The Age of Confidence
diminishes during the 20th Century

This article written by Connie Williams.

Logo (Editor's note: For the next year, we will present a series of articles that examine the years around 1900. Our purpose is to provide a comparison of the beginning of the 20th Century to its upcoming end.

The author, Connie Williams, is doing graduate work in history at St. Cloud State University and has worked at the Paynesville Area Museum for several summers.

Her first article will compare the general attitude when 1899 turned to 1900, as opposed to the prevailing attitudes now.)

The new decade of the 20th Century was known as "The Age of Optimism" or more appropriately "The Cocksure Era." Americans not only hoped for the best, they fully expected it.

It isn't that there wasn't a bushel basketful of problems bequeathed to the infant new century. There was child labor, teeming slums, crime spreading like bacteria through warm mayonnaise, corrupt police officers and politicians, and ruthless corporations. There was every problem practical and moral that you could imagine. People just figured that nature would take its course and things would eventually right themselves.

The reason people had such a nonchalant attitude was that in the years after the Civil War they saw the expanding of railroad networks, mass production, and nationwide marketing and numerous newspaper chains. The railroad was the difference between growth and decay.

Why, we could see the truth in this right here in Paynesville. When the Soo Line won over Great Northern Line, New Paynesville grew and Northtown eventually died. The railroad was a life line. Towns could either thrive or die on the vine, depending on whether or not the railroad went through their town.

People were sure of themselves as individuals and as a nation. Opportunities were abounding and people were going to make big on returns.

Here in Paynesville, the hotel, banks and doctors were thriving. There was a blacksmith and grocery store, a hardware store and newspaper office. The optimism was here as well as in the big cities.

At the turn of the century it was still a man's world, though. One quarter of the United States still denied a wife the right to own property. One third of the states allowed her no claim to her earnings even if she worked to support a shiftless husband. From their pedestal men banned women from the voting booths, clubs, restaurants, saloons, and cigar shops.

More and more, though, women were getting the nerve to push aside the pots and pans and barnstorm the work place. About this time a marvelous machine called the typewriter was invented. Male clerks not only hated to operate it, they refused to. It was just too boring to peck away at one of those things. It soon became clear that women and typewriters were made for each other. They got out of the house, were making money, and had independence.

Speaking of independence, Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, had a reputation for being very independent for that time. President Roosevelt said about his spirited 17-year-old "I can do one of two things, I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice."

What, Oh What Lies Ahead
Today, going into a new century opens many new and exciting doors. Besides advances in space and medicine, the most significant advances are happening in communications. Computers will be voice operated and we will be interfacing with machines in a way we have never done before. Our thoughts, feelings, and wants will be able to be conveyed to anyone anywhere instantaneously. Asking questions or solving problems will be mere child's play.

The people of today who are approaching the year 2000, however, are doing it with just a little more trepidation than the citizens of 100 years ago approached the year 1900. It is not the "Cocksure" era anymore. We live in an era of contradictions.

At some level or another we all claim that we don't like technology, and yet none of us can live without it. We long to go back to simpler times, or do we? All we have to do is take a walk through a cemetery to be able to guess when penicillin came along. We notice that all of a sudden after a certain year we don't see nearly as many children's graves. As we stand there in the cemetery we say to ourselves, "I'm sure glad I didn't live then." It is this love, hate relationship with technology that tugs at us constantly. Technology is such an intricate part of our lives. We live caught in the contradiction, like a giant spider web. We want to reap the benefits of technology, but most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into learning anything about it.

It's sort of like the professor who spends an hour teaching his students existentialism. He painstakingly tells them that there is no door to the classroom. "It is not real" they are told. "It is a dream." Yet when class is over everyone, including the professor gets up and goes out the door.

This is the dilemma we are caught in with technology. We can be in denial all we want, but the cold hard reality is that technology is here to stay-like the door.

Our century has seen WWI and WWII, and genocide. These things have caused people to lose trust in one another. Now to add to this there is something more insidious happening. A side affect of the computer age is that day by day we are losing reducing our privacy. Governments need to share information with other government agencies, so in a sense they are leading the way with this.

In spite of all the advances in communication, by machines, we as people are rapidly losing the ability to communicate with each other. We no longer know how to write a personal letter. If it doesn't say it in a "Hallmark" card, then it doesn't get said, because we can't express our feelings. This we know is a red flag. If we as adults can't express our feelings in words, sadly many of our children do not even try. They express their feelings with a knife or a gun.

Otherwise, we have some of the same problems as in 1900, such as crime, corruption, and inequality. Unlike in 1900, we today are working very hard to correct these blights.

This summary will be the kick off to an exciting series of articles and interviews that you can enjoy and treasure over the next 12 months. They will help us learn about ourselves, where we have been and where we are going. As we read about the pioneers we realize we are still pioneers. It is this kinship tying the past and future together that will, hopefully, draw you and your children to reading these articles. Hopefully, it will open doors to conversations with family and friends of all ages. Every person has much to share.

(Next month - Ice cutting)

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