The Era of Something Beginning

Entertainments at the Turn of the Century

Ragtime, a distinctly American musical style with a syncopated rhythm, gained popularity at the end of the 1800s. Ragtime evolved out of African-American music, but quickly became a style of music composed by and loved by a wider population. Ragtime was everywhere by the early 1900s—from sheet music to piano rolls to ragtime piano playing contests; the style was the biggest musical fad of the day. Ragtime music characterized an era of change with a fast moving, catchy sound that combined marches with the rhythms of African music. Through the slightly off-meter rhythm of syncopation, ragtime moved along at a pace unlike any other popular music of the time. Controversy met the rise of ragtime music, as it has many other musical styles. A musician’s convention wanted to officially dub ragtime ‘unmusical rot’. Some were also concerned with the moral decay that ragtime music’s jumpy rhythms might bring to America’s youth. Regardless of this controversy, ragtime music has persisted for over one hundred years, and has experienced several revivals of its popularity throughout the last century.
From the 1880s to the 1920s, vaudeville was the most popular entertainment in America. Featuring comedians, singers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers, and many other performers, vaudeville was the quintessential variety show. Successful vaudeville acts toured over 40 weeks a year, and they often had more than one show in a day. Performers suffered from poor working conditions, but made respectable pay compared to many other jobs. Vaudeville’s 50-year reign over the American entertainment scene ended in the 1930s with the Great Depression and the rising popularity of movies.
Atlantic City built a boardwalk as a tourist attraction in 1870, and the city later expanded the boardwalk due to its popularity. By the turn of the century, the Atlantic City Boardwalk was a booming vacation spot, and new hotels and businesses sprouted up everywhere. Vaudeville acts and other entertainers flocked to “The World’s Playground” to perform and hone their acts. Tourists from all over the United States and the world came to Atlantic City to enjoy the beach, the entertainment, and the atmosphere.
The first films were short snippets of everyday occurrences like a horse running or a train pulling out of a station. Starting in the 1880s and 1890s, these early films fascinated people with the ability to capture the reality of day-to-day life. Soon, the possibilities of film expanded to include plot lines and actors, and audiences flocked to movie houses. Seeing a film became prime entertainment throughout the country, and from 1906 onward, the production and exhibition of films grew worldwide.

Innovations at the Turn of the Century

The age of Ragtime was an era of change, and much of that change came from innovations in technology and industry. The musical Ragtime includes one of the greatest inventors of his day, Henry Ford. Ford was only one of many great innovators; many technologies we take for granted today were created in the early 1900s.

The Model T was an automobile produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1908 to 1927. Ford built over 15 million Model Ts, and due to new assembly line production methods, the cost of the automobile became much more reasonable for the American public. At one point, the Model T comprised 40% of all automobile sales in the United States.
In 1910, after assembling nearly 12,000 Model Ts, Henry Ford moved the company to the new Highland Park complex. During this time the Model T production system transitioned into an iconic example of assembly line production. As a result, Ford's cars came off the line in three-minute intervals, much faster than previous methods, reducing production time from 12.5 hours before to 93 minutes by 1914, while using less manpower. In 1914, Ford produced more cars than all other automakers combined. The Model T was a great commercial success, and by the time Henry made his 10 millionth car, half of all cars in the world were Fords. It was so successful Ford did not purchase any advertising between 1917 and 1923; instead, the Model T became so famous, people considered it a norm.
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first people to successfully fly a self-propelled, heavier than air aircraft. Inspired by the glider flights of a German engineer, and armed with their skills in building bicycles, the brothers set out to design several versions of different aircraft. After a number of hits and misses with gliders, the brothers finally successfully piloted a propelled aircraft in December of 1903.
In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi broadcasted the first transatlantic radio signal, allowing for safer maritime travel and further communication worldwide.
The first machine patented in the United States to show moving pictures was called a zoopraxiscope, which allowed pictures to be watched through a slit in the mechanism, but was a far cry from what we know today as film. The first motion picture cameras were invented in the late 1890s, and soon watching short films became a source of entertainment for people around the world.

Social & Political Issues in the Progressive Era

Ragtime takes place in the midst of the Progressive Era in America, a general term used for a series of social and political responses to the problems created through industrialization, urbanization, and different areas of American life.

Race Relations & the Immigrant Experience

The era of Ragtime was a troubled time in the history of race relations in America. Large numbers of immigrants entered the country and racism towards African-Americans continued after the abolition of slavery. In 1896, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case legitimized the idea of “separate but equal,” leading to the continuance of restrictive and discriminatory Jim Crow laws throughout much of the United States. The laws varied by state, but many of the regulations centered on separating white facilities from facilities for people of color, which led to the segregation of most public institutions. While discrimination towards blacks was the most insidious example of racism in America, immigrants also faced bigotry and hardship. Between 1870 and 1900, over 12 million immigrants came to the United States, many through New York, which was then known as, “The Golden Door.” In cities with high immigrant populations, newcomers to the U.S. were often stereotyped, harassed, and sometimes met with violence. Finding work that paid a living wage was especially hard for immigrants, and many people faced discrimination in the workplace and on the streets. Tenement housing was the only option for many immigrants, and the poor living conditions were often unbearable. The obstacles to equality were huge, but individuals including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois advocated for civil rights. For immigrants, the settlement house movement and other social programs helped them find their way in a new country.

Women's Movement

By 1900, 20% of American women were employed outside of the home. Unfortunately, many women held low-paying jobs with no hope for advancement. As more women found themselves with roles outside of being mothers and wives, they founded organizations to deal with issues ranging from suffrage to the right to vote to working conditions. While the suffrage movement began in the mid-1800s, it gained steam during the Progressive era, with more women becoming involved as the new century arrived. In June of 1919, Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment, and women secured the right to vote nationwide in 1920.

Labor Movement

The Industrial Revolution brought great progress to the U.S., but also many new problems for the laboring class. Overcrowding, child labor, poor working conditions, sweatshops, and excessively long work hours were all issues that arose in the age of industrialization. As conditions worsened, but the economy improved, workers started to organize through labor unions. The first large union was the Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869. Labor organizers hoped to eventually unionize all workers, but that was an uphill battle. Unorganized workers held many strikes and protests in the second half of the 19th century, and these protests brought many changes to labor laws: the enactment of minimum wages, child labor regulations, and maximum hours per day. The advent of the American labor movement met much opposition; factory owners often called in police or punished participants who participated in labor protests. Despite the consequences, the American labor movement continued, with many labor victories and expansion of membership in the first several decades of the 20th century.

New Political Forces

At the turn of the 20th century, several new political movements gained support in the United States: the Progressive Movement and the Socialist Movement. Both political parties sought social change in the form of reforming education, improving public works, supporting workers, and generally finding ways to help the common people. The Progressives were an offshoot of the Republican Party, while the Socialists chose to disassociate themselves with the dominant political parties. Both groups found footholds in the political arena, and social change came from some of the actions of these groups. Anarchism also gained some political clout during this time, due to activists such as Emma Goldman, who is a featured character in Ragtime. The Progressives and Socialists advocated more government involvement, but anarchists thought that a society without government based on social cooperation was the ideal. While their tactics and philosophies seemed extreme, they shared goals of social change with the more accepted Progressive and Socialist movements.
Sources: Milwaukee Rep Ragtime Study Guide, Wikipedia