Print and electronic journalism media have been filled recently with the
conclusions of the experts concerning the greatest athletes, the most
important events, and other notable happenings of the twentieth century. The
underlying assumption is that the century will end in a few days.
Although there has been little discussion about the issue, the logic supporting the conclusion that this century will not end until December 31, 2000, seems unassailable. If it is years we are counting, the first ends in "1" and the one hundredth year is "100." The correct end of this century would thus be at the end of the last day of December 2000. That our society seems to so conveniently ignore the obvious is somewhat remarkable. Has it always been the case?
A recent short article in the November issue of American Heritage mgazine looked at the issue at the close of the nineteenth century. There was a significant amount of discussion in 1899 about when the twentieth century would actually begin. A poll of fourteen college presidents resulted in twelve favoring January 1, 1901. The "1900 camp" based its position on the fact that the current calendar was not formulated until many centuries after the unknown birth of Christ, so January 1, 1900 was as good a date as any other.
An editorial that appeared in the New York Times during December 1899 rejected such inexactness, arguing "...facts and reason, the authority of all dictionaries,and the support of every chronologer and historian who ever lived, to say nothing of the invariable understanding and custom of all lands and ages. supported the use of 1901." When Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm and his Imperial Council adopted January 1, 1900, as the date to begin the century, intelectualls and newspaper editors around the world were aghast. One American editor acidly remarked: "Now let it be decreed that black is white." Another said the kaiser was "the only man of any prominence who cannot count to one hundred."
Although the deabate was pretty much one-sided, it continued. There was no doubt about when the century would begin in at one least small town. Three Sidney papers were published in December 1899. The Sidney Daily News, and two weeklies, the Sidney Journal and the Shelby County Democrat all reported the end of 1899 in a matter of fact fashion. There was no effort by retailers to have an 'end of the century' sale, no listing of the great achievements of the nineteenth century, and no forcasting about what the next 100 years would bring. No local editor decreed the nineteenth century had ended.
One of the few references to the question was in the January 5, 1900, issue of the Democrat. The author of the short article asserted: "It is plain that time must pass through one hundred years to make a century, so time must go on through 1900 to complete the 19th century; hence we will not be in the 20th century until January 1, 1901." He concluded his piece with the tantalizing question: "Do you believe it?" Most local people apparently did. The arrival of New Year, 1900 was reported without fanfare. Reed's Band entertained on the courtsquare.
As the next year drew to a close, much local attention was paid to the ending of the century. The remarks of President McKinley, about man's achievements during the 19th century, were reported in the December 3, 1900, edition of the Sidney Journal. Sidney businessmen took advantage of the marketing opportunity presented at Christmas time. Fred Salm advertised in December 1900 that this was "The Last Christmas of the Nineteenth Century" Wagner's Aracade extended a "Greeting of the New Year and New Century" in his ads, both in December 1900 and January 1901.
As the nineteenth century wound to a close in December 1900, local Sidney papers reviewed the highlights of the past 100 years. One article looked back to the beginning of the eighteenth century in 1801 and contrasted the state of mankind then to 1901. The recent American Heritage article referenced the beginning of that century by quoting from the January 1, 1801, edition of the Connecticut Courant. The author mocked those who contended the century had begun in 1800 by saying:: "Go on, ye scientific sages,/ collect you light a few more ages,/ Perhaps as swells the vast amount,/ A century hence you'll learn to count."
The first Sidney newspapers published in the new century reported on the celebrations that were held. The editor of the Democrat observed in the January 4, 1901, edition: "Sidney fittingly bid farewell to the old century and becomingly welcomed the new century... The fire bell and the church bells were rung at midnight and the factory whistles blown." Many parties were reported held around the city to watch the new century arrive.
The correct timing of the event was even sanctioned by the Pope in Rome. The Pope had issued a special decree, and ordered the same high mass performed in all Catholic churches throughout the world. The Democrat also reported on the solemn high mass that was held on January 1, 1901, at Holy Angels Church pursuant to the Pope's decree. The author noted that "Promptly at the hour of twelve, Father Quatman steppped into the pulpit and in a few chosen words bid all a happy new year, spoke of the great works accomplished during the past century and what would be done in the future." The Pope, Father Quatman and virtually everyone else agreed on the beginning of the new century then, and one is left to wonder what they would think of us now.
The endless stream of books, magazines and television programming we now see recapping the great achievements of this century is indeed impressive. We have accomplished much. Not bad for only 99 years.
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