Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


EARLY 20TH CENTURY AMERICA

EARLY 20TH CENTURY AMERICA

The following article appears in the Beasley’s Christmas Party student study guide.

The Gilded Era - This is an era of capital accumulation and concentration - an era in which expansion west and the abundance of resources result in tremendous growth.

The period during the late 19th century is known as the Gilded Age. “Gilded” is defined as: “To give an often deceptively attractive or improved appearance to.” Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” in referring to how the advancement of technology had skillfully hidden but not healed the deep scars of the growing nation. Superficially, the country appeared to be doing very well, but in reality life was not so grand. The gap between the rich and the poor grew larger than ever. Many critics lambasted the wealthy business and factory owners for being selfish and accused them of stopping at nothing to attain more wealth while the disadvantaged and uneducated carried on in bleak poverty.

Before the industrial revolution, people attended little if any school because life centered on subsistence farming. With the growth of major cities and the rise of industry, education was reformed and became more commonplace during this new century. Massive immigration, urbanization and greater equality helped to increase the number of children enrolled in school. At the dawn of the 20th century, Americans were better educated than ever before as the country evolved from the struggling agricultural republic into a powerful industrial power.

American industry expanded greatly as the nation assumed a higher income and faster rate of production comparable only to Great Britain. During this time, labor unions were only in their infant stage of development, therefore working conditions were extremely dangerous. While industry boomed, the remaining farmers found themselves in

Child Labor in Industry – In 1907, Legislature set the maximum hours of labor for children to 55 a week and adopted a list of dangerous occupations prohibited to children under 16.

debt. Many of these farmers joined the Populist Party and demanded help from the government for their debts, taxes and other financial issues. Americans addressed the corruption by instituting a number of reforms. Laws were made to improve the working conditions and standardize the operation of industries. Minimum wages were elevated and other labor laws were made to protect workers. As a result, child labor became a crime and working conditions greatly improved. Improvement and equality became pillars of this time in American society as the public was given a stronger voice in the government and minorities were allowed to vote. These legal reforms were a result of the growing social progression of a country eager to improve. They would eventually evolve into the America we know today.

Almost every aspect of life and culture, such as education, literature, fashion, and technology all evolved to create a society that was more sophisticated than ever before. The nation became industrialized and education became much more important. Even the fashion and transportation of the day can be seen as a precursor for what was to come in the later 1900s.

Henry Ford invented the Model T in 1908.

Technology brought with it all sorts of changes to the new century. Many items we use today made their debuts in the first decade of the 20th century. Cars emerged as legitimate vehicles led by the ingenuity of maverick Henry Ford. With this accomplishment, families began their Sunday drives. Windshield wipers were invented in 1903 by Mary Anderson and patented in 1905, making the rainy Sunday drive clearer. The Wright Brothers flew their first gas motor airplane. In 1906, color photography was invented by Louis and Auguste Lumiere. In 1907, another new form of transportation made an appearance – the helicopter was first flown by pilot Paul Cornu. In 1900, the escalator was made. It was first invented by Charles Seeberger. Later, Jesse Reno gave it another look and made some changes to it, and produced the model we are all familiar with today.

At the turn of the century, there were new items that children could enjoy. One of them was the teddy bear, inspired by iconic President Teddy Roosevelt. This toy was based off of the bear from Roosevelt’s “Letter’s to His Children.” A year later crayons were invented by Edward Binney and Harold Smith. A bowl of cereal in the morning became a staple after 1906, when Kellogg Cornflakes first hit store shelves.

Clothing during this new century was a preview of what was to come in the roaring 1920s. Women wore very fancy, elegant clothes and men dressed in a very proper manner. With automobiles making their debut, women’s skirts were cut a bit shorter to make stepping in and out of cars easier. Men’s fashion was also affected by the new ways of getting around, and it became common for them to wear a cap and goggles, which were considered to be the typical driving attire. Women also began to sport shorter haircuts and wear hats.

"The Jungle" (1906)


Many of the finest books published during this time reflected the great changes happening in American society. One important work of literature was The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. In his novel, Sinclair describes the horrible conditions that immigrants worked in and exposed the disgusting practices of the food industry. Other authors like Jack London, Edith Wharton, W.E.B. DuBois and Mark Twain published work during this first decade of the 1900s. Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, came out in 1905. In 1903, The Souls of Black Folk by DuBois was published, and three years later Twain published What is Man? Many of these works became essential to the American canon of literature because they boldly questioned the establishment and were purposely intended to reform the lingering dysfunctions of American society.

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