Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century Summary

Michael Lesy


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his introduction to Dreamland, Michael Lesy explains that William Jackson and William Livingstone intended their popular postcards to show the brighter side of American culture at the turn of the twentieth century. To sell seven million postcards, panoramas, and slides per year, the Detroit Publishing Company needed to provide images that spoke to customers, many of whom were tourists who wanted pictures by which to remember their trips, in the days before snapshot cameras came into general use. Tourists were not the only customers: Schools, local governments, libraries, and private collectors also sought the pictures for a variety of uses. On the whole, such images needed to show what Americans believed was real and important. Inevitably, they reveal some darker truths to viewers at the dawn of the twenty-first century, who are both blessed and cursed with hindsight. Lesy’s text rarely comments directly on the photographs; rather, it helps to set up and to underscore certain dissonances that balance and enrich the impressions of the images.

The photographs are arranged thematically in ten sections. Within the sections appear lists of major events for each year from 1900 through 1910, the years when the pictures were made. Not until the conclusion does Lesy reveal that at least some of the images were fabricated or altered in the studio, though a practiced eye certainly would notice a few of these.

In his opening summary of facts about the period, Lesy touches on main aspects of change in American culture: growing imperialism following the Spanish-American War, growing industrialism and urbanization of the population, the continuing movement of work from field to factory, the growth of the “service sector,” the general state of health before antibiotics and many vaccines, the beginnings of the automobile as a dominant form of transportation, and the wave of immigration preceding World War I. He reminds readers that in 1900, there were only eight thousand automobiles and a little more than a million telephones in the United States; most people traveled by horse and public transportation; and they communicated over distance by letter and postcard.

The first section of photographs is “Crowds and Solitaries: Massive Forms and Enormous Spaces.” Lesy sees in the pictures of streets and buildings in cities and small towns a vision of orderliness in public space that is well tended and characterized by civility—even crowds appear to have plenty of space. Such qualities are especially evident in the picture of Cleveland’s Colonial Arcade, an early shopping mall, shown uncluttered and symmetrical, with high skylights and open space. Two pages later is a 1900 street scene in New York that seems unrelated to the announced theme. At the center appears a pair of African Americans, a street vendor lighting another man’s cigarette. Both are dressed in worn clothes and shoes and wool caps. To the right, strolling massively and authoritatively toward the camera, are two white businessmen, well dressed in bowlers and suits, the antithesis of the central pair by almost every measure. This is the sort of image Lesy suggests speaks differently to him than he believes it would have in 1900, when most would have seen this arrangement representing the proper order of society, based clearly on the natural characteristics of the races shown. The image suggests quite different senses of the size and qualities of space depending on one’s position as contemporary viewer, imagined original viewer, the central figures, or the white strollers.

Part 2 is “Constructions and Erections: Towers, Wedges, Wombs, and Vanishing Points.” Here Lesy gives particular attention to the Flatiron Building, probably the most repeated image in the collection. He visually chronicles the rapid evolution of the skyscraper during this period, resulting not only from the improvement of the elevator but also from the development of new kinds of steel beams and new techniques for using concrete. Counterpointing the new ideas in construction in interesting ways are Lesy’s lists of disasters for each year. Prominent among the disasters are large fires that devastated many cities during the period, creating a desire for greater fire protection in new construction and at the same time clearing space for construction.

The third section is “Public Pleasures: Parks and Promenades: Lakes and Sea Shores, Open Air and Clear Water.” These may be the most familiar images in the collection, for the general appearance of city parks seems to change relatively little during the century. The figures in these photographs claim more importance, though throughout the collection there are figures that provide a sense of how people dressed and carried themselves at a time when female dress was more sharply different from male clothing and when carriage, trolley, and bicycle were the main means of transportation. Lesy sees in the faces of these people a sense of being different from himself and his contemporaries that is difficult to define. In his final meditation, he thinks of himself as seeing his deceased...

(The entire section is 2084 words.)