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Millennium series: 1900-1919

  • Mary Naber
  • 1999 27 Dec
Millennium series: 1900-1919
In our first article in the millennium series, Mary Naber argues that the early 1900's played the most significant role in the century.

Without question, the first two decades of the twentieth century influenced America more so than any other era. The extraordinary events of 1900-1919 laid the foundation for the tragedy and triumph that was to follow.

The centurys most essential innovations for technological progress were developed in these years as Alexander Graham Bell attended to final touches on the telephone and Thomas Edison invented the first electric lightbulb, durable storage battery, and motion picture camera. Two bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright constructed their first glider in 1902, and sailed 120 feet through the air on their first motored flight in 1903. In the first modern day assembly-line, Henry Ford mass produced cars, selling millions of his black Model Ts for $825. Cars gave Americans a profound sense of freedom and control over their life journeys.

These days heralded new forms of entertainment as well, from roller coasters to the first five cent motion picture, The Great Train Robbery, in 1903. Each one gave way to industries and an American appetite for entertainment that would influence the rest of the century.

But the darker side of life with technology also emerged. An economic boom resulted from the organization of great industrialists such as Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan -- who had just introduced US Steel, the first $1 billion corporation, at the turn of the century. Yet the money on the exterior exacted a cost on the interior. Cities such as Pittsburgh were covered in soot. Factory conditions for many companies were horrifying. Human beings often died or lost arms and legs in old machinery, while laboring in excessively hot or cold, unsanitary conditions for 16 hour shifts, six days a week.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle and joined other muckrakers such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell in raising awareness of these human abuses and child
labor. A number of Americans also stepped up the rally for reform under the Progressivism Movement. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1908) did a great deal to advance such social issues, by supporting the United Mine Workers strike in 1902 and founding the Federal Food and Drugs Administration. He also served as an avid trust buster, breaking up monopolies under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1886. Roosevelts successor William Howard Taft (1909-1912) continued this work, most notably in the historic break-up of Rockefellers Standard Oil Company in 1911.

The first two decades of the century also provided humanity with a few reminders that technology is not an indestructible god. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
destroyed many buildings as fire ravaged the city for five days, left 3000 dead or missing, and left an ebullient cultural center struggling to understand the reality of mother nature. A simple iceberg shook our confidence in the sturdiness of a manmade fortress as the mighty Titanic sank in 1912, killing 1500 people.

The huge economic boom of the 1900s helped place the United States in a position of world power. Under Roosevelt, the US directed the construction of the Panama Canal, which had far-reaching impact on trade throughout the century. In addition, Roosevelt provided important forward-looking leadership with his numerous environmental policies and declarations of National Landmarks.

Some look upon World War I, from 1914-1918 as the recognition of technologys potentially tragic impact when used against mankind. No eye had ever witnessed such mass destruction of life as machine guns slaughtered dozens at a time and chemical warfare left men suffocated or in seizures. At the end of the four years, 10 million people
had perished and 21 million others were wounded.

The Great War began with Austria-Hungarys invasion of Serbia following a Serbians assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Secret alliances and
nationalism and hunger for more territory escalated the conflict. The fighting began with the Allies (France, Britain, Russia) opposing the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany). By 1917, the battle on the Western Front had reached a stalemate, with millions of deaths and a few miles of movement back and forth. Germany orchestrated
the revolutionary Lenins return to Russia, where he led in a civil uprising and then conceded defeat to the Central Powers.

The US entered the War in 1917, in response to the 1915 German destruction of the Lusitania passenger boats, and other US cargo ships. By the miracle of God, the Allied forces mustered the power to overcome the Central Powers. The British Navy also played an indispensable role by keeping supplies and food from reaching Germany. Armistice was announced November 11, 1918.

World War I had a few positive impacts on the United States. Many black people, who were subjected to lynchings and unjust Jim Crowe laws in the South, moved north in the Great Migration to fill in the factory jobs of workers who left for war. Women who also filled in the workworld and began working even more actively for suffrage and other rights.

European countries were ravaged by the war, leaving them in great debt and thus establishing the US as an even greater economic and military power in the world. The Big Four met to discuss final peace agreements at the Paris Peace Conference. Heads of Britain, France, and Italy paid little attention to US President Woodrow Wilsons Fourteen Points because of their great sacrifices. They instead demanded extensive reparations from Germany in the final Treaty of Versailles. Under the threat of invasion,
Germany was forced to sign over all its territories and armaments, while taking responsibility for the war and its bills. The demands on the country were almost impossible, and ultimately led to the resentment and retaliation fueling Hitler into World War II. Russia had begun its Communist experiment, which evinced far-reaching impact
into the century, from colony conflicts to the Cold War.

As the rest of the century unfolds, we will see America as it blossoms, and we'll watch as a few weeds take root.

Check back all week as we review each decade of the century. Click here to read about the 1920s and 1930s.