The fun they had, back in 1899

The last time the United States prepared to turn the page on a newcentury was 100 years ago. What was it like to be a kid then?

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We can reach for history books, encyclopedias, and even almanacs to find the big events of a century ago. But to understand the day-to-day lives of children, they're not much help.

Instead, historians examine collections of toys, dolls, and photographs in museums to find out what kids played with. They read old diaries and autobiographies to find out what growing up was like. Scholars even look at old catalogs, newspaper clippings, magazines, and government studies for hints about daily life.

From all these things, researchers can start piecing things together, what it was like to ride a bike, for instance.

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Imagine three boys speeding down a hill on their bikes in 1899. The hill is steep, and they need to slow down! One boy drags his feet on the ground - his bike has no brakes. A second boy applies a "spoon" brake, a metal plate that rubs against the rear tire to slow him down.

Only the third boy is confident he'll be able to stop. Why? Because he's got the latest in bicycle technology: a coaster brake! All he has to do is backpedal a bit, and metal plates inside the crank hub rub together and safely slow him down.

What else would you see if you got in a time machine and went back to 1899?

Get a job

You probably live in a suburb today. But in 1899, most children in America did not. There weren't many suburbs. Children and their families lived in cities or out in the country. More than half the people in the United States lived in small towns of fewer than 3,000 people.

Children worked. Most had full-time jobs by the time they were teens. And even young children on farms and in working-class city neighborhoods had to work to make ends meet.

In New York City in 1899, more than 100,000 children worked in factories. Many of these young workers were from immigrant families. We know that thousands of children in New York had jobs making artificial flowers. Thousands more in their early teens made paper, clothes, or envelopes for $3 a week. A teenage boy's dream job was delivering telegrams by bike. (You got to wear a uniform with shiny brass buttons.)

If you worked in the city, you probably got only an elementary-school education, if that. And in crowded apartment buildings (called tenements), having your own room was an undreamed-of luxury.

Boys, girls on same team

Parents seldom supervised their children's playtime. Youngsters wandered the neighborhood or countryside.

Boys commonly whittled and played marbles or mumblety peg (a jackknife-throwing game that would make your parents' hair stand on end today). Many had BB guns and popguns. The Daisy Air Rifle, heavily advertised in boys' magazines, was often purchased as a training gun.

Baseball was by far the most popular game. The first World Series would not be played until 1903. Little League didn't begin until 1939. But baseball still reigned supreme. Many children - boys and girls - played it informally in pickup sandlot games.

In cities, teams tended to be segregated by sex: boys on one team, girls on the other. But out in the country, everybody was invited to play because you needed enough kids for a game.

The equipment was as makeshift as the games. Baseballs were often made by wrapping small rubber balls with twine, then stitching on a cloth cover.

In the narrow neighborhood streets of New York, a variation of baseball called stickball caught on. It's still played there today.

Basketball, invented in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA in 1891, was a hard-charging new kid on the block. Football, though, was getting a bad reputation for being dangerous and violent. Youngsters didn't play it much. (President Teddy Roosevelt later demanded changes in football's rules. The changes made football safer and probably saved the sport.)

On schoolyards and playgrounds, traditional games like Duck-on-a-Rock (in which stones are thrown at a target) and Auntie-Over were popular. So was hopscotch, skipping rope, and rolling hoops with sticks. In the summer, children would spend hours converting sand piles into cities. (Does that sound familiar?)

Toys and games

With no TV or radio, families sometimes played cards or a board game by electric light. Such lights were increasingly common. Many board games of the time made fun of country bumpkins visiting the city.

Another board game was called the Motor Carriage Game. Its theme was an automobile trip. The funny thing was, there were only about 4,000 cars on US roads at the time.

Toys also began to reflect changes in transportation. Boys with toy horse-drawn wagons and carriages made of iron and tin now eyed horseless carriages (cars).

A company that made croquet sets even became a construction-toy success story when the owner discovered that the interlocking wooden pieces of his croquet boxes made great building toys. Crandall's Building Blocks were a forerunner of Lincoln Logs and LEGOs, you might say.

The best dolls came from Europe. They were expensive. A middle-class girl might have several and was expected to take good care of them. This wasn't easy, because these dolls were made of porcelain, which could crack or break.

Drygoods stores sold fabric with dolls printed on it. Girls could learn sewing by buying and assembling these doll "kits." In fact, dollmaking became a booming backyard industry in America. Women converted sheds to workshops and went into the dollmaking business. Baby dolls began to look more like babies, and dolls' facial expressions were more lively.

Women even made boy dolls -the "action figures" of their day - for their sons to play with.

The advent of stuffed-animal toys also increased the demand for soft dolls. The teddy bear arrived on the scene in 1902. (The bears were named "Teddy" in honor of then-President Theodore Roosevelt.)

Kewpie dolls, with their chubby figures and topknots, and Campbell Kid boy and girl dolls took off in popularity.

The softer dolls were lighter and safer. Old-style dolls sometimes had metal or wooden bodies and steel springs.

Safety was not a major concern for toys. In fact, alcohol-fueled toy steam engines - popular at the turn of the century -had a tendency to explode. Did that stop the company from making them? No, not in the era before the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

And, for a snack ...

No french fries. No peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. What was there to eat instead? Thanks to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, hamburgers and carbonated soda were available. That's also where Milton Hershey got the idea that a chocolate candy bar might sell well. Mr. Hershey had already made a fortune making caramels. He brought out the first Hershey bar in 1894.

Then there was Cream of Wheat cereal (not everyone's idea of a treat, perhaps), ice cream, tapioca pudding, Uneeda biscuits, and gumdrops. For poorer children, an orange at Christmas was a treat.

No play clothes

Blue jeans were worn by laborers, not children. Sweatshirts would not be around until much later. There was really no such thing as play clothes.

Boys wore short pants (called knickerbockers, or "knickers" for short), blousy shirts, and often a Norfolk jacket, which they would shed when playing. The girls, like their mothers, often wore ankle-length dresses and boots, or perhaps sailor suits with skirts, not pants.

And speaking of leisure, family vacations were virtually unknown. A typical family outing was a Saturday afternoon spent in town shopping with one's parents. Children might enjoy a small treat, but they couldn't play with the toys in the toy store. Children might not have been able to even see the toys, for they were kept where only the people who could buy them could see them - grownups. A popular toy in devout homes was a carved Noah's ark set.

Occasionally a family might visit an amusement park, a circus, or take in a vaudeville performance - stage shows that featured singing, dancing, and comedy acts.

Today, one of the few glimpses you can get of turn-of-the century life is in Disneyland and Disney World. The Main Streets there are modeled on those of the 1890s.

It may seem to you that children a century ago were alien beings living in an ancient culture. Ragtime, not rock, was the popular music. Cars were rare, and the Spanish-American War was a fresh memory.

Then again, any kids who love baseball, candy bars, and the circus can't be all that strange.

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