The Film & More|
Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
Spirit of the Age (45 minutes)
New Year's Day, Washington, DC. With Congress recessed for the holidays, the
city was still... the 175 telephones on the hill all but silent. Mid-morning,
the Sabbath-like stillness was broken by the clanging of trolleys as crowds
headed for the White House. President and Mrs. William McKinley were
holding the traditional New Year's day reception.
SONG: Hail to the Chief
4 years before, McKinley had led the country out of one of the worst
depressions America had ever known. By 1900 he was enormously popular. Quiet,
soft-spoken, reserved, he was accustomed to getting his own way.
McKinley, I think, of all American presidents, best fits the description of an
iron hand in a velvet glove... he was able to get people's attention not by
yelling at them but by reasoning with them and by cajoling them and by
flattering them. And he was exceptionally good at this. He did not care who
got credit for any particular accomplishment as long as he got what he wanted,
and he invariably did.
People had come from hundreds of miles away to shake the president's hand, and
McKinley gladly obliged. He was good at it. In less than 3 hours, McKinley
would shake 2600 hands. 1900 was an election year. And with the economy
booming, McKinley was being urged to run again and lead the country into the
20th century. But after 4 years in the White House, McKinley worried whether
his wife had the strength to face 4 years more. Ida McKinley was
frail and sickly.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS:
McKinley always thought of her as the beautiful young woman that he met when
she was 22 years old. And she had this mass of auburn hair and these sky blue
eyes and this very piquant face. He always had that memory in his mind. In
fact, he used to say that to Mrs. Hobart, the vice-president's wife "if you'd
seen Ida when she was young. Ida was so beautiful." But by then in 1900 she
was a shadow of her former self. In fact she was almost ghostly. She had
suffered a great deal and she was sedated by now with bromides.
McKinley was a handsome 25 year old civil war hero just starting his career as
a lawyer when he first met rich, head-strong Ida Saxton, who was working in her
father's bank in Canton, Ohio.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS:
And it was love at first sight. He took her for a drive and he proposed almost
immediately, and she accepted straight-away so they were absolutely madly,
passionately in love.
In 1871, Ida and William were married, and within a year, their daughter Kate
was born. Soon, Ida was pregnant again. But during labor, something went
wrong. Ida began to have convulsions. Her baby died six months later. Ida
was never the same. The convulsions recurred. Her doctors suspected epilepsy.
Then in 1876, Kate died. She was just 4 years old. Devastated, Ida went into
a deep depression.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS:
She had blinding headaches to the point where she couldn't even sit in a room
with light sometimes. So, McKinley used to have to sit holding her hand in a
darkened room...but because of the nature of their devotion, that it had been
this huge romance somehow they remained devoted through it all. The obvious
thing for her to have done would have been to have quietly withdrawn from
public life because of her impediments. But no. When he went to the White
House she was right there with him. She insisted on coming down to all of the
receptions, being present at all the banquets whenever she could. Because she
did not want to be left behind.
As the New Year's reception wore on into the afternoon, thousands of citizens
were still waiting to pay their respects to the president and First Lady.
Visitors were free to wander over much of the White House, and McKinley's
closest aides were worried. Anarchists had murdered Empress Elizabeth of
Austria, the president of France, the Premier of Spain, and were said to be
plotting to kill every head of state of a Western country. In all the
Executive Mansion there was only one guard at night, and he retired early. But
if McKinley was fearful he certainly didn't show it. He was president of the
most prosperous nation on earth. Most Americans were optimistic and so was
In the winter of 1900, northerners with money, tired of the cold, and the
cinder-covered streets, were heading South. "It's against the policy of
Americans," one railroad man said, "to remain locked up by ice one-half of the
JOHN MILTON COOPER, JR.:
This is the first time that people can travel over land quickly and easily...
Within a person's lifetime they've gone from the days when having to travel to
the next town was a hard slog over terribly hard roads. Now, for heaven's
sakes, they can travel in an hour on, on a train.
Men and women who had taken six months to cross the country in covered wagons
now made the trip in six days. And they could take a vacation anywhere on the
continent. One guide book recommended "winter-stations" in the Carolinas,
Florida--even California, for those "afflicted with consumption, gout,
rheumatism, or chronic bronchitis."
That someone from Buffalo or Detroit could enjoy the sun in Florida during the
winter seemed to defy nature itself.
JOHN MILTON COOPER, JR.:
I don't think you can exaggerate how much change was in the air for people.
Things that had been around, conditions that had been taken for granted since
time immemorial had changed. The scientific technological industrial
revolution of that time was something absolutely unprecedented in human
In 1900, Americans were dazzled by the onrush of inventions. Machines that
could peer inside the human body were revolutionizing medicine. Autos were
promising to replace horses. There was even a doll house for sale with its own
electric doorbell and electric lights no bigger than a pea. Americans believed
that the inventions of the day were going to make them smarter, happier,
healthier. Even popular music celebrated the breakthroughs.
MAX MORATH :
The turn of the century, particularly in America, represented a period that
will someday be compared to the Renaissance. Within a period of very short
time, 15-20 years, most of the breakthroughs in technology occurred that now
influence our lives so heavily. Everything since then has been engineering.
You capture motion. Motion picture comes about this time. Now everything
since is engineering. It's technology. Sure, the picture's better, but the
idea of seeing people move on a screen is new. The telephone. "Hello? I'm
talking to Chicago." A miracle. But we take it for granted. You break
through and record sound. It's gotten better, but everything since is simply
Do you realize that when the phonograph broke through just prior to 1900, that
there were touring groups that went out with an old cylinder phonograph and the
horn that you yelled into and the little mica diaphragm that transcribed, and
they'd go to a town and they'd rent a hall and people would come and they'd
play the phonograph and there'd be a dog barking. (Barks Twice and Claps) And
people would applaud. And then the leading citizens of the town would come up.
The mayor would come up and they'd instruct him and he would say, "Hello?" And
they'd play it back, "Hello?" (Claps) And people would applaud.
The electric light, for heaven's sake. The electric current. The
breakthroughs were considered miraculous.
JOHN M. STAUDENMAIER, S.J. :
Most people in 1900 can remember a time, a very recent time, when most of the
things you did in your life were hard work, dirty, and disorganized. There's
still a good bit of that around as a matter of fact, but all around them,
particularly in cities, there begin to be amazing things, amazingly precise,
well-engineered systems that are beginning to transform a - a dirty, messy
world. Plumbing. You have to be still fairly well-to-do to have plumbing, but
it's around and you know that that's sort of coming. There are a lot of things
like that, that are sort of right around the corner even for people like you.
You can see them around you and you know that after a while you'll have them,
too...The promise that you will have electric lights and maybe you even have
one already, a bulb hanging in your house. Or maybe you even have a hot plate
that you plug in, just a little one, but maybe you have one already. This is -
is a hot plate better than a great big, robust iron stove which is a pretty
mature technology, a cook stove? No. It doesn't cook nearly as well, but the
In 1900, while Americans were dreaming of the future... the world around them
was changing, leaving a troubling undercurrent of anxiety and doubt.
DONALD L. MILLER:
No place on the face of the Earth, in the history of the world had ever changed
as fast as 19th century America. And I think Americans felt the whole floor
underneath them had given way. Technology seems almost a spontaneous force with
a power and life of its own. What it bred, I think, more than anything is a
sense of anxiety and a lot of people felt they had lost their moorings
JOHN M. STAUDENMAIER, S.J.:
If I'm the ordinary guy in 1900, and I am mostly optimistic, but I'm pretty
intimidated, too, by these ever-increasingly complex systems that are turning
up all around me. I am surrounded now by systems that make me an idiot because
I do not know how they work nor do I know how to fix them nor do I even know
how they made them in the first place. [Electricity]... isn't like a steam
engine. You can watch a steam engine work and you can figure it all out. You
watch the piston, you watch the flywheel. Not so with electricity. And so
this feeling of being made small as an adult in the face of systems that
transcend your intelligence, this is a hard thing along - it's a price tag for
No where in America was progress more striking than in San Francisco. Fifty
years before, when prospectors arrived heading for the gold fields, there were
just eighty-two houses, a few scattered tents, and miles of all but impassable
sand dunes. Now, at the turn of the century, 350,000 people lived here. San
Francisco had become one of the country's most cosmopolitan cities - attracting
writers, artists, and bohemians. 15,000 Chinese, many brought in to work on
the railroads, now made their homes here, crowded into an Asian ghetto, an
entire city within a city. In 1900 San Francisco was booming, but like so many
other cities that had sprung out of nowhere, it had been built at a price.
For decades, the demand for lumber had been consuming the nation's forests. By
1900, half of the original forests had been cut, the great black walnut tree
had all but disappeared, and the giant redwoods, standing for centuries before
the republic was born, were under threat.
STEPHEN FOX :
We had been blessed on this continent with the finest natural resources of any
country in the history of the world... rich forests, the finest forests in the
world, and we'd just had so much of it it seemed that it was infinite. So if a
forest was cut down, that's okay. There was always a new forest over the
horizon. But for the first time, we started to get a sense that that may not
be true, that the resources were finite. Around the turn of the century, we
start to see a questioning of progress, as it has been conventionally
understood, starting to see the limits of progress and that it is not an
unalloyed good and in the course of this road toward progress maybe we've lost
some things that we need to retrieve now.
In January, 1900, a 61-year-old Scottish immigrant living 15 miles south of San
Francisco was writing a book to warn Americans that already too much had been
lost... and to celebrate what still remained. For John Muir the
wilderness was sacred.
"The forests of America," Muir wrote that year, "however slighted by man, must
have been a great delight to God, for they were the best he ever planted. The
whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed to be favored
above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe.
The thing to realize about Johnny Muir is he was not like you and me. He was
different. He was a pantheist, a pagan, if you will, and when he goes out
there into the woods he talks to the woods and the rocks and the birds and he
thinks they talk back to him. He believed was that all forms of life, and
rocks, too, have souls. And in that belief, he steps outside the Christian
tradition. Christians believe that only human have souls, only humans go to
Heaven. Well, Muir said that the Christian heaven was "stingy". He thought
everything was divine, everything is holy, and, therefore, everything should be
respected and protected.
In 1900, a wilderness craze was sweeping the country. Hiking and
mountaineering were in fashion. The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club had
recently been formed. People were fleeing the cities, heading for "the great
There was a widespread turning to Nature right around 1900. A lot of people in
cities decided that they had lost something and they wanted to get it back.
And this is the real wilderness. This is packing and camping overnight and
climbing serious mountains.
For the first time, people began talking about conservation. Muir saw in "the
back to nature" craze troops for his campaign to preserve the wilderness. "Even
the scenery habit in its most artificial forms," he wrote, "mixed with
spectacles, silliness, and kodaks, its devotees arrayed more gorgeously than
scarlet tanagers - even this is encouraging, and may well be a hopeful sign of
He saw the good side of things and was an optimistic fellow and so he found
grounds for hope... and that's the, the spirit of the age.
but actually there were grounds for hope.
In 1900, America could boast of 5 national parks; there were still
millions of acres of untouched wilderness. And the environmental movement Muir
championed began to find support in Washington. That year, Congress, for the
first time ever, passed legislation to protect wildlife in danger of
extinction. And the Senate, finally moved to protect the buffalo. There were
only 400 left on the entire continent.
John Muir said he wanted "to do something for wildness and make the mountains
glad." The little book he began in 1900 would remain in print throughout the
20th century, inspiring generations of Americans with his love of the natural
As the new century began, Americans were reaching beyond their own borders. In
San Francisco, giant cargo ships laden with raw cotton from the South, fabric
from New England, flour, iron and steel from Chicago and Pittsburgh were bound
for the markets of Asia. For the first time, the United States was striding
upon the world stage, proud and confident, competing with England, France,
New York Senator Chauncey Depew boasted to his colleagues: "There is
not a man here who does not feel 400 per cent bigger in 1900.... bigger
intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically, now that he is a
citizen of a country that has become a world power."
The United States had become a world power almost overnight. But there was a
price to pay. The ideals of the American Republic were being tested by the
temptations of new-found Empire.
In 1898, America had gone to war with Spain and defeated the 400 year old
Spanish Empire in just 113 days.
All at once, America won control of Spanish colonies on both sides of the
globe, including the Philippines --- a chain of more than 7,000 islands,
gateway to the markets of China. But the Filipinos wanted their own
independent country. Some argued that President McKinley should give it to
them. Others, that he should annex the Philippines. McKinley told a group of
Methodist Church leaders how he had decided what to do: "I walked the floor of
the White House night after night until midnight," McKinley said, "and I am not
ashamed to [say] that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for
light and guidance....And one night it came to me:
that there was nothing left to do but take [the Philippines] and educate the
Filipinos, and uplift and civilize them... And than I went to bed, and went to
sleep and slept soundly."
Most historians do not believe that story. It's pretty clear that McKinley had
thought about the Philippines long before the War of 1898 and he had decided
that he needed the Philippines as a base from which the United States could
make sure that Asian markets were open to American products. And China is the
logical place to look for these new markets. The Chinese have 500 million
potential customers, and they need everything that Americans produce. Manila
essentially became the pivot of the American empire in the Western Pacific.
And without Manila, McKinley would never have been able to compete for this
great China market.
The president had hoped the Filipinos would willingly become part of the new
American Empire. But the Filipinos were ready to die for the right to govern
themselves. For years, they had fought the Spanish. Now they were prepared to
fight the Americans--if they had to. In January 1899, they established the
Philippine Republic. By 1900, Americans were fighting a guerrilla war 7,000
miles from home.
For the United States to maintain this empire what the United States had to do
was to use force and to project that force across thousands and thousands of
miles. We had never done that....and we were now involved in civilizations such
as the Philippines with which we had very little acquaintance. And it was a
question whether or not Americans were really that good, ah, an imperialist in
order to pull this off. This was an extremely brutal war that the United
States and the Filipinos fought...Americans looked down on the Filipinos as
people who were uncivilized... The term "gook" originated in the Philippine
insurrection. We looked at this as essentially a superior power fighting an
inferior people who deserved their inferiority because they had not been able
to organize their society, they had not been able to "uplift themselves," as
McKinley liked to say... the United States was willing to use very brutal force
in order to bring the Filipinos around. One soldier's letter, for example,
relates how one of his comrades, an American soldier, had been found murdered
outside this village with his stomach slit open. And the American commander
immediately orders that everyone in this Filipino village be executed. And,
according to this young man who wrote home, there were a thousand men, women,
and children who were executed in this reprisal for the murder of this one
American soldier. This was no holds barred war between the Filipinos and the
Americans. And by 1900, many Americans are beginning to wonder whether even
all of the possible profits that this empire might offer were worth this kind
As more and more American boys lost their lives, anti-war sentiment was
growing. Many saw the war against a people seeking independence as "a
monstrous perversion of American ideals." Multi-millionaire industrialist
Andrew Carnegie, a leader of a small but important anti-imperialist movement,
asked: "Is it possible that the American Republic is to be the suppressor of
the Philippine struggle for independence?" Carnegie offered to buy the
Philippines for $20 million and set the island nation free.
All through the winter of 1900, Americans read of devastation and horror half a
globe away. Time and again they were assured that the war was all but over.
But native spies reported that thousands of Philippine insurgents were plotting
to rise up against American forces in Manila that a stash of bombs and
munitions were hidden in a house in the center of that city that rebels were
massing in the provinces.
McKinley had been told by his generals that they could subdue their barefoot
opponents with 20,000 men. Then the generals asked the president for 20,000
more. But 40,000 soldiers were not enough. By 1900, 60,000 American troops
were on the ground in the Philippines, and the War Department was calling for
another 2 divisions. McKinley knew that his chances in the November election
could hinge on a war he didn't want to fight, and didn't know how to win.
In the winter of 1900, the most popular girl in America was the Gibson girl.
She was cool, flirtatious... every red-blooded American man's ideal. Pinned on
the walls of homes across the country--from dormitories at Harvard to miners'
cabins in the Far West--the Gibson girl set the standard for a generation of
American women. She had elegance and style. She appeared independent and in
control, dominating men with her seductive wiles. But the Gibson girl was a
fantasy of a New York magazine illustrator named Charles Dana Gibson.
In reality, most women, by law and custom, were dependent upon men. In some
states, a woman couldn't own property. Everything she earned belonged to her
husband. And in every state but four she was refused the vote. A woman's only
hope was to make a good marriage.
But a few women were striking out on their own--choosing careers instead of
husbands. Francis Benjamin Johnston was a 36 year old photographer--pioneering
a new career for women in photo-journalism, President McKinley posed for her
camera just as Grover Cleveland had 6 years before. Anyone who was anyone in
Washington society wanted Johnston to take her picture.
Upper class, talented, energetic white women like Johnston are knocking at the
door of social power and professional power in the United States. Women at the
turn of the century like Johnston are beginning beginning to come out from the
shadow of men. They are demanding careers, they're trying to come out from
their home. And photography is Johnston's way of doing that. Johnston's
saying I am a photographer, I can have a business, I'm not going to be a
housekeeper, I'm not going to be a wife, I'm not going to have that feminine
role. She's saying I'm going to be as good a professional photographer as any
man. Johnston had studied painting in France, then began drawing illustrations
for newspapers before switching to photography. Photography, she wrote, was
"the more accurate medium." This is a new era for photography. A way of
printing photographs in the illustrated press has just been invented, and
people like Johnston are trying to figure out now what photography is for.
She's getting commissioned by magazines to discover how you can use a camera to
By 1900, photographs were replacing illustrations in the popular press, and
Johnston was helping define a new profession--photojournalism--showing
Americans pictures of themselves they had never seen before. Johnston traveled
across the country, leaving a telling record of the people of her day: coal
miners in Pennsylvania; sailors returning from the Spanish-American war immigrants, pouring into New York City; black college students in
Virginia; sharecroppers in the South.
Johnston's portraits introduced Americans to the faces of the famous men and
women of her time: war heroes Admiral Dewey and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt
; the Educator Booker T. Washington Inventor Alexander
Graham Bell; Scientist George Washington Carver; Mark Twain; Andrew Carnegie; and Susan B. Anthony.
I'm amazed at her appetite for recording the people of her day, how much she
traveled, how often she tracked down any opportunity to take pictures.
In a series of photographs taken at a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts,
Johnston challenged the idealized image of women at the turn of the century.
The women of Lynn spent their days in foul-smelling rooms, the floors soaked
with chemicals, the air reeking with poisonous fumes. They worked 6 days a
week, 10 hours a day, and earned less than 32 dollars a month, barely enough to
put food on the table.
Johnston's images of women working in factories look slightly bedraggled, they
look tired, but they look very alive and human. They don't look discouraged...
they look hopeful. Johnston's women have the same kind of pluck that Johnston
had and knew in herself. Johnston's finding the vitality in America. And
that's very much the spirit of the age. The vision of America which can move
into the next century sure of itself, confident, believing that its dreams, if
not true at the moment, will come true.