David Traxel

    David Traxel
    May 19, 2000

    1898. America was getting wired. Not for computers of course, but for electricity to power the relatively new invention of the light bulb. From Edison, to Ford, to Westinghouse, Americans were tinkering in garages. The inventions that came out of them — phonographs, automobiles, movies — would change the country and made Americans feel confident that for the first time they were major players on the world stage.

    So many things that we think of as quintessentially American came to light in 1898 — even slick political campaigning. William McKinley was being marketed like a consumer product. And why not? Americans were buying more products than ever. They were going to movies, eating Uneeda biscuits, and dancing their feet off. Entertainment was becoming an industry.

    Internationally the U.S. was showing off its new brawn during the Spanish-American War. The world watched as the Great White Fleet sailed America onto the world stage. The sinking of the Maine and the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill are just a sampling of the stories that make Traxel's retelling of the "splendid little war" riveting. He demonstrates how a path and mindset was being forged to bring the U.S. to superpower status.


    1898 is a true-to-life image not only of an enthusiastic America, but one that drank too much, had a troubling suicide-rate, and an abysmal record in addressing women's and labor rights. In Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court promulgated the notion of separate but equal rights for blacks and whites. Meanwhile, lynching of African Americans was not uncommon. According to Traxel, this year was one of "victory, invention, internal strife and industrial expansion;" one that defined the century.

    1898 is when the modern American identity was created. Although the 20th century began in the year 1901, the "American Century" actually began three years earlier according to Traxel. Traxel gives the reader a taste of American life on the eve of the "American Century." The riotous celebration sets the stage for what would be an unforgettable year.

    Hailing from California, Traxel received his B.A. in History from the University of California, Berkeley and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently an associate professor of History at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

    Professor Traxel's latest endeavor will take him back to 1914. Also a time of great change and expansion, he plans to conduct an in-depth study into the United States before, during and after involvement in the First World War. Included in this history will be a look into the newly emerging industries that changed the American culture, namely the automobile and film making industries.


    US Welcome! It is Friday, May 19, 2000. We are sitting with David Traxel in our offices outside of Philadelphia. The morning has been stormy, but the computers keep running! Professor David Traxel is joining us for an online chat about the historically rich year 1898.
    Will In the first part of your book, you discuss how the "glorious military achievements" of the men in the Civil War gave men who didn't serve, or the sons of Civil War soldiers, almost an inferiority complex, that is, they felt the need to prove themselves. But my understanding of the Civil War is that it was wretched by all counts.
    Prof Traxel By 1898, the horrors and there were great horrors, had been forgotten. In what was remembered, were the deeds of daring and bravery, and even more the fact that the War had been fought for great principles. Both sides were seen as having fought for great principles — the North for keeping the Union together and freeing the slaves, and the South for the cause of its independence. And while those like Theodore Roosevelt, whose fathers had not fought, were particularly driven to prove themselves. Actually that whole generation, even the children of men who had fought felt inspired to a life of action, particularly if it could have been tied to great moral principles. This is going to be one of the driving factors in the Spanish-American War.
    JacobZ What was the relationship between the Northern and Southern states in 1898?
    Prof Traxel There had been a period of great bitterness after the War, which had been slowly healing, and one of the things that the Spanish-American War does is bring that healing to completion. But, there is a great price that is paid for this coming together of the sections, and that is paid by African Americans. Essentially the Federal government does not make any effort, even though run by the Republican Party, which the blacks had always supported. But now the bringing together of the nation was seen as most important.
    Pinksiva What were race relations like in 1898?
    Prof Traxel In November of 1898, there is a terrible race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, which results in the driving out of the black middle class by white extremists, who essentially are jealous of the economic success of these African Americans. The African Americans petitioned Republican President McKinley for help. But, nothing was done, because the bringing together of the sections was seen as more important.
    Will Thomas Edison's comment about making a pristine valley more beautiful by dotting it with factories was amazing. Where did you find that quote?
    Prof Traxel I found it in a biography of Edison. I agree it is an amazing quote, partly because Edison means it absolutely sincerely. His secretary sees a valley and he asks what she sees. She describes the beautiful valley. He says he will make it more beautiful...by dotting it with factories. This is very much in the temper of the times. 1898 is the year that the conservation movement is split between advocates of nature for its own sake (John Muir) and advocates for what was called "rational use" of resources, who were led by Gifford Pinchot. And Edison captured that drive ... that sense that nature was there to be used ... and that if you used it, it would make it more beautiful. This was definitely in the American mainstream of the time.
    Will What do you think Muir, Pinchot, Edison and the average Joe from 1898 would have to say about the recent Los Alamos fire?
    Prof Traxel A real hard question because they would all be against an accidental fire. But Muir would have probably supported the program of the Park Service that allows that if a fire is started naturally that you don't immediately go and put it out, that is, if no lives or property are in danger. For example, the huge Yellowstone fire a while back Pinchot was interested in logging the maximum amount that was rational and he would have believed in immediately putting out fires. Even though certain types of trees require a burn-over now and then in order to seed themselves.
    Morrisvil It would be interesting to know the source of African American wealth at that time. Was it largely from commerce with the white community, or the black, or an equal mix of both?
    Prof Traxel In Wilmington, part of it came from owning stores and providing professional services to other blacks, but also there were Federal government positions that paid very well. Since there was a Republican president, he had appointed a black Republican as customs collector in Wilmington and that position paid a greater salary than the Governor of the state received. But, the situation in Wilmington was fairly unusual. And of course, most African-Americans suffered from poverty.
    David You mention that Edison had said that he "didn't care so much for the great fortune, as I do for getting ahead of the other fellow." You then claim that the first part of this statement was "obviously absurd" because of the mores of the late 19th century. Please tell us more about the attitudes towards financial gain and the mores of the era.
    Prof Traxel There had been always, in American life, a suspicion of great wealth. Particularly if someone's life seemed dedicated to gaining great wealth at the cost of morals or a decent life. And yet, the spirit of entrepreneurship was very strong. And Edison is a perfect example of this. So is Henry Ford, who comes close to being the richest man in America in the 1920s, but who still continued to live as simply as possible. And who led great campaigns of uplift morally and also in regards to health for his workers and for Americans in general — anti-smoking, anti-drinking. So wealth was okay if it were used in a moral way. That was the general public attitude, but of course there were great exceptions and sometimes a rather hypocritical attitude about this. That is, people would amass great fortunes and build large houses, large yachts, and estates, but even then, you have a drive to share much of this wealth. Andrew Carnegie, who does become the richest American at the turn of the century and gives much away to build libraries, found libraries, and promote world peace. Rockefeller is another example of a man of great wealth who does also do great charitable deeds. Though certainly the family has held on to the great bulk of the fortune.
    Tinky It seems like 1898 was a great year for "start-ups"? Where did the equivalent of venture capital come from?
    Prof Traxel There were a number of ways. One was through the stock market. There were the great financiers like Morgan, but also local businessmen would often provide capital for an entrepreneur like Henry Ford. Ford organizes his first automobile company about this time and he is financed by local businessmen. This company fails, partly because the businessmen do not give him free reign. In 1903 he started his second and very successful company. Again the capital came from local businessmen. This turned out to be the best investment they ever made. In 1920 Ford bought back their stock so that he would have complete independence.
    JacobZ How important of a role did Manifest Destiny play in the beginning of the Spanish-American War?
    Prof Traxel Manifest Destiny — a continuous movement to the west — didn't play a direct role. Although it had an influence. More important was the American outrage over Spanish atrocities in Cuba, the desire on the part of many (like Roosevelt) to show that the U.S. should be given respect as a world power. And, of course, the blowing up of the Maine in Havana harbor. There is a real mix of motives that drives the country to war.
    Leigh What role did yellow journalists play in the Spanish-American war?
    Prof Traxel Journalism as a whole played an important role. Yellow journalism, the sensationalistic press exemplified by Hearst and Pulitzer, did fan the flames of American anger--both about the atrocities in Cuba and about the blowing up of the Maine. But perhaps equally important were the tales of the legitimate press, like the NY Times about the atrocities, and there were atrocities. The Yellow press would exaggerate them and actually at times make up stories but the core truth was there. The Maine, of course, is still a mystery. What did cause that explosion? The Yellow press immediately started screaming that it had been some kind of diabolical device. In other words, a mine set by the Spaniards and the official investigation did come to the conclusion that it was a deliberate sabotage though the board said "by persons unknown."
    Tinky Graft is exactly what today's press loves to expose. Was there a complicity between the press and politicians in 1898?
    Prof Traxel Complicity ... hmmm ... No, in fact, one of the types of stories that the press loved to play with was municipal graft. And though the expose was not as systematic as it would be a few years later by the Muckrakers. There still were many stories in the newspapers about graft. And these helped spark many of the reform movements that were taking place in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia.
    Jonathan How was financing elections handled in 1898? Were there all kinds of lobbyists trying to protect the interest of the rich?
    Prof Traxel There were lobbyists, but the first real modern election in American history was that of 1896 between McKinley and William Jennings. Bryan. Bryan had some radical ideas about reforming the financial system and it scared the big capitalists, like Rockefeller, and also Carnegie, and many small business owners as well. Mark Hanna, who was McKinley's campaign manager, amassed a war chest of $20 million to use to win the election. This was the first lavishly supported political campaign. Bryan, the Democrat, had very little money, but he made his contribution to modern campaigning by hitting the campaign trail, crossing and re-crossing the country on the very efficient railroad system. Traditionally a Presidential candidate stayed at home and had others do his campaigning for him. Bryan, such a moving orator, realized that his only chance was through this kind of active campaigning. The power of his speaking can be seen in the fact that the baggage handlers on these trains would rush their loading and unloading of luggage so they could rush to the back of the train and hear Bryan speak again-- even though they may have heard the speech 10 or 15 times that day. McKinley did follow the traditional method of campaigning. He sat on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, and would greet thousands of supporters who would take special trains up to see him. In this way, he kept his dignity and seemed above the fray.
    Sebs It is impossible to think of 1898 in America and not think of Teddy Roosevelt. He was clearly in the American aristocracy, but he seems entirely different. How representative was he of the upper class at this time? If he was different, how different?
    Prof Traxel Roosevelt was definitely the man of the year. And he is different from everyone! Roosevelt had been born into a wealthy family and was given all the privileges of that wealth. But what he did with it was very unusual. He became one of the great experts on American natural history. He becomes, as well, very young, a historian, writing books about the American experience. And even more unusual for his class at that time, he becomes a politician. Politics is seen at the time, by the wealthy and even by many in the middle class, as dirty and undignified. Roosevelt recognizes this but also recognizes that this is where the power is. In 1898, he is Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he plays a major role in preparing the U.S. for victory in the Spanish-American War. As soon as he is confident that he has done all that he can do in that office, he resigns, (much against the advice of his friends) and helps organize the first volunteer cavalry, which become known as the Rough Riders. He then leads the Rough Riders to victory in Cuba, returns home, runs for governor of the state of New York, is elected, and in 1900 is elected Vice President of the U.S. McKinley is assassinated in 1901 and Roosevelt becomes President. All of this is made possible by what he has done in 1898. And he has also learned a great deal from his experiences in the Spanish-American War. He has learned more about common people and really does become an advocate of the common man.
    Tinky Tell us what chivalry meant to the average American in 1898?
    Prof Traxel Okay ... what chivalry meant to the average middle-class American was a code of conduct that was based on a Romantic idea of the code of chivalry. There was a great emphasis on one's personal honor and if one was insulted or if the lady with whom one was attending a dance or any place in public was insulted, you were expected to get physical about it. And that is why pharmacies in the 1890s usually had a specialist in treating black eyes. You were also expected by this code to be patriotic, to defer to women, and to be a gentleman. One of the side effects of this was that middle class women were put on the pedestal which limited their freedom of action.
    Sierra Were family interactions different than they are today?
    Prof Traxel Yes, but as with many things like this, the differences were also among the classes. In a middle class or upper class family, the father was the head of the household and the breadwinner ... the protector of all his dependents. Women were not expected to work, but to stay at home, manage the household, look after the children. For the working class, it was very different. Women had to work, as did children and, at the turn of the century, there are estimated to be 700,000 children between the ages of 10 and 15 working at full-time jobs, often very dangerous jobs, in coalmines and mills.
    Will I would like more background on how Americans' view of women changed at the end of the 19th century — from demure, god-fearing wives and daughters, to strong, athletic Gibson girls. It seemed like you attributed that changing attitude entirely to bicycles. Surely that wasn't the only thing that caused such a dramatic social shift?
    Prof Traxel No it wasn't the only thing. But it cannot be underestimated. This gave women a freedom of action and a mobility that had been denied them. One change, for example, was in the clothing they wore. It was very difficult to ride a bicycle in a full skirt. So the fact that clothes became less restricting gave women the chance to go for rides with friends, even sometimes with boyfriends. American women were really seen as marvels by many of the European visitors. They were astonished at the amount of freedom, and also at the beginnings of women entering professions. In the book there is the story of the two sisters who are working splitting rails in Wilmerding, PA. They were looked on with amusement and sometimes contempt by the local people, but it provided a much better living than cleaning houses. There were women doctors, lawyers, salespeople. They often had to suffer mockery but they were pioneers and persisted.
    Jonathan What did children do after school and for fun at this time?
    Prof Traxel Played with other children. There was very little structure outside the family when it came to playing. And I see this lament made all the time now. That is, that children don't really have any time of their own because of organized sports and other activities. At the turn of the century, it was unstructured. Here, too, the bicycle enters and liberates peoples' lives. One of the great pleasures for everyone was going to the city or the major thoroughfares of the city and watching people. It was one of the major sources of entertainment.
    Will Why doesn't anyone teach about John Dewey? It seems like his ideas about schooling were right on. People act like the problems in public schooling have just recently become an "issue," when, in fact, they have always been there!
    Prof Traxel I think there is more attention being paid to John Dewey. There were several recent books on him and his ideas. And he will continue to have an influence on American education. That was a good question!
    SarahTX Charles Chestnutt is "the first African-American fiction writer to enlist the white-controlled publishing industry to promote his social message." He's actually "mixed," grew up in NC during this time, and published his short stores first in 1899. Have you read his work and do you think he'd be a good read for students? I found his stories deeply moving through his humorous and painful look at the culture during this time.
    Prof Traxel I have only read one or two of his stories and I do believe they would be very valuable for young people today to read. I feel the same is true of W.E.B. Dubois, who was not a fiction writer but a sociologist and historian and one of the great intellects of the time.
    Pinksiva Did people drink more in 1898 than they do now? Why was there a push for Prohibition?
    Prof Traxel It's hard to have exact figures to compare the drinking. But bars, saloons, and men's clubs were very important social gathering places. The working class particularly used saloons as important places to relax. And also to organize their unions. They also drank at the same time. Alcoholism had been a long-standing problem in American life. It had caused violence both domestic and public. So, early in the 19th century, active campaigns were launched to either limit or outlaw drinking. By the 1890s, there had been a great deal of local success. Maine was dry. The town of Cambridge, MA was dry. This was true in places all across the nation. But at the turn of the century the struggle for a national law outlawing alcohol picks up force. It was going to be aided by the First World War in the interest of efficiency. But also some strength comes from a prejudice against new immigrants, like Germans, who liked their beer, and Italians, who drank wine. Even though this was done in moderation it was seen as a foreign habit that needed to be suppressed. In particular, it was a habit of the cities and rural Americans had great suspicion of the city and this was one way of striking back.
    Tinky Were there any Native American groups offering any resistance to the U.S. government?
    Prof Traxel Yes. The last armed battle took place in October of 1898 between the Ojibways of Minnesota and the U.S. Army. The Indians won that battle partly because the country had changed and now understood their resentment of, in this case crooked, Indian agents.
    US Time for one last question...
    Tinky If the 20th century belonged to America, who did the 19th century belong to?
    Prof Traxel Great Britain!
    US Professor Traxel, thank you very much for joining us today.
    Pinksiva thank you
    JacobZ thank you so much!
    Jonathan Thank you for the session
    Tinky fabulous...thanks for your participation
    Andy thanks for stopping by!
    Will Thank you Professor, I especially enjoyed your discussion of the events leading up to the sinking of the USS Maine — it was more exciting than a Tom Clancy novel!
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