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Judy Crichton, journalist and documentary writer

A chat about millenniums past and present

October 15, 1999
Web posted at: 1:44 p.m. EDT

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(CNN) – Judy Crichton, a journalist and documentary writer, joined on October 13, 1999, as a "Year 2000" chat series guest. She is the author of "America 1900: The Turning Point," a companion book to PBS’ three-hour documentary on the year 1900.

Crichton is best known for her work as executive producer of the acclaimed PBS history series, "The American Experience," where she produced one hundred historical documentaries from 1987 to 1996. She has won numerous awards for her writing and her journalism over the years, including the George Foster Peabody Award, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award, four Writers Guild Awards, and five Emmys, among many others.

Crichton joined us by telephone from New York. provided a typist for her.

Chat Moderator: Welcome, Judy Crichton!

Judy Crichton: Thank you very much.

Chat Moderator: Judy, please tell us about the book, "America 1900," and what prompted you to write it.

Judy Crichton: I used to be the executive producer of "The American Experience," the PBS history series. Sometime in the mid 1990s, I began puzzling and wondering about what America was like at the turn of the last century. I had done an enormous amount of work covering the turn of the century. I began to sense that if you got past the old stereotypes of the photographs with the people in old-fashioned clothes that, in fact, the world was not as different in 1900 as we had been brought up to believe.

I discovered by reading newspapers and magazines of the period that Americans in 1900 were concerned about issues that are still with us today -- to a greater extent than I had ever realized.

In 1900, the world was driven by technology and a young writer at the time wrote an essay about the shrinkage of the planet. His name was Jack London and he was talking about how the telegraph had annihilated space and time. People had gone out West in a covered wagon. And there were a lot of people still alive who had been among the pioneers, who were now talking to their children on long-distance phones, crossing the country on high-speed trains, and dreaming about the day when men could fly.

That sense of revolutionary change that we enjoy with the Internet age is not dissimilar to those people who had learned to read by candlelight and suddenly found themselves in a world where papers brought them news about China or a German laboratory thousands of miles away. At the end of 1900, there was an enormous amount of speculation about how technology would change their lives in the century to come -- just as there is today.

In the book, I talk about all the prophecies that were being made at the end of 1900. A writer in the Washington Post reflected that Jules Verne had written about a voyage to the moon. He said there seemed to be no good reason why that should not happen some day. There was a sense that what had yet to be done would be done.

At the same time, people were forced to understand the limits of technology. In 1900, the worst natural disaster in the history of the U.S. struck the small Texas town of Galveston. Galveston had been built to last the ages and there was a well-developed U.S. Weather Service at the time, the National Weather Bureau. It was presumed that the combination of modern engineering and an early-alert system could protect Galveston from the ravages of the weather. In fact, the storm that struck Galveston created devastation, the likes of which we have yet to see to this day in this country. Well over 6,000 people were killed, 20,000 homes were destroyed and, if you look at the photographs in the book, it is the kind of devastation that the U.S. is not familiar with.

Queston from Pace: With the technology that we have today, people may not be all that different at the core but the way we lead our lives has taken on a completely new focus...true?

Judy Crichton: True...but it depends on what you are talking about in terms of "focus." Many things have been exaggerated over the past few years. In 1900, people were concerned with the impact of working women on the home. Divorces were rising. There were discussions in magazines about who would be responsible for the moral upbringing of children if women were out of the house. The gap between the rich and the poor had never been wider. And, more and more, there were concerns and conversations about what the government’s role should or could be.

Labor was an issue in 1900; so was race. As a matter of fact, 1900 was the year when W. E. B. Du Bois said that race would be the issue for the 20th Century. So, while things have changed, it is really the pace that has speeded up. At Christmastime, ministers were horrified, and so were many Americans, when the word "Xmas" was substituted for "Christmas." Consumerism was said to be the new American religion.

1900 was also the year when Americans were talking about conspicuous consumption, when they worried that their children were being spoiled. People who had been brought up with small, homemade presents went to department stores to see the most magnificent displays, like electrified doll houses and kits for boys to make their own telephone sets. So, over and over again, the focus is superficially different but, at the same time, very much the same.

Chat Moderator: You have said that there are many parallels between society in the early 1900s and society now. What are some of them?

Judy Crichton: America was very concerned, for the first time, about the nation's role overseas. We had suddenly become an enormous industrial power. There was no way that this country could consume everything it produced. More and more, our economy was dependent on exports. And, for the first time, Americans began to wonder about the role of the U.S. in terms of its foreign policy.

We were engaged in a very nasty guerilla war in the Philippines. We had taken over the Philippines following the Spanish American War and we presumed that the Filipinos would happily go along with being incorporated into the American Empire. But the Filipinos declared their independence and suddenly we found ourselves caught up in a war that, to many, seemed to be a monstrous perversion of American ideals.

Comment from:<BigRed> Also, these people could carry guns in broad daylight.

Judy Crichton: Uh, well, BigRed, yes and no. There were numbers of municipal laws in 1900 aimed at diminishing gun violence, which, at the time, was a real issue in the country. Too many political arguments and too many personal arguments were being settled with violence. At the end of January in Frankfurt, Kentucky, there was a kind of absurd shootout between those who were supporting the Republican candidate for governor and those who were supporting the Democratic candidate. In the end, the Democratic candidate, who was considered the winner of the election, was murdered. Papers covered that incident all over America. More and more, people were questioning the easy license to carry weapons. I remember a St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial that year on that subject. There was controversy over the gun laws then, as now, though probably not as widely expressed. But it existed.

Chat Moderator: What do you predict for the next century?

Judy Crichton: Well, I'm by training a reporter so I'm careful about predictions. One thing that grows out of BigRed's question…at the end of the 19th Century, reporters and editorial writers were spending a lot of time being concerned about the fact that nations all too easily turn to war as a way of solving national problems. And there were people -- I quote someone in the State Department -- who said that, in the future, mediation would have to be the controlling moral power.

There had been 50 major wars in the 19th Century and countless smaller conflicts. And, more and more, people were calling for and spoke of the need for some kind of world unity. I think that we are as concerned with that today as we were 100 years ago.

Queston from Sunny1: Do Americans have the same "can do" attitude about the next century as they did in 1900?

Judy Crichton: Answering Sunny1, I think she has touched on something we have lost. At the end of 1900, you had a country that was loaded with people who were pioneers who, early on, had learned a kind of personal self-sufficiency. This led them to take responsibility not just for their own lives but, in times of trouble, for the lives of their neighbors and their communities.

Consider what men and women did at that time, how much more difficult their lives were in small tasks that we barely think about today. Doing the laundry, keeping warm, raising food to eat…all of those everyday chores required a kind of physical and intellectual discipline. And that, in part, I believe, led to a sense that one could physically and personally do a great deal. One could change one's own environment.

There also was less cynicism in 1900. One can find it creeping into the national dialogue. It was the first time, I believe, that there were outspoken concerns about financing political campaigns, for instance. But there was a presumption among many that the country was growing, that their lives were getting better, and that they knew their children’s children’s lives would be better still.

Queston from Mags: Do you think the development of entertainment, nickelodeons, had a negative impact on society?

Judy Crichton: I think that the development of entertainment, coupled with the media, had a profound impact on American society for good and bad. For example: At the time of the Galveston flood, all the newspapers in the country carried that story every day. Suddenly, technology provided us with a national press. And so the Galveston story, with its reports of 10s of 1,000s of homeless people, reached the hearts of Americans in a remarkable fashion. An extraordinary amount of money was raised very quickly to help the flood victims. More and more culture was becoming a national culture and was being unified.

1900 was the year that Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" became one of the best-selling song sheets in America. We began more and more to identify ourselves as Americans rather than as people from a particular state or region.

At the same time, on the downside, you had the perpetuation of stereotypes. And they were fearful and very often aimed at one ethnic group. Not just African Americans but the Italians, Irish, Jews, and each new set of immigrants was basically under attack and the cartoons, language, and descriptions were horrific and ugly. And the Nickelodeon, through the early movies, national magazines, the dailies, meant that those stereotypes reached Americans all over the country and very much shaped the way people considered the "other," the outsider.

Well, there were fascinating events, and this goes back to how one predicts the future. There were things that were happening under the surface of life that were not getting a great deal of attention but, later on, became important. For instance, 1900 was the year Wilbur and Orville Wright left their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and went down to a tiny hamlet on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to try to study how to develop equilibrium in a flying machine. In fact, their experiments only ended with a couple of minutes of actual flying time, before they had to abandon their glider in the dunes and return to Dayton and their regular jobs. But they had learned so much during the weeks they were at Kitty Hawk that they were absolutely certain that they were in reach of theoretically designing a plane that would fly.

There was also (it got some attention at the time, but it is hard to understand just how prescient it must have been) certain writers who were looking at the whole matter of flight. I should go back and tell you that in July, 1900, a German named Von Zeppelin flew a gigantic air ship, the most daring and ambitious air ship ever conceived. It was over 400 feet long. And, unlike air balloons that had been common in the 18th Century, Zeppelin could actually steer his craft. He wasn't dependent on the winds, he could go against the wind.

There were writers at that time who looked at this flying machine and recognized that it was a new and terrible engine of war. Among the writers was H. G. Wells, who predicted that the time would come when there would be a desperate and decisive struggle for the command of the sky. Wells also said that everybody everywhere would be constantly looking up with a sense of loss, of insecurity. To me, that was an extraordinary and sad prediction.

Out in California, I write about an ostrich farm that was harnessing solar power to pump water. And people were predicting that solar power would turn our deserts into vast manufacturing areas.

There were also a lot of predictions that were fun and just plain silly. I suspect that at the end of this year, we will see the same. It was thought that people would get into a pneumatic tube in Texas and be shot by air power straight to Georgia. They were using pneumatic tubes in those days to deliver change. They still use pneumatic tubes today to deliver paperwork between departments but no people are shot through them.

Queston from Jeremy: How close are Hollywood's turn-of-the-century films such as "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Strawberry Blonde" to historical accuracy?

Judy Crichton: Jeremy, I don't think that Hollywood, in films like Meet "Me In St. Louis," was terribly interested in historical accuracy. The one thing you get out of that film was that there was an enormous drawing power of the city. People in farm country loved to take off and plunge into urban life. Cities had a magnetism that was seductive. It has been so many years since I have seen that film that I can’t give specifics. But if you look at those films in one hand and look at a history book in the other hand, you find that they weren't interested in accuracy.

Queston from twinkey: What were a few of the technological marvels of the day in 1900?

Judy Crichton: Well, there are numbers of them you may not think about. For instance, older folk were born before there were stamps or envelopes. To have transportation that allowed for a good postal system had been considered to be a miracle. In 1900, Americans were reading about the use of X-rays to cure cancer. They weren't very good at it and didn't know how to do it. But their theories were moving in the right direction. The notion that Americans could have ice in the summer and heat in the winter and artificial light any time of the day was considered to be a miracle. So were bathtubs with running water and what were called "water closets" that flushed waste away. Men who had fought in The Civil War, 1,000s of them, were stunned by the development of anesthesia and antiseptic surgery.

Actually, the scientists will tell you that there have not been dramatic breakthroughs in science and technology since 1900. The most important theories were already in development. The computer, for instance, was in its early stages. There were collating machines that were being used to provide information on the census.

Queston from Mags: What about politics of early the 1900s compared to now? How have things changed? Or have they?

Judy Crichton: What was interesting about 1900 was that, in America, both parties declared that they were going to try to reach every American voter. In 1900, there was much more face to face in the campaign than today. There were no TVs or radios but they had a recording machine. For the first time in history, the Washington Post reported that Republican Congressmen were being coached on how to use a recording device so that no American citizen would be beyond the sound of a political message. In terms of content of the debates in 1900, our government had yet to begin to get involved with social issues. Therefore, the number of issues was far more limited than it is today.

Chat Moderator: When will the documentary be aired on PBS?

Judy Crichton: It is on "The American Experience" on PBS. I wrote it with David Gruben -- a three-hour documentary called "America 1900" and it will be on this coming January 3rd. The documentary was on last November and received wonderful reviews. The video will be available through PBS and there is the book.

Chat Moderator: Thank you, Judy Crichton, for being a guest for our Millennium chat series.

Judy Crichton: Thank you very much!!! I appreciate it a lot.

Chat Moderator: Any final thoughts, Judy?

Judy Crichton: I want to add one thing. The one thing that amused me is that the people at the end of 1899 were having an enormous argument over whether the century would begin on January 1, 1900, or on January 1, 1901. It was called "the century question." There were sharp debates. Most of the world, including the U.S. and England, agreed that it was January 1, 1901. But people ended up celebrating both new years, as I suspect they will this time around.

Chat Moderator: Thank you, Judy Crichton, for joining us today.

Judy Crichton: Thank you very much!

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