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Predicting The Present

June 2024
5min read

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.)

Surveying the volume overall, there are some striking omissions. Most of the writers assumed that transportation facilities would get bigger, better, and faster, but for them that mainly meant steam-powered trains that would go more than a hundred miles an hour. Hardly anyone dreamed, like the Kansas Populist senator William A. Peffer, that men would “navigate the air.” (Would that the rest of his essay had been equally accurate; he foresaw, among other things, a five-hour workday, the abolition of war, the limitation of taxation to “natural sources of livelihood,” and a humankind “wiser, better and purer.”) Octavus Cohen, a music and drama critic, described a device called a “telephote” that would be in the home of every “reasonably well-to-do man” by which “the entertainment at any place of amusement in that city [might] be seen as well as heard.” But no one else dreamed that sounds, much less pictures, might’ be communicated without wires, although Marconi and radio were only a few years away. The private gasoline-powered automobile? Not one respondent seemed to know of its existence or had the slightest intimation that it would become universal and dominating. And computers that infinitely multiplied the powers of the mind? No one had a glimmer. Space travel? Not even a hint, though Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon had been around since 1865.

The surprising thing, in fact, is that these optimists failed to see some extraordinary breakthroughs that lay ahead, especially in health care, even though some of them directly ad- dressed the issue. The Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, of Brooklyn’s Central Presbyterian Church, for example, expected that “cancer and consumption will be as easily cured as influenza,” but neither he nor any other contributor imagined organ transplants, bypass surgery, antibiotics, and other discoveries that eliminated—in developed countries, that is—one of the crudest aspects of premodern life, the frequent death of young children from illness.

One respondent predicted
a “telephote” in every
home, on which the
“entertainment of any place
of amusement” could be seen and heard.

There were other positive aspects of progress that they may have missed too, but the most powerful impression that stays with me after reading the book is how innocent the authors seem of impending catastrophes. Only twenty-one years ahead were the disasters of World War I, a great collapse of the European civilization, whose superiority they all took for granted, that would lead to the even greater horrors of totalitarianism and World War II, which their own children lived to see.

Not that I want to fault them, even the most bombastic ones like first comptroller of the Treasury, Asa Matthews, who expected a United States that embraced all of North America and would shelter “the most perfect civilization and the most prosperous and happy people that the world ever knew.” He and his cohort simply were on what was then the universally popular affirmative side of an age-old debate over whether human nature can be changed as outward circumstances improve. Very, very few Americans of the 189Os thought otherwise. In this book, only a journalist, Joseph Howard, Jr., dares to say: “So long as men are built as they are today—mentally, morally, and physically—human nature cannot change. And until human nature changes the outwork, the output cannot be expected to alter.” And only John J. Ingalls, a former Republican senator from Kansas, was grouchy enough to forecast wonderful material advances (like air travel, global telephone networks, and cheap power) but still deny that they would make any great improvements in politics. “Wealth will accumulate, business will combine, and the gulf between the rich and the poor will be more profound,” he warned, and nothing would be done about it because “the differences between men are organic and fundamental . . . they result from an act of God, and cannot be changed by an act of Congress.” The attempt to cure the ills of society by statute, he went on, would be “the favorite prescription of ignorance, incapacity and credulity for the next 100 years—as it has been from the beginning of civilization.”

But these, I remind readers again, were rare voices. The fair was a wedding celebration; humankind was getting married to technology. Who was mean enough to suggest that the match would not be happy, or the children anything but beautiful?

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