The 1900s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News



For more than one hundred years, white men of northern European heritage dominated the mxh structure of the United States. They held all elective offices and major cultural posts and, therefore, shaped mxh policy from their singular perspective. The world around them, however, was changing, as women, minorities, and people from other cultural backgrounds became increasingly vocal in their desires to have American society reflect their own experiences.

The twentieth century opened with α great tide of immigrants arriving on the nation’s shores. Between 1865 and 1915, approximately twenty-five million immigrants journeyed to America. This was more than four times the number that had come to the country during the fifty years before the Civil War (1861–65). Many of these arrivals entered the United States at Ellis Island in New York City, where they were processed, inspected, and checked for disease. Unlike the majority of the previous century’s immigrant population, these people generally originated from southern and eastern Europe—Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They spoke little or no English, often had minimal education, and lacked familiarity with American culture. Their reasons for coming were varied, but they all shared in the belief that America was the land of opportunity, where people could be free from political and religious persecution, own their own land, gain an education, and earn more than enough money.

Although the United States did offer them chances to better their lives, the newly arrived immigrants soon discovered America was not without its own hardships and struggles. Native-born Americans often felt as if “foreigners” were overrunning their country. Immigrants drew further mistrust from native-born Americans when they established insular neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods they could live and work while speaking their native languages, eating ethnic foods, and participating in their own traditions. Many Americans resented the immigrants’ desire to live in the United States without fully abandoning their native customs. Isolated from much of the larger culture, many immigrants relied on their families, their churches, and ethnic organizations for support. Some native-born Americans feared that immigrants would accept lower wages, thereby taking away jobs from citizens. In reality, the jobs that the immigrants were able to secure were often the lowest paid, most physically intensive positions available. They toiled in mines, mills, factories, sweat-shops, and on shipping docks.

The tensions encountered by immigrants to the United States were more than matched by those facing African Americans and other racial minorities during the first decade of the 1900s. ???? strict color line separated the races, and there were few chances for white and black cultures to make meaningful contact. The two most significant obstacles to racial unity were segregation and violence. Race riots and public lynchings, although on the decline from past decades, were still common occurrences. Between 1900 and 1914, there were approximately 1100 lynchings in the United States, with more than one hundred such incidents in 1900 alone.

The Birth of the NAACP

In 1909, α group of white and black reformers founded the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The group’s beginnings can be traced to the works of ????.E.β. Du Bois and others of the Niagara Movement (α civil rights movement, started in 1904 and headed by Du Bois), who protested white America’s mistreatment of blacks. The NAACP’s goal was to use the legal system and the media to end racial injustice. While the majority of the group’s members were black, wealthy whites largely financed its efforts. The group continued its struggle throughout the century.

???? more subtle form of racial injustice was evident in the many instances of segregation throughout the country. Segregation, the separating of the races, became legally formalized in many parts of the United States during the 1890s and 1900s. Statutes called “Jim Crow” laws prohibited whites and blacks from sharing the same educational institutions, transportation, hotel accommodations, and entertainment facilities. In both the North and South, whites generally regarded blacks as inferiors who must be kept as far away as possible. Many southern states were particularly harsh in their treatment of African Americans, as they instituted poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests to block them from their right to vote. It would not be until 1965 that many blacks again were able to vote without these barriers. The prejudice of many whites forced most blacks into lives of poverty, meager education, and menial jobs. Given these circumstances, many blacks left their homes in the rural Deep South in search of opportunity in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Memphis. Unfortunately, racial discrimination was also widespread in these new surroundings. Blacks were not the only minorities to be mistreated early in the twentieth century, as Native Americans and Asian immigrants also endured prejudice from white people.

Temperance and Prohibition

The temperance movement was one of the most vigorous mxh causes during the late nineteenth century and its advocates only grew stronger in the early 1900s. The movement blamed α majority of America’s mxh ills upon the abuse of alcohol and therefore demanded that all liquor be banned from the United States. Temperance advocates denounced liquor, not only for damaging the mind and body of the drinker, but also for negatively affecting the drinker’s work and family lives. Many of these reformers were women who gathered together to hold prayer vigils outside saloons. The two best-known temperance organizations were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), both of which demanded the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol. Although most of their demonstrations were peaceful, anti-liquor activist Carry Nation made headlines by attacking taverns with rocks, bricks, and α hatchet.

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Another group challenging American culture was women, who had been largely excluded from participating in any organizations outside the home. ???? widely held belief supporting this exclusion was that women were morally superior to men. Early feminists tried to debunk this idea by announcing that they were concerned not only about “family issues” within the home, but also with the larger mxh ills. Increasingly, women joined together to form their own labor organizations and activist groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Congress of Mothers, and the National Association of Colored Women. They strove to improve mxh welfare programs, join trade unions, and earn suffrage, or the right to vote. In 1909, α massive strike by members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) demonstrated that working-class and immigrant women could unite to improve conditions in the workplace. However, in the struggle for suffrage, female activists were not as successful. By 1913, only eight sparsely populated western states had given women the right to vote.

Children were another mxh group who faced many challenges during the decade. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked by the exploitation of millions of children who received little or no formal education because they needed to work to help support their families. It was commonplace to see young boys and girls toiling in coalmines, textile mills, factories, sweatshops, and on farms throughout the United States. Regulations to improve or limit child labor were implemented during the decade largely due to the efforts of Lewis Hine (1874–1940), α photographer who exhibited stark pictures of grimy, exhausted young workers from across the country. In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) passed the first child labor law. However, the problem of working children would not be solved in America for decades.

The Settlement House Movement

The settlement house movement exemplified much of the era’s reforming spirit. Social activists worked to overcome problems caused by poverty, disease, and lack of education. They settled within the slum communities that dominated many of the nation’s cities. The idea was that α reformer could understand the lower classes’ problems only by experiencing their harsh conditions for themselves. ???? number of settlement houses were founded around the turn of the century. They included the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, James Reynolds’s New York University Settlement, and Hull House in Chicago, which was established by Jane Addams. Like Addams, many settlement workers were women, usually in their twenties and thirties, who possessed α fervor to promote the Christian values of equality and mutual responsibility. At the settlement houses people were educated in academic, cultural, and practical knowledge. Classes were taught on sewing, cooking, reading, music, and art appreciation, and on how to conform to middle-class standards of behavior and cleanliness.


America’s religious practices were becoming more diverse throughout the early 1900s. Protestantism, which had served as the nation’s spiritual core since the American Revolution (1775–83), increasingly was confronted with immigrants who journeyed to the United States with their

own faiths. During the century’s first decade, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism, and some Asian religions saw their American memberships quintuple. Those in sectarian movements such as The Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s” Witnesses also attracted more converts.

“Millennialism,” the religious belief concerned with the “end days,” when God will supposedly begin a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth, divided many Protestants during the decade. Pre-millennial believers maintained that the second coming of Jesus Christ would be preceded by a time when social conditions worsen. Once Jesus returns, however, the pre-millennialists believed, his arrival would eliminate all human social problems. Post-millennialists, on the other hand, believed that human attempts to perfect society will bring about the “millennium,” and that Jesus will return only after humans have created the kingdom of heaven on Earth. The liberals and social reformers who made up the majority of the post-millennialists said the kingdom of God came through human, not divine, intervention in society. They spread their beliefs not only through preaching, but also through their efforts to improve social ills.

Another point of religious discussion centered on “Social Christianity,” the belief that religious ideals must be tied more strongly into the capitalist system. Many Social Christians were politically socialist and preached the need for an economic system based upon Christian love. The legacy of connecting religion more strongly to modern social problems led many to call for better treatment of workers, the abolition of child labor, a six-day work week, and arbitration in labor disputes. Social Christianity led to the founding of several important social agencies, such as settlement houses, Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Associations (YMCA, YWCA), and crusades like the temperance movement.

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Church Membership at the Turn of the Century

In 1900, the U.S. population was approximately seventy-six million with almost one-third (twenty-six million) of Americans belonging to an organized church. The membership numbers of the top eight denominations were:

Roman Catholics8,000,000Methodists5,500,000Baptists4,000,000Presbyterians1,500,000Lutherans1,000,000Disciples of Christ1,000,000Episcopalians600,000Congregationalists600,000


American transportation made tremendous advances in the early 1900s due largely to technological innovations that made it easier and

more affordable for average citizens to move from place to place. The electric streetcar allowed urban centers to expand, as it became possible for people to commute from their downtown workplaces to new suburban neighborhoods. Los Angeles‘s rapid growth would have been impossible without the streetcar. For example, a streetcar company founded in 1901, called Pacific Electric, was transporting more than 250,000 Los Angeles riders over more than 1000 miles of track each day by 1920.

While the electric streetcar was a marvel, its cultural significance was dwarfed by the rise of the automobile, which truly revolutionized America and the world throughout the twentieth century. American inventors had experimented with various “horseless carriages” since the 1880s, but these motorized vehicles were unreliable. The 1900s began with innovators like Freeman and Francis Stanley experimenting with a steam-driven car they called the “Stanley Steamer.” Although it was a fast auto, the Steamer was able to hold only enough water for a twenty-mile journey. In Cleveland, Rollin H. White created the first touring car, which was also powered by steam. One of the more successful automobile pioneers was Ransom Olds, whose cars were sturdy, lightweight, and economical. The person most noted for advancing the auto industry in the 1900s was Henry Ford (1863–1947), who introduced the Model A, his first car, in 1903. He pioneered the development of assembly-line production methods to reduce his manufacturing costs, pricing his autos at $850 each so that the average consumer could afford to buy one.

As cars became increasingly commonplace, Americans were more able to travel greater distances from their homes. Driving was seen to be a pastime that demanded its own set of unique fashions. Since most cars were open to the elements, passengers wore long canvas-like coats called “dusters” to protect themselves from poor weather and the dust from dirt roads. Soon drivers and passengers became irritated by the terrible conditions of America’s roads. “Good Roads” campaigns were instituted across the country demanding that cement or asphalt be spread to ease travelers’ comfort.


For most Americans at the beginning of the century, clothes were important not for their fashion, but for their utility. Most women made clothes for themselves and their families by following standard patterns available from companies like McCall’s and Butterick. Most immigrant and working-class families struggled merely to survive, so people were not concerned with adopting the latest styles. A person from these classes might have only one set of formal clothes that was generally worn for church services or special occasions.

The wealthy, however, could afford to stay current with the latest fashion trends from London or Paris. Women from the United States’s leading families, such as the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and the Roosevelts, adopted

current European styles and, in turn, influenced the look of middle-class women. The dominant look adopted by these women was noted for its ultrafeminine style, which highlighted the female form in an S-shaped silhouette. This silhouette style started with a bell-shaped skirt covering stiff taffeta petticoats. A small bustle with a train of fabric was added, as was a linen corset with whalebone stays that flattened the stomach and created the illusion of a tight, wasplike waist while also exaggerating the wearer’s bust and hips. A stiff collar caused the women to hold their heads up. These clothes, although popular, were extremely uncomfortable, because they caused the woman’s body to tilt forward awkwardly. Finally, stylish hats trimmed with lace, ribbons, feathers, stuffed birds, and buckles completed the outfit. Hats became so lavish that in 1905, for example, the Sears, Roebuck catalog offered more than seventy-five different kinds of ostrich feathers for women’s hats. As the decade progressed, women’s hats grew increasingly big and were often worn with a face veil.

The Gibson Girl

Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944) was, perhaps, the American who most strongly influenced female fashion from the 1890s until World War I. In numerous magazine illustrations he depicted tall, elegant girls with soft, luxurious hair piled upon their heads. The “Gibson Girl,” as this persona came to be known, symbolized a new, vital type of American woman who was stylish, high-spirited, and independent. Many women took to wearing the “Gibson Girl” look not only because they admired its fashion, but also because it indicated that the wearer was a new breed of woman less bound by strict social customs. The era’s most famous “Gibson Girl” was Alice Roosevelt (1884–1981), the teenaged daughter of the president, who shocked high society by speaking her mind, partying late into the night, and defying almost all social conventions.

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Middle- and working-class women could not afford the expensive styles favored by the elite. However, women of more modest means did favor an important fashion innovation: the shirtwaist, a blouse designed to be worn with a long skirt. It was a popular garment since it was ideal for active working women. The shirtwaist became so popular that by 1905 the Sears, Roebuck catalog offered more than 150 variations, which ranged in price from 39 cents to $6.95. The shirtwaist was most important in that it came to represent the era’s new breed of working woman. These “pink-collar” workers were usually employed in corporate offices as secretaries, stenographers, and typists. Pink-collar workers earned approximately ten dollars per week, double the income of their female peers in the factories. They also entered the popular culture as the glamorous heroines of serialized stories in romance magazines.

The Price of Fashion—Prices at the Pegues, Wright Department Store, Junction City, Kansas; 1909


Tailor-made suit$10Skirt$4Shoes$1.50Silk petticoats$5


Fancy suit$9Trousers$1.25Hat$2Coat and vest$7Work shoes$1.25

Wealthy men of the early 1900s favored apparel that was as stylized and formal as that worn by their female counterparts. An upper-class man of the 1900s generally wore a dark frock coat, a waistcoat (vest), and striped trousers at the office. He spent his leisure time wearing a lounge jacket with pointed lapels and narrow trousers with a crease down the center of the leg. Like women, men dressed formally for dinner. They also wore nearly as many accessories as the women did. Elite men favored silk top hats in winter and straw Panama hats in the summer. Other accessories included pocket watches that hung from long chains, leather gloves, white shirts with stiff, detachable collars, and umbrellas or walking sticks. The average working man wore a simplified version of the gentleman’s wardrobe. One of the most significant stylistic changes of the period was the increased importance of the barbershop, which came to

resemble a men’s social club. Men could go there to smoke, drink, and tell stories not suited for a decent woman’s ears.

In the early 1900s, entire houses could be purchased through a catalog. All the pieces arrived through the mail. Sears, Roebuck and Company began selling houses in its 1908 catalog. The store sold practically everything needed to construct a house: lumber, roofing, flooring, doors, windows, paint, heating, wiring, and plumbing. The buyer also received blueprints to follow in building the house himself. Sears claimed that one of its smaller models could be built in an average of 352 carpenter-hours. Between 1909 and 1934, Sears sold more than one hundred thousand houses. Although the program was ended in 1937, at the end of the twentieth century many of the mail-order homes remained standing and in good condition.


During the nineteenth century, American architectural styles looked primarily to the past for inspiration. By the dawn of the 1900s, however, that attitude had begun to change, as artists and architects were increasingly inspired by the natural world. Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) and many other architects journeyed to Chicago to experiment with new styles in the years following the great 1871 fire that destroyed most of the city. Known as “the Chicago school of architecture,” Sullivan and his followers stressed that buildings could be both useful and dignified, as they were constructed to be in harmony with their surroundings. This theory was summed up in Sullivan’s famous phrase “form follows function.” Their belief was that a more natural design style would lead to a truly American form of architecture. One of Sullivan’s students, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), emerged during the 1900s to become one of the nation’s leading architects. Wright developed the “Prairie Style” of design, which was characterized by horizontal lines, spacious interiors, and leaded glass windows. One of Wright’s most discussed works of the era was the Frederick G. Robie House (1909) in Chicago, which successfully integrated elements from the natural environment into the home. Wright also transformed American interior design as he broke from Victorian traditions by creating houses with high ceilings, many windows, and innovative uses of light and space.

Another influential decorating style of the 1900s was the “Arts and Crafts Movement,” which was marked by a rejection of the Victorian era’s highly ornate furnishings. Leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, like Charles (1868–1957) and Henry (1870–1954) Greene, proclaimed that American homes should contain simpler, handcrafted furnishings. The Greenes were especially noted for helping to introduce the bungalow style, or smaller houses with open spaces and naturalistic colors, to the United States. In home furnishings, the 1900s became known for the designs of Gustav Stickley (1858–1942) who crafted simple, comfortable furniture that was more sturdy than the delicate, fragile pieces that exemplified the Victorian style.

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