Change and Politics
What Were U. S. Citizens Concerned About 100 Years Ago? Studying politics involves studying change – change in governments, laws, and political-social attitudes and opinions. An examination of public attitudes held by U. S. citizens 100 years ago reveals that our counterparts 100 years ago had much to worry about:
Air pollution. Filthy air seemed an inevitable part of city living. In 1881, New York’s State Board of Health found that air quality was compromised by fumes from sulfur, kerosene, manure, ammonia, and other smells, producing “an inclination to vomit.” The term smog was coined soon after the turn of the century, in 1905.
Crowding. Busy city streets were hazardous. Pedestrians risked injury from trolleys and carriages. Indeed, Brooklyn’s beloved baseball team (the Trolley Dodgers) took its name from a dangerous, but unavoidable, urban practice of competing for scarce space with speeding trolleys.
Food impurities. Americans of the late nineteenth century often found interesting additives in their basic foodstuffs. Milk, for example, was likely to contain chalk or plaster of Paris, in that both items could improve the appearance of milk produced from diseased cattle. Drunk cows were another problem. Distilleries often used waste products from whiskey production as cattle feed; milk from these cows could contain enough alcohol to intoxicate babies who consumed the milk.
Epidemics. Smallpox and malaria were two diseases threatening Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Women and men were vulnerable to these predators and were often fearful of losing their lives to diseases they could neither understand nor be assured of protection against.
Race relations. Racism was pervasive as the twentieth century approached. Violence against African-Americans was widespread. Lynchings of African-Americans reached record numbers in the 1890s and declined with the turn of the century;
from 1882 to 1968, however, 4,743 (of whom 3,446 were African-American) Americans were murdered by lynching.
Family stability. In the years around 1900, approximately 20 percent of American children lived in orphanages because their parents were too poor to provide for them. In other families, children worked in factories and mines to supplement unstable family incomes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately one-fourth of the employees in textile mills in the southern United States were children.
Household budgets. Some historians have described the last half of the nineteenth century as the age of the “robber barons,” as millionaires such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller assumed positions of power and influence. As the nineteenth century closed, the gap between rich and poor was vast, as average Americans struggled and saved to pay their bills. Indeed, more than 80 percent of the country’s wealth was controlled by just over 10 percent of the nation’s households in 1890.
Progress. X-rays, telephones, record players, electric lighting, combustible engines – these and other inventions from the late nineteenth century promised to change life in the twentieth century. Americans had hopes that the changes would be for the good, as seen, for instance, in the optimism surrounding the World Fairs at which many of these inventions were showcased. At the same time, the new inventions could shock and frighten.