1908 - a restless U.S. moves toward greater things

Henry Ford's Model T and the Wright Bros. 'aeroplane' reshape the world's culture.

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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.

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.

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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."

Adam Raczkowski, a Polish immigrant in Wilmington, Del., was typical of young immigrant men. He wrote to his sister in Poland early in l908: "I will tell you about myself, how I am doing in America. I have not yet experienced poverty in America; on the contrary, I am my brother's support. But I am tired of walking about unmarried. Although I could give my wife enough to live, still I fear lest poverty should look me in the eyes."

The median age in the young nation in 1900 was 22.9 years (compared with 34.5 years in l996). "Except in the immigrant classes and working classes," Ms. Gabaccia says, "most young women worked prior to marriage. Black women worked prior to and during marriage. At this time, it was increasingly accepted that even a young woman from the middle class could work as a secretary before she married."

While many educated women joined the suffrage movement, others delved into improving social conditions in neighborhoods and joined the Anti-Saloon League. Still others joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization was launched in 1909 following the nearly total destruction of the black community by whites in a Springfield, Ill., anti-black riot in l908.

In Chicago, Jane Addams started Hull House in the slums of the city. Her pioneering work there for youths brought her a Nobel Prize in 1931.

After a survey of 466 movie theaters, or nickelodeons, in Chicago on a Sunday in 1909, Addams was concerned enough to record her conclusions, which read remarkably like the views of some of today's critics, alarmed at the influence of movies and TV.

"It was discovered that ... the leading theme [in the theaters] was revenge;" Addams wrote, "the lover following his rival; the outraged husband seeking his paramour, or the wiping out by death of a blot on a hitherto unstained honor. It was estimated that one-sixth of the entire population of the city had attended that day. At the same moment the churches were preaching the gospel of good will. Is this not a striking commentary upon the contradictory influences to which the city youth is constantly subjected?"

Equally alarmed in 1908, the mayor of New York closed all 550 movie houses because he considered them lowbrow and racy. Expensive licensing fees and reviews boards followed before the houses were reopened.

Just as silent movies grew out of America's vigorous entrepreneurial climate, and were growing in number in l908, other events, developments, and discoveries, occurred that year.

* Columbia introduced 78 r.p.m. "records" with recordings on both sides.

* SOS, the universal distress signal in Morse code, was adopted by mariners and shipping lines.

* General Motors was formed combining Buick and Oldsmobile, and later Cadilliac and Chevrolet.

* The total amount of Andrew Carnegie's contributions to social causes over the years reached $141 million in l908.

* Jim Crow laws prevailed in the South, making it illegal for blacks and whites to share the same facilities.

* Stanford University president David Starr Jordon said "American brand football [is] unethical, unchristian, and unsportsmanlike." He favored rugby.

* Cellophane was invented by Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger.

* The forerunner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was created by the US attorney general, and became the FBI in 1909.

* "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" was written by Albert VonTilzer and Jack Norworth, a song that popularized Cracker Jack.

* German housewife Melitta Bentz invented a coffee-filtering system.

* The population of San Diego, Calif. was about 39,000.

* Less than 2 percent of farmers owned motorcars, and half of all Americans lived on farms.

* The Racine Confectioners Machinery Company invented a machine that put hard candy on a stick. The lollipop, or sucker, was born.

On the world scene, America's leaders no longer saw their country as an upstart nation. They wanted America known as a mature, world power under President Theodore Roosevelt. "There was intense pride among educated and political leaders that the US was a very powerful industrial nation," says Gabaccia, "and therefore should pull more of its own weight in world politics. They wanted to be a bit more like a European empire."

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