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America 1900 | Article

Summing Up, Looking Forward and The Paris Exposition

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Summing Up, Looking Forward 
As the 19th century came to a close, prominent figures and institutions offered up their assessments as to how it would best be remembered and predicted what the 20th century held in store. 

Comparing 1900 to 1800, Americans were reminded that at the beginning of the 19th century there were no railroads, telegraphs, steamboats, electricity, kerosene, telephones, reapers, plumbing, or photography. The world had changed more over those 100 years than ever before. And change was happening at such a rate as to make many people uneasy. Historians speak of people being made to feel small in the face of systems that confounded their intelligence. Opinion varied as to what the most beneficial legacy of the 19th century would be. The Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis delighted in observing that "for the first time government, invention, art, industry, and religion have served all the people rather than the patrician classes." Elihu Root was certain the finest achievement of the century had been the discovery of the process for making Bessemer steel. The Indianapolis Journal opined, "No single feature of 19th century progress has been more remarkable or more significant of advancing civilization than the improvement in the condition of the working classes." The Washington Post cautioned that despite "all our progress of luxury and knowledge...we have not been lifted by so much as a fraction of an inch above the level of the darkest ages... The last 100 years have wrought no change in the passions, the cruelties, and the barbarous impulses from the savagery of the Middle Ages. We enter a new century equipped with every wonderful device of science and art...(but) the pirate, the savage, and the tyrant still survives." 

In gazing into the future, there were made rosy proclamations and stern warnings. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, historian Brook Adams predicted that the US's leadership role in the world would be both a blessing and a burden: "There is not room in the economy of the world for two centers of wealth and empire. One...in the end will destroy the other." On a similar note, the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal warned of Russian expansion: "Europe is not yet all Cossack, but danger seems as great as it did to Napoleon."

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The Paris Exposition
In the summer of 1900, much of America was on the move. Advances in technology and a rise in the standard of living had introduced a concept that was previously foreign to the American middle-class: leisure time. Americans were being encouraged to leave the routine of home, if only for a few days, to relax and explore the seashores, lake sides, and hill tops. The most adventurous among them had even grander vacation plans in the summer of 1900. Their excursions included boarding the new, fast trans-Atlantic steamships bound for the Paris Exposition. Among the 7,500 Americans who made the journey to France were photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnson, educator W.E.B. Du Bois, and band leader John Philip Sousa. 

The Paris Universal Exposition captured the attention of the entire modern world in 1900. Over 57 million visitors from all over the globe came to see thousands of exhibits displayed by nearly every nation on earth. Three regiments of French infantry and 11 companies of engineers had transformed the Champs de Mars from a littered, muddy wasteland into an array of manicured lawns and colorful flower beds. While the wonders of the present were displayed and praised, much of the Exposition was devoted to extolling those marvels that awaited mankind in the future. As a tribute to technology and progress, the Paris Exposition was like nothing that had come before it. Visitors marveled at moving sidewalks, wireless telegraphy, the most powerful telescope ever built, and the first escalator ever seen. American innovation and boosterism was evident everywhere. One English writer described the Exposition as "the Americanization of the world."

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