League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - AMERICA IN 1898

Among other things, in 1898, America was fighting the short-lived (but impactful) Spanish-American War. This image is from the Library of Congress.


As the 19th century drew to a close, life in 1898 America was, in some ways, almost unrecognizable compared to American life today.

Twenty-two years after Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (his richly illustrated, still-popular story of a boy’s coming of age along the Mississippi River), children in the U.S. often endured difficult lives. Depending on one’s class—and gender—opportunities were either readily available or nonexistent.

To “see” life more than 100 years ago, we can look at representative magazines or journals of the time. What do they tell us about American attitudes toward children? Toward education? Toward people of other cultures and backgrounds? Thanks to the Library of Congress, and several American universities, some of those old journals are available on-line. Let’s examine a few 1898 articles.

  • In January, The New England Magazine (Volume 23, Issue 5) published Boston’s Penal Institutions, by William I. Cole. Prisoners were brought to houses of correction by boat and/or horse-drawn carriages since cars were not yet invented. The author notes (at page 614) that 12-year-old children could be incarcerated in the same jail as adults:

No one under twelve years of age can be sentenced to these institutions. At present there is no one younger than fifteen in either of them.

  • Ideals of College Education, by F. Spencer Baldwin, examines two fundamental questions in that same issue of The New England Magazine: Who should attend college and what should that person study? In some respects, the dilemma of 1898 was the same as it is today: What is better—a liberal arts education or something more practical? But in noting distinctions between the two approaches, the author’s 19th century attitude toward college attendees (at page 570) would be unacceptable today:

The college should teach preferably the things that will be "of value to an American man in the American life of to-day."

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 01, 2003

Updated Last Revision: Jul 09, 2019

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