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1878-1899: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview

1878-1899: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview

The Gilded Age. The years between 1878 and 1899 were a soul-searching time for Americans, as they examined the basic values they lived by. Middle-class white women became interested in social causes such as helping the urban poor, promoting temperance or prohibition of alcohol, and winning suffrage, or the right to vote, for themselves. Racial tensions worsened in the South, and the ongoing bloody conflict with Native Americans ended with the surrender of the Lakotas in 1891. Millions of immigrants arrived in the United States. Bringing with them new customs, foods, and points of view, they contributed to the political and social conflict of the day. Despite great hostility from whites, Chinese immigrants in the West built the railroad system that linked the East and the West, and then they stood by powerless as new immigration restrictions prevented them from bringing their families to America. Racial, ethnic, and class conflict prompted widely discussed books claiming with authority that nonwhites were genetically inferior. Insecure whites were frightened that the social gains they had managed after the Civil War would be lost if nonwhites were treated as equals. The result was a society rushing into an uncertain future with fearful, yet hopeful, anticipation.

Nationalization. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century Americans began to think of themselves as having a national identity, with their own distinct culture and institutions. The national rail system allowed people and goods to move freely from region to region; mass-circulation magazines and professionally edited newspapers kept their readers informed of what other Americans were thinking and doing; changing methods of business and manufacturing brought similar foods, clothing, and furniture to Americans throughout the country. The newly emerging field of advertising encouraged Americans to seek similar lifestyles, and mail- order houses such as Montgomery Ward (founded in 1872) and Sears, Roebuck (founded in 1886) offered them the opportunity to fulfill their dreams with the same goods at the same prices no matter where they lived. Americans began to think more alike too, as voluntary and professional associations fostered a sense of belonging beyond the local community, and editorial writers helped to forge national points of view on issues. Before the Civil War the noun United States took a plural verb; by the end of the nineteenth century the United States was.

Public Transportation. The urban population soared after the Civil War. Generally, an urban territory was defined by the census bureau as a city or town with more than eight thousand residents. Between 1860 and 1890 the number of urban territories in the United States more than tripled, and the number of cities with more than fifty thousand residents increased from sixteen to fifty-eight. Cities could be very unpleasant places to live. Plumbing was primitive; transportation was nonmotorized before about 1880, when the largest cities began installing in-city trains and trolleys; and electricity was scarcely available before 1890. The development of steam and electric public transportation offered a solution to the problems of city living for many Americans. As public transportation enabled more people to live farther away from where they worked, suburbs sprouted up along trolley lines.

Everyday Life. Homeowners in cities and suburbs were introduced to running water, gas, electricity, and sewer systems. Public places such as schools, stores, restaurants, and government offices were the first lighted by electricity, a service that became increasingly available in the 1890s. There were only 120 electric generating plants in the entire country in 1890, but they increased tenfold during the decade. The benefits of electricity were especially evident in the new department stores and five- and-ten-cent stores. These stores offered Americans an entirely new way to shop and introduced them to a dizzying array of gadgets that could take advantage of the new utilities available to them. Practicality gave way to material fascination as consumerism became an increasingly powerful force in American life.

More Food, More Variety. The cross-country rail- roads played a large role in the development of a national food market. Thanks to refrigeration cars, first used in the 1870s, Florida grapefruits and California avocados could be bought anywhere in the country that was connected to the rail system. New Yorkers ate fruit from California and meat slaughtered in Chicago. Scheduling deliveries was a nightmare, though, because there were eighty different time zones throughout the nation. In 1883 U.S. railroad interests petitioned the federal government to establish four standard U.S. time zones to help ensure that goods could get to market predictably. Despite the emergence of a reliable, national food delivery system and national marketing of brand-name products, people refused to abandon regional and ethnic food preferences. For instance, southerners still enjoyed their traditional fried chicken, cornbread, and black-eyed peas, but they also began to eat Armour smoked sausage from Chicago.

Gold Fever. No event epitomized the American dream of wealth like the Klondike gold rush of 1898 and 1899. Men from all over the country left their jobs in droves, spending their last dollar on supplies for the long trip to the gold fields in the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory of northwestern Canada, where they expected to strike it rich. So many Americans set out for the trip that roads leading to San Francisco, the jumping-off point for the long trip north, were gridlocked for months at a time. The long journey, which usually involved taking a ship from San Francisco to the Alaskan panhandle and then embarking on a long, overland trek through the mountains to Dawson in the Yukon Territory, took the better part of a year. The journey to Dawson, the epicenter of the gold fever, was harder than most had dared to imagine. The harsh weather, swindlers, robbers, bad luck, and mental anguish proved too much for many, who died in their quest or despaired of realizing their dream. Yet, for some there was a pot of gold at the end of the trail, and, surprisingly, other found reward enough in the adventure of living in a wilderness outpost.

Redefining Womens Work. Between 1878 and 1899 educated white women invented new roles for themselves. As colleges and universities opened their doors to women, they helped to create a new generation of professional women. When many of these female college graduates had difficulty finding employment in traditional jobs, they created meaningful careers for themselves addressing the needs of the new society. The settlement houses that sprang up in lower-class urban neighborhoods during the 1880s were staffed almost exclusively by educated white women attempting to address the human toll of industrialization through direct aid and education. The Womans ChristianTemperance Union (WCTU), established in 1874, campaigned to end the ill affects of alcohol on families, lobbying for a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages nation- wide. With president Frances Willards Do Everything philosophy, WCTU activists branched out to address other pressing social issues, including poverty, child abuse, and unsafe labor conditions. Activist women also fought for a voice in electoral politics, applying methods learned in other movements in the battle for woman suffrage, which was finally won with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Fashion. As women began to work outside the home and both men and women became more active, clothing styles were simplified. While middle- and upper-class American men and women continued to take fashion cues from London and Paris, mens fashions were more distinctively American than those worn by American women. Appearing to be fit became equated with masculinity and mens clothing was designed to emphasize the masculine silhouette. By the 1890s women were becoming increasingly concerned with practical dress, and they gave up the uncomfortable, awkward styles that characterized high fashion immediately after the Civil War. With the increased availability of ready-made, machine-manufactured clothing, people began to dress with more similarity than before the Civil War, when homemade garments were common. Department stores and mail-order catalogues marketed garments nationally, and Americans of all regions and social classes bought them. Reasonably priced ready-made clothing also helped new immigrants to blend in and look American.

Racism and Nativism. Rascism and xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, plagued the country in the years between 1878 and 1899. As more and more immigrants arrived, American anxieties and animosities increased. Hate groups mushroomed as many blamed foreigners and nonwhites for economic hard times. People found comfort with others who looked and believed as they did, and they feared outsiders. Religious prejudice was common, especially against Jews and Catholics, and ethnic groups bound together to resist their enemies. Though the Ku Klux Klan was formally disbanded in 1869, local groups continued to be active. When the Democrats resumed their political control over the South after Reconstruction ended in 1877, there was an upsurge in the lynching of blacks, to the horror of many. African American journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett inaugurated a campaign to stop lynching. She wrote and spoke so movingly about the problem that she made people around the world aware of it, and as a result reformers from other countries added their voices to the campaign against racial prejudice in America. During the same period the federal government pursued a policy of stripping all property rights from Native Americans, first herding them onto reservations and then chipping away at those lands until they were all but ravaged.

The American Character. Americans suffered from growing pains in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. It was a time when national ideals were questioned, when the ringing pronouncements of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution were put to the test. The Gilded Age is characterized as a time of excess, when wealthy and powerful industrialists reigned without limits and created modern society after patterns of their own design. But it was also a time when Americans developed a social conscience. Led by women seeking to fulfill their role in modern life, people came to terms with the problems of racial injustice, child child abuse, immigration, alcoholism, and suffrage. By the end of the century the everyday life of almost every person in the country had been changed dramatically by new gadgets and inventions, but so had the character of the nation changed as people began to face up to the responsibilities of prosperity and power.

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