I like to think the modern world was born a century ago–about 1920 to be exact. Of course, these definitions and boundaries are strictly subjective and arbitrary, and they are fuzzy and gradual, not clearly demarcated and abrupt; but bear with me, 1920 is as good a number as any.
Most of the everyday technology of our time was already in place, electricity was in common use, the internal combustion engine was ubiquitous and even aerial navigation was commonplace. Wireless telegraphy was well established, and the introduction of voice transmission by radio and commercial broadcasting were getting underway. The human voice and music had been recorded and motion pictures were being introduced to the general public. The telephone, the electric light and the automobile were already household conveniences and any major event occurring anywhere in the world would be reported in the newspapers the following morning. But perhaps even more important, the implementation of mass production and the assembly line was bringing cheap and standardized manufactured goods to the masses. The household of 1920 didn’t look that much different from one today. Even those inventions and discoveries that could be fairly claimed by the 19th century were becoming available to the general public. 1920 is as good a place as any to draw the line.
But technology alone does not define culture. The day-to-day
environment of the average citizen was now recognizable to modern eyes. Hemlines had gone up and corsets disappeared altogether. Men’s clothing had stabilized into pretty much the fashion we are familiar with today, and you didn’t need to go to a museum to imagine what a naked lady might look like. 1920 looks a lot more like 2020 that it looks like 1820.
In 1920, women had the vote, people started listening to jazz music, and art became incomprehensible to the average citizen. Something called “mass popular culture” was becoming established. America had suddenly become a world power and what we later came to call “Fascism” and “Communism” were slowly taking form in Europe.
But most important, we have access to eyewitness testimony of the time the world changed. My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. All my grandparents were born in the 19th century. We’ve all actually spoken to people who saw the dawn of the new age we live in now. We don’t need to rely on second-hand reports. The time of critical writing, academic scholarship, cheap books and mass education
had already begun, so we have excellent documentation and plenty of analyses of the transition, even if many contradict each other. Maybe we didn’t live through it ourselves, but we have the next best thing: we spoke to the survivors. Only a very few people live for a full hundred years, but almost all of us live long enough to have spoken face to face with someone who remembers what it was like a century ago. And some of us have actually experienced, directly, half of the last century and the beginnings of the new one.
The world is constantly and continuously changing. Boundaries are arbitrary and artificial. We can choose to draw them whenever it is convenient for us. At the crossing between the 18th and 19th century America had just become a nation, Napoleon was rampaging across Europe, steam power was being introduced. Men’s wigs and silk stockings were going out of style but photography, railroads and telegraphy were on the horizon. Steam ironclads, repeating rifles and breech -loading artillery firing explosive shells were just around the corner. Each century has its distinctions but I give it a couple of more decades before its character becomes clear. In 1820 we had an inkling of what we were in for. Even more so a century later. In 2020 we do as well.