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Why I Write Novels Set In The Early 20th Century United States, by DE Johnson

The United States came into its own at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Most of the country’s traits today, for good and for bad, have their roots in this time period. I appreciate many of those characteristics and dislike a few, as I suspect do most people reading this.

On the positive side, the years between 1890 and 1920 are considered to be the Progressive Era in the US. Prior to that time there were virtually no social programs for the less fortunate. The insane were chained up in the equivalent of prisons, many orphans fended for themselves on the streets, and the poor somehow found money or starved. By the 1910s, the time in which I write, the country had awakened to a social conscience. That is not to say programs were plentiful, but they had begun.

One interesting example is the Playground Movement. The building of playgrounds for children may seem like an odd or even trivial concept, but the idea has an interesting genesis and is representative of the mentality of the era.

The modern concept of childhood is relatively new, having its roots in the late 1800s. Prior to that, children were babies until they could work and then they worked. Children were not coddled or treated with special care. The family needed money and everyone was expected to contribute. When immigrants came to the US in the early 1900s, they generally lived by the same rules. But now they were being told to put their children in school all day, and those children were being told to play. They didn’t know how. Enter the Playground Movement. Rich people (generally women) would run organizations which would purchase land and playground equipment and then teach those children how to play. (“Here’s how you swing on the swing set,” etc.)

The treatment of the less fortunate improved across the board. Psychiatry took leaps, programs for the poor were developed and wages increased significantly. Ford’s “Five-dollar day” began in 1914, raising the beginnings of America’s middle class. (He didn’t more than double the wages of his employees because he was a nice guy. At the time, Ford’s employee turnover was more than 300% a year. A worker’s mentality was to keep a job until he had enough money and then quit. He could easily find another, similar job for similar pay when he needed money again. Ford changed the game. Once a worker secured a job with Ford Motor Company, he would do just about anything to keep it. Ford eliminated the turnover problem and in the process gained the most productive industrial workers in Michigan.

The US had also awakened to its new role as a world power. (Moving into negative territory now.) Between 1890 and 1920, the US waged more than thirty military interventions in Central and South America, virtually all to protect American business interests. While some of these, no doubt, had positive results for the populace of the invaded country, most did not and simply advanced American influence and profitability.

White-collar crime proceeded unchecked. You could hardly pick up a newspaper without seeing another story of Wall Street shenanigans or government corruption. Racial discrimination was the rule of the day. Lynchings were accepted facts of life in the American South.

Through all this, though, people were trying to be better. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the wake of the problems of the time, but the Progressive Era stands for something substantial. Yes, we have the shames of our country and our ancestors, but there were also people like Jane Addams and many other less celebrated Americans who fought to improve the lot of the less fortunate. In so doing, they blazed a trail that many continue today.


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