Picturing the Century

A New Century

New Years Day 1900 found Americans celebrating but also struggling with change. Within a few decades, the United States had been rapidly transformed from a largely agrarian society of rural hamlets to an industrial giant whose citizens lived increasingly in cities. The country's population was growing, especially from an influx of immigrants - more than 425,000 in 1900 alone. There were many reasons for Americans to be optimistic. The nation was becoming a world power. Technological innovations - the telephone, automobile, electric light, and after 1903, the airplane - promised to make life easier and more enjoyable. Medical progress and better nutrition were lowering infant mortality rates and raising life expectancy. But there were disturbing trends, as well. Millions could not vote because of their race, economic status, ethnicity, or gender. In a nation founded on ideals of equality and opportunity, American society exhibited great differences in wealth and influence. Cities were symbols of progress, but they were also hubs of poverty. America's growing industrial output brought higher wages but also long hours and difficult working conditions for its workers.

National Archives photographs capture much of the optimism and change of the early 20th century. Streets bustle with activity. Inventions and improvements inspire awe. The tensions emerge as well. These can be seen in the nervous faces of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, in the poverty of slum life, or in the sorrowful funeral procession of miners killed during a strike.

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