- Published: 22 April 2008
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Katie Becker, age 16, of Akron, Ohio, for her question:
WHY WERE THEY CALLED THE GAY NINETIES?
Gay Nineties was the period of time in the 1890s in United States history. Although it was a prosperous time for many Americans, there was also a nationwide depression, much labor unrest and the Spanish American War. During this time very few regarded the period as especially gay or joyous.
The term Gay Nineties became widely used during the Great Depression, the worldwide business slump of the 1930s. At the time, the people longed for a comfortable past and chose to remember only the prosperous years and the heroic events of the 1890s.
Among the pleasant memories of the Gay Nineties were the charming gas lights and lively vaudeville shows. There were also the 5 cent motion picture theaters called Nickelodeons. There was the memory of Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt leading the fearless Rough Rider Regiment against the Spaniards in Cuba three years before he became the nation's 26th President. And there was the memory of the marvelous new Ferris wheel of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
During the 1890s about an eighth of the families controlled about seven eights of the nation's income. Most of the millionaires made their fortunes in banking, mining, trade, manufacturing or transportation.
Wealthy Americans traveled by ocean liners to many parts of the world. They lived in elegant mansions or town houses and furnished their homes with heavily ornamented furniture of the Victorian style. The fashionable women dressed in the Gibson Girl style.
The rich spent their leisure time watching horse races, yachting and playing polo.
Members of the middle class during the Gay Nineties included skilled workers, professional people including doctors and attorneys and small business owners. Most lived in their own homes and, like the wealthy, they furnished their rooms with Victorian furniture. Only a few of their children could afford to go to college, however.
Most of the nation's urban poor of the 1890s were unskilled laborers.
The Gay Nineties were anything but joyous for the people who lived in poverty. Many of the urban poor were immigrants who spoke little or no English and who worked about 60 hours a week for less than $10. Millions lost their jobs in the depression that hit in 1893 and lasted until 1897. About a fifth of the nation's industrial workers had no jobs.
Millions of urban poor lived in crowded tenements. Poor city children left school at an early age and few even attended high school.
Large numbers of rural poor lived in shacks that lacked running water. Rural workers made only about half the pay that city workers earned.
During the mid 1890s, a growing number of congressmen believed that high import tariffs would help the slumping U.S. economy by reducing competition from products made abroad.
In 1897, Congress passed the Dingley Act, which raised tariffs to record levels. Businessmen and farmers soon began to prosper again.