Adapted from Preface of Book
Search the Internet for information on the 1890s, and you’ll come across a variety of phrases:
The Gilded Age. A phrase coined by Mark Twain, it alluded to the seemingly profitable era that was riddled with crime.
The Gay Nineties. This term, which didn’t appear until 1926, referred simply to merriment and frivolity under the then-current usage of the word “gay.”
The Mauve Decade. William Henry Perkin’s invention of aniline dye allowed the widespread use of that color in fashion.
Look closer, and you see a decade with many memorable milestones:
- The music of John Philip Sousa and Scott Joplin was popular.
- The story of Black Beauty was first published.
- Thomas Edison patented his kinetoscopic camera, which took moving pictures on a strip of film.
- The zipper was patented, and toilet paper was invented.
- Frank and Charles Duryea, as well as Henry Ford, tested their first automobiles.
- Grover Cleveland was elected president.
- The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago.
- Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was touring the U.S.
- Coxey’s army reached Washington.
- Congress passed the first graduated income tax.
- Sears Roebuck began its mail order business.
- H.G. Wells wrote “The War of the Worlds.
- Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” was published.
- Utah became the 45th state.
- Gold was discovered in the Yukon.
- William McKinley was elected president.
- The battleship Maine was sunk in Havana harbor.
- And, Somerset County celebrated its Centennial in grand style!
On the local level, everyday life would have seemed like a struggle compared to how we live today:
Transportation was mainly by horseback or horse-drawn buggies on gravel roads; hitching posts and water troughs were common in towns. Travel of any distance was generally by train. There were no telephones in Somerset until the mid-1890s, and then only a few. Weekly newspapers—most towns had one—delivered the news because radio and television were yet to be invented. Electric lighting was a rarity and enjoyed only by those who could afford a private generator. Meals were cooked over wood- or coal-fired stoves.
On a more positive note, entertainment was provided by touring theatrical groups and social events (dances) were popular. In the winter, neighboring towns good-naturedly competed to see who could turn out the biggest sleighing parties.
Of course, at the start of that decade, the residents of Somerset County had very fresh memories of the nearby 1889 Johnstown Flood in which 2,300 people perished.
As you read the pages that follow, you will come across the names of towns that no longer appear on any map (e.g., the town of Somerfield now lies beneath the surface of the Youghiogheny Reservoir), unfamiliar street names (e.g., Center Avenue in Somerset was called Main Cross Street back then), and variations of names (e.g., Pittsburg was spelled without the “h” during this era).
And, when you see that someone was robbed of X number of dollars or spending X dollars to build something, keep in mind what it took to earn that much back then. In other words, the purchasing power of $100 in 1890 is equivalent to $2,430 in today’s dollars (Source: www.measuringworth.com).
We sometimes like to think of days gone by as The Good Old Days. In some ways, they were ... in others, maybe not. — RGB