The 1900s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1900s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News



American artists were strongly influenced by the style known as French Impressionism, which reduced solid objects to broad smudges and murky shadows in order to emphasize emotion over precision. This style was praised for its mysterious and romantic quality. Mary Cassatt (1844–1936) is considered the first "pure" Impressionist born in America. She and several other leading American Impressionists were dissatisfied with the conservatism of the art scene and its huge exhibitions that confused viewers with a jumble of various styles. They organized themselves as "The Ten" and agreed to annually and exclusively exhibit their works together. Their goal was to promote American Impressionism to collectors. The style soon spread throughout the nation as regional Impression-ists appeared in Boston, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and San Francisco.

Other artists were inspired by these Impressionists and began to assert the notion that American art should be free from European influences and artificial standards. They challenged Eurocentric (favoring Europe) tastes by adopting the style of Realism, which emphasized realistic subject matter and offered uncompromising depictions of urban life.


At the beginning of the 1900s, much of American literature imitated European literary forms with their refined styles that celebrated romantic rather than realistic experience. William Dean Howells (1837–1920), a novelist, playwright, and critic, is called the "father of American Realism" because he demanded that his work reflect everyday reality. He argued that realistic detail was necessary for strong writing. His characters spoke in the language of the common man, lived ordinary lives, and were psychologically complex. Other writers such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Hamlin Garland, and Theodore Dreiser were even more uncompromising in their depiction of reality. They subscribed to the Naturalistic theory, which held that a writer should adopt an objective view toward the chosen material. Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), considered the century's best example of a naturalistic novel, is an unflinching portrait of a young girl's life of poverty, loneliness, and immorality.

Although several important female and minority authors such as Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) Waddell Chesnutt (1853–1932), wrote books during the decade, most publishers did not choose to offer works whose subject matter would not appeal to a wide readership. Many of these authors achieved the most success by serializing their work (writing weekly or monthly installments printed in national magazines).

The Western was an especially popular genre of literature during this period. Owen Wister (1860–1938) and Zane Grey (1875–1939) became best-selling authors with their novels about cowboy heroes on the vanishing frontier. Native Americans also wrote about their experiences in the West. Among the most prominent was Charles Alexander Eastman (1858–1939), the son of a Sioux father and a white mother, who straddled both cultures and was conflicted in his loyalties. In 1902, he wrote, "The Indian no longer exists as a free man. Those remnants that dwell upon the reservations present only a sort of a tableau, a fictional copy of the past."

Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature

1901René F. A. Sully-Prudhomme, France
1902Theodor Mommensen, Germany
1903Bjornsterne Brornson, Norway
1904Frédéric Mistral, France
1904Jose Echegaray, Spain
1905Henryk Sienkewicz, Poland
1906Giosué Carducci, Italy
1907Rudyard Kipling, Great Britain
1908Rudolph Eueken, Germany
1909Selma Lagerlof, Sweden


The film industry was in its infancy during the first decade of the twentieth century. The earliest films were crudely produced short features presented at penny arcades on kinescopes, hand-turned viewing machines that presented about thirty seconds of action. In 1902, Thomas Tally's Electric Theater in Los Angeles opened its doors, featuring continuous films from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and changing its program every month. It was the first permanent movie theater in the United States. The Electric Theater and other "storefront" movie houses had minimal overhead expenses, as they did not book live acts or musical groups, but they were still financially risky operations.

In 1905, a Pittsburgh storefront theater opened with plush seats, a piano, frequent program changes, and a nickel admission. Audiences flocked to this "nickelodeon," and within four years there were more than four thousand nickelodeons in the country. By 1908, an estimated eighty million nickelodeon tickets were sold every week in America.

Early cinema was less concerned with a film's artistic merit than its financial success. Movie producers made dozens of inexpensive comedies and melodramas dealing with limited subjects. Although a few films attempted to be creative and challenging to a mass audience, the bigger American studios failed to produce longer films on more serious subjects. It was believed a film audience would not sit through a single picture that was longer than fifteen minutes.

Film Pioneers

The early American film industry was centered not in Hollywood but on the East Coast. Several production companies, including Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, and Lublin, competed vigorously. By 1907, the industry had developed standard practices and a three-part structure: production, distribution, and exhibition. The following year the leading companies combined to form the Motion Picture Patents Company, a monopolistic trust that controlled all aspects of the industry. The earliest silent films contained simplistic plots and broad pantomime acting in which actors overemphasized their emotions with dramatic gestures. Still, the industry thrived as audiences filled storefront theaters and nickelodeons to gaze upon the cinema screen.

Silent cinema had a number of problems: static, lifeless scenes; overly simplistic plots; outdoor shots that were frequently ruined by foul weather; and inexperienced performers. Respectable stage performers and vaudeville headliners refused to be seen on screen. Actors who did appear in movies received little acclaim and were paid an average of only five dollars a day. The studios sold the earliest films as "brand" name entertainment in the first years of the century, prohibiting actors' and directors' names from appearing on screen. Production companies feared that interest in the players would detract from interest in the whole product. The star system did not enter the movie industry until the 1910s. Mary Pickford (1893–1979), who later became an international movie star, was originally known only as "The Biograph Comedy Girl." Early in the 1910s film producers recognized the profits and large audiences that stars would attract and soon granted them much publicity.

The Great Train Robbery

Director Edwin Porter' s The Great Train Robbery (1903) is a true landmark in cinema history. Filmed in rural New Jersey and starring Bronco Billy Anderson, it established many of the essential characters, plots, and situations of the Western film genre. Within its ten-minute running time it included a train robbery, a saloon fight, gunplay, and a pursuit on horseback. These conventions were repeated in hundreds of Westerns throughout the century. The film is also noted for its technical achievements. It was one of the longest films of its era and depicted a complicated story line. Porter enhanced his film with such new technological camera tricks as the pan and close-up. He also increased the suspense through skillful editing. The Great Train Robbery was the first indication that film could become a legitimate art form.

While the upper, middle, and working classes all enjoyed films, some Americans claimed the cinema fostered immorality. They complained that unattended children made up a large portion of the audience, as their working-class parents viewed the cinema as a source of cheap childcare. Critics also stated that the darkened theaters were filled with "foreigners," "sailors," and illicit sexual activity. Finally, complaints surrounded the content of the films themselves. Critics said movies displayed vulgar themes, low humor, and titillating scenes. By 1909, the movie industry had created a National Board of Censorship to improve film content, and reformers continued to advocate improved movie house conditions. Despite all these problems, the cinema industry thrived and was aided by creative individuals who nurtured it until it achieved artistic excellence in the following decade.

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The art form that had evolved the most into its own American style by the turn of the century was popular music. A medley of prominent musical forms during the era included jazz, ballads, show tunes, the blues, and ragtime. Music could be heard in all corners of society, from the modest dwellings of immigrants who sang of their homelands to the grand mansions of the cultural elite who patronized the opera and the symphonies. The most important factor affecting music during the 1900s was the rapid expansion of the "music industry," which produced sheet music, instruments, phonographs, and record cylinders intended to promote and play popular songs.

American music during the first decade of the twentieth century was marked by its great diversity. By 1900, the center of the music industry had moved to New York City. Aspiring musicians and composers played their latest tunes for potential performers and agencies in hopes of creating a hit song. Minstrel shows, which presented stereotypically racist displays of African American life, remained popular throughout much of the nation. Still, some black performers such as Bob Cole (1868–1911), James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and J. Rosamund Johnson (1873–1954) were able to break free from the minstrel traditions to produce sophisticated vaudeville shows and Broadway musicals. In 1900, the Johnsons composed "Lift Every Voice and Sing," considered by many to be the African American anthem.

Photography as Art

One of the most influential artists of the decade was photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946). He revolutionized the art world through his attempts to prove that photography was equal to painting as an art form. During the 1890s Stieglitz was a leader of the "pictorial" photography movement, which, like Impressionism, emphasized composition and suggestion over detail. In 1902, he and several fellow photographers formed the Photo-Secession, a group of artists dedicated to advancing pictorial photography. Within a decade the Photo-Secessionists had convinced the artistic establishment that photography was a valid fine art form.

African Americans also played pivotal roles in the development of the blues, jazz, and ragtime, all musical forms that were born in America. Ragtime was the most popular piano rhythm in the 1900s. Its "ragged" syncopated beat captured the public's imagination. Scott Joplin (1868–1917) was a popular composer and became the "Ragtime King."

Both jazz and blues music evolved during the 1900s, largely due to the efforts of African Americans. Although the term "jazz" would not be coined for more than a decade, the improvisational instrumental form probably originated from the parade and funeral music played in New Orleans, Louisiana. Among the most noteworthy players and composers of early 1900s "jazz" were Joe "King" Oliver (1885–1938), a trumpeter and cornet player, and Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885–1942), a pianist. Although many whites scorned jazz, it emerged by the 1920s as a significant African American contribution to American music.

Like jazz, the blues originated from the African American experience following the Civil War. An outgrowth of Mississippi Delta field songs, with their calls and responses, the blues expressed loneliness, woe, humor, and defiance. Although W.C. Handy (1873–1958) published the first blues songs, most historians consider Ma Rainey the bearer of the blues to America through her minstrel performances. Born Gertrude Pridgett (1886–1930), Rainey sang poignant songs that won her acclaim and the title "mother of the blues."

Each of the era's musical forms was distributed across the country primarily through sheet music and player piano rolls. When, in 1902, opera singer Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) recorded ten arias for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company to much acclaim and great sales, the American music industry realized the commercial possibilities of recorded music. Soon nearly every major operatic and popular musical performer was making recordings, and the record industry quickly expanded. By the early 1900s, the record and record player became not a novelty but a necessity, both to those who produced American music and those who wanted to hear it.


Live theatrical performances offered audiences a wide variety of entertainment experiences during the 1900s. The Broadway Theater district in New York City, which was known as "The Great White Way," was the focal point of the American theatrical world. Its artistic merits, however, were not as brilliant as its electrical marquees. Broadway theater consisted largely of sentimental melodramas lavishly produced but weak on plot and character. The New York audiences of the 1900s were middle class, conservative, and reluctant to be disturbed by plots based on real-life social ills. To be successful, a play had to have a big-name star and refrain from displaying vulgar language and risqué situations. Commercial theater productions, which by 1900 were financed almost entirely by a centralized business trust known as the Theatrical Syndicate, were happy to accommodate the audience's demand for style over substance.

Theatrical performances were not limited solely to Broadway, however. Vaudeville shows were attended by members of all economic classes and appeared—via theatrical chains known as circuits—in nearly every town across in the country. Vaudeville shows consisted of jugglers, animal acts, acrobats, magicians, skits, recitations, comics, and ventriloquists. Many popular performers of film, radio, and television got their start in vaudeville.

During the first decade of the twentieth century ethnic and racial stereotyping was common and most minority cultures were presented on stage with something less than dignity. It is not surprising that "The Great White Way" was white in more ways than one in the early 1900s. Although white actors frequently put on black-face makeup to play comedic parts, African American performers were not often seen. Still, some black actors were able to break through the theater's wall of prejudice and become stars. Among them was Bert Williams (1874–1922), who starred in In Dahomey (1903), the first full-length Broadway musical written and performed by African Americans. Other minorities faced similar difficulties on the stage. Asians and Hispanics were virtually nonexistent on Broadway. Other popular theaters catered to immigrant audiences in their native tongues.

Dance was also a lively art form during the 1900s. Like theater, a puritanical sense of decency and decorum had kept dancing under strict control. Americans in general did not appreciate expressive movement of the body. Dance was considered a "common" amusement by the upper classes, and the public dance halls in the first decade of the 1900s were most decidedly of the common sort.


American journalism at the turn of the century had evolved into two distinct camps. The first, symbolized by The New York Times, followed a strict policy of printing only the facts. It took a dispassionate tone and aspired to strict objectivity in its reporting. Its readers, largely people from the upper middle class, needed accurate information to run their businesses and they enjoyed the paper's cultured tone. The second style, known as the New Journalism or yellow journalism, targeted a much broader audience of urban workers. Papers such as Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal sought to entertain their readers with stories rather than to inform them with strictly reported facts.

Tin Pan Alley

The term "Tin Pan Alley" was coined in 1903 to describe the area of New York City on Twenty-Eighth Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue where a jumble of sounds could be heard from every window, while composers pounded on their pianos in search of a hit song. The goal of Tin Pan Alley musicians was to draft a popular song that could be sold nationally as sheet music. The composers attracted a national audience by celebrating current events and popular pastimes through song. Among the best known songs to come from Tin Pan Alley: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1908), "Mary's a Grand Old Name" (1905), "School Days" (1907), and "Why Did I Pick a Lemon in the Garden of Love?" (1909). These and other catchy novelty songs spread across America on sheet music and through performances by "pluggers," singers employed by music publishers to sell the tunes to live audiences.

Between 1895 and 1905 the comic strip evolved into a new art form and newspaper feature. Gradual improvements in color printing presses led publishers, in their attempts to boost circulation, to introduce color supplements in their Sunday editions. Among the most popular comic strips were Hogan's Alley, The Yellow Kid, Buster Brown, and The Katzenjammer Kids. The most significant of these was The Yellow Kid by Richard Outcault (1863–1928). The character, a bald young boy who wore a large yellow nightshirt, became a cultural phenomenon and soon appeared on a flood of merchandise. The boy's nightshirt was also the source of the term "yellow journalism," which was given to the era of newspaper publishing characterized by the rivalry of the Pulitzer and Hearst chains.

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The 1900s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News