For New Year’s Eve 1900, New Yorkers pulled out all the stops to welcome the new century with fireworks, a lineup of bands and speakers, and blazing displays of electric lights. It all followed a mountain of hype in the media about the coming of the 20th century and the passing of the 19th.
It’s 100 years later. A few cities are planning big celebrations.
By and large, though, we’ve been there, done that.
Like us, our 1800 and 1900 ancestors aired the debate on the start of the new century. And like us, scientists and scholars insisted upon the conclusion that the new century begins in a year ending with the number one.
But perhaps 1900 was a more deferential time. Back then, the scholars won out, and the media and public actually had the patience to wait until 1901 for their big blowouts.
The hype buildup was distinctly old-fashioned — coming in that pre-electronic age via newspapers, magazines, books, cartoons and bombastic poetry and prose.
But fundamentally, it came in forms many of today’s citizens will recognize: Newspapers in December 1900 and early January 1901 ran historical reviews and timelines of the past century, then-and now comparisons, best-of lists, and reminiscences of centenarians. Pundits and authors thought of clever names for the nineteenth century, including “the people’s century,” “the wonderful century,” “the scientific century,” “a Titanic century,” “the era of astronomical discovery” and “a turning point in the history of the world.”
They also looked ahead, publishing future visions of New York, and predicting that in the next 100 years we’d live longer, and be taller, healthier and more beautiful in every way. They especially liked to dream about what many felt was sure to be a wonderful time — the year 2000.
Book stores and news stands of 1900 were probably stocked futuristic utopian novels and magazine articles on where to best greet the changing of the epochs. With competing papers screaming for attention several times a day in most large cities, the volume must have been downright millennial.
Our ancestors could hardly avoid the new century thoughts of writers such as Emile Zola, H.G. Wells and Mark Twain.
The hype was enough to make an editorial writer for The Philadelphia Press sound weary: “No century has ever sunk into the crypts of eternity whose going has been marked by such pomp and circumstance, such outpouring of human effort in thought and action to note the event, as the century whose last days we are now recording,” read the Dec. 23, 1900 editorial. “And no century has ever issued from the womb of time whose advent has aroused the high expectation, the universal hope, as that which the midnight litanies and the secular festivals but eight days hence will usher in.”
There even were signs of an anti-media backlash. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World worried over celebrity responses to a survey on potential twentieth century dangers. Many said the biggest danger to society was the media.
The crescendo came with 1901, but the drumbeat started as early as 1888 when Edward Bellamy scored a critical and popular smash with Looking Backward, a novel about a man who time traveled to the blissful socialist utopia of millennial Boston. Although largely forgotten today, Looking Backward spawned a sequel and dozens of imitations well into the 1890s.