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Party Like It's 1900

L.A. rang in the 20th century with horns, prayers and 'great eclat'--and that same darned debate over when, exactly, the celebrating should begin.


Look back at the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 1, 1900, and you wonder: Where were all the party people?

No stories on turn-of-the-century New Year's Eve parties, not a word of editorial bombast--not that we would ever do that--on the dawn of the 20th century.

Ah, here's The Times' story, on New Year's revelry in Los Angeles, population 102,479: "With the ringing of sweet midnight chimes, the singing of gospel hymns . . . and the roaring of cannon, the nineteenth century joined the vast ages of silence--gone forevermore--and the radiant new century, the twentieth, was ushered in."

The publication date: Jan. 1, 1901.

Turns out we're back to the future of the same persnickety debate: Is the current turn-of-the-century hoopla one slice short of a triple-layer cake? When does the century end, and the next one begin, and does the millennium start on New Year's Day 2000, or 2001?

On one side, the wait-a-year theorists point out that the Christian calendar began on Jan. 1, AD 1; in terms of birthdays, a person turns 1 year old at the end of her first year, not the beginning. So to figure the next century, add 100 years, and you get AD 101, and on and on to 2001; to figure the next millennium, add 1,000 years to get to AD 1001, then 2001.

On the other side, the millennium-is-upon-us crowd says that the start of the Christian calendar would have been celebrated at the beginning of Jan. 1, AD 1, and not 365 days later; therefore, the first millennium was at the beginning of AD 1000, and the next on Jan. 1, 2000.

And are we fast forwarding to the new century too?

Well, on Jan. 1, 1900, The Times sniffed at Emperor William's decision in Germany to mark the new century on that day. "The Emperor's delusion on this point may be hereditary," The Times said, noting that his grandfather thought that the second half of the century began on Jan. 1, 1850 (The Times apparently was delusional, too, having written an editorial on that date headlined: "The Commencement of the Second Half of the Century").

At any rate, the last turn-of-the-century celebration in Los Angeles--and nationwide--tells us something about how milestones were marked in the city (with hopping and with praying; more on that later). And perhaps something about the zeitgeist at the time that the Wright Brothers were about to do their thing.

The era, as eras tend to do, thought of itself as the Enlightened one. The Times' editorial writers, in fact, wondered if the 19th century could be matched in the annals of progress.

"The telephone, the phonograph . . . aseptic surgery," the editorial marvels. "What of the century that has just begun? Will it witness as marvelous progress as the century just ended?"

Trepidation aside, the 5-cent Los Angeles Times' lead story on Jan. 1, 1901, was headlined, "In a New Century: Year Opens With Great Eclat."

On Dec. 31, at midnight, every steam whistle and bell in Wichita, Kan., announced the birth of the 20th century. In Chicago, "crowds of men and boys marched up and down the streets, blowing horns and cheering." (No word on the women and girls.) At New York City Hall, a 1,000-member chorus "gave forth splendid melody, which, unfortunately, could not be heard at any distance because of the horns," and 100,000 people gathered to watch "elaborate and startling fireworks."

At the Vatican, Pope Leo XIII celebrated midnight Mass in his private chapel; at St. Peter's, a huge crowd gathered in the rain. In the White House Cabinet Room, President William McKinley "witnessed the arrival of the new year in a very quiet way." (He would be assassinated eight months later.)

In Los Angeles, from atop their building, officials at The Times fired a ceremonial cannon. "This was the signal for a general uproar. Bells, whistles and guns joined in the clamor.

"This past century," The Times noted, "has failed to improve upon the tone of the tin horn, and this exquisite instrument of torture and pandemonium soon predominated . . . women and men in dignified walks of life blew the tin noise dispensers until their lungs refused to do further duty."

Throughout the carless city, "lights shone brightly from many homes, where old and young sat up during the going and coming of that which they never may witness on Earth--the death and the birth of a century.

"The Christmas trees were again lighted and the little ones danced about them in glee."

It was like all of L.A. had turned into one big Soul Train for the night: " . . . Every dance hall was crowded with flushed manhood and womanhood, who hopped the new year in." No bopping in those days, but hopping aplenty in one particular hall as "young and old hopped the old century out" to the beat of an orchestra.

Even the devout packed the streetcars until the wee hours.

"On many of the outgoing cars at 1 o'clock this morning," The Times reported on New Year's Day 1901, "familiar gospel hymns were sung [with] everyone joining."

The city's churches, meanwhile, had their own merrymaking. The Church of the Unity put on a spelling bee. At St. Vibiana's Cathedral, the bells tolled at midnight. And the Methodists had a very long day, with nearly 10 hours in prayer and services on the closing day of the century.

Did they know something we don't?


Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at

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