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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hobble Skirts, Muckrakers, and Bohemians: The Progressive Era

Mary Robert Rinehart’s novel, When a Man Marries, was written in 1910, in the middle of what came to be known as the ‘Progressive Era’ in the United States. Beginning in the 1890s--the ‘Gay Nineties’--and ending roughly with the start of World War I, the Progressive Era marked a time of social and political change.

A new vocabulary characterized this era. Americans would speak about a "public interest" that was opposed by "special interests." They would also speak about "efficiency" and "expertise" in government and “morality” in foreign affairs. For the first time, Americans spoke of "social workers," "muckrakers," "trustbusters," "feminists," "social scientists," and "conservation." ~ Digital History -- Progressivism

Many of the governmental regulatory programs we’re familiar with came about during this time. The federal inspection of meat, for example, was brought about after the public learned of the truly horrifying conditions of slaughterhouses, thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; and President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, enacted some of the first regulations to preserve and maintain our natural resources. During this era, most states instituted compulsory school attendance laws and the federal income tax was ratified as the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution at the end of Taft’s presidency.

For the wealthy, life was a mix of luxury and activism, should one be so inclined. Women like Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, and Eleanor Roosevelt participated in their pet causes, modeling social benevolence on both sides of the political spectrum.

Art, science, and popular culture underwent exciting and novel changes as well. In 1907, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon heralded the beginning of Cubism; in 1908, General Electric patented the electric toaster. Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1904 and ended in 1914. In 1908, the first ball dropped in New York's Times Square for the New Year, thus beginning a century-long tradition.

While the mores of the Victorian era were still strongly held in the United Kingdom and the U.S., attitudes were changing. Cigarette smoking became fashionable again, as states repealed their ban on cigarette sales, and women were no longer arrested for smoking cigarettes in public. (However, a well-bred woman still smoked in the home, and only around her husband--unless she was the daring type!)

The slender silhouette associated with Edwardian-era fashion reached an extreme with the ‘hobble skirt,’ which was decried in a New York Times article from 1910, '"The Hobble" is the latest freak in woman's fashions'. (Coke’s iconic glass bottle was inspired by the ‘hobble skirt.’)

Eating out in restaurants became a trend for Americans, especially women, who begin dining at lunch counters and clubs previously restricted to ‘men only.’ Foreign cuisine--beyond French--also became fashionable as German, Chinese, and Irish restaurants opened at a brisk rate.

Adventurous young bohemians seek out small ethnic restaurants (“table d’hotes”) which serve free carafes of wine. Many restaurants introduce live music. The super-rich are accused of “reckless extravagance” as they stage elaborate banquets. The merely well-to-do hire chauffeurs to drive them to quaint dining spots in the countryside. ~Restaurant-ing through history, Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1900-1910.

Rinehart’s characters are among this smart set--wealthy, educated, sophisticated, and adventurous--and her novel offers a diverting, playful, and fascinating snapshot into this fascinating era of American history.

Hobbleskirts image: Source: New York Times via
RMuckraking image: Source: Teaching American History,


When A Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart
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