American Reform and Progress at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.

Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control. 

Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms. 

The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation. 

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.

To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.

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An Objective Look at the Gilded Age

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The idea behind the cartoon is that big business controlled government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money lording over the tiny mice of the senate. 

Photo Credit: The Bosses of the Senate cartoon, Joseph Ferdinand Keppler. First published in Puck, 23 January 1889, lithograph, colored: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post taking a personal look at the era which I chose to place my Waxwood Series. This post is a sort of prequel to that. 

I love this opening quote from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873, as it personifies one of the main philosophies of that era – it was all about faking it until you made it. Indeed, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much success or wealth you had as how well you made everyone think you had.

There is some dispute as to what timeframe constitutes the Gilded Age. Many historians and scholars agree the era began in the 1870’s (with the publication of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book). But as to its end, that’s up for debate. Some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push its end all the way to 1900. Bcause the new century brought about the Progressive Era and its backlash ideals of the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the era as ending at the turn of the century.

Ironically, the title of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book wasn’t intended as a label (just as no one intended to put labels on our more modern eras, such as the Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials). Since both writers were well-known humorists, the title their book is a tongue-in-cheek dig against the social and political events of the second half of the 19th century. But, like many humorists, their dig turned out to be wildly accurate. Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction, as many writers do. They had a keen eye toward not only toward the staggering opulence and excess of this period but also its more parasitic cousins, greed, graft, and corruption.

When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Americans intended to bounce back, financially and politically, with full force, showing that the United States could compete with any other global power. The problem was that, in politics and finance, many used ingenious but dirty methods to do it. Well known was the political corruption of the Grant administration and the graft and crime prevalent in “Boss” Tweed’s administration in New York City, for example. If you’ve been reading my books, you know I am largely a San Francisco/Bay Area writer and San Francisco didn’t exactly escape these more devious characteristics in the Gilded Age. Many of the well-known San Francisco millionaires were made in the city during this time, such as “the Big Four” railroad barons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In addition there flourished of one of the most infamously sin-laden spots in America at that time, the Barbary Coast

This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance common among the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Hofball in Wien. Aquarell, Wilhelm Gause, 1900, Historisches Museum de Stadt Wien: Andrew0921/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Interestingly, San Francisco was both similar and different in this respect. Gertrude Atherton’s book The Sisters-in-Law https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Law-Gertrude-Franklin-Atherton-ebook/dp/B0082SWSW0/, which I’ve mentioned on my blog before, gives an interesting snapshot of Bay Area aristocrats during this time and at the turn of the century who held on to strict codes of society (such as snubbing any woman who wanted to build her own business) but accepted more readily the nouveau riche because the youth of the west made old money families more scarce than they were in the east. 

The rich in America considered it their privilege to flaunt their wealth with lavish homes and summer homes, balls and social events, and an outrageously expensive lifestyle that most could only gape at. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into violence and social change herding America in the Progressive Era.

The Gilded Age, then, became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society and, in fact, one might argue the opulence of the age prompted this widespread corruption as making money became “the thing”. A notorious example of this sort of personage is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Rosedale is rather aggressive, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise to fame made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves. 

The more I write of the Waxwood Series, the more the realities of the Gilded Age come into conflict with who the characters are. This happens with Vivian, the unofficial protagonist of the series. She begins as a Gilded Age debutante of a wealthy San Francisco family (whose wealth was actually made well before the age) and gradually realizes the expectations put on her by her social status and the separate spheres conflict with her psychological reality and her journey through the last years of the century bring her to a different place in the world. Similarly, in my work-in-progress, Tales of Actaeon, Jake, Vivian’s younger brother, comes of age in a skewed and chaotic era when the meaning of masculinity was transitioning from the Victorian gentleman of honor, responsibility, and hard work to a more Teddy Roosevelt ideal of aggression, sportsmanship, and ambition.  

To read more about The Specter and order your copy, check out this link.

To learn more about the Waxwood Series, click here.

And if you’d like to get your hands on a short story that is all about Vivian’s revelations as a debutante during her coming out ball, sign up for my newsletter here.

Works Cited

Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.

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