The “Gay 90’s”

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This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.

Looking backward over the trail of American life, one decade stands out in fascinating glitter and has very appropriately been labeled the “Gay 90’s.” It seems that all the ugliness, scandals and sufferings of these years have been forgotten and only the joys and laughter survive. This glare and fanfare enveloped all classes of society and all phases of life, perhaps the inevitable conditions of a time when quickly won fortunes and rapidly increasing populations cried for amusement and new sensations.

The perfection of electric lighting and introduction of electric lighted signs created what George M. Cohan later dubbed the “Great White Way” in New York City and a thousand lesser “White Ways” throughout the country. Thoroughfares were dotted with a new type of amusement-place, in which long lines of electrically-motivated stereopticons, forerunner of the motion picture, were operated by a penny in the slot. Views of every kind could be seen, from a simulation of the ballet, alleged pictures of the beaches of Deauville, the latest Southern lynching and the famous prize-fights of the day. For years one of the greatest attractions was supposed views of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of May 31, 1889, in which more than 8,000 lives were lost.

Facing the picture-machines were similar long rows of phonographs, furnished with rubber ear-tubes, with which one listened to the latest music-hall “hits” at a penny a tune. Punch-testers, strength-testers, trick mirrors, electric vibrators added to the glamour; nor must we forget the fortune-telling tents, the ping-pong photographic booths, the Japanese stalls where prizes were given for ringing the canes or rolling a certain number of balls into impossible holes, and last, but by no means least, the music stalls in the rear where popular music and songs were “plugged” and sold.

Public amusement “parks” of various types now blossomed in all their glory, whether in woodland playgrounds, as in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, or in treeless seashore places, such as famous Coney Island, New York. In these parks, in addition to enlarged and glorified rows and groups of machines, as described above, were dance-halls, scenic-rails, skating-rinks, slides, carousels, lakes, ornamental fountains, theaters and restaurants of all prices, quality and kinds.

In those days trolley-cars were looked on as a luxury—though they were mostly of the “dinky” type which have long since disappeared. Folks (believe it or not) chartered them by the hour, afternoon or day, just to take their groups for a ride.

To the parks on these trolley-cars went millions nightly; others went by train, bicycle or carriage. For this was the dawning of the Age of Speed.

As a fitting introduction of this speed motif, the famous Miss Nellie Ely, sponsored and publicized by the New York World, traveled around the world between November 14, 1889, and January 27, 1890—exactly 72 days 6 hours and 10 minutes, out-speeding Jules Verne’s imagination by a week. When the Goliath of the prize-ring, John L. Sullivan, fell beneath the flying fists of a San Francisco bank-clerk, the reign of Speed was everywhere conceded.

No picture of life in this decade can omit the tremendous influence of the bicycle craze, which was at its height from 1890 to 1900. It might be truly said that the whole population was awheel. Anyone who was old enough or young enough to ride a bicycle did so. No store, from the country grocery to the city department store, was complete without its bicycle rack, where customers’ “bikes” could be checked, chained or just left on faith.

As the decade advanced, the sight of power-propelled vehicles became less and less rare. As yet, however, these were mostly electric storage-battery driven broughams, a few “steamers” and now and again a very expensive American or foreign gasoline car.

Quite frequently one came upon a crowd blocking the sidewalk to peer into the mysterious mechanisms of one of these new monstrosities which had broken down or stopped for some reason and was being none too expertly revived.

Today, it is hard to realize that in the “90’s”—with bicycles, horse-drawn vehicles, trolley-cars and a few motor-driven contraptions moving at less than fifteen miles per hour—traffic accidents and fatalities were already a problem.

The “90’s” wrote brilliant pages in all fields of American theatricals.

Across the stages, in the luster of newly devised electric lighting effects, moved a galaxy of never-to-be-forgotten stars. From Tony Pastor’s music-hall came Lillian Russell, Weber and Fields, and a host of other unforgettables—to mingle with others such as Fay Templeton and Pete Daly. Nat Goodwin, Francis Wilson, DeWoIfe Hopper—were in the forefront of comedy. In the “heavier” fields, Sir Henry Irving, Helena Modjeska, Olga Nethersole, Julia Marlowe, Maude Adams, Viola Alien, Richard Mansfield, Mrs. Fiske, David Warfield, John Drew, Maurice Barrymore, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Lily Langtry the English Socialite, Joseph Jefferson, Denman Thompson and others of the same caliber were featured in the playbills. The “divine” Sarah Bernhardt, and her rival Eleonora Duse, the great Cocquelin—appeared “on tour.” Melba graced the operatic stage on a visit to the United States; Wagnerian opera was at its height; Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were yearly treats. Dillingham, Sam and Lee Shubert, Charles and Daniel Frohman, David Belasco were the leading dramatic producers. Certain theaters became famous nationally and inseparably connected with the various cities. For instance: Weber & Fields, in New York, and Keith’s Bijou and “DuMont’s” (properly the Eleventh Street Opera House) in Philadelphia.

Among the living authors—some coming into favor, some fading, some at their zenith, were Mark Twain, George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle, Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, H. Rider Haggard, Bret Harte, Sir Gilbert Parker, Jerome K. Jerome, W. W. Jacobs, Dr. Weir Mitchell, Booth Tarkington. The works of Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mrs. Henry Wood, Charlotte Bronte, were among the best sellers. Favorite poets were Longfellow, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Owen Meredith, Joachim Miller—Tennyson was at the height of his popularity.

The “90’s” were definitely within the “Victorian era.” Realities were rigidly excluded from English literature on both sides of the Atlantic. In these fields one turned to translations of Balzac, Eugene Sue, DeMaupassant, the Dumas—father and son, Zola, Goethe and Schiller.

In newspaperdom, Joseph Pulitzer, though blind, directed the policies of the New York World; James Gordon Bennett, the younger, ruled the New York Herald, and George W. Childs ran the Philadelphia Public Ledger until his death in 1894; William Randolph Hearst built up his newspaper empire.

In the foregoing brief allusions to theatrical personages, authors, poets, literary works and the press, no effort at anything like completeness has been made. They are simply intended to convey (if possible) the flavor of the period, its trends and tastes.

The political, financial and commercial developments of the “90’s” were of the utmost importance. The “silver question” became the major one in national politics after William Jennings Bryan’s (then congressman from Nebraska) speeches of March 16, 1892, and August 16, 1893. The latter speech was entirely devoted to opposition to the repeal of the silver purchase clause of the Sherman Act, and advocated unlimited coinage of silver and a silver-and-gold standard on a ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one of gold.

In 1890, Congress, controlled by the Republican Party, passed the McKinley Bill, by which Government revenues were reduced by $60,000,000 annually, mostly through repeal of sugar duties. At the same time expenditures were increased by liberal pension legislation, and the Government’s purchase of silver bullion almost doubled by provision of the New Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890.

When Grover Cleveland was re-elected president in 1892, he fell heir to the necessity of repealing silver legislation. In 1893, when the gold reserve that had been created for the redemption of fiat money and legal tender Civil War notes fell below $100,000,000, the President called an extra session of Congress to repeal the silver law. The Democrats in the House were now more pro-silver than the Republicans, so that the Repeal was passed only by the help of Republican votes. The deficit in the Treasury made it necessary to issue bonds to the amount of $162,000,000. This resulted in the panic of 1893-1894, attended by the usual bank failures, unemployment and reduced wages. Beginning with the Pullman strike in Chicago, strikes spread to the West Coast, with violence and bloodshed. When Governor Altgeld, of Illinois, failed to restore order, President Cleveland instructed the military to clear the way for trains carrying the mails. The rioters around Chicago were dispersed in a day and the strike ended within a week.

In 1895-1896 arose the British Guiana-Venezuela boundary line dispute, which gave occasion for considerable war-talk but was finally arbitrated.

During his second administration, President Cleveland added 44,004 places in the Civil Service to the classified list—more than doubling it. He retired with the highest respect of both friends and opponents, which he enjoyed in increasing measure until his death at Princeton, N. J., June 24, 1908.

In 1896 William McKinley was nominated for the presidency by the Republicans on a gold-standard platform. William Jennings Bryan was nominated by the Democrats on a “free silver” platform, on the day following the delivery of his famous “cross of gold” speech. After a vigorous campaign on both sides, McKinley was elected, partly due to the defection of the “gold Democrats” from their party.

Immediately after his nomination in 1897, McKinley called a special session of Congress to revise the tariff and revenue systems, and the Dingley Tariff Bill was passed and approved on July 24th.

The affairs of Cuba now came to the fore. For many years, especially during the “Ten Years War” of 1868-1878, sympathy for the Cubans had existed in the United States and throughout the West Indies; scores of American and other volunteers had fought for the revolutionists and many filibustering expeditions had been launched from various points. The revolution of 1895 brought all this feeling to the surface and the harsh methods of the Spanish authorities speedily heightened it. A large part of the press, especially the Hearst newspapers, howled for war.

In October, 1897, the Spanish Premier Sagasta announced a policy of autonomy, which was proclaimed in Cuba in December. The war clouds might have blown away, but in February, 1898, the United States battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor with great loss of life, by whom it has never been ascertained.

On April 20th, the United States demanded the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Cuba—and war followed.

Notwithstanding a gallant attempt by Lieutenant Hobson to “bottle” the Spanish fleet in the harbor of Santiago, Cuba, by sinking the collier Merrimac in the channel, the fleet, under Cervera, put to sea on July 3rd, but was either sunk or driven ashore by the American fleet, which was overwhelmingly superior in every way. Santiago was then invested by land forces and surrendered July 15th.

Theodore Roosevelt, who had been Secretary of the Navy, resigned that post at the beginning of the war and recruited a regiment of “Rough Riders,” made up of Western cowboys and society polo-players and sportsmen. This regiment distinguished itself at the Battle of San Juan Hill and Roosevelt became one of the country’s most colorful heroes.

In the meantime, on the other side of the world, Admiral (then Commodore) George Dewey, on instructions from the Government, sailed from Hong Kong with the United States Asiatic Fleet and on May 1st engaged and destroyed the greatly inferior Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, without the loss of a single man; the fleet then aided in the capture of Manila.

By the Treaty of Paris, signed December 10, 1898, Spain “relinquished” Cuba to the United States “in trust” for the inhabitants, and ceded Guam, Porto Rico and the Philippines outright, the United States paying Spain $20,000,000 and agreeing to “satisfy” the claims of the people of the ceded territory against the Spanish government.

As the United States had acquired part of the Samoan Islands in 1899 and annexed the Hawaiian Islands, July 7, 1898, the policies of President Cleveland toward the island being discarded by President McKinley, the United States entered the role of a colonial empire.”

On February 4, 1899, fighting broke out between the United States forces and the Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, and lasted up to and considerably after the capture of Aguinaldo on March 23, 1901.

From October 11, 1899, to May 31, 1902, took place a thrilling struggle between the British on one side and the Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics on the other. The war was brilliantly conducted by the Boers, but in the end unlimited resources of men, material and money carried the day and the two republics were absorbed in the British Empire. In this war, as in most quarrels, there were two sides to the story, but the sympathies of the United States—and, indeed, of practically the whole non-British world was decidedly on the side of the losers in their valorous fight.

And so the “Gay 90’s” went out in a blaze of militarism and imperialism. It was a bizarre age. An age when immense and newly-created industries strove for monopoly by every means.

It was the age of silver and gold bath-tubs.” Diamond Jim” Brady walked Broadway bedecked with $100,000 worth of diamonds—he had a complete different set for each day of the week, and at the same time earned millions of dollars in commission on sales of railroad supplies; at night, he supped on six or eight chickens, topped off with two or three pounds of the finest candies.

Oscar of the Waldorf, writing of this period, describes dinners of thirty-four courses. Naive vulgarity reached a magnificent peak, perhaps, when glamorous Lillian Russell pedaled through Central Park with Jim Brady on a golden bicycle studded with diamonds and other precious stones, or the pair rode down Fifth Avenue in his golden (but very inefficient) automobile.


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