Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Eleanor Roosevelt Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Enhanced Transcript

Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Hello and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough. In the long ago year of 1900, back at the threshold of the twentieth century, the United States, among the nations of the world, was like a big, raw boy full of robust energy and growing pains. Times were good. Prosperity had taken hold. Most Americans were living better in a material way than they ever had, or than anyone in all history until then. And with a wondrous number of new inventions and enterprises sprouting everywhere, people felt exhilarated by the possibilities of America.

Progress was something you believed in because it was all around you, plain as day. If there were some who weren't exactly enjoying a fair share of the good life, or for whom the American birthright of equality was still only a dream, the feeling was, "Well, we'll work that through. We'll see it's done."

Cynicism and self pity were not in style. The Declaration of Independence was still read aloud on the Fourth of July. But then among those Fourth of July crowds in 1900 there were venerable citizens who remembered when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were still alive.

Of course, to confer singular importance to any one year is an arbitrary thing. And it was really 1901, not 1900, that marked the true start of the twentieth century. Just the same, to get excited about a turning of the century is an entirely human response, as we ourselves are discovering.

I have a photograph that's come down in my family. In Pittsburgh at about that time, my grandfather, in the spirit of the day, launched a new enterprise, an "electric company" --a "one-horse electric company", as my father loved to say. Here you see it: horse and buggy past and electronic future all in one picture. (The horse's name was Chester.)

As it turned out, 1900 was an exceptionally crowded year, filled with stirring events and tragedy, through which, for all the twists and turns, the current of American optimism ran powerfully.

America 1900 by producer David Grubin.

It was snowing on New Year's Day 1900 across much of the country, from the coast of Maine, down through New England, where great fat drifts blocked trolley cars.... and horses found it hard going even in their new Neverslip horse shoes. Snow fell across Pennsylvania, throughout the Midwest, and all the way out in the California mountains. All across the nation, fathers had promised their children that it would snow this New Year's day, just as it had on New Year's Day one hundred years before. A great storm had brought in the year 1800, and between then and now, America had become the most prosperous nation on earth.

We had the largest industrial economy, the largest agricultural economy, the highest per capita income, the highest level of education. It must have been a wonderful time to be alive for most Americans, not for everybody, but for most Americans it must have been a great time to be alive. I don't think we can understand what it was like in 1900 unless you think of optimism, of hope, of buoyancy, for the United States everything seemed to be going right.

But in the last year of the 19th century, a series of tragic events would test America's optimism: a deadly explosion in a coal mine in Utah; a devastating hurricane in Texas; two brutal wars overseas; and all year, assassins would plot to murder the president of the United States, but on January 1, 1900, most people imagined only the good things to come.

One minister rapturously told his congregation: "Laws are becoming more just, rulers more humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart is becoming at once more just and more gentle."
continue to Part I

Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Feature | Timeline | Maps | People & Events| Teacher's Guide