THE 1900s: Music was an indicator of changing times
Editor's note: This story was originally published March 2, 1999.
When people weren't tending to the farm or working in the new mass production factories, radio, books, art and baseball provided a forum of escape for early 20th century families.
Radios hummed the tunes of country while children went off to the first showing of a Wild West movie.
Though jazz had begun to ring through the deep South in the early 1900s, natives of Appalachia were still chanting the popular folk songs that had resonated through the hills since the 1700s, said Ed Bingham, director of jazz studies at Marshall University.
"Jazz hadn't made it here yet -- it was pretty much in New Orleans," he said. "The most important kinds of music here were folk songs and the gospel music and hymns of the church."
The folk songs, ballads that told stories musically, were traditions of the European immigrants who settled the area, he said.
But the ballads of Appalachia differed distinctly from their British Isles roots.
Music in the early 1900s was one of the first indicators of the changing times. "In my Merry Oldsmobile" and "Meet me in St. Louis, Louis" announced the changes brought about by airplanes and automobiles. Songs like "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home" and the "Darktown Strutters Ball" echoed the racial prejudices of the period.
The city's founder, Collis P. Huntington, also brought "world class" entertainment into the area for the more wealthy populations, Bingham said.
"What was here at the turn of the century were visiting orchestras that came through," he said.
And women and men dressed for the occasions.
Clothes were classically inspired, said Patricia Cunningham, costume historian and professor at Ohio University. Women donned grandiose hats that made them look top heavy, Cunningham said. Men's hats and clothing were becoming more comfortable.
Sportswear also became more popular during this era, Cunningham said. "More men were getting into golf, and they dressed for the event."
Cardigans and trousers with plaid hats replaced the more sophisticated suits men had always worn, Cunningham said. "Dress was becoming more simplified."
When sports went out of season, men frequented penny arcades where films were often racy. These nickel arcades were all the rage of 1905; 10,000 were in operation within three years.
But family entertainment was centered around music.
"Most of the well-to-do households would have a piano at home," Bingham said. "In the evenings, they would spend time around the piano singing songs -- and reading books. What a concept."
The beginning of the 20th century was a time when more Americans were reading for their entertainment, said James Riemer, an English professor at Marshall University. Though "dime novels" were starting to become more expensive, romance and mystery novels were still affordable and made for easy reading.
"There was an increase in literacy, so you get more of a mass audience that is reading this sort of thing," he said.
There was even some controversy that the books were a negative influence on women, he said.
"At the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, you have a much larger middle class and a much larger group of women with less to do," Riemer said.
"They now have servants to do housework but don't have much else to do. Some said novels were corrupting influences on young women and gave them an unrealistic idea of life."
Serious literature of the time looked at more realistic issues faced by Americans and the nation's newcomers, he said.
Some of the best-selling books of the time include "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, which explored conditions in the Chicago slaughterhouses, and Winston Churchill's "The Crisis," "The Crossing" and "Coniston."
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