Monday, November 23, 2020

In My Footsteps: The Time Period I Wish I Could Visit

    2020 has been a year unlike any I have experienced in my lifetime to say the least. Months in at least a state of semi-isolation has given me a lot of time to stroll down memory lane, thinking of my favorite years of life. That's a topic for another day though. These times have also got me thinking about what period of time in the past I would have liked to have lived in. Everyone has that time that if they had a time machine they'd go back to and see what life was like. Some people might like to go back to Medieval times, or be a passenger on the Mayflower coming to the New World. Others might want something more recent like the Golden Age of the 1950's. It is all a matter of personal preference and I am going to share with you my own.

    For me I would love the chance to go back and visit the 1890's in the United States. I am fascinated by this time period. It is a sweet spot between the past and present I believe. During this decade ending the 19th century many inventions and products that we find so common today were first brought to the general public. I am a big fan of wide open spaces, have never been a big city guy. So for reference the population of the United States as of 2019 was 328.2 million people across 50 states. In contrast the 1890 Census saw the country's population to be 62.98 million across 42 states. The population was 19% of what it is today. Granted New York City still had an impressive 1.5 million people but big cities were fewer and further between.

    Getting around might have been a little harder as the first gasoline powered automobile in the United States made its debut in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893. Charles and J. Frank Duryea designed it and first sold it in 1896. By 1899 30 manufacturers had made a whopping 2,500 automobiles. This is a far cry from the 273.6 million registered vehicles in the U.S. in 2018. The best bet would be train, a horse-drawn omnibus(essentially a city stagecoach), or an electric trolley. Or one could use a bicycle. Bikes sold like crazy during the 1890's after the invention of the 'safety' bicycle in 1886. Shockingly this 'safety' just meant having both wheels be the same size. Two years later rubber tires were added and the so-called 'bike boom' of the 1890's was underway.

Charles and J. Frank Duryea in their first gasoline powered vehicle. (Public Domain)

    Transportation is taken care of, but what about the common home? For starters yes there was electricity. However despite Thomas Edison bringing electric lights to parts of Manhattan as early as 1882 it did not catch on quickly. In fact more than half of the homes in America were still using candles and gas lighting until 1925. Rural America was still being introduced to electric power as late as the 1940's and early 1950's.

    Inside the home was similar to today assuming you had electric power. Toasters and refrigerators existed as did irons, fans, and hair dryers. Obviously in the 1890's these were considered luxury items and not necessities like the 21st century. There was no television or radio back then, but there was the new Sherlock Holmes books, first released in 1891 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For sports lovers there was baseball to follow.

    In 1893 the pitcher's mound was moved back to 60'6" its current distance, making the game very similar to present-day. For big-time players that people flocked to see there was none bigger than Cy Young. The pitcher won 511 games and has a pitching award named after him. Other big names were Willie Keeler, Cap Anson, and John McGraw. It would have been possible to go see a game played by the Boston Reds in 1890 or 1891 at the Congress Street Grounds near Thompson Place.

1891 Boston Reds baseball team (Boston Public Library)

    So what other inventions came along during this decade that would have been fun to be around for? As far as food and drinks go there was a lot. The cereal Corn Flakes was invented by Will Kellogg in 1894 and he began the still-thriving Kellogg's company in 1906. Having only been invented a few years earlier, in 1886 by John Stith Pemberton, Coca Cola would see its popularity explode by the end of the 1890's. The boom was so sudden that after building its first headquarters in 1898 the company would need to expand it 5 times in the next 12 years. Rounding out the decade we saw the Hershey chocolate bar come along in 1894 and Jell-O in 1896. Granted the decade also contained the horrific meat-packing quality issues that became exposed by Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle in 1906 but that's a separate story.

    In 1896 the dry cell battery was invented and one can only imagine a world without AA and AAA batteries which go in just about anything electronic these days. Speaking of electronics the discovery of radioconduction by French scientist Edouard Branly in 1890 led to the eventual advent of wireless communication that came just after the turn of the 20th century by Guglielmo Marconi.

    The main thing that I'd have wanted to experience was the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. This was a place to see all of these new innovations in one place. Since the mid-1800's there have been more than 100 of these types of exhibitions worldwide. At this particular event which lasted 6 months the more than 27 million attendees got to witness the debut of Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Cream of Wheat cereal. They also were amazed by a dishwasher machine, the first commemorative coins and postcards.

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Public Domain)

    However despite 'Buffalo Bill' Cody setting up shop just outside of the walls to siphon off some guests with his Wild West show the World's Fair held all of the cards with its giant 264-foot tall revolving steel wheel. Invented by steel magnate George Ferris Jr., the 'Ferris Wheel' stole the show with 1.4 million people paying 50 cents each to ride it. This meant on its own it made $700,000 ($20.2 million in 2020) at the World's Fair. It would have been amazing to be there to experience the plethora of new inventions, seeing them with the wonder that people of the time did.

    I would have loved to have been alive during the 1890's. For me I find that era to be the perfect link between past and present. Wide open spaces with the first flickers of current technology. However of course it's all subjective, some people might think this would be a dumb time to be alive. So how about it? If you could live or visit another time when would it be and why?


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