressional wives, the spangled black net dress worn by Mrs. Elihu Root, the wife of the new secretary of the War Department--all was news.

    The popular Russian ambassador, the Count de Cassini, arrived monocled and pomaded in a fur-trimmed tunic and high, polished boots. He was, as usual, accompanied by the mysterious and exotic eighteen-year-old, Mlle Marguerite Cassini. Marguerite served as the ambassador's official hostess and was the subject of great capital gossip. She was always presented as Cassini's beloved niece, when in fact she was his daughter. The Chinese minister, Wu Ting Fang, said to be the cleverest and wittiest after-dinner speaker, appeared in a hat of green and crimson silk, while his elegant wife wore a headdress of black, held in place with magnificent diamond pins. It would be a difficult year for the minister.

    The president greeted the large American military contingent led by General Nelson Miles, the commander of the army. McKinley knew full well that Admiral Dewey, the small and truculent hero of Manila Bay, was furious that he had not been placed at the head of the line, but the president refused to break with tradition. Protocol required naval officers to follow the army, and the admiral found himself in the wake of the youngest army lieutenant in line. The president was bemused by Dewey's discomfort. There was little love between the two and there would be less before the year was over.

    After Alexander Graham Bell and his friend Samuel Langley, the inventor of a fantastic flying machine, had paid their respects, Mrs. McKinley, clearly fatigued, retired to the cramped private quarters on the second floor. The mansion now had electric lighting, a steam heating system, bathtubs with hot and cold running water, an elevator, and a few telephones. But the house had been built as the home and office for the president of a small republic. The country had expanded but the White House had not. The second floor was a jumble--the presidential offices and the McKinleys' private quarters were side by side. Ida rather liked the arrangement. Her husband was seldom our of her sight.

    Eleven secretaries meandered through the halls, often working into the night, and sometimes on Sunday. Next to the telegraph room, the map room, and secretarial offices lay the president's office and the oval library. Down the corridor were five bedrooms, two dressing rooms, and one full bath. In the presidential bedroom, where Mrs. McKinley spent much of her time crocheting, stood two brass postered beds beneath a portrait of Kate. The family dining room and kitchen were on the first floor of the house and officially out of bounds to all but family and personal staff, but aides regularly had to shoo tourists away.

    Tradition required American presidents to remain accessible to the people, and every weekday McKinley was in Washington hundreds of citizens arrived expecting to meet him. In the great East Room, where Mrs. John Adams had once dried the family wash, they gaped at the crystal chandeliers and frayed upholstery and hoped for a casual chat with the president himself. McKinley was a cordial man who seemed to enjoy his role as national host. On New Year's Day, as the official guests were heading off to private receptions, the general public was finally admitted for a presidential smile and handshake. Two hours later, when McKinley left the Blue Room and headed up the stairs to join his wife, aides noted he had greeted 3,354 people.

    Security at the White House was casual, and for the most part had always been so. In all of the Executive Mansion, there was only one guard on duty at night, and he retired early. One of the doorkeepers, Thomas Pendel, was an older man who had served at the White House for over thirty-five years. He had the curious distinction of having seen President Lincoln off to his carriage the night Lincoln left for Ford's Theater and had been working in the White House when President Garfield was assassinated. Pendel would serve for the remainder of McKinley's time.

    A few years back, Senator Mark Hanna, the president's closest advisor, became alarmed when anarchists murdered the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the president of France, and the premier of Spain and were said to be plotting to assassinate every head of state of a Western country. Hanna had added several Secret Service guards to the White House staff, but that winter the anarchists were quiet and the extra guards were gone. Over the course of the coming year, the president's security would again become a concern, and not without reason.

    But if the president worried about security matters he certainly didn't show it. He would continue to take his daily constitutional alone or with a friend. In a New Year's homily, McKinley's pastor had spoken of the promise and splendor of the future. "The radiant angel of Hope," he said, "points to a prospect as glorious as any that greeted the eyes of Moses when he looked upon Canaan, or any that filled St. John with holy rapture as he dreamed of the City of God."

    January 1, 1900, Americans were optimistic and so was the president.


* * *

    In Boston that New Year's Day, the nor'easter that had struck the city early was slowing down the loading of ships in the harbor. Americans had come to depend on reliable weather predictions, but the Weather Bureau had been closed for the holidays, and down at the docks the teamsters had been caught unawares, without time to sharpen the shoes of the horses. Dragging heavy loads up steep and icy inclines to the piers, horses were losing their footing; many slipped and fell.

    Around the hotels that morning, old-time cabbies and hackmen waiting for holiday fares had an unnerving glimpse of the future. The new automobile broughams, enclosed machines from the Cyclorama Electric Vehicle Station, had surprising traction on the snow. Only one out of the dozen working that day broke down, and that was because its battery had run low. When the storm started, drivers were instructed not to fill orders for long-distance duty. Running in snow required extra power and the auto batteries needed to be recharged after every three or four calls. There were still only about eight thousand cars in the country, but as coachmen covered their horses against the chill wind, there were predictions that their days were numbered. The National Biscuit Company's electric wagon were on duty as usual, and so were the Edison Company's two light electric carriages.

    But there was far more dramatic evidence of change in Boston that weekend than a few automachines running in the snow. As long as anyone could remember, Boston had been the city without a New Year's Eve. Traditionally, church services had marked the turn of the year, quiet affairs that ended just after midnight. Bostonians might read about celebrations in New York and all those other noisy cities, but then they would go about their circumspect ways. The Lodges and the Cabots and the Lowells and the Adamses were not about to indulge in raucous display or give license to those who would. At the end of 1899 it was assumed that Bostonians would greet the New Year in the time-honored fashion they had greeted those that came before.

    But as in so many of America's older cities, the population of Boston had changed radically. The old families were now outnumbered by new Americans from Ireland and Italy and eastern Europe, who were transforming the demeanor of the city as well as its demographics. On this New Year's Eve, some hours before midnight, tens of thousands of people were out in the streets. Pope Leo XIII had decreed 1900 a "Jubilee Year"--a holy year, to be celebrated with a midnight mass. Every Catholic church in the area complied. As if caught in some heavenly competition, a more than usual number of Protestant churches scheduled evening services, and New Year's Eve in Boston became a festive occasion.

    So many people came out to church, hundreds had to be turned away. In the Catholic churches, Christmas decorations were still in place, altars were ablaze with lights, choirs sang Haydn's First Mass and the St. Cecilia Mass at midnight services. In the North End, an overflow crowd, mostly Italian, stood in the cold narrow street outside the church door. All over town there were feasts following the services, and Boston streets had never been more lively at two-thirty in the morning. Spoilsport antiquarians, try as they might, could not shut out the sounds; neither heavy damask drapes nor closed shutters quite succeeded.

    The next day, an editorial writer for the Boston Evening Transcript wrote: "We have managed to ignore new years with a characteristically Puritan stubbornness, but we can't rest in any condition forever. The introduction of the midnight mass will prove the entering wedge by which customs that prevail everywhere else in the world may get a footing here."

* * *

    Out in the historic town of Concord, evidence of change was less dramatic. Stone walls marked fields that had been cleared in the seventeenth century. And the elm trees in town were so large that in places their trunks blocked the sidewalks. The roots of the trees had yet to be amputated by the laying of water pipes or sewage lines. But a municipal sewer system was coming and the oil lamps, now tended by two lamplighters every evening, would soon be replaced. Along the snowy roads outside of town, young men appeared for the first time traveling on skis. The custom had just been introduced by Norwegian immigrants who had made and sold the runners to a "progressive" sporting-goods shop in Boston. On meadows that had been neatly shorn were acres of clear ice, where the more adventurous were taking advantage of the wind for "skate sailing."

    In town, in a large wooden house set back from the street on a small rise, the gregarious Democratic congressman from Boston, John F. Fitzgerald, was preparing to return to Washington for the opening of Congress. A Boston paper reported that Fitzgerald and the powerful ward boss from East Boston, P. J. Kennedy, had just attended a Democratic party caucus together. The two men, both sons of Irish immigrants, were longtime friends and political allies. Their families summered together at Orchard Beach, in Maine, a popular seaside resort for Boston's Irish Catholics. It was at Orchard Beach that John's daughter Rose first met Joseph Kennedy. He was seven at the time; she was five.

    Now serving his third term, the ambitious Fitzgerald was well liked by his constituents. For the rest of the year he would do what he could in the Republican-dominated Congress, but after that he would be moving on. He hoped to become mayor of the city. An immigrant's son, he could speak to the new Bostonians. He was one himself.


* * *

    For nine million Americans the first day of January was more than the turn of another year--it was the anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. From New England down throughout the South, African Americans were holding the annual Freedom Day celebrations. In Franklin, Louisiana, three thousand people, most of them country folk, attended services in the new Odd Fellows Hall. One reporter wrote of "the old mothers and fathers bending toward the graves," who had come "from far distance walking on sticks, to hear things concerning their freedom and the struggle they underwent during the days of slavery." They had held these services for thirty-seven years now.

    In Savannah, Georgia, in spite of frigid weather, a grand procession made its way down Liberty Street. Black military units in full dress, carrying arms, and aging black veterans from the Civil War were escorted by students and faculty members from Georgia State Industrial College. In the speeches and the prayers that morning was the sad reflection that while slavery had ended, racism was growing. Captain J. J. Durham, speaking of the new laws designed to keep black men from voting, declared: "Any policy toward the Negro that does not take into account his citizenship is doomed to failure." But Durham also urged black Americans to "seek by all honorable means to live on good terms of peace with their white neighbors."

    In Wilberforce, Ohio, Professor W. S. Scarborough responded to the government's failure to protect her black citizens. There had been over one hundred lynchings the year before and most of the victims had been black men. "Mob law, mob violence, reigns supreme throughout the South.... Our future," Scarborough said, "depends largely on ourselves." In Atlanta, Georgia, at services sponsored by the Negro Literary and Historical Association, a prominent young sociologist, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, spoke on "The Problem of Negro Crime." Du Bois pointed out the limitations of life for black Americans, the frustrations among young men locked out of the workplace because of the color of their skin.

    The closing prayer at the service in Atlanta was listed on the program as "a proclamation of victory." While it was not an easy matter, most African Americans that day were struggling to share in the optimism of their country.

Copyright © 1998 Judy Crichton and the WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1998-10-01:
As we approach the year 2000, it is natural to wonder what life was like in the United States a century ago. This volume, produced to accompany a forthcoming television series of the same title, reminds one of Mark Twain's observation that while history does not repeat itself, it often rhymes. The year was not momentous in itself, and today we recall the presidential election of 1900 not because of the victorious candidate, William McKinley, but because of his running mate, Theodore Roosevelt. Crichton, executive producer of the PBS series The American Experience, offers readers a cross section of life in the United States in 1900, with due attention to the experiences of women and African Americans and intriguing snapshots of people who would gain fame in the 20th century. The result is a pleasant if not incisive overview of the nation as it stood on the verge of a new century. Readers who want an introduction to the year might well find this effort worthwhile.ÄBrooks D. Simpson, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1998-09-21:
In a book meant to accompany November's PBS documentary of the same name, distinguished writer and producer Crichton offers a vivid, beautifully illustrated account of the U.S. at the turn of the century. Crichton views the yearÄwhich included the emergence of the first billion-dollar corporation, the flood at Galveston and the election of New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to the office of vice-president under the doomed William McKinleyÄfrom the perspective of a host of eloquent eyewitnesses. These include the struggling young novelist and socialist ideologue Jack London, the would-be poet Carl Sandburg (then a student at Lombard College in Galesburg, Ill.), high school junior Harry Truman (hoping for acceptance at West Point), and the tubercular poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (the darling of white readers who was dubbed "the black Robert Burns" by the press). Through the accounts of these and other participants, Crichton moves through a period in our history when there was great faith in technology, great prosperity and at the same time great (in fact, increasing) disparity between rich and poor. In short, Crichton insightfully reveals 1900Äwith all its conflicts, hopes and contradictionsÄas a surprisingly accurate reflection of our own bewildering age. Both Crichton's text and numerous images capture the mood of the era and smartly introduce general readers to a key epoch of the American experience. (Nov.) FYI: David Traxel's 1898: The Birth of the American Century (Knopf) was reviewed in Forecasts, April 6. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, September 1998
Publishers Weekly, September 1998
Library Journal, October 1998
Washington Post, December 1998
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