ALL THINGS ‘NEW’
The difficulties of the Philippine insurrection notwithstanding, the enduring and unquestioned significance of the Spanish-American War was in ushering the United States onto the world stage as a powerful participant. America’s isolationist attitude was dissipating, even though “it would rear its head again” during the years between World Wars I and II. As one historian has written, “placid, insular America was gone.”60 What began as an American humanitarian crusade to liberate Cuba resulted in new and wholly unanticipated obligations for United States in colonial administration, “for which there were few precedents in the national experience.”61
That such a decisive and enduring transformation should occur during the late 1890s seems, in retrospect, not especially surprising. The fin-de-siècle period was, broadly speaking, a time of decisive transition in American life and in American journalism. And Americans were well aware of the transitory nature of the late 1890s. “That we are living in an era of change is not to be doubted,” David A. Curtis wrote in TheJournalist trade publication in April 1898. “Political, commercial, social, artistic and religious customs that have stood for many years—some for many centuries—are yielding place to new more rapidly than they have for many generations past. Scientific discovery, popular education, free thought and business enterprise are all factors in the change.”62 Curtis’ claims carried no small measure of hyperbole. But they nonetheless suggested the sense of change that buffeted and challenged Americans at the end of the nineteenth century.
“New” was the zeitgeist of the 1890s, finding expression in Art Nouveau, the New Woman, the New Politics, the New Hedonism, the New Drama, and the New Journalism. New was so widely applied that even redundant phrases such as “new inventions” were in circulation.63 But there was ample justification for such generous application. New certainly defined the emergent options in transportation and popular entertainment, notably the automobile and the cinema. Harper’s Weekly, which at first called the automobile the “automotive,” declared in March 1897 that the “automotive has appeared in the streets of New York.” The magazine added:
It is a rare sight still, and people pay attention when it passes. Pedestrians stop and gawk at it. Streetcar passengers rise and look out of the windows. No one hesitates to show interest. Several of the new-fangled vehicles are in circulation, and each, so far as observed, usually carries at least one woman. They don't seem to excite either rivalry or apprehension in horses. One was seen the other day to pass a horse attached to a dray standing for the moment unattended on Fifth Avenue. It made the necessary détour to get by, and passed under the horse's nose within a yard of him, but he paid no attention. It appears not to be contrary to any city ordinance to ride in automotives on Sunday, and that is as yet the favorite day for airing them.64
Even before the introduction of the automobile, New York City in the 1890s had become a famously congested place, “continually in want of new methods of transit from one part of the city to the other, and to the neighboring cities,” as a guidebook noted in 1895. In “morning and night all the public conveyances up and down town are over-crowded, so that more are earnestly needed.”65
Widespread consumer use of automobiles was just a few years away. The automobile’s immediate predecessor as the popular and innovative mode of transportation was the safety bicycle. Innovations allowed for a bicycle of equal size wheels to be easily ridden and steered. By the mid-1890s, a cycling craze was sweeping the country, marking “the first and last time [that] a generation had discovered the joys of bicycling only upon reaching adulthood.”66 Men and women took eagerly to what they called “the wheel.” Century runs—bicycle outings of 100 miles—became fashionable. Double and triple century runs were not unheard of, either.
So popular were bicycle outings on Sundays that newspaper sales those days were reduced. Sales of Sunday editions of Boston newspapers were reportedly off by several thousand issues in the spring of 1895.67
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60. Musicant, Empire by Default, 597.
61. Trask, The War with Spain, 483.
62. David A. Curtis, “Yellow Journalism,” The Journalist ( 23 April 1898): 19.
63. See Asa Briggs, “The 1890s: Past, Present and Future in Headlines,” in Asa Briggs and Daniel Snowman, eds., Fins de Siecles: How Centuries End, 1400–2000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 175.
64. E. S. Martin, “This Busy World,” Harper’s Weekly ( 13 March 1897):247
65. Handy Guide to New York City, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Other Suburbs (Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally, 1895), 27.
66. Lubow, Reporter Who Would Be King, 135.
67. See “Note and Comment,” Fourth Estate ( 23 May 1895): 6.