Predicting The Present

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I have a personal fondness for works about the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, adjacent to the exposition grounds, and I recall many pleasant afternoons wandering around the lagoon behind Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, housed in what had been the Palace of the Fine Arts, trying to recreate in my mind those lovely fake alabaster towers and exotic pavilions. Now my warmth toward that long-ago jamboree and showcase is rekindled by the arrival of a modest book that owes its existence to the exposition. Shortly before the exposition got under way, the American Press Syndicate, which furnished “boilerplate” (i.e., prepared and print-ready copy) to weekly newspapers around the country, circulated a questionnaire to seventy-four writers, journalists, officials, business leaders, clergymen, and other “experts.” They were asked to make brief predictions about what American life would be like in the 1990s, on the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landing. The responses were run as articles for eight or nine weeks before the grand opening on May 1—appetite sharpeners, so to speak, for the approaching banquet of marvels.

Now Dave Walter, a Montana historian, has unearthed and published them (with biographical notes on the authors) in a little volume called Today Then (American and World Geographic Publishing, Helena, Mont., $12.95). They are a treat to read, being both concise and, for the most part, not grave and pompous in the customary manner of that era. Most of the respondents picked only one or two topics from a long list of suggestions (ranging from the future state of medicine to who would be the most honored American of the 1990s) and seem, luckily, to have devoted no more time to the project than it took to dash off or dictate a few inspired guesses. The result is a lively portrait of the American mind of the time.

Or, I should say, part of it, for it almost goes without saying that all but six of the leaders who answered were white males. However, I am not as certain as some current historians that if recent immigrants or black working women had been polled, they would not have shared the generally positive expectations that radiate through these pages, which at least four of the female respondents actually did—for example, Mary Ellen Lease, lawyer and Populist advocate, whose essay is titled “Improvements So Extraordinary the World Will Shudder.” Presumably the titles have been furnished by the editor, Dave Walter, but they are entirely faithful to the text. “The Future Is a Fancyland Palace,” was the promise and premise of James W. Sullivan, editor and labor activist. “The Finest Municipal Development the World Has Ever Seen” was the prediction of Andrew H. Green, at one time the comptroller of New York City and the father of the plan that in 1898 incorporated five counties and their independent municipalities into “Greater New York.” Sidney G. Brock, chief of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Statistics, foresaw a “Perfect Government, Improved People.”

Terence V. Powderly, onetime head of the Knights of Labor, who envisioned a populace so “educated and refined” that “the confinement and punishment of criminals will occupy but little of the thought or time of the men of 1993.” Chauncey M. Depew, the keynote speaker at the exposition, anticipated the preservation of a healthy two-party system. One party would favor the “paternal theory of government” and believe it was the “duty of the national government to do all proper things for the development of the prosperity and happiness of the American people.” The other would be “sought by those who believe that the government should do nothing which private enterprise or states and municipalities can do.” The private-enterprise party would be the Democrats. The big-government advocates would be the Republicans.

Well, it’s possible to laugh one’s way cheaply through the book by picking out the clinkers, but in fact, an impressive list could be made of hunches or extrapolations that were on target. This was usually the case when the essayists stuck to technical or economic questions. The shipping tycoon William R. Grace argued that “the genius of the American people will make it perfectly possible for this country to compete successfully with the great manufacturing centers of Europe,” a bold vision a hundred years ago. John Wanamaker, father of a fortune in merchandising, who was Postmaster General in 1892, assumed that “the telephone and the telegraph (with charges reduced so that the people may really use them) will be extended within everyone’s reach.” He also predicted that the use of the service would grow a hundredfold and that it would be “more economically administered.” Charles Foster, Wanamaker’s colleague in President Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet (Secretary of the Treasury), believed that electricity was going to become vastly less expensive and that therefore “electrical power [would] become universal,” leading to wonders “in the way of rapid transit, household conveniences, electrical carriages to take the place of horses, elevators in business and private houses, and all sorts of machinery.” He missed only on the “electrical carriages,” and the future may yet bear him out on that. In general the narrowest predictions were the safest, like that of the President’s personal secretary, Elijah Halford, that the White House “will soon have to be enlarged.” (The first new wing was begun ten years later.)