Historically, the time period from 1900 to 1920 was truly “glory days” for the United States. Arguably, the larger than life icon who embodied the American Dream of that period was Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Teddy took over as President in 1901 when William McKinley was assassinated. He became the youngest President in the Nation’s history at 42. He was so popular with the American public that, when he won the 1904 Presidential Election, a child’s toy was named after him. The “Teddy Bear” has become a pop culture icon in its own right (Whitley, 2011). Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win the Nobel Prize when he negotiated the end to the Russo-Japanese War (Ricard, S., 2010). Teddy lived his life boldly. He became the stereotype for the American male in the early 1900’s. He showed the American people that they could attain their dreams and that ingenuity would lead America to a better place in the world.
Americans took pride in living up to Roosevelt’s example. The first radio signal was sent across the Atlantic in 1901. The year 1903 saw the creation of the first wildlife refuge at Pelican Island in Florida. In 1909, the NAACP was founded in New York. Calbraith Rodgers was the first pilot to cross North America, taking only 49 days to do so. Alexander Graham Bell called Thomas Watson in San Francisco from New York in 1915. During a time period when most states refused women the right to vote, Montana sent the first female congressional representative to Washington, D.C. (Whitley, 2011). By 1920, alcohol was prohibited and women had gained the right to vote. Each of these events is an important moment in both history and popular culture. They represent Americans living the American Dream, making myth reality.
Literature in the United States
Literature in the United States at the turn of the century was a “changing of the guard”. Popular American writers such as Mark Twain were writing their final words. New authors were writing from a different perspective with a more contemporary view of life in America. In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, a social commentary on African Americans drawn from the author’s own experiences (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2011). That same year, Jack London penned his masterpiece, The Call of the Wild. In 1918, Willa Cather released My Antonia, a story about immigrant families who move to Nebraska (Whitley, 2011). My Antonia describes the hardships one must endure in the hope of attaining the American Dream.
As the twentieth century approached, music was lively. The 1910’s was called the ballroom decade. Rag-time, jazz and the blues were still going strong along with a new wave of war songs. Enrico Caruso made records (not cylinders). Broadway was in full swing with musicals like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Popular songs included Give my Regards to Broadway and Meet me in St. Louis (written for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.) The Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls were founded in 1910. Prohibition [Volstead Act, 1919] made speakeasies the place to be.
This genre, created by African Americans, is one of the few new art forms of modern times. Blues developed at the turn of the century. Ex-slaves sand work songs filled with irony, imagery, and love, offering relief from the tensions of their lives. Many blues singers were recorded by talent scouts as they sang in the fields. Bessie Smith, the greatest of all blues singers, was labeled the "Empress of the Blues". She recorded in the 1920s. Ma Rainey was another blues singer.
This Native American art form was originated in 1900 by black musicians, chiefly in New Orleans. Jazz spread throughout the entire world and remains the root of 20th century music. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Modern Music states, "Great black jazzmen did not get the recognition or the money they deserved because of racism, but jazz was never suppressed commercially." Early greats include Lois Armstrong "Satchmo", Ella Fitzgerald, Jelly Roll Morton, and, later,Duke Ellington began to invent jazz composition for the big bands.
Watch Satchmo perform:
ArtThree fundamental concepts concerning art in America were seriously reconsidered between 1910 and 1920. 1) What 'art' is, 2) who makes decisions about standards, and 3) how art is shared with the viewing public.
Art Nouveau, French for New Art, is an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts—that were most popular during 1890–1905.Dadaism or Dada is a post-World War I cultural movement in visual art as well as literature (mainly poetry), theatre, and graphic design. The movement was, among other things, a protest against the barbarism of the War and what Dadaists believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society; its works were characterized by a deliberate irrationality and the rejection of the prevailing standards of art. It influenced later movements including Surrealism.
During this time in history, there were several things happening in science. The first gas motored airplane was created by the Wright Brothers, color photography was invented in 1907 by Auguste and Louis Lumiere, and the lie detector and polygraph machine was created in 1902 by James Mackenzie (Franklin University, 2006). These are just a few things that were taking place in the era of the early 1900’s. Color photography has evolved in our society and culture over the past 100 years. Photos have not only become colorized, they have become digital. You and manipulate color photography so much in the 21st century. The airplane is still being put to great use in our modern society. Obviously, in the 1900’s airplanes did not have reclining seats, air conditioning, or televisions. The lie detector or polygraph machine was a great asset in the early 1900’s, especially for cases that are brought before a judge and jury.
Movies at the beginning of the 1900’s were completely in uncharted territory. They were silent films wherein actors had to exaggerate their movements for the audience’s benefit. In 1903, the movie The Gay Shoe Clerk was released. It was a comedy where a shoe clerk is able to get a peek of a young lady’s ankle while measuring her foot. He is caught kissing her and her chaperon beats him up with her umbrella. This is quite a different theme from our modern films. Charlie Chaplin thrilled audiences with such movies as The Floorwalker and Making a Living. During the 1910’s the top stars were Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Pearl White. In 1905, the first movie theater opened in Pittsburgh. By 1908, the National Board of Censorship had been formed to establish guidelines for state and local censors (Whitley, 2011). The impact of movies on culture throughout the 1900’s and into the 2000’s cannot be overstated.
It is easy to see how the time period from 1900 to 1920 has had an impact on our society and culture. The NAACP is still important in our society. Students read Jack London’s Call of the Wild for classes and fun. Many cities host Jazz and Blues Festivals, where artists honor Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong by performing their songs. Tiffany lamps have adorned the houses of Americans and the world for over 100 years. We fly around the world in modern versions of the Wright Brother’s airplanes, always making sure to take along a camera to document our journey. You can still find a Charlie Chaplin movie playing, now and again, on AMC or TMC. Movie theaters have silent movie film festivals to honor the beginning of the movie tradition. When applying the 1900 to 1920 time period to the American Dream myth, we can see that, not only were Americans dreaming large, they were achieving their dreams.