English author Pat Barker didn’t wait for the year 2000 to attempt to capture the 20th century. In The Century’s Daughter, originally published in 1986 (and later retitled Liza’s England) she personifies the century in the form of Liza, a woman born in the north of England at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 1900.
Almost immediately after describing her protagonist’s birth, Barker skips forward to the next decade of Liza’s life and she’s not the only one. A former teacher of mine suggested to me only a few weeks ago that the 20th century began not in 1900 but after World War I. That said… something about a 100-year-century appeals to me, and I just can’t believe that nothing significant happened in, say, 1900. Is there anything more exciting, after all, than the turn of the century? Okay, maybe the turn of a millennium – but can any human being truly grasp the beginning of a new millennium? Whereas more than 70,000 centenarians walk among us today in the U.S. alone – including, just this year, my great-uncle Phil.
In 1900, however, Americans could only expect to live, on average, until ages 46 (men) and 48 (women). No more than 8,000 of them had cars, while 10 million cycled and 18 million rode horses or mules. About 119,000 practiced medicine. Some one hundred immigrants per hour became Americans after passing through Ellis Island – though those who stayed in the city were still five years away from tasting New York-style pizza. And anyone with $1 could photograph the new century themselves, thanks to Kodak’s first camera for amateurs, the Brownie – whereas, 111 years later, Kodak is fending off doubts that the company can stay solvent.
Meanwhile, around the world: in a period when the British public at large struggled with the “glory” and the “burden” of empire, groups representing the British working class formed what would become the Labour Party while others volunteered to join what was then a small, professional army and fight the Boer War in South Africa.
In China, an early ‘Coalition of the Willing’ put down the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreign influence and evangelizing Christians. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) left Russia for Switzerland but set his sights on the Russian Tsar, and Josef Dzhugashvili, who would eventually adopt the name Stalin (‘Man of Steel’), championed Marxism before a crowd of 200 on May Day. In Germany, Ferdinand von Zeppelin took to the air in the craft he’d designed, the first powered airship. It flew for 20 minutes and then crashed to earth, wrecking itself in the process.
It was a start.
Image Le Frou-Frou: “Exaggerated impressionistic caricature of 1900 fashion trends.”