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'America 1908' Draws Similarities Between Today, Century Ago


Eight years into the 21st century, it is fair to say that this is a time of change and challenge in America. But that's nothing new. The America of 100 years ago was also a country in the midst of change and extraordinary innovation. A new book recalls the nation in that exciting year and compares it to the America we know today. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

For Americans in 2008, 1908 seems like the distant past. American men do not wear derby hats anymore, and American women no longer wear dresses that sweep the floor. Still, according to Jim Rasenberger, the author of America 1908, America today is similar in important ways to America back then.

"This was particularly true in the cities," he says, "where people [already] lit their homes with electricity and spoke on the telephone. In some cities they rode the subways to work. And if they went into a store they bought some of the same brand-name items that we buy today, such as Kellogg's breakfast cereal, and Coca Cola soft drinks."

1908 was also an extraordinary year in baseball. In fact, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the game's unofficial national song, was written and recorded that year.

Of course, American demographics have changed. A century ago, America was a nation of less than 90 million people, 90 percent of whom were Caucasian. Now, there are more than 300 million Americans and only 75 percent of them are white.

One hundred years ago, half of all Americans lived in rural areas. Today, most Americans live in urban areas. But wherever Americans lived in 1908, Rasenberger says, most believed they were at the dawn of a new age, and that America – and Americans – would define it.

"Americans looked around and they saw so many remarkable things happening," he says. "Huge skyscrapers were going up in the cities. Wireless communication was a huge thing in 1908. People would talk about the future of the wireless, telephone, and organ transplants."

1908 was also the year that the Wright Brothers – who'd launched the era of powered flight five years earlier – held the first major public demonstrations of their historic "flying machine." "And they just blew people's minds away," says Rasenberger. "I mean, when you see two young men from Dayton, Ohio, discovering the secret of flight, it almost gives you a sense of, well, 'there really is something special about Americans!'"

Even more significant, 1908 was the year Henry Ford introduced his Model "T" motorcar. It was the first automobile that was affordable for middle class families. Rasenberger believes that development, perhaps as much as any in the 20th century, was responsible for what America would become. "The road system was developed. People began moving out to these automobile suburbs. Fast food came about because of automobiles, and the vacations we take. So people had great hopes for the car in 1908."

Looking back, some of those hopes, such as that cars would make for cleaner city air than horses, were almost humorously misguided. In 1908, there were some 120,000 horses on New York streets, each dropping about 9 kilograms of manure a day. These piles would dry, turn to dust, and get blown into the air. Public health officials believed this caused widespread respiratory problems. Cars, they felt, would end that unhealthful situation.

Social mobility in America is far greater today than in 1908, when a philosophy called Social Darwinism still had a significant following. Social Darwinists believed that the tendency toward poverty, disease and criminality was "built-in" among the lower classes. They insisted it was nature, not nurture, which determined one's fate and social standing.

But the early years of the 20th century also saw the beginnings of the so-called "Progressive" movement spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt. It said that how children are raised has a powerful impact on what kind of citizens they grow up to be. "So we have a duty and an obligation to give them good environments as they are growing up," explains Rasenberger. "Take them off the streets. Give them good schools, good playgrounds, and good nutrition."

Then, as now, America was a powerful magnet for immigrants. The oft-used term "melting pot" was coined in 1908. Rasenberger believes that influx, more than anything else, helped create America's hopeful, "can do" attitude.

"By their very nature, those who immigrate to America tend to be hopeful people," he says. "Otherwise they wouldn't bother to come. They come here to make their lives better, and with the hope that they can do that."

By most measures, Americans are better off today than they were 1908. The nation is richer and more egalitarian. Its people are healthier and better educated. Yet, according to a recent survey, Americans are far less optimistic than they once were. According to Rasenberger, that may be because we are living with the consequences of some of the wonderful machines that came about 100 years ago.

"It's hard to look at an airplane and not in the back of our mind be aware of all the bombs that have been dropped over the decades. We've seen 9/11. We can't look at an automobile now without understanding that they pollute the environment, they make us depend on foreign oil, and they get us involved in these foreign entanglements."

Still, Jim Rasenberger makes clear in his book America 1908 that he remains hopeful. "We are a nation," he says, "that must be measured by the size of its ambition, at least as much as by its achievements."

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