1898: The Birth of the American Century by David Traxel: 3***

As we are now well into the 21st century I thought it would be interesting to read a book set in 1898, the dawn of the 20th century. The year 1898 seemed to have everything. Politics, business, war, advertising, labor unrest and so much more and yet the author seems to focus most of his attention on the Spanish American War and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but when there were so much else going on that I was unaware of, it seemed as if this is a case of misplaced emphasis.

            The author, David Traxel, gives us a good historical look at the year and yet for me, most of this was a rather tedious read. The chapters prior to the Spanish American War, and the chapters after that War were well written and informative. But the author spans close to 2/3 of the book talking about the Spanish American War and while many of us are not aware of all the details of that war, it was not just the war in and of itself that brought about the new American Century, the 20th century. There was much going on in America that was not related to the war and there are some wonderful stories about Frank Baum, he who wrote the Wizard of Oz, and how he really was a genius in the field of marketing and advertising, so much so that he basically invented the storefront window displays which are now everywhere. There are fascinating stories about the National Biscuit company, now known as Nabisco, along with a nice overview of the beginning of advertising. Marketing and advertisements made us go from a society that never really read advertisements until we needed something, to become a society where we now read the ads to determine what we want and need. This all began back in 1898.

            The whole book is tied together by a very fine epilogue in which the author analyzes the year and the changes that were brought, including the rise of the executive presidency under William McKinley. People don’t really think of William McKinley as the president who has expanded the role of that office, but it was during the Spanish American War that McKinley began to really wield the power of the office. Again, it’s tied into the war, but it is a separate issue that is fascinating to see for the first time. The author also points out how the end of the 19th century is much like our current days and that many of the same problems which existed back in 1898 still exist in America today partly because of our unique melting pot philosophy.

            This is a good book, but it took me a long time to read and I only wish that the author could have spent more time on some of these other issues that were on the in America in 1898. The Spanish American war was big, but there have been many books written about that war, Teddy Roosevelt became a hero, but there been many more books written about Teddy, but some of the other things that were going on in 1898 were fascinating and while I can’t say this is a book I will recommend to one and all, if you enjoy reading about history then this certainly Is a book you should spend some time with.

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