Innocence and Greed: The Shaping of Early 20th Century America.

June 13, 2016

In 1900, some considered America a beacon of light to the rest of the world. Immigrants were flooding into the cities of our nation, and there was an impressive list of new innovations that had “made in U. S.” stamped on it. We were becoming defined by the opportunities and the possibilities that existed. There was a certainty that all would turn out right, and little room was left to question or doubt other possibilities. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed his own confidence in the future by saying, “I always believe in going hard at everything.” America was going hard at everything, and gave little thought about to potential dangers, or unexpected events which might be lurking about. The confidence of Americans was bubbling over, and the nation not only hoped for the best, they fully expected it. There were, however, many other factors that also bubbled, but beneath the surface, moving in many different directions, like the tide, some going forward and others backward.

Early 20th Century America has been historically referred to as the Age of Confidence, the Cocksure Era, and the Age of Innocence. There are many tragic examples of just how innocent and vulnerable Americans were during that period. The average working class Americans understood the realities of life based on what they saw, felt, and lived. It is unlikely that our young men who fought in World War I understood why they were going to war, and they probably had no idea what they would face. The same could be said about The Great Pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Many American physicians confused the influenza virus with the common cold. As millions were dying in Europe in 1918, our Public Health Service did not even recognize influenza as a reportable illness. Between March 1918 and January 1919 approximately 675,000 Americans died from the influenza virus. Worldwide, nearly 50 million perished from The Great Pandemic. In America, it was not just a time of innocence, it was a time of imbalance. On the one hand, America was driven by the brilliance of new technologies and the ambitions of industrialists, while the larger population suffered because of lack of information and knowledge.

Young American Soldier. World War i. 1917-1918.
Young American Soldier.
World War I. 1917-1918.

That time period was also remembered, as a time of arrogance, especially, when considering one catastrophic event. In 1900, Galveston had a population of 35,000, and was the largest city in Texas. Its 30 miles of low-lying beaches stretched along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The residents were used to bad storms and their streets occasionally overflowed from tidal waves. They had, however, been reassured by experts that a seawall was not needed. Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist of the National Weather Bureau, wrote an article in 1891 (Galveston Daily News) saying that it was a “crazy idea” to think that a hurricane would ever hit Galveston. He went on to state that anyone who believed otherwise was, “the victim of an absurd delusion.” He was also confident about the risk of storm surges saying, “It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a surge that would materially injure the city.” Much of the city, however, was only 9 feet above sea level, so a storm surge was a very legitimate concern. The certainty of Cline’s opinions swayed the public and the seawall was not built. He later regretted his comments.

Destroyed High School in Galveston, Texas 1900
Destroyed High School in Galveston, Texas

There was an even larger problem – – U.S. weather people were weather snobs, and systemically rejected data from non-American entities. It was felt that their data would be inferior and could not be trusted. This attitude was particularly true of one of our closest geographical neighbors, the island of Cuba. Cuba, which had experienced untold numbers of hurricanes, had an advanced hurricane tracking system in place since 1870, and by 1900 their tracking and predicting methods were extremely accurate. On August 30, 1900, the National Weather Bureau began providing daily updates to the Galveston area about a “storm of moderate intensity,” including “rain and strong winds”. The Galveston Daily News told its readers that there was a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but the city was not in its path. Cuban meteorologists had frantically been sending the Bureau weather reports via telegraphs, which accurately predicted both the track and the huge scale of the storm. The Bureau rejected the reports citing that Cubans could not accurately predict hurricanes, let alone do it better than they could.

Galveston, Texas -1900, the aftermath - body is visible in the ruins
Galveston, Texas -1900, the aftermath – body is visible in the ruins

Saturday, September 8, 1900 businesses were open and residents were shopping; some were sitting in lunchrooms talking about the rising winds. Despite the swelling tides, and the moderate flooding in the streets, people were still enjoying the beaches. By mid- morning the winds had gained strength, and by 10:30 am there were reports that shingles were being blown from roofs, wind gauges were ripped from moorings, and small children were getting pulled into the surf. By midday, the full 145 mph winds struck the city, and the low areas were quickly swallowed by the 15’ tidal surges. By the end of the day between 8,000 and 12,000 people were killed and over 3,000 structures destroyed. The Galveston Hurricane is easily the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Dr. Isaac Cline claims in his autobiography that on the morning of the storm he personally went up and down the packed beaches of Galveston alerting people on the beach that they needed to get to higher ground. According to historian Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm) his research could not corroborate his claim, and suggests that Cline did not warn anyone, but that it did not matter. Larson’s research suggested that residents and vacationers would not have heeded the warning anyhow. Like the Bureau, they shared the same degree of arrogance that nothing bad would happen to them. Their own confidence, bursting from years of re-assurance, simply reflected what they had been led to believe.

Isaac Cline

Sadly, Isaac Cline lost his wife and unborn child in the disaster. He later said he had made a mistake in his analysis of the town’s need for a seawall. The town rebuilt and made numerous improvements including building three miles of seawall, a high impact weather bridge, and most dramatically, raising the grade of the city, in some places as high as 17 feet. Despite these enormous civic efforts the commercial promise of Galveston as a shipping and manufacturing center for the nation had been lost.

A century ago an average American had a third grade education, and only a quarter of the nation could read. We were not innocent to the many hardships of life, such as hard work, raising families, and premature death. Innocence, however, reigned in the day to day lives of people when it came to events that were completely unimaginable. The community of Galveston knew about Nor’ Easters, and even hurricanes, but unlike hurricanes, an earthquake was something that only a handful of the better-read even knew about, and they occurred in far-away places. When the earthquake hit San Francisco only a few even realized what was happening.

San Francisco was a city with great promise; it was referred to as the “beautiful city” and “gateway to the Pacific”, and life was good. The morning paper, the San Francisco Call, headlined two articles entitled “A Rich Man’s Son Lands in Jail,” and “Weds Nurse to Whom he Owes Health.” The previous day the headline dealt with two steamer ships colliding with each other in the port, and no one was injured. The world of San Francisco was a quiet and peaceful one. It was Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906 and the weather was clear and sunny, but at 5:13 am the peace and quiet suddenly ended.

San Francisco Earthquake 1906, fires have already begun to burn the city
San Francisco Earthquake 1906, fires have already begun to burn the city

The force of the earthquake was so severe it ruptured the city’s gas and water mains. There were 135 aftershocks which leveled huge buildings, buckled streets, and crushed residents to death beneath the rubble. Within hours of the initial quake, the center of San Francisco was engulfed in flames, and without water the fire departments were helpless to extinguish the inferno. After three days the fire was finally out, and four miles of the city were destroyed, 30,000 structures, 300,000 homeless and 3,000 perished in the quake or the fire that ensued. The pride of the city, San Francisco’s City Hall, which had taken 25 years to build, was lost in less than 2 minutes.

Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right). 1906
Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right). 1906

Before the fires had burned out, the Governor of California had appointed a panel of experts to study the earthquake. Dr. Andrew Larson, a professor from UCLA, became the chairman of the committee. Known as the Larson Report, his comprehensive study became the accepted handbook about earthquake science, and is still used today. The report identified a continental transform boundary called the San Andreas Fault. The fault was found to extend nearly the length of the entire state, and formed the tectonic boundary that connected the Pacific and North American Plates. Larson’s team of 20 scientists walked the entire distance observing and taking notes. The report also discussed how stress within the earth could build up, and at some point rupture, and propagate land movements and earthquakes. The most significant contribution of the report was a specialized method to identify rupture and earthquake zones.

Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918, rows of sick influenza patients.
Camp Funston, Kansas,
1918, rows of sick influenza patients.

The core of American life is and was driven by its economy. Prior to 1865 the majority of the nation’s economic growth was through slave labor, and this had been the case for over two hundred and fifty years. Its replacement was the Second Industrial Revolution and, while slavery itself was gone, wage slavery was not. Poorly paid workers barely existed in filthy and unsafe work conditions. In some situations, the workplaces were so terrible that owners would not go inside. It was, however, good enough for their workers. Employers were king and their workers had few, if any rights. In the early 20th Century, greed was rampant among many American industrialists, and it was allowed to flourish off the backs of their workers.

March 25, 1911 started off as a nice day In Manhattan. It was a Saturday, and Washington Park was full of picnickers and those out enjoying a walk. New York University students and other passersby’s, were all enjoying the sunshine. Around 4:40 pm the first signs of smoke began coming from the Asch Building across from the park. The Triangle Waist Company garment factory was on fire. Within a minute, the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the building were engulfed in smoke and flames, and the screams of the women were clearly heard by those in the park. By 4:45 pm women began jumping out of windows. Some became human torches, their bodies twisting in agony as they dropped to the sidewalk. The fire departments arrived quickly but their ladders were not long enough to even reach the 6th floor, and their life nets ripped from the impact of the falling bodies. By 5pm, 62 people had either jumped or fallen out of the windows, their bodies heaped together on the sidewalk, and another 19 had been killed falling down the elevator shafts. Altogether, 146 people died as a result of the fire, including two fourteen year old girls, Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese. In the large crowd that had gathered, many became hysterical, some screamed in disbelief, women fainted and many wept as they watched the grisly scene. According to the Daily People, the horror was witnessed by over 25,000 people.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 1911, on the sidewalk are coffins containing the bodies of some of the young women who died in the tragic fire.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 1911, on the sidewalk are coffins containing the bodies of some of the young women who died in the tragic fire.

The fire was caused by a lit cigarette that was dropped on the 8th floor. Months of upswept fabric cuttings quickly turned into a raging blaze. The owners were alerted by a phone call and they and some others escaped off the roof. The building only had one fire escape, and it quickly became overloaded with frantic workers, and crashed to the ground. The one exit door was locked, and the key was with the male supervisor who had already saved himself. Half of the dead were teenage girls, and their pay envelopes were found in their clothing. The next morning one of the newspaper’s headlines read, “Died for $6 a Week,” and another stated “Workers Sacrificed in Deadly Fire Trap. Ghastly Remains on Street.” Another article noted that the door was locked to keep workers out who arrived late for work, and it also prevented strikers from interrupting the owners’ business.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire, March 25, 1911
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire, March 25, 1911

Several newspapers capitalized on the irony of the disaster. In 1909, many of the women who were killed in the fire were the same ones who had marched in the protests at the Triangle factory. They were simply demanding shorter hours, better wages and safer working conditions. In 1909 everything had been against the workers – the courts, the police, and most importantly the laws had all been designed to protect the employers. Employers needed profits to stay in business, and that was based on speed, long hours, and no breaks. Many of the women who had marched in the protest lines, had been beaten by thugs and prostitutes, who had been hired by their employers. They were determined to keep the unions out, and maintain the status quo with regards to wages and unsafe work conditions. The police had looked the other way, but in the aftermath of the fire, they were like the rest of the community, and grieved in disbelief. Within days of the fire the public began demanding the rights that the women had died for. In one article entitled, “It Took Women to Burn” fueled the anger for the national debate that took place. By 1914, 30 new labor laws came out of the disaster, including improved safety standards, shorter work days and better pay. The fact that the tragic loss was witnessed by so many helped convince an entire nation that workplace changes were more important than greed.

In 1900, Americans were excited about what lay ahead. The Industrial Revolution had brought jobs, and because of that, millions of Americans were migrating into industrialized areas, and creating cities throughout the nation. Inventors, investors, industrial owners, and government leaders all expressed, or implied, great faith in the future of our nation. Along the way, at least during those first two decades, our nation stumbled many times. The challenges described, were horrific back steps, but helped redefine us, and encouraged a nation to strive for a better society.


Time Magazine, September 8, 2008 , Amanda Riply “The 1900 Galveston Hurricane.”

Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larsen

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, Philip Fradkin

San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, Kathleen Duey

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Jacqueline Green

The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919, United States Department of Health and Human Services

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

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