By the mid 1880s, the United States was the wealthiest nation in the world. But it was still with Europe where the real international political power lay. Most of us learned the term laissez-faire in high school and learned to apply it to Belle Epoque America. But the situation was a bit more complicated than that. It wasn’t so much that the government left business alone, it was that the government was weak in general both in the international diplomatic sphere and in it’s own backyard. And due to this and despite it’s wealth, the U.S. had little sway with other governments (Zakria, From Wealth to Power).
In any case, without wealth, no rich America. Without strong government, no strong America. And, nothing can be accomplished without either. In 1900, the U.S. had the former in spades. It was during the Progressive Era that it built the latter.
The economic situation in the U.S. reflected this money rich, power poor state. Though the exact amount is unknown, it is estimated that over 45% of the U.S. wealth was held by the top 1%, a high in U.S. history, and not to be rivaled again until the last 20 years. The gap between rich and poor was tremendous, making a democracy rather ineffective.
Being a member of the incredibly shrinking middle class was perilous. Despite our vision of 1900 America, with it’s small, traditional, stable middle class families gathered around the parlor table, attending church, and calling on friends for tea, the professional middle class was in constant siege. Wages were uneven, unreliable, and members of the professional middle class would emulate their betters by employing monopolistic strategies to building practices and businesses. The noble, idealistic middle class man who struggled for honor and virtue amidst the smut – the Horatio Alger – was not really a viable model for behavior in such a cutthroat environment. But the progressive movement did what it could to turn him into a deity.
I did a paper in my undergrad years on Fatalism and the Horatio Alger mythology in Pre-World War I Silent cinema. If the movies of that period weren’t on cigarette fairies or other silly, plotless fantasies they were most likely on a virtuous young man who is “a hard worker… an unusually intelligent man not in the least affected by his popularity, and very keen, businesslike and thrifty… not the usual ‘get-rich-quick’ type” (from Hirsch’s 1916 description of the iconic Chaplin). In the 1980s, we glorified the ruthless career woman or the ‘save-the-whales’ energetic blonde who managed miraculously and incredulously through spunk alone. For the males, it was the reckless, self-indulgent Risky Business Tom Cruise or, conversely, the male that panders to either of the aforementioned females. Either would work. In the 1990s – a period of decadence to be sure – it was the hopelessly, emotionally self-obsessed. In 1900, it was Horatio Alger.
The political changes that occurred during this era were huge. To name a few: women’s suffrage, anti-trust legislation, railroad legislation (40% of the billionaires in 1900 derived their wealth from RR), birth of the Food & Drug Administration, permanent income tax, and Prohibition. All of these are grand, and I’m sure helped everyone a great deal. There was also the Spanish American War, a sheer exercise of press and governmental power if there ever was one. But more importantly for America, they allowed the government to interfere with money and war with the mandate of the people, setting it up to reign in power when Europe was wiped out economically and politically by the Great War and thereafter World War II. After World War I, a European power was lucky if it’s government and currency were stable, much less expanding in influence. Power abhors a vacuum, and America was poised and ready there to fill it with it’s assembly line and memory of a top-heavy wealth distribution. It was a perfect alignment.
All of this influenced fashion and art. As was previously mentioned, the S bend corset died with the rise in government. So did the long skirt. Modern fashion was born from the ashes of the old world, growing out of the nutrients left by the dead and decaying Belle Epoque. To say that corsets and long petticoats died due to the feminist movement is like saying that Marie Anntoinette was guillotined because she said “let them eat cake,” or like saying that feminism succeeded because of a few spunky women. Feminism succeeded because the time was ripe for it and it made economic and political sense. Something had to fill the void.
But other than fashion, one of my favorite aspects of the Progressive Movement, and one that many of us take for granted, was their obsession with habitable living, grand structures, and park-building. We owe much to their foresight in this manner, both on the micro and macro scales. Floor plans opened up, decoration was lighter and airier. Dark-stained woodwork, and somber-colored Victorian painted ladies were washed in white.
On a larger scale Progressives felt little or no compunction to allow decaying, shoddy buildings to remain where they were, and would gleefully demolish blocks of city to build glorious and harmonious parks and public buildings. Think of the lost Penn Station, Grand Central Station, Olmsted’s later work on Niagara Falls and Buffalo, the Chicago World’s Fair and public works buildings across the U.S. of the Beaux Arts era.
It is a challenge to avoid idealizing the past in Upstate New York. Architectural monuments of the era are sometimes sad reminders of lost glory and promise in many decaying East Coast cities, that is, those that survived the scourge of urban renewal. One wishes that government would reorient itself to preserve grace and pride rather than tear it down and replace it with cheap superficiality. Being born and raised in Upstate New York, by logic and observation, leads to an appreciation for the remnants of that done several generations before and a suspicion of that done afterwards. I would imagine that those raised elsewhere, say Shanghai or California, would have a much different view. And I’m sure that my stodgy ancestors were none too pleased with what was going on when they were alive and kicking. Idealization of the past should never be taken too seriously.
In case if it’s not obvious, I have not started my Edwardian costuming project yet, and may need to postpone. Hence the dramatic history lesson. They are much easier.
Now everyone, go do something productive… you will be happy.