How Fabulous Were the 1890s?
We call the 1890s decade fabulous, and that is exactly what it was. It was a dynamic era of transition, excitement, and enthusiasm. It was so fabulous, in fact, that in Mansfield we still celebrate it every September.
The 1890 Census showed a United States population of almost sixty-three million people, up 25.5 percent from 1880. Immigration and a high birth rate raised the numbers. In Tioga County 1890 was the peak population level of all time with over 52,000 people. With the decline of the coal and lumber industries, this fell to 31,000 in 1940. Today we have only recovered to something over 42,000.
North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington had just become states in 1889. In the 1890s, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah joined. Not coincidentally, the last battle of the Indian Wars, the infamous Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, occurred in December of 1890. Hundreds of the native population, people of all ages and condition, were slaughtered.
The big business of the country was agriculture. 43 percent of the nation’s labor force worked on four and a half million farms, the average size of which was 136 acres. In that decade agricultural exports of $703 million annually amounted to 71 percent of all U.S. exports.
The Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs made every imaginable product available to rural families. The Burpee seed catalog offered variety for garden and farm.
Part of the agricultural environment was the annual local or county fair where produce and livestock were displayed and judged. Healthy competition raised the standards. It was also a major community event that brought all the residents of the rural communities, who might not mingle any other time of the year, together in the local market towns.
Entertainment of all kinds added to the festivity of the annual fair. According to one of our local diaries, The Great Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was part of the entertainment in 1890.
Farmers and townsfolk alike travelled on various horse drawn conveyances over mud roads. For town-to-town travel the stagecoach was available. It ran between Mansfield and Wellsboro round trip twice a day. For longer trips, one only had to get to the closest train depot and the whole country was open to explore and visit. The Western migrants and their Eastern relatives could exchange visits. Locally, people would take the train to Elmira for shopping or a family reunion at Eldridge Park.
We can’t talk about transportation without including the bicycle. It was all the rage. Bicyclists took to the road by the thousands. They joined clubs. They raced and toured. Women abandoned their corsets and long skirts for Bloomer Suits that freed their movement.
Infrastructure improvements were extensive in the 1890s. The first American subway was built in Boston in 1897. Electricity was a new resource. The first alternating current was transmitted in 1891. In April of 1892, The General Electric Company was formed by merger. In September of that same year, they demonstrated electricity at the Great Mansfield Fair resulting in the first ever night football game that we continue to commemorate. The first phone line in this area connected Mansfield and Wellsboro. There was one phone in Mansfield at the Hotel Allen. There had been earlier private lines. Large-scale phone line installation in our area started in 1900. Mansfield signed a contract for water, needed mainly for fighting fire.
The 1890s had no shortage of celebrities. Among the most prominent was twenty-two-year-old investigative journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, pen name Nellie Bly. Inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, she set out in her now famous checked coat to do the same. It took her only seventy-two days to circumnavigate the globe, telegraphing her progress back to her newspaper daily. At every stop dignitaries and fans gathered to share her journey. Fame and a long career followed. A board game was even produced to follow her trail.
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 has a local connection. Mansfield geologist Andrew Sherwood was approached to participate in an Alaska mining venture. He became the general manager of the Alaska Mining and Prospecting Company with a Mansfield address. He even took a team to the Klondike. Not only was he swindled, but so were those he had encouraged to invest. It was the humiliation of his life.
The big event of the decade was the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The 600-acre White City hosted millions from across the country who flocked to experience wonders never seen before. The first Ferris wheel carried 2,160 passengers. Wrigley’s chewing gum was among the new products introduced.
You can experience some of the flavor of the 1890s at Mansfield’s Fabulous 1890s Weekend on September 26 and 27. This year it is paired with Mansfield University Homecoming. You’ll see twice the parade and twice the entertainment. You will see more agricultural elements this year, balloons, and a new video show of the 1890s decade in the museum tent. You can even try out the Nellie Bly board game. We hope to see you.