History 340 Critical Periods in United States History
The 1890s
Roger Wiliams University
CAS 123
M-W-F 12:00-12:55
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D.
Office:  Feinstein College 110
Hours:  M, T, Th, F 9:00-10:00.
or by appointment

The final decade of the nineteenth century dramatized the hopes and fears of American about the course of industrialprogress."  The "gay nineties" of popular lore were a time of adventure and excitement.  Mustachioed men in derby hats promenaded along tree lined streets with elegant women in high-buttoned shoes, bustles, and flowing lace dresses.  In melodious harmony, people crooned the new popular songs like "Daisy" and "The Sidewalks of New York."  At the local saloon patrons could still enjoy a free lunch with frosty mugs of beer that cost only a nickel.  When the World's Fair opened in Chicago in 1893, people came from all over the country to marvel at the achievements of technology and the evidence of rapid progress demonstrated at the "great white city" erected by the lakefront.
John Whiteclay Chambers II, The Tyranny of Change


The 1890s were a time of disastrous events that evoked deep foreboding among Americans.  The year 1893, which marked the opening of the World's Fair, also ushered in the worst depression the country had yet experienced.  Some 500 banks and 15,000 businesses failed.  Hundreds of thousands of people were thrown out of work without  savings or relief.  For the first time large numbers of tramps roamed the countryside.  In one of the first mass protest marches on the nation's capital, a group of jobless men, led by Jacob Coxey and calling  themselves "Coxey's Army," marched on Washington, vainly urging federal relief.  They were arrested....Industrial violence, crime, disease, and extensive urban poverty challenged American ideals of freedom, democracy, and a relatively classless and harmonious society.
John Whiteclay Chambers II, The Tyranny of Change

It would be hard to imagine two paragraphs more different from each other than the two paragraphs with which I began this introduction.  Both paragraphs really are written by the same person.  Indeed, they appear within pages of each other.  It is the contrast between good  imes and disasterous times which makes the 1890s such an interesting period in American history.  Change is a constant in American life,  but few decades were as conscious of the pace of change as the nineties were.  Consider for a moment the generation most like you...those who were emerging from their teens in 1890 or thereabouts.  The Civil War was less a part of the distant past than the Viet Nam War is now.  Native born Americans were likely to have parents or other relatives who had engaged in that conflict.  At twenty, young people of the nineties had been raised with the horse and buggy. At forty, these same people (now middle aged) would likely  have ridden in a motor car and may even have witnessed a "flying machine".  At fifty,  they would have witnessed flying machines applied to the art of war. At sixty, they may have been up in one themselves... they certainly would have heard radio.
Sorting out and coping with all that change must have been a mammoth task back then.  Understanding the impact of that change will be our task over the next fourteen weeks.  We're going to define the 1890s more broadly than mathematicians would accept.  We'll pick up the story about 1885, and conclude it in the early years of the 20th century. .
Leon Fink's Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era supplements the other two texts by providing us with a series of interpretive essays and primary source documents.  I think that the documents chosen will be especially useful to us, because in many instances they represent materials which ordinary Americans would have encountered at the time they were written, in other words, they are public documents rather than private ones and popular ones rather than academic, technical, or political ones.
1.  I want each of you to read an American Novel published between 1885 and 1910.  I'll hand out a list of authors and titles shortly. The novels on this list will be, by and large, the kinds of things that literate Americans were reading during those days... not historical documents or literary masterpieces as they are now.  I will ask you to write a short report in which you reflect on what the novel contributes to your understanding of life around the turn of the century.

2.  I want each of you to conduct research, using internet sources, on a movement, event, person, art form, leisure activity, fashion, or whatever, as practiced during the 1890s.  You will report your work in a short project (5 pages or so), which can be either an informal paper (body notes, bibliography) or a web page if you prefer.

3.  Keep a Journal as if you were living through the period under investigation.  I want you to invent a character (age, economic background, ethnic background, gender, political and philosophical stances, etc.)  and then react to the materials in your texts as if you were that person.  Write in this journal every time you do reading for this course, and write about a page.  Keep this journal in a      loose-leaf notebook, and make sure your name is on every page.  I will collect these journals at the  middle and at the end of the semester.  I may also collect them at random times throughout the semester with no prior notice.
For Friday, January 25


   in Schlereth, "Introduction," and "Prologue" pp. xi-5
           in Chambers, Prefaces to the 2000 and Second Editions, pp. xi-xxii
    in Fink, "Introducing the Gilded Age and Progressive Era," and                                   "Industrial Spring:  America in the Gilded Age"                                                                 (Sean Dennis Cashman) pp. 1-7

Course Texts:

    Chambers, John Whiteclay,
         The Tyranny of Change, America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920
         New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000

    Schlereth, Thomas J.,
         Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life
         New York: Harper Perennial Editions, 1992

    Fink, Leon,
         Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era
         Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001
Work for the course

If you've taken courses from me before you know pretty much how I operate.  Classes will be in the form of informal lectures and free-ranging discussions on readings which I will have asked you to prepare in advance.  I will provide a set of guidelines for reading and discussion about once a week, usually on Fridays. I generally assume that the materials in the readings are understood, unless questions are raised in the course of the class.  I don't mind being interrupted, so feel free to enter into active participation.
The Final Exam will be optional for those who perform to a decent standard on the three elements above.


Your grade for the course will be based on the following:

Semester Journal (culumative) 50%
Midterm Take-home Examination 20%
Research Assignment 20%
Report on the Novel 10%

Final Exam (optional)  up to a 1.5 grade level boost.  (For example:  C work could be anything from C to B+, C+ anything from C+ to A-, B- anything from B- to A).  Note:  the optional exam will not lower your grade, but it does not guarantee your grade will be raised, either.
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