Pulled by Bears

In 1908, anything was possible

In researching a book about ironworkers and skyscrapers, Jim Rasenberger was struck by the energy and zany optimism of Americans living in the first decade of the 20th century. There was explorer Roald Amundsen, for example, who told the New York Times that he intended to have himself pulled to the North Pole by polar bears. "There were a lot of things like that," says Rasenberger. "I think that Americans were at this stage where they had enough confidence scientifically and technologically to think that anything was possible but not enough knowledge to realize that, in fact, everything was not possible. So there was this wonderful sense of limitlessness." The more Rasenberger read, the more he came to see 1908 as an exceptional, even pivotal moment: the year the Model T Ford came out, the year Robert Peary left for the North Pole (and the year Frederick Cook said he discovered the North Pole) and the year that the Wright brothers finally convinced the world that airplanes were here to stay: Wilbur flew in front of thousands of people for 2 hours and 20 minutes. Says Rasenberger: "That must have rocked people's world; it must have been a wild time to be alive."

Rasenberger immersed himself in 1908 by reading, over several weeks, that year's entire New York Times from start to finish. ("It was tremendous fun.") The immersion was so complete, he says, "I was almost dreaming 1908. All my references were 1908. Any conversation included some discussion of 1908. Any date I wrote, it was always '08, including on a few checks. It was like living in this 1908 time machine."

So how does one hundred years ago compare to the present? In some ways, particularly in urban America, very familiarly. "They rode the subway to work. They had electricity. They went to see movies, Broadway shows. They were interested in things we're interested in. They worried about diet. They worried that Christmas was becoming too commercialized." And yet, it was also a very different world. The disparity between rich and poor was vast, as it was between classes, sexes and races. "Even though most of us understand that America was a very racist country a hundred years ago, when I went back and read newspapers and magazines, I was really stunned by just how racist it was. And I don't mean just the lynching and the overt discrimination but the casual racism in fine magazines like Harper's Weekly or in otherwise decent newspapers like the New York Times. I was struck by the fact that African-Americans had no one in their corner other than themselves back then. That really shocked me."

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