1899: The Names Have Changed, But The Worries Rem

THE ECONOMY IS booming, and Americans revel in prosperity after bouncing back from a recession. Advancements in technology are changing the way we live, and there is hope that the new century will bring even more progress. But anxiety lurks beneath the New Year's optimism. Will these new technologies change the world beyond recognition? Has the environment been dangerously damaged? A global epidemic is raging, with no cure in sight. And in the business world, the public wavers about whether to admire or hate a tycoon who's somehow gained control of one of the most important economic engines of the century.

Sound familiar? Surprise: the year is 1899, the business titan is John D. Rockefeller and the concerns have to do with the Industrial Revolution instead of the Information Age. But a look at the history books suggests that what we fretted about at the end of the 19th century is not so different from what's on our minds at the dawn of the 21st.

Long before Bill Gates, Rockefeller made the word ""monopoly'' a household term with the bullying tactics of Standard Oil. A series of financial and industrial mergers in the last years of the century (in particular the 1899 consolidation of 30 paper companies into the giant International Paper and the purchase of major railroad lines by J. P. Morgan and Jay Gould) only fueled the public's fears about the power of big business. The depletion of the Western frontier had Americans concerned about environmental preservation, while the telegraph and automobile were seen as exciting--but ominous--new technologies. Meanwhile, tuberculosis, the 19th-century equivalent of AIDS, continued to baffle physicians and ravage entire towns.

And of course the doomsayers were in full cry, predicting cataclysmic disaster, as the clock hit midnight on Dec. 31, 1899. People took out full-page ads in New York and Chicago newspapers, anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. A few others on the fringe waited in terror for the sun to extinguish itself and the world to end. A story in The New York Times in October 1899 quoted scientists who forecast that eventually ""the sun will become a solid and go out, leaving the solar system in darkness--the earth will become a lifeless, uninhabited ball of ice.''

And what of America's own future? The country was beginning to assert itself as a player on the imperialist stage, having just beaten Spain in the Spanish-American War, and most Americans felt a glow of national pride. Yet ""there was the sense somehow that it wasn't the old America,'' says Charles Bassett, an American-studies professor at Colby College in Maine. There were worries that the country would go too far and become another imperialist aggressor. Mark Twain decried America's interference abroad, and a New York Times editorial cautioned the country not to ""fasten the chains of our sovereignty'' upon unwilling people.

Americans also worried about what was happening at home. ""Globalization'' may not have been a buzzword in 1899, but people still believed the world was shrinking, as the telephone made it possible to connect with faraway places and immigration brought foreign cultures closer to home. To many, the influx of foreigners seemed a threat to the homogenous nature of the country. The cities were rapidly filling up with immigrants from Poland, Russia, Germany, Ireland and Italy; ""people said there is a tide seeping in on us, and good, white Protestant Americans have to get up there and defend the country from this cesspool,'' says Char Miller, chair of the history department at Trinity College in San Antonio.

But amid all these nagging concerns, there was still a sense that the new century would be wondrous. ""Generally, it was a pretty hopeful country,'' says Bassett. ""People were kind of anticipating a millennium that's going to be pretty good.'' And that's something else that sounds--happily--familiar.