By Roger Simon; Angie Cannon The journey
No matter how early Julius Streicher left his tenement on Monday mornings--and being a grocer,
he left early--he could never awaken before his wife, Christine, who was already up and doing the
laundry. Monday was laundry day across the nation in 1900, and although there was no law
requiring it--this was America, not the old country! You could do what you wanted without some
policeman on a horse hitting you on the head with a sword!--social convention was not casually
flouted. It was a point of pride to have the laundry done before breakfast on Mondays, and on the
Lower East Side of New York women would race to get their newly washed clothes out drying on
the line first, a proud flag of achievement. At 253 E. 10th Street, a five-story, red-brick walk-up
that's still occupied today and from the outside looks largely as it did in 1900, the Streichers
probably occupied one of the apartments fronting on 10th Street. And so Christine may have
strung her laundry between their apartment window and the black iron fire escape that runs
directly down the front of the building.
To people without running water, gas, or electricity in their homes (and this included most
people), doing the laundry was the most dreaded household task in turn-of-the-century America.
Writers of household advice urged women not to attempt it alone, but as Julius, 39, and Christine,
33, had been so far blessed only with 6-year-old Eliza, there was little
Christine could do until she had the money to hire a washerwoman or use the commercial laundry
across the street, one of the very first luxuries even immigrants of limited means were willing to
spend their hard-earned money on. The reasons were obvious if you had ever done laundry: You
started around 4 a.m., after the clothes had been left to soak Sunday night. A wash, a boiling, and
a rinse could use about 50 gallons of water, which weighed 400 pounds and had to be lugged
from somewhere. (In cities, it could come from barrels filled by water wagons, from hydrants or
city water mains.) The finer wash was done first. It was soaked, rubbed against a washboard,
wrung out--a task requiring real strength, considering the weight of wet sheets, tablecloths, and
heavy men's clothes. It was rubbed with soap and placed in a boiler, after which the dirty spots
were rubbed again. It was rinsed, wrung almost dry, rinsed again, wrung dry (and this did not
include a dipping in bluing or starch), carried in murderously heavy laundry baskets, and hung out
to dry. While this drying was taking place, you started all over again on the coarser fabrics. It took
all day, and if Julius was a considerate husband, he didn't expect a hot meal Monday night. No
wonder aspirin was first marketed in 1900 as a way to deal with stressful work.
Work--and death. To understand who we are--how life in America has changed and how it has
remained the same--U.S. News compared the story of one family who lived at a New York
address in 1900 with those who live there today and tracked the changes recorded by the U.S.
census. The picture that emerges is one of a nation that continues to be defined, in many ways,
by its immigrants, even though today's are of decidedly different origin from those of a century
ago. America is more diverse, with nearly 7 million people saying they belong to more than one
race. Most of us live in metropolitan areas today, not in the countryside. Far more of us own our
own homes today, but families are smaller, if we have them at all. We are putting off marriage
and kids. More of us, straight and gay, are simply living together. The number of single parents,
both fathers and mothers, is on the rise. Millions are living alone. We earn vastly more money and
are better educated. We are healthier and live longer. And most of us who work work less.
The 10-hour day and six-day workweek were the norm in 1900. "People started working when
they were young; they worked long hours and then they died," says John Logan, a sociology
professor at the State University of New York-Albany who dug through the 1900 and 1920
censuses to study the experience of various New York families such as the Streichers. (See
www.albany.edu/mumford/1920/groups.html for more information.)
There is an important thread, however, connecting 1900 and 2000. The beginning and end of the
century were both marked by huge numbers of immigrants flocking to the United States,
separated from old communities and old ways in search of better opportunities or refuge from
political turmoil or religious strife. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian Oscar Handlin
wrote, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then, I discovered that the
immigrants were American History." A century ago, the newcomers were from Europe. Today,
they're from Mexico, Central and South America, China, the Philippines, Africa, and the
Caribbean. During the 1990s, the number of Vietnamese swelled by 83 percent, Chinese
increased by 48 percent, and Indians rose by 26 percent. The number of Mexicans grew by 53
percent during the decade. Gateway cities, such as New York, which topped a record 8 million in
the 2000 census, are booming in population because of rising numbers of Hispanics and Asians.
Immigrants then and now share common dreams and aspirations: to build a new life and better
themselves. "Doing well [in 1900] was if everyone survived and the children could get jobs and
they could pool their incomes, and they had enough to get by," says Logan. "Doing superwell was
that someone could go to school and 20 years later had a better future. Not everyone managed
that. There was a lot of lean-on-me within families and ethnic communities. Many immigrants do
that today. Most of the rest of us have a great many more opportunities."
Julius Streicher, who came to America from Germany in 1885, was what the census of 1900
called a "provisions dealer," which meant a food wholesaler or grocer with his own store. His job
wouldn't necessarily have made him wealthy, but he would have had, as he walked down the five
front steps of his building, a nickel in his pocket or, better yet, "two nickels to rub together."
Americans were fascinated by the purchasing power of the 5-cent nickel in 1900. (Nickels started
out being denominated as 1-cent pieces in 1857 and 3-cent pieces in 1865, the cost of a postage
stamp. They did not become the popular 5-cent piece until 1883.) A nickel didn't make you rich,
but it gave you a feeling of empowerment. For 5 cents you could get a beer or a cup of coffee
(with a free refill), a handful of crackers from a cracker barrel, a slice of cheese, a Coke, a hot
dog, three donuts, or an ice cream cone. It was the standard fare on street cars and the Staten
Island Ferry. You could take a taxi ride for a nickel or make a phone call or buy a dozen roses, a
plug of chewing tobacco, a pack of cigarettes, a linen handkerchief, a change purse, a tiny bottle
of perfume, or a night in a flophouse. When the world's first recorded billionaire, John D.
Rockefeller, attempted to improve his public image by handing out coins to the children of
Cleveland on his Sunday walks, he showed his generosity--and his lordly station--by handing out
When the Streichers lived at 253 E. 10th Street, the area was the northern fringes of the Lower
East Side. Today, it's the artsy, bohemian East Village. In the 1970s the streets were teeming
with heroin junkies. Many buildings were abandoned. Even as recently as 1991, it was front-page
news when cops rousted about 200 homeless people from a tent city in nearby Tompkins Square
Park. Today, that's changed. Over the past decade, the East Village has gotten more gentrified.
The public elementary school, which used to be mostly Hispanic and black, now is increasingly
white. Small shops of trendy clothing designers dot the same streets that pushcarts lined 100
years ago. The gentrification upsets Dudley Sabo, 87, who has lived at 253 E. 10th for 30 years.
"People with money moved in, and they weren't as friendly as before," complains Sabo, now
retired from teaching art at the Brooklyn Museum. "There's no community. There's rich people on
one side and other people on the other."
Still, Julius Streicher would recognize some things about his old neighborhood. Ukrainian and
Russian immigrants today cram for language tests at concrete tables in Tompkins Square Park.
Streicher's census form, filled out in the spidery script of Census Enumerator August Scheufeh,
records that while Julius could speak English, his wife could not. Their daughter, the form notes,
was in school, and so she probably spoke both languages.
$900 a month. Today, some of the windows at 253 E. 10th Street have bars on them, which
would have been unlikely 100 years ago. There are four apartments to a floor--20 in all. But it's no
longer a building of immigrants. For almost $900 a month, Harvey Weissman, 30, who grew up in
Connecticut, has a small, one-bedroom apartment in the building without central air but with great
views of majestic skyscrapers. At first, Weissman didn't feel he fit into the neighborhood. With an
economics and Spanish degree from Clark University, he pursued a career as an accountant. But
he decided that wasn't who he really was. Eventually, he chucked the corporate job. Today, he's
trying to build an acting career. "Now I feel very happy to be here; the creative energy is very
strong," he says. "It gives me courage to see other people doing it."
We don't know exactly where Julius Streicher's grocery was located, but it is unlikely that it was
very far from his building. Virtually everything one needed in life could be found in the
neighborhood. But as Streicher walked through the streets, he probably wouldn't even have noted
what a visitor today would: the smell. True, the streets were lined with pushcarts selling all
manner of fragrant foodstuffs--America could produce virtually every edible grain, fruit, and
vegetable on the planet--but the nation's cities smelled like stables. The automobile had already
been invented, but horseless carriages were still novelty items. (There were only about 8,000
cars in the entire country, though they had already accounted for 36 traffic fatalities.) So it was
the horse that made the cities move, and it was calculated (the census created in ordinary
Americans a mania for statistics) that the horses of New York City dumped 2.5 million pounds of
manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets each day.
Streicher would not have cared. Without horses, food didn't move in America, and moving food
was his business. You could debate whether 1900 was a simpler time than now--nobody had to
worry about global warming, violence in the movies (there were no movies), or computer viruses
back then. But they did have to worry about their horses dying. The animal epidemic of 1872
killed a quarter of all the horses in America, helped bring on the Panic of 1873, and created
scenes reminiscent of the Dark Ages. "In many cities, teams of men pulled carts, and wagons,"
Thomas J. Schlereth wrote in Victorian America, "as homes went without fuel deliveries, fires
blazed unfought, and garbage remained uncollected." Only winter, which killed off the mosquitoes
that carried the disease, saved the day and the horses.
Which made an enormous clatter on the streets all around Julius Streicher, the steel rims of the
wooden carriage wheels banging over the rough-hewn granite paving stones called Belgian
blocks that formed 10th Street. (Asphalt, considerably less attractive, but easier on the backside if
one was riding in a carriage, was already being poured on other New York streets.) Everything,
from the loud crying of the pushcart peddlers, to the shouting children darting everywhere, to the
squeal of the elevated train, gave New York the same feel that it has today: a city on the move,
on the make, a place of velocity. And in 1900, people loved velocity. After seven years of
depression, the economy had begun booming in 1898. Though the country was still very young--
the grandparents of people alive in 1900 had fought under Gen. George Washington at the Battle
of Yorktown, and there were still parts of the country where white men had yet to set foot--
America was now well on its way to dominating the world.
Bright lights. The nation was producing a third of the world's manufactured goods, exporting iron,
steel, boots, tools, and bicycles. Singer didn't just make 1 million sewing machines a year, it
controlled 75 percent of the world's sales in sewing machines. Standard Oil's blue 5-gallon
kerosene cans could be found from Europe to China. (John D. Rockefeller didn't make his first
great oil fortune from the sale of gasoline--the word wasn't even in common use in 1900--but from
kerosene, used for illumination.) Standard's kerosene could be purchased in tins or delivered to
your house. It didn't flicker much and exploded less, a real plus. Minnesota would harvest more
grain in 1900 than Great Britain and Ireland combined. Half the electric motors on British
streetcars were made in America, as were all the government telephones in London. In Germany,
you were more likely to find an American typewriter than a German one--even as the kaiser was
angry not only that he had been unable to stop German emigration to America but that Germany
was increasingly dependent on American food. Philadelphia was shipping 700 steam engines to
Europe, Russia, Africa, and Asia. In Paris, the French were joining Americans in a new craze:
taking pictures with Eastman Kodak "Brownie" cameras that cost only a buck. Carl Sandburg
remembered how in his home on the center table there was the family Bible and the family photo
album. Albert, prince of Belgium, toured the United States and said, "Alas, you will eat us all up."
And we would. Everything was possible. Streicher had probably read that next year, under the
very streets he was now walking, they were going to begin building a 21-mile underground
railway to be called a subway. (It would cost--what else?--a nickel.) It was a wonder the things
you could find only in America: Thanksgiving, rocking chairs, ice water, chewing gum, baseball,
And yet for all the material success, strange, unsettling trends were surfacing. By 1900 there was
a dramatic decline in the American birthrate (perhaps tied to rising affluence). Women had fewer
children, they were spaced closer together, and women ceased childbearing at earlier ages. In
1900 white women had half as many children as they had in 1800. And family size would
continue to drop. In 1900 the average size of a household was 4.76 persons. Last year, it was
Meltdown. The 2000 census also reaffirms a decades-long trend: The nuclear family is in trouble.
Fewer than a quarter of all households in the United States are made up of married couples with
children. And some 27 million Americans live alone today, accounting for more households than
do married couples with children. Unlike their counterparts in 1900, most of today's residents at
253 E. 10th Street live alone--and love it. "It's liberating to know that I have my own private
respite from the city," says Harvey Weissman. But he's honest about the downside too: "It gets
lonely." To occupy his time, he rents movies and cooks dishes like vegetarian stir-fry and rice. He
works with a singing coach two blocks away as he learns classical Italian arias. He does yoga
three times a week at a neighborhood yoga center and tries to leave the city once a month to go
hiking. Weissman once thought his life would be conventional: a regular job, a house in the
'burbs, wife, kids. But he doesn't have that neat picture anymore. "Coming to New York opened
up my eyes to so many different paths," he says. He'd like to find a life partner, he says, but he's
still learning to enjoy his own company. He's not so sure about kids anymore either. "Some
people would say it's selfish not to get married and have children," he says, "but it may be more
selfish to have children just to fit into expectations."
Down the hall from Weissman, Connie Massimino, 38, doubts she will marry again. "I don't see
the point in getting married anymore," says Massimino, a divorced print production manager for
the Sci-Fi channel. "If I ever live with someone, that would be the extent of it. I don't know that
marriage benefits women the way it once did. Women needed someone to support them and their
children. Now society has allowed women to get an education and find their own way." Her
boyfriend, Peter Zima, is a Slovak immigrant whose mother brought him to the United States in
1969, leaving family and possessions behind to escape political unrest. Today he is an electrical
engineer who lives on City Island, a historic nautical village in the Bronx. He's part of another
important trend revealed by the 2000 census: He's a single dad who just won custody of his 6-
year-old. The census shows that the number of single fathers went up 62 percent during the
1990s, now numbering 2 million.
Splitsville. Divorce in America was already a hot (though often whispered) topic in 1900. From
1876 to 1915 divorces increased 15-fold, making the United States the country with the world's
highest divorce rate. One out of every seven marriages ended in divorce nationwide that year, but
in Los Angeles it was 1 out of every 5 and in San Francisco 1 out of every 4. Few spouses
requested alimony and even fewer (about 15.4 percent in 1916) got any. There was no
agreement, then or now, as to why divorce was climbing. A decline in family values, the
pressures of city life, the liberation of women, and the chauvinism of men were all cited. Or
maybe it was all that damn laundry. There were also chilling newspaper stories in 1900. The use
of cocaine, which wouldn't be outlawed until 1914, was on the rise, and out in Arizona, U.S.
cavalry units were battling Apaches. Still, most Americans had little trouble distinguishing
themselves from most other people in the world by their sense of unquenchable optimism. The
term "American Dream" would not be coined until the 1930s, but Americans in 1900 knew what it
was: Grab it now, grab it all, grab it fast. (They were the dot-commers of their time.) Magazines
like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post were filled with stories about men who had made it
big and quickly. President William McKinley had been the son of a country lawyer; steel magnate
Andrew Carnegie, the son of a weaver; Thomas Edison, the son of a shingle manufacturer;
railroad tycoon James J. Hill had been a clerk, as had Rockefeller. Publishing giant Joseph
Pulitzer had been a penniless immigrant. (These rags-to-riches stories tended to distort the real
picture, however. According to one author, less than 5 percent of America's corporate elite in
1900-1910 started out poor.)
Black and bleak. Still, the possibility of quick success existed--if you were white. The year 1900
was a terrible one to be black in America. The average black life span that year was 34 years, or
about 14 years less than whites. The South, where 90 percent of the black population lived, was
the poorest region of the United States. For blacks, it was also the deadliest. In 1900 there were
116 lynchings, or about one every three days. Since the 1890s blacks had begun migrating north
in modest numbers, only to find that the only jobs open to them were those of domestics, janitors,
and porters. Coming north they had to battle with the new immigrants for jobs. And 1900 was also
a year marked by northern race riots.
By the end of the century, however, blacks were pouring back to the region they had spent most
of the past 100 years leaving. The South's black population surged by 3.5 million people in the
1990s. That's more than in the other three regions of the nation combined, according to
University of Michigan demographer William Frey. It is also double the number of blacks that the
South gained in the 1980s (1.7 million) and well above the gain for the 1970s (1.9 million), when
blacks began returning to the South. The South is a lure because of a robust economy, lower
population density, warmer weather, the existence of a black middle class, and improved racial
climate. The region is now home to 55 percent of the country's blacks.
Today, on the second floor of 253 E. 10th Street, resides Van Williams, 42 and an African-
American, who has lived in the building for 18 years. "It feels like it's a destiny," he says. His
grandmother and mother moved up from Charleston, S.C., to Brooklyn in the late '50s but moved
to this block in the early 1960s before moving on to the Bronx. Williams works on gardens for
homeowners in midtown and uptown. His white roommate, Tom Sliva, 55, has lived in this
apartment for 27 years. He was raised in Yonkers but came to the East Village in the early 1970s
when his mother was in a nearby hospital. Sliva, who has a chemistry degree from the University
of Utah, got a low-level job at a testing lab for paints and coatings. Today he runs the place.
Though Williams dislikes the noise on the block--not carriage wheels anymore but late-night
revelers--the two do like the neighborhood for its vibrancy and tolerance.
Tolerance was in short supply in 1900. Because the Protestant immigration wave was being
supplanted by a Catholic immigration wave, anti-Catholic sentiment ran high in America. And on
the West Coast, anti-Chinese feelings ran even higher. But 1 in 7 Americans in 1900 had been
born abroad (today it is 1 in 10) and more than 1,000 immigrants were arriving each day.
Not all made it. Not all wanted to. Though it is often little noted, many immigrants gave up on
America. Roughly a fourth to a third who came to this country left again. According to Thomas
Schlereth, between 1899 and 1924 about "half the Italians, Hungarians and Slovaks; about 12
percent of the Irish; and about 23 percent of the Scandinavians" went back to Europe. Life could
be lonely and hard in America.
It certainly turned out to be for the Streichers. By 1920, Julius was a widower, living in his sister's
rented house in Brooklyn. He was no longer a grocer but was now listed in the census as an
unskilled factory worker. In 1900, he had begun the process of becoming a citizen. By 1920, he
had not become one. Today, we don't know what became of Julius Streicher or his family. Like
the American experience, some stories are not yet ended.
The number of Americans grew by about 270 percent in the 20th century, with nonwhites
increasing nearly 10-fold.
Total population (in millions)
1900 76 1920 106 1940 132 1960 179 1980 227 2000 281
1900 37 39 2000 143 138
1900 9 2000 87
Black 8.8 American Indian 267,000 Chinese 119,000 Japanese 86,000
Hispanic 35 mil. Black (not Hispanic) 34 mil. Asian 10 mil.
Amer. Indian/Alaskan 2 mil. Other 1 mil. 2 or more races 5 mil.
New York City and California are biggest, and Asia and Latin America have replaced
Europe as the U.S.'s main source of immigrants.
Population center i
Biggest cities 1900 2000
New York 3.4 mil. 8 mil. Chicago 1.7 mil. Los Angeles 3.7 mil. Philadelphia 1.3 mil.
Chicago 2.9 mil. St. Louis 575,000 Houston 2 mil. Boston 561,000
Philadelphia 1.5 mil.
Biggest States 1900 2000
New York 7.3 mil. 19 mil. California 34 mil. Pennsylvania 6.3 mil. Texas 21
mil. Illinois 4.8 mil. 12 mil. Ohio 4.2 mil. Florida 18 mil. Missouri 3.1 mil.
Foreign-Born Population 14 pct. 10 pct.
Top Sources of Immigrants
(1901-1910) Austria-Hungary 2.1 mil. Italy 2 mil. Russia 1.6 mil. United Kingdom 526,000
Mexico 1.9 mil. Philippines 434,000 Russia 386,000 Dominican Republic 300,000
The average U.S. family is only about half the size it was at the start of the century, but its
members are living much longer.
Average household size 4.76 persons 2.59 persons
Births per woman 4 (1905) 2
Infant mortality rate* 165 7 (1997)
*Deaths in first year of life per 1,000 births
Median age 22.9 years 35.3 years
Average marriage age
Women 22 25 (1996)
Men 26 27 (1996)
Divorced men 84,000 8.3 mil. (1998)
Divorced women 114,000 11.1 mil. (1998)
Men 46 years 74 years (1997)
Women 48 years 79 years (1997)
(per million population) 46 262
Today's Americans are more solitary and urban than their forebears at the turn of the past
century. They're also richer.
Living alone 1 pct. 10 pct. (1998)
Or in big households 50 pct. 10 pct. (1998)
Headed by a married couple 80 pct.(1910) 53 pct. (1998)
Occupied by owners 37 pct. 66 pct. (1998)
Urban dwellers 40 pct. 80 pct.
Average income (1901 dollars) $418 $40,816 (1999)
(inflation adjusted) $8,360
Share of income spent on food 43 pct. (1901) 15 pct. (1997)
Americans are now more suburban, mobile, and wired than they were in 1900, and
household amenities have spread to nearly everyone.
Suburban dwellers 12 pct.(1910) 52 pct.
Automobiles 8,000 132 mil. (1998)
Cars, buses, trucks
(per 1,000 population) 0.1 776 (1997)
(annual, per capita) 38 2,325 (1997)
Electricity (share of
occupied housing units) 2 pct. 99 pct. (1997)
Flush toilets (share of
occupied housing units) 10 pct. 98 pct. (1997)
Mail received (annual,
per capita) 93 pieces 729 pieces (1998)
(spending per capita) $13 (inflation adj.) $207 (1996)
(annual usage, per
capita) 34 gallons 1,072 gallons (1998)
School enrollment and graduation rates soared in the 20th century, fueled by an increase
in women's participation.
14-to17-year-olds in school 11 pct. 93 pct. (1997)
High-school grads 13 pct. (1910) 83 pct. (1999)
College grads 3 pct. 25 pct. (1999)
Share of all B.A.'s earned
by women 19 pct. 56 pct.
Share of population with less
than five years' schooling 24 pct.(1910) 2 pct. (1998)
Average teacher salary
(1900 dollars) $328 $40,600 (1999)
(inflation adjusted) $6,560
Pupils per teacher
(in public schools) 34 (1910) 19 (1998)
Today's workforce includes more women--increasingly in high-paying professions such as
law--but far fewer seniors and farmers.
Married women in labor force 6 pct. 61 pct. (1998)
Single women in labor force 44 pct. 69 pct. (1998)
Men over 65 in labor force 63 pct. 17 pct. (1998)
Female lawyers 1 pct. 29 pct. (1998)
Factory workers' hourly wage
(inflation adjusted) $3.80 (1909) $13.90 (1999)
Union members (share of
civilian labor force) 3 pct. 12 pct. (1998)
Family farms 5.7 mil. 1.9 mil. (1997
War veterans 1.1 mil. 25.1 mil. (1998)
Sources: The First Measured Century, U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United