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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?

By Ross Atkin / February 2, 1999

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.

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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.

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.