1908 - a restless U.S. moves toward greater things
Henry Ford's Model T and the Wright Bros. 'aeroplane' reshape the world's culture.
The early summer of 1908 in Boston was a scorcher. Humid heat pressed the clogged city streets. In nearby Chelsea, where nearly a third of the city was destroyed in an April fire started by a cigarette smoker, rebuilding was under way.Skip to next paragraph
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A few noisy automobiles scooted among the horses and trolley cars of Boston, a city that had pioneered new forms of transportation, including America's first subway in 1897.
But just about any worker sweltering in a textile mill, or homemaker in a long skirt, tended to see the automobile as a toy of the wealthy, or for racers only. The White Steamer Model O - "noiseless, odorless, smokeless, and absolutely free of vibration" - sold for $2,000 in Boston, more than triple the average annual income of the working class.
Awe and scorn were typical reactions to cars. The federal government called them a "destroyer of roads," and suggested municipalities tax the cranky four-wheelers for road repairs. A judge in New York, angry at a chauffeur for "overspeeding" in an automobile, put the lout in jail for 30 days.
But when Model T's started appearing in and around Boston in late l908, attitudes changed. Henry Ford's new, rugged, wonder car sold for $850, a price within reach of the thrifty common man. Such was Ford's visionary intent, to make the sturdy automobile affordable to the American working stiff. As he sold more and more, he lowered the price to $260.
"Your car lifted us out of the mud," a farmer's wife wrote to him years later, characterizing what 15 million Model T's had done for a nation. Production of the T didn't stop until l927.
The Model T was probably the marquee historical event of l908. It proved to be the trigger for nearly a century of technological and cultural change, and in shaping attitudes toward personal mobility and speed. The Wright Brothers, and their "aeroplane," first flown in l903, and developed further in 1908, earn maximum credit, too, for influencing America's direction and character, and ultimately changing the world.
"In 1908 the sense of America as the biggest and the fastest in everything was just getting under way," says Robert Bannister, professor emeritus of history at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., "and eventually it became a cult of speed that culminated after World War I."
The character of the Model T also dovetails with the reform movement under way that sought to change harsh conditions for industrial workers. Politically, 1908 is part of the Progressive Era. A muscle-bound America, having grown rapidly into an industrial colossus through the excesses of capitalism and political corruption, saw the rise of an angry labor movement.
"Progress is born of agitation," said Eugene Debs in l908. The famous socialist orator, who ran for president three times, and was jailed for his beliefs, spoke on behalf of miners, steelworkers, and child laborers. They often worked 10 hours a day, six and a half days a week. Nearly 1 million children were full-time workers at the turn of the century and into the 1910s.
"One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton mill [is] ten years old," wrote Lewis Hine, who photographed child laborers between 1908 and 1912. "She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. 48 cents a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, 'I don't remember.' " Other journalists of the day also helped bring reforms. "Muckrakers" like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell uncovered abuses and corruption by simply writing about what they saw.
As the flow of immigrants continued, reaching record levels between 1905 and 1910, workers knew they could easily be replaced by arriving immigrants.
"By 1908 we are looking at a very savvy group of migrant peoples," says Donna Gabaccia, a professor of American history at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. "Often they came to work here without expecting to stay. About half of all Italians went back. There is a great deal of moving around by males in cities, deciding whether to marry or return home or call for a fiance or a family from the home country."