Center for Archival Collections

Archival Chronicle

December 1999: Volume 18, Number 3

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End of an Era: The Fin de Siecle and History

  Toledo school children receive inoculations against polio in 1955. An epidemic of this disease in the late 1940s brought funds for scientific research and greater attention to education and training for the disabled. Toledo Publicity and Efficiency Collection (CAC).

Are you ready for Y2K? This "bug" in older computer programs has inspired some people to stock surplus food and water in anticipation of the collapse of the world's economy and the breakdown of social order on January 1, 2000. Historically, this kind of reaction is nothing new. In our imaginations, centuries have a life, growing old and dying. Civilizations, too, seem to have a life cycle. Egypt, Rome, and the Inca Empire rose and fell. Changes of the calendar make us reflect on the implications for our own culture.

The end of the nineteenth century was marked by similar discussions. Science had made sweeping changes in the

previous one hundred years, both in terms of technological benefits, and in how people viewed themselves and their place in the universe.In literature, the period is often called the fin de siecle. Scientific theories regarding entropy (the tendency for things to run down), psychology, and genetics (which were then attempting to describe people and nature in terms of rigid categories) found literary expression on both sides of the Atlantic through themes of alienation and dissolution. Henry James, Stephen Crane, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde are some of the best known writers of this period. Others attempted to preserve a literary heritage they felt was quickly disappearing. In Ireland, Lady Gregory sponsored William Butler Yeats and others to record and retell old Irish folk and fairy tales, while in the United States, the Bureau of American Ethnology, a division of the Department of the Interior, published dictionaries and religious tales of native peoples who were viewed as the "vanishing Americans." The Center for Archival Collections includes some of these BAE reports as well as the work of many literary figures from this period in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

Because many felt that the old social order was breaking down, there was much debate about what the new social order should be like. The Sam Pollock Collection includes hundreds of works describing the abject plight of urban factory workers thanks to industrialization and the benefits to be gained through socialism or communism. These writers believed that the move toward mass politics, mass consumerism, and mass culture was a great equalizer. Others, like William Morris, feared the loss of individual creativity and craftsmanship. They popularized a return to the hand-crafted quality and designs of medieval Europe, which, among other things, inspired the popularity of Mission-style furniture--mass-produced, square-framed furniture made in imitation of hand-made designs. Morris and his followers were also responsible for a renaissance in book design, examples of which can be seen in the Rare Books collection.

The turn of the century also marked a period of great interest in spiritualism and psychic research. Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Bram Stoker (Dracula) made important contributions to the horror genre, and ghost stories reached their classic form. Similar periods of interest followed the American Civil War and World War I, when thousands lost their lives. The Robert Aickman Collection (MS 294)includes a great deal of material, both literary and documentary, regarding ghosts and early research into psychic phenomena.

Early computers used Hollerith cards (the punched card seen at top) for data input. The original written record form (center) is often microfilmed (the example at the bottom shows jacketed strips of film, a predecessor to today's microfiche). Today, computers affect almost every aspect of our lives, from home PCs, to monthly bills, to systems monitoring in automobiles. Toledo Publicity and Efficiency Collection (CAC).  

At the same time, many people looked forward to the developments the new century would bring. Futurists and the avant garde cheered the development of automobiles and motion pictures, both produced during the 1890s. Thomas Edison was hailed as a "wizard" for the number of new devices he patented or improved. H. G. Wells and other writers used science fiction and future-time stories to deal with contemporary issues such as industrialization and imperialism.These trends were also noticeable at the more local level.

Around the turn of the century, a large number of county histories were published. Their writers were very much aware of the passage of time and the passing of eras. Several mark the end of their county's frontier period with the time the last bear or wolf was trapped.


All mark the forced movement of the native peoples to reservations in the West as the end of a primitive time and the dawn of a new (white) civilization. Social welfare agencies such as county infirmaries, tuberculosis sanitariums, and mental hospitals developed at this time in response to a more scientific understanding of the needs of the poor and the sick. Railroads and electricity were the technological wonders of their age, and most Americans looked forward to the new century with hope. The Francis R. Stewart Collection (MS 744) includes a speech by an Ohio Civil War veteran looking forward to the technological innovations of the twentieth century.

Many of the themes of the fin de siecle are being expressed again as a new millennium dawns. Science and technology have given us new insights into ourselves and our society. We see alienation and dissolution everywhere and seek solace and thrills in spiritual questions. The world will never be the same, but there is much cause for optimism.

--Lee N. McLaird

THE PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS ISSUE illustrate some of the ways in which science and technology have had an impact on our lives in the twentieth century.