When Does a Century Start?
As the year 1899 came to an end, an issue of monumental importance monopolized the attention of Americans. It had nothing to do with the Boer War, the presidential aspirations of Admiral Dewey, the currency question, or the ultimate status of the nation’s far-flung new colonies. No, the inescapable topic in barbershops, drawing rooms, and newspaper letter columns across the country was something far more troubling and momentous: When would the twentieth century begin?
Informed opinion was heavily in favor of January 1, 1901. A poll of fourteen college presidents yielded only two who argued for 1900: Caroline Hazard of Wellesley and L. Clark Seelye of Smith, both of whom ran women’s colleges and thus presumably were accustomed to unconventional thinking. The crux of the dispute lay in the choice of when to start counting. The 1901 camp took it as axiomatic that the enumeration had to start at the beginning of A.D. 1. the 1900 camp, noting that our current calendar was not established until many centuries after the unknown birthdate of Christ, believed that the starting point could go wherever anyone felt like putting it.
The New York Times, dogmatic as always, claimed that “facts and reason, the authority of all dictionaries, and the support of every chronologer and historian that ever lived, to say nothing of the invariable understanding and custom of all lands and ages” underlay its choice of 1901. It spoke dismissively of “the delusion that there is a controversy as to when the twentieth century begins,” even as the controversy dragged on in its pages for a year and a half. The Atlanta Constitution was also firm for 1901, refusing to call ninety-nine years a century even though it endorsed the free-silver scheme of calling sixty cents a dollar. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, while endorsing 1901, suggested deciding the issue in true American fashion by holding a referendum.
The question inspired discussion in Europe as well. Camille Flammarion, the famous French astronomer, was a firm believer in 1901, as was the Times of London. In Germany, however, Kaiser Wilhelm’s imperial council decreed that the new century would start on January 1, 1900. “Now let it decree that black is white,” responded one American newspaper; another called the kaiser “the only man of any prominence who cannot count up to one hundred.” As things turned out, the kaiser’s chronological slip-up was one of the lesser mistakes that Germany would make in the twentieth century.
Pope Leo XIII briefly confused matters with a proclamation that declared 1900 a jubilee year. An ambiguously worded English version (“the year 1900 . . . it is to be devoutly hoped will usher in a far more happy century”) seemed to suggest that the Pope was a member of the 1900 camp. Since the Catholic Church had invented the Gregorian calendar, his opinion carried considerable weight. Much theological disquisition ensued, but a close examination of the Pope’s original Latin text (which the ever-stuffy New York Times printed without translation, after which it commented, “That is clear, accurate, and explicit”) showed that he was actually calling 1900 the final year of the nineteenth century.
Searching for the always useful historical perspective, some journalists looked back to the turn of the previous century. On January 1, 1801, the Connecticut Courant had mocked those who put the century’s close a year earlier by saying: “Go on, ye scientific sages,/Collect your light a few more ages,/Perhaps as swells the vast amount,/A century hence you’ll learn to count.” In the same day’s Boston Columbian Centinel, a reader commented on “the daily altercation known as the Century Dispute” by predicting that “if we could be indulged with a peep upon earth a hundred years hence we should find our children as warmly engaged untying this knotty point as ever we have been.” The Bostonian’s prediction has since been borne out twice over, and it is safe to say that a century from now people will still be rehashing the same tired arguments—and looking back at old newspapers to see how it was handled the last time.