1900s: The Birth of the American Century

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1900s: The Birth of the American Century

The United States entered the twentieth century during a period of sweeping change. In fact, change and transformation were the norm in the first decade of what has since become known as the "American Century." The United States came to be the leading economic and military power in the world. American democracy became the model for political reform in countries around the world. American publishers, musicians, artists, film makers, and performers of all sorts participated in an outpouring of work that made American popular culture the popular culture of much of the Western world.

The social and economic changes that were sweeping the country were striking. Although it had once been a nation of small towns, rapid changes in living styles led to the concentration of more and more Americans into cities; by 1910, fully 54 percent of the population lived in urban areas. The ethnic makeup of America was changing dramatically as well, as some 8,795,386 immigrants arrived in the United States between 1901 and 1910. This surge in immigration made up a large portion of the 21-percent population growth that occurred in the decade, pushing the country's population from 75,994,575 to 91,972,266.

Many of these new immigrants lived in the major urban centers, where they worked in the giant factories that were beginning to dominate American industry. The United States had once been dominated by small businesses, but a wave of mergers (the combining of businesses) contributed to the growth of what was becoming known as "big business"—the domination of the American economy by huge companies that had branches throughout the nation. The Ford Motor Company (cars), the Standard Oil Company (oil), the United States Steel Corporation (steel), the J. C. Penney Company (retail), and the Philip Morris Corporation (tobacco) were among the largest.

Leading America during this time of change was its youngest president in history, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1858–1919). Speaking about America's role in the world, Roosevelt once told an older opponent: "You and your generation have had your chance. . . . Now let us of this generation have ours!" When elected president William McKinley (1843–1901) was assassinated in 1901, Vice President Roosevelt assumed the presidency. He led the country though an era of political and economic reform known as the "Progressive Era." Progressive reformers tried to tame the growth of big business and sprawling cities by passing laws and creating government organizations to regulate areas of American life; many of those laws and organizations remain intact today. In this decade, the United States also created a more powerful military. The United States began to exert its power overseas, extending its influence in the Caribbean and Latin America and protecting its interests in China and the Far East.

In this era of political, economic, and population change, American popular culture was going through a period of transformation as well. In the nineteenth century, limited transportation and communication networks kept forms of popular entertainment from being spread throughout the country. Newspapers, magazines, and theater were mostly local, not national. But that began to change in the 1890s, when magazine publishers used new technologies to print and distribute hundreds of thousands—and then millions—of their magazines to people across the country. These magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and Argosy, contained a growing number of advertisements for products that were available everywhere, like Kellogg's cereals and Coca-Cola. Syndication—the placing of a single article or comic strip in many independent newspapers—brought comic strips such as Mutt & Jeff and The Katzenjammer Kids into homes across the country. The Sears, Roebuck and Company also took advantage of printing advances to send catalogs offering its goods to people all over the land.

Older forms of entertainment still thrived in America. Buffalo Bill Cody (1846–1917) and his Wild West Show, a sensation in the nineteenth century, toured America. Smaller circuses visited towns big and small. But a new media began to take hold in the 1900s: film. The groundbreaking silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903) thrilled audiences with its realistic portrayal of a train robbery and helped drive the growth of nickelodeons, storefront theaters that showed the latest short silent films. For as little as a nickel, Americans could see the latest films from the nation's growing movie studios.

Advances in technology and innovation changed American popular culture, but widespread racism kept African Americans from joining in the growth of cultural activity. In fact, one popular form of entertainment—the minstrel show—was based on negative stereotypes of African Americans. The national forms of popular culture—magazines, advertising, films, sports, and book publishing—mostly excluded African Americans. There were, however, some notable exceptions. Black boxer Jack Johnson (1878–1946) gained national fame when he beat a white boxer to gain the heavyweight championship; the ragtime tunes of African American composer Scott Joplin (1868–1917) were some of the most popular sheet music of the decade; and in towns across the South, Negro baseball leagues began to produce players every bit as talented as those in white baseball leagues, from which black players were excluded. It would be years, however, before African Americans were welcome participants in American popular culture.

The advances of the decade—and the century—allowed Americans to share a truly national popular culture in ways they never had before. They could read the same magazines and novels, go to the same movies, and buy the same brands of food, toys, and cars. In the 1900s, Americans drank out of Dixie cups, drove a Ford Model T, ate in local diners, read National Geographic, took pictures with their new Brownie cameras, and drank Coke. American kids ate Kellogg's cereals for breakfast, played baseball with a Louisville Slugger bat, chewed gum and ate Cracker Jack popcorn, and went to bed at night with a companion named after their popular president, the teddy bear. This sharing of a common culture was just beginning. In the coming decades of the century, American culture would be further influenced by the movies, radio programs, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment that would provide enjoyment to people living in all regions of the country.

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1900s: The Birth of the American Century