1900's New Century Hype Was Millennial

December 29, 2000, 1:29 PM

Dec. 31, 2000 — -- 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.

Non-fiction thought also looked forward with wonder amid astounding inventions. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago showed off breakthroughs such as electricity, the telephone, the phonograph and carbonated soft drinks, and hinted at the face of America’s future.

The exposition also inspired a press syndicate to ask noted personalities to gaze a century ahead. Starting in March 1893 in weekly newspapers around the country, ex-Sen. John J. Ingalls estimated that “the journey from New York City and San Francisco … and from New York City to London … will be made between sunrise and sunset of a summer day,” because “it will be as common for the citizen to call for his dirigible balloon as it now is for his buggy and boots.” Mary Lease, a newspaper columnist, believed, “We will hold communication with the inhabitants of other planets, and Sunday excursions to the mountains of the moon will not excite comment.”

If you don’t recognize Ingalls or Lease, you’re not alone. The 1996 edition of The Cambridge Biographical Dictionary boasts “over 14,000 entries,” but they and most of their co-contributors aren’t among them. Maybe John Habberton, a then-popular novelist and playwright, sensed their fate. He recklessly guessed, “all the forests will be gone,” illness will be eliminated and “all marriages will be happy”, then added: “Perhaps I am wrong in some of these prophecies. But if so I shall not be here to be twitted with it, now will I?”

He was wrong, even about the last part: The 1893 series resurfaced a century later in the book, Today Then: America’s Best Minds Look 100 Years Into the Future on the Occasion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, making it part of the hype ending both centuries.

Throughout the 1890s, a stream of magazine articles kept twentieth century fever alive.

Overland Monthly dubbed its June 1890 issue the “Twentieth Century Number.” The edition analyzed Looking Backward, and wrote of “Farming in the Year 2000,” “The Future of Industrialism,” “A Hero of the Twentieth Century” and “Pictures Out of the Future.”

In 1896, The Saturday Evening Post described the thoroughly electrified “Dwelling-House of the Twentieth Century.” It rested on stilts for air circulation and freedom from rats and roaches. Lighting, heating and cooling systems would adjust themselves automatically. Elevators would replace stairs. And electricity, drawn from water power, even “might be made to agitate the baby’s cradle, … only that people in 1950 have learned to know that infants are apt to be rendered stupid, or even idiotic, by rocking them.”

In 1900, Living Age aired the debate — familiar also to pre-millennial citizens — over whether the new century really began in 1900 or 1901. The apparent verdict then, unlike today, was to wait until 1901. “All hail the Twentieth Century!” declared a writer in The Independent on Jan. 3, 1901. Other magazines affirmed the toast.

With general agreement that the century really began in 1901, not 1900, most newspapers welcomed it on their New Year’s Day front pages.

Several also promoted “twentieth century” Sunday sections packed with analysis of their society’s place in history, 19th-century summing-ups, charts comparing 1800’s technology to 1900’s, and predictions about life during the twentieth century and at the millennium, a magic moment even then.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s section had best-of lists for the century. The big winner was Charles Darwin. Seven of nine pundits named him, his theory and his books among the century’s ten greatest. Eight of the nine listed Abraham Lincoln and Otto von Bismarck among the greatest people, but fewer listed their accomplishments.

Other papers eschewed the special sections, but not the idea, devoting pages to new century articles and predictions.

The Dec. 23 Philadelphia Press ran 11 head shots across page one, under the banner headline, “Men And Women Of Mark Foretell A Century’s Changes.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer countered the next Sunday with an inside page of predictions from more famous experts, including William Jennings Bryan, Booker T. Washington and Andrew Carnegie.

The Washington Post’s “Glance Into The New Century,” forecast radio, solar energy, commuter airlines and a 600 mph train to whisk passengers from Washington to Chicago in 70 or 80 minutes.

The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times serialized the story, “Perchance To Dream: A Romance In The Year 2000,” right into the new century, and the Tribune ran a children’s column cautioning against being a bad boy in 2000.

As a group, though, New York’s papers made the most new-century noise. At least five of the eight most popular mainstream dailies — The World, The Journal, The Herald, The Tribune and The Brooklyn Eagle — ran special Sunday pullout sections.

Pulitzer’s World, pioneer of “yellow journalism,” probably screamed the loudest.

A full-page ad in the Dec. 23 edition advertised a “20th Century Number of the Sunday World.” It was billed as a “Special Supplement Illustrated In Colors and In Halftone: The Greatest List of Special Contributors Ever Appearing in Any Newspaper or Magazine.” The ad said the next Sunday’s paper would hold the thoughts of the writer and activist Emile Zola, ex-President Grover Cleveland, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland and a long list of others. Ads continued throughout the week.

On Saturday, another large ad promised a second special section-”A Pictorial Forecast For the Coming Generations; New York in 1999, A Look 100 Years Ahead,” with “Splendid Double-Page Illustrations … Printed in Colors.”

Sunday arrived. A fold-out illustration of the future showed bridges and zeppelin-like airships soaring over New York City. A mass-transit official explained, “To us, the airship seems impossible, but is it any more wonderful to travel in the air than it is to travel under water in the submarine boats? Air is man’s natural element and water is not.” Retail magnate Henry Siegel predicted a “moving staircase” would cause “a revolution in department stores.”

Zola hit a pervasive fin-de-siecle theme-socialism. He predicted “great rents … in the social fabric” would lead to rapid social change, morally uplifting humanity by eliminating inheritances, evenly distributing wealth, stamping out corruption, and caring for exploited laborers, the poor and the sick.

“Despite our self-satisfied bumptiousness mankind is still piteously groping after real civilization,” he wrote, “like a tangled mass of larvae tumbling and crawling out of some dark, slimy cavern toward the light.”

When archivists transferred The World to microfilm decades later, it lacked the much-ballyhooed twentieth century section. But a similar, perhaps nearly identical section-today torn, tattered and poorly preserved in black and white on microfilm-appeared in Pulitzer’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That’s how we know Cleveland suggested national popular elections of presidents to six-year terms, Bernhardt was “ready to wager” romanticism would prove more popular than realism, and Queen Wilhelmina, Europe’s youngest sovereign, thought the institution of the monarchy was secure.

The Dec. 23 “Twentieth Century number” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal also is missing from the microfilm record, but his role in feeding new century fever is clear. Articles promised in the Journal appeared in Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, and more new century features ran the following Sunday. Plus, Hearst’s papers found all sorts of excuses to tie routine stories to the new century, no matter how tenuous the connection.

Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s new century shouting contest extended well beyond the special sections. They even blasted their gadget-filled new century excitement in full color all over their Sunday comic sections, and battled for new-century high ground on their front pages.

In late December 1900, the New York Journal proclaimed itself “The Twentieth Century Newspaper” in boxes at the top of page one. And the banner headline clear across Dec. 27’s cover was not a news story, but, “Light! — Welcome the New Century — Light!” part of a Hearst publicity stunt. The subhead explained: “The Journal Asks All Citizens of New York to Illuminate Their Homes Monday Midnight as a Welcome to the Twentieth Century.”

Not to be outdone, Pulitzer invited Alfred Harmsworth, hotshot editor of The London Daily Mail, to edit The World on Jan. 1, 1901, and ran a page-spanning advance promotion at the top of his Sunday front. He described the booklet-scaled result as “An Epoch-Marking Experiment in Twentieth-Century Journalism.” It may have been America’s first “tabloid”—a new type of paper for a new age.

Wild stunts, screaming headlines, fantastic speculation and singsong poetry might be expected among yellow journalism combatants like Hearst and Pulitzer, but other New York newspapers also got swept up. Even the highbrow New York Tribune crafted a special section.

The Herald contained a new-century/millennium staple-recollections of the century by centenarians who lived the whole 100 years. They reflected upon slavery, the growth of Brooklyn from a rural village, and ancient military service-in the War of 1812, the Texas war for independence, the Mexican War and the Civil War. One even claimed to be 129 years old and remember Washington’s army camped at Valley Forge.

In some circles, the new age’s rapid pace was not necessarily cause for celebration.

“So rapidly have the appliances of civilization multiplied during the last half of the nineteenth century that it has been difficult to keep pace with the progress from year to year,” The Los Angeles Times whined on New Year’s Day. “Everything, seemingly, is in a transition state. The improvement of today may be obsolete tomorrow.”

With that in mind, The Baltimore Sun’s Dec. 29 editorial called for refinement before technology: “The twentieth century will do an excellent work if it shall make no more discoveries or inventions of any kind, but shall utilize for the good of all men the discoveries and inventions of the nineteenth, and more especially if it shall develop the moral and intellectual forces to keep pace with those material forces that the present century has set to work.”

Nevertheless, new century fever continued. In January 1902’s Atlantic Monthly, the economist John Bates Clark described a millennium celebration in a vastly expanded New York City and digressed to review the social and political history of the twentieth century. Around 1903 in Women’s Home Companion, Hudson Maxim talked of “Inventions That Ought to be Invented.” And starting in June 1901, The North American Review serialized H.G. Wells’ six-part “Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophecy,” where the author predicted self-cleaning house windows and superhighways.

Wells later published Anticipations as a book, perhaps sparking a trend. The New York Times reviewed George S. Morison’s similar-sounding The New Epoch in 1904 and T. Baron Russell’s A Hundred Years Hence: The Expectations of An Optimist in 1906.

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