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The Birth of Modern Culture Previous Next
Digital History ID 3313


Toward the end of the 19th century, a New York neurologist named George M. Beard coined the term "neurasthenia" to describe a psychological ailment that afflicted a growing number of Americans. Neurasthenia's symptoms included "nervous dyspepsia, insomnia, hysteria, hypochondria, asthma, sick-headache, skin rashes, hayfever, premature baldness, inebriety, hot and cold flashes, nervous exhaustion, brain-collapse, or forms of 'elementary insanity.'" Among those who suffered from neurasthenia-like symptoms at some point in their lives were Theodore Roosevelt, settlement house founder Jane Addams, psychologist William James, painter Frederic Remington, and novelist Theodore Dreiser.

According to expert medical opinion, neurasthenia's underlying cause was "over-civilization." The frantic pace of modern life, nervous overstimulation, stress, and emotional repression produced debilitating bouts of depression, anxiety attacks, and nervous prostration. Fears of over-civilization pervaded late 19th century American culture. Social critics worried that urban life was producing a generation of pathetic, pampered, physically and morally enfeebled 97 pound weaklings. Modern Americans, in this view, were poor successors to the stalwart Americans who had fought the Civil War and tamed a continent.

A sharply falling birth rate sparked fears that the native-born middle class was, in Theodore Roosevelt's words, committing "race suicide" by allowing their numbers to be swamped by a flood of immigrants. A host of therapies promised to relieve the symptoms of neurasthenia, including such precursors of modern tranquilizers as Dr. Hammond's Nerve and Brain Pills. Sears even sold an electrical contraption called the Heidelberg Electric Belt, designed to reduce anxiety by sending electric shocks to the genitals. Many physicians prescribed physical exercise for men and rest cures for women. But the main form of release for late 19th century Americans from the pressures, stresses, and restrictions of modern life was by turning to sports, outdoor activities, and a vibrant popular culture.

Few Americans are unfamiliar with the wrenching economic transformations of the late 19th century, the consolidation of economic transformations of the late 19th century, the consolidation of industry, the integration of the national economy, and the rise of the corporation. But few Americans realize that this period also saw the birth of modern culture.

In the last years of the 19th century, an ethos of self-fulfillment, leisure and sensual satisfaction began to replace the Victorian spirit of self-denial, self-restraint, and domesticity. Visual images took their place beside words and reading, which had been the essence of Victorian high learning. A new respect for energy, strength, and virility overtook the genteel endorsement of eternal truths and high moral ideals. Above all, a varied culture deeply divided by class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and locality gave way to a vibrant, commercialized mass culture that provided all Americans with standardized entertainment and information.

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