By KAREN C. LUND
The period from 1894 to 1915 was one of dramatic transition in the lifestyles of the average U.S. citizen. Work, school and leisure activities changed rapidly from mostly agrarian activities to the beginnings of an industrial and technological age at the turn of the century. A new online presentation, from the Library's popular American Memory Web site (http://www.loc.gov/collections/america-at-work-and-leisure-1894-to-1915/about-this-collection/), documents these changes with the addition of 150 films depicting America at work, school and play at the turn of the century.
"America at Work, America at Leisure, 1894-1915," from the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, shows how technology changed Americans' lives in profound ways. (All of the films are available in three formats: MPEG, Quicktime and RealMedia.)
For the workers of America, the period 1894 to 1915 was one of change, unrest and economic uncertainty. Industrialism was growing largely unchecked after the Civil War, creating new jobs as well as new problems. Immigration was continuing in unprecedented numbers, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe, forever altering the makeup of the workforce. A depression had begun in 1893, following on the heels of two others within 20 years, forcing some plants to close and many workers into the ranks of the unemployed. Disputes between labor and management were rife. From these tumultuous years grew many of the initiatives that have continued today, including the increased presence of women in the workforce, workers' benefits, the prevalence of white-collar and retail jobs and the need for reasonable work hours, vacations and safe working conditions.
In the 1890s, cities grew as more Americans took urban jobs. As one of the leading industrial powers of the period, the United States had a variety of enterprises, including the manufacture of iron, steel, crude oil and textiles. This trend marked a shift from a more agrarian way of life to that of labor for wages. Immigrants generally would arrive in the cities and take up factory work there to make a living. Working-class and immigrant families often needed multiple family members, including women and children, to work in factories to survive.
Working conditions in these factories were harsh. Workdays were long, typically 10 to 12 hours, and the often unsafe conditions could lead to deadly accidents. Tasks tended to be divided for efficiency's sake, which led to repetitive and monotonous work for employees. Examples of this type of work can be found in the jobs portrayed in films of the Westinghouse Works in 1904, which show, for example, women repetitively winding armatures or men welding large metal rings for generators. Ironically, these films were intended to illustrate what was thought to be an extremely modern and well-run factory for the time. Fortunately, there were many people who deplored the excesses of American business and called for reform. During what was known as the Progressive Era, generally thought to be from 1900 to World War I, reformers sought to improve the lot of the underprivileged of America by speaking out against perceived wrongs. During President Woodrow Wilson's tenure, Progressive principles were furthered when statutes were passed for an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, worker's compensation and regulation of child labor.
In response to criticisms aimed at industry, some companies instituted "welfare capitalism," in which they would give an employee special benefits to secure loyalty and to prevent the creation of unions. Some of the benefits included subsidized housing, libraries and social clubs for the employees. The Westinghouse Works films (1904) are an example of such initiatives that ultimately failed when unionism became more powerful in the United States.
This period also saw the rapid growth of white-collar jobs, as industrial capitalism led to the need for more administrative and clerical workers. Such workers began to be classified with managers in the census as opposed to being classified with skilled craftsmen and unskilled labor. The white-collar workers were further distinguished by earning salaries as opposed to wages by the hour or piece work. White-collar jobs required at least a high school education and a certain refinement in manners and dress that the blue-collar jobs did not. A stratification began to emerge in society that made white-collar jobs seem more prestigious than blue-collar ones. Children of immigrants would aspire to such jobs to increase their social standing in a society that was often prejudiced against newcomers.
Although industry was the primary force of this period, other traditional work activities continued. Farms were still maintained across the country, although this work was likely to be subject to periods of financial instability, as profits relied on the unpredictability of the marketplace and crops. In the West, cities sprang up around the massive cattle trade. Films such as "Calf Branding," filmed in Colorado in 1898, show some of the tasks performed.
This era also saw the increase of department stores and retail jobs in urban areas. Industrial capitalism had succeeded in producing more goods for the consumer to buy, which led to the increased need for sales people. Retail jobs were seen by many to be more respectable than factory work, especially for women, who were finding increasing opportunities in this venue.
Although this period saw an escalation of women working outside the home, society dictated limited choices for them. Occupations that were considered respectable for women at the time included factory work, frequently in the garment or textile industries, teaching, nursing, domestic service, work in department stores or clerical work in offices. Women were paid less than men, even for doing the same jobs, because men were perceived as the family breadwinners and women were thought to be better suited to domesticity (even though many women had worked outside the home for years). Films that show the Westinghouse Works and the pharmaceutical employees of Parke Davis are a testament to the entry of women into the workplace at this time.
A series of films of the U.S. Postal Service's operations in 1903 is a special highlight of the presentation. Most of the postal films were shot in Washington, D.C., most likely at the Washington City Post Office (first occupied in 1898 and still standing today, known as the Old Post Office Pavilion). The motion pictures of rural free delivery service (instituted in 1896) were filmed in adjacent areas of Maryland.
Other films in the work section demonstrate a wide variety of jobs, including logging, ice manufacture, coal mining and public service workers such as police and fire fighters.
From 1894 to 1915, the goals of Progressive reformers influenced education in the United States, since education was perceived as a way to teach children the proper values needed to be a productive American citizen. It was thought that society's ills could, in part, be alleviated by education for all classes that would prepare children for their role in society. Public education was also seen as a way to "Americanize" the vast number of immigrant children flooding into cities. Compulsory attendance laws were enacted to ensure that children from all classes received a basic, "common" education in elementary grades.
Fewer children attended high school, since those from immigrant and working-class families often had to work to help support the family. High schools were typically attended by middle-and upper-class students who aspired to white-collar jobs or a higher academic education. As an improved economy brought slightly higher wages after 1900, more working-class families started sending their children to high school in the hope that they, too, could achieve better jobs. Vocational and industrial programs in high schools were offered by reformers during this period in large part to entice the working class and poor to stay in school and to prepare them adequately for what was thought to be their appropriate role in society.
European ideas of schooling, especially German, influenced the schools in America by the late 1800s, most notably by emulating the German kindergartens and industrial schools. The first kindergarten was established in Germany in 1837, and appeared in the United States in 1856. In kindergarten, creative activities were used to stimulate a child's inner potential. Although the earliest kindergartens were private and for the privileged, the idea soon expanded by the end of 19th century to public schools, where they were seen by reformers as a tonic for the poor home environments of the underprivileged. Industrial training was thought by some to be part of Germany's success as an industrial power and would serve to siphon those who would not go to college to appropriate working-class careers. But this training was not so successful as reformers had hoped it would be, in large part because working-class parents aspired for their children to receive academic educations and gain white-collar jobs as a result.
After 1900, as more achieved a high school education, high schools gradually took on the ideals of the "common" school that elementary schools had espoused. Colleges and universities, however, remained the haven of the elite, as typically only the middle or upper classes could afford to send their children there. Although hundreds of colleges were established after the Civil War, universities began to grow in rapid number beginning in the 1890s. Universities and, later, colleges started offering a wider curriculum and choice of electives. Universities offered graduate education beyond college and opportunities for research within fields.
Several minority groups suffered worse deprivations in education than even the immigrant groups had endured. African Americans in the Southern states often had to attend segregated schools with inferior resources, because the states typically gave such schools only nominal support. In general, African Americans in Northern cities had better neighborhood schools than those in the South. At the turn of the century, African Americans in the North had school attendance rates equal to or better than white students, even for high school.
During this period, the federal government mandated the establishment of special schools for American Indians. The schools were designed to assimilate Native American children into the American culture by stripping them of much of their heritage. Some attended reservation day schools, while others attended boarding schools. These children were not only removed from their parents, sometimes forcibly, but also from American Indian influence. Although administered by the federal government, conditions at these schools were frequently poor. In many cases the system was badly managed, with a lack of proper facilities, hygiene and educational materials. One of these schools is shown in the brief film "Indian Day School," which was filmed at Isleta, N.M., in 1898.
Several of the motion pictures in this section focus on physical education in the schools at all levels. School reformers, recognizing the importance of exercise for both sexes, instituted physical education programs on a wide scale in the 1890s. Intercollegiate sports such as football, baseball, and track and field became popular at colleges and universities. Collegiate sports were also instituted for women during this period, although female students were typically involved in less strenuous sports than men. Some popular sports for female college students were basketball, gymnastics and dance.
From 1894 to 1915, workers in the United States began to have more leisure time than their predecessors, as industrial employers began to decrease working hours and institute a Saturday half-day holiday. Vacations also began to be offered, although they were usually unpaid. The monotony of specialized industrial work and the crowding of urban expansion also created a desire in the worker to have leisure time away from the job and away from the bustle of the city. The popularity of Progressivism in politics also contributed to the value of leisure time, as the health and well-being of the working class came under scrutiny by the upper classes. Yet another factor was the installation of electric lighting in the city streets, making nighttime leisure activities less dangerous.
People responded to the increasing amount of free time by attending a variety of leisure activities both inside and outside the city. New types of amusements arose in which people of all classes and both sexes could participate.
Within cities, people attended vaudeville shows, which would feature a multitude of acts. Shows often ran continuously so that theatergoers could come and go as they pleased, and they drew their audiences from people of all walks of life and backgrounds. Other popular shows of the time included circuses and Wild West shows, the most famous of the latter being William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody's, shown in "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade," filmed in 1902.
Motion pictures also served as entertainment during leisure time for urban audiences. Initially the movies were novelties in kinetoscope viewers. As they became longer, motion pictures moved into storefront nickelodeon theaters and then into even larger theaters. One theater in New York City from 1915 can be seen in the film "Claremont Theatre, N.Y.," where the marquee announces that an Edison Co. film is playing.
Outdoor activities became popular as people attended celebratory parades and county fairs, the latter featuring agricultural products, machinery, competitions and rides, as shown in the film "Rube Couple at County Fair," filmed in Connecticut in 1904.
Some people wished to leave the city on their vacations. Those with limited budgets went to the countryside or the beaches. Toward the latter part of the 19th century, resorts opened in the outskirts of cities, such as Asbury Park, N.J., which was founded in 1870. Amusement parks opened in places like Coney Island, founded in 1897, offering rides, fun houses, ethnic villages and the latest technological breakthroughs, such as motion pictures. A brief tour of Coney Island circa 1903 can be seen in "Rube and Mandy at Coney Island" (a "rube" was a country bumpkin). National parks were created by the federal government to preserve nature, and many people vacationed there. At Yellowstone Park, for example, many camped or stayed at hotels built in the late 1880s. Some of these tourists can be seen in "Tourists Going Round Yellowstone Park," filmed in 1899.
World's fairs and expositions held in different U.S. cities offered Americans a chance to "tour the world" while remaining in one place. The fairs celebrated progress and featured exhibits of science and technology, foreign villages, shows, rides and vendors. The first major world's fair was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, which was followed by many others. Films in the presentation contain scenes of fairs in multiple cities, including Buffalo (1901), Charleston, S.C., (1902), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915).
After the Civil War, the popularity of sports activities grew, as people began to see the importance of exercise to health. While initially only the well-to-do could participate in most sporting events, the opening of publicly available gymnasiums, courts and fields allowed the working and middle classes to participate. Athletic clubs such as the New York Athletic Club were organized, and the YMCAs began to institute sports programs. These programs mostly focused on track and field events, instituted by Scottish and English communities, and gymnastics, heavily influenced by German athletics. Gymnasiums, which featured Indian clubs, wooden rings and dumbbells, were opened in many Eastern cities.
Although men performed the majority of sports activities at this time, opportunities for women to participate appeared as the 19th century ended. Sports in which women participated included canoeing, rowing and walking, although by the turn of the century schools began to offer even more sports activities for females, such as gymnastics and basketball.
Spectator sports became popular as people flocked to boxing events and different types of races. Although boxing was initially frowned on because of the violence and gambling associated with it, by the 1890s the Marquis of Queensberry's code was adopted, imposing limits on the game, which made the sport somewhat safer. By the early 20th century, its adoption in athletic clubs, YMCAs, and colleges gave boxing a measure of respectability. Three films depict the popularity of boxing in 1894 and 1907.
Three films feature horse races, which were initially supported by the wealthy, but were attended by people of all classes by the end of the 19th century. Yacht races were also initially more popular for the rich, but the America's Cup, begun in 1870, increased the sport's popularity, as shown in "'Columbia' Winning the Cup," filmed in 1899. Other popular races included rowing, sailing, motorboat and automobile races, the last category beginning in the 1890s.
Team sports such as baseball, basketball and football became wildly popular with Americans, who enjoyed the games both as participants and spectators. Baseball had its origins in the English games of rounders and cricket and started as an adult game in New York during the 1840s. By the 1850s, the sport rapidly spread to many parts of the country, as teams were formed from all classes and ages of society. Baseball rapidly became more organized as it became America's pastime. The film "The Ball Game," produced in 1898, features teams from Newark and Reading, N.J.
Derived from the English game of rugby, football was started in 1879 with rules instituted by Walter Camp, player and coach at Yale University. "Chicago-Michigan Football Game" and "Princeton and Yale Football Game" depict two university football games in 1903.
Basketball derived from the need for an indoor sport during the winter months. James Nasmith, an instructor at the YMCA Training School at Springfield, Mass., devised the game in 1891. Soon YMCAs and colleges around the country began playing the game. Basketball was adapted for women at schools around the country with different rules in the 1890s. In 1899, a standard set of rules for women was adopted. Women from Missouri Valley College can be seen on the Web site playing basketball in 1904.
The films also depict other sporting activities performed during this time, such as roller skating, bicycling, swimming, ice skating, sleighing, hunting and fishing.
Swimming became more popular in the latter part of the century, as women were increasingly allowed to swim in mixed company. There are nine films in the presentation showing men, women and children swimming in places such as Atlantic City, Honolulu, Coney Island, San Francisco, Palm Beach and New York.
The films in "America at Work, America at Leisure" offer ample evidence of the lives Americans led a hundred years ago. Film audiences of the time would have been amused and intrigued to see themselves on the screen, working, attending school or out enjoying their leisure time. For today's viewer, these films are historical documents of America's past and reveal the origins of many activities we still engage in today.
Ms. Lund is a digital conversion specialist for the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound team.