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"A day in the Nineties when Grandma was a girl:

The horseless carriage was quite the show --

Grandpa cussed when the thing wouldn't go.

Those days were gay days, when Grandma was a girl.

Come take a look in our picture book of the Gay Nineties."
Mickey Mouse cartoon, "The Nifty Nineties" (1941)

No, not the "gay" you were thinking of or, for that matter, The Nineties you were thinking of. This trope doesn't refer to the decade of Starbucks, Seinfeld, Timothy McVeigh and Ford Explorers.

No, this trope covers depictions of the 1890s, the realm of Oscar Wilde, William Jennings Bryan, and the Gibson Girl.

You see, back in the earlier half of the twentieth century, people became enamored with the 1890s. It was the precursor to what we now call "decade nostalgia" and The Gay Nineties became a popular setting for films of the 1930s, the 1940s and, to a lesser degree, the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, the decade had its own Nostalgia Filter in which they reminisced the earlier years of the century.

This was also the time of the last great gold rush in the Klondike region of the Yukon. Thousands of prospectors headed north to strike it rich, and while the American town of Skagway, Alaska may been wild, the prospectors in Canada quickly learned that they were in a very different gold rush, with the North West Mounted Police under the command of Sam Steele keeping a firm hand on their behaviour. As such, it was the most orderly of such affairs in history and the legend of the Mounties was born.

The automobile was just barely invented, so new that people couldn't agree on what to call it ("Horseless carriage" is the memetic old-timey name, but that only scratches the surface). Most people who lived in cities traveled around in horse-drawn hansom cabs, pedaled bicycles (built for two or otherwise, and often the kind with the enormous front wheel) and rode on trolleys; but most people still lived on the farm, and horse-drawn farm wagons were used as all-purpose transportation. In major cities, electric lights were replacing gas lamps and candles. Ragtime was the hottest music.

According to nostalgic films set in this decade, back then everyone was a rich white person who wore Gorgeous Period Dress, with every lady carrying a Parasol of Prettiness, and they all liked to hang out in ritzy places located in major U.S. cities (for New York, this was Delmonico's restaurant at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel). In fact, the "everybody's rich" stereotype stems from a conflation of this period with the "Gilded Age" (1880-1890), as the actual Gay Nineties were marked by economic depression and much labor agitation (see Panic of 1893 on The Other Wiki). Even then, the term "Gilded Age" (as in, "coated in gold") was specifically meant to indicate that the good times were only a surface veneer, with serious problems lurking just beneath (as the Gay Nineties themselves later demonstrated). Films actually made in the 1890s were about thirty seconds long with little to no plot (people were still amazed that pictures could move). You can watch some of them here.[1]

Historically, the 1890s was one of the more iconic periods of American history, leaving an impression every bit as indelible as The Fifties still does today. As a result, long after the actual decade had faded from memory (sometimes quite long after it faded), many of its tropes and stereotypes remained common fodder for depictions in the popular arts. This wasn't usually done without at least a bit of irony (usually only in satirical or Cloudcuckoolander works), but writers and artists returned to The Gay Nineties well so often that its conventions became even more stereotypical.


Prominent Examples Include:

  • Civic leaders (mayors, for the most part) sporting huge guts and sideburns and wearing top hats and tuxedoes
  • Aristocrats and the wealthy sporting monocles and acting in even more outdated fashion than the other anachronistic characters (and being accompanied by overdressed maids and butlers)
  • Police officers still dressed like the "Bobbies" of the nineteenth century
  • Political campaigners decked out in wide-striped suits and boater hats (although, to be sure, this continues to be Truth in Television)
  • Women still attired in white gloves (whether writs length or Opera Gloves) and fancy hats and carrying parasols to protect their delicate skin from the sun
  • Little boys pairing suit coats with short pants (think Richie Rich or Angus Young of AC/DC)
  • Little girls with either pigtails or bows in their hair
  • "Ethnic" whites (that is, anyone not at least 50 percent Anglo-Saxon) still speaking in their "just-off-the-boat" accents
  • Nonwhites (the Chinese in particular, not so much black people) barely able to speak English at all
  • Circus performers (strong men, in particular) with elaborate handlebar moustaches.
  • Penny farthings
  • "Horseless carriages" that people shake their heads and tsk at, claiming It Will Never Catch On.
  • A lady and her suitor on an Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date.

Today, there are few people left who even lived at that time (the oldest person in the world as of this edit is Besse Cooper, b. 1896), so there is basically no one left to be nostalgic about it. This is a Forgotten Trope and the fact that the name "Gay Nineties" was never changed should give you an idea how long it's been dead. Of course, they still make films set in the 1890s, but the nostalgic version of the '30s and '40s is pretty much gone. In fact, some modern-day Hollywood writers seems to think any year not starting with "19" or "20" means "completely pre-industrial revolution". For example, see the entry on The Village farther down this page.

As was suggested earlier, The Fifties eventually replaced the 1890s as the nostalgic period of choice, with the result that that decade's tropes largely replaced the ones mentioned above (resulting in Still The Fifties, perhaps)?

However, kooky Gay Nineties stuff still pops up occasionally, most often in works directed at preteen children, or in surreal comedy series such as The Simpsons or Family Guy. Also, the rise in popularity of Steampunk may represent a new, updated reflection of the nostalgia for the nostalgia.

Steampunk is when this crosses paths with science fiction and Gaslamp Fantasy is when this crosses paths with fantasy.

Nor is this trope exclusively American. If anything, the British seem to make a fetish out of it even more. (This may be because the mid 1890s represented the high point of the British Empire, before the Boer War took the gloss off and the Great War began its decline.) And in France, well, this era is known as La Belle Époque for a reason.

See also Two Decades Behind.

Examples of The Gay Nineties include:


Anime & Manga

  • Kaoru Mori's Victorian Romance Emma is set in London during the end of the 19th century, and is notable for displaying a surprisingly high standard of accuracy, considering the medium. (One or two glitches slipped through in the earlier chapters, then Mori hired a historical consultant to help her.)
  • "Ikoku Meiro no Croisee" claims only to be set in late 19th century Paris. It is obviously invoking this trope though. It's quite historically accurate too.


Comic Books

  • Marvel Comics had a supervillain, Turner D. Century, whose schtick was nostalgia for this era. Which was rather ironic because Turner was a fairly young guy who never actually experienced the 1890s. His mentor Morgan MacNeil Hardy was the elderly guy who had convinced him the end of the 19th century was a virtual paradise, devoid of moral corruption, racial impurity, etc. The catch was that Hardy had no memory of his own life prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He had no memory of the 19th century, while seeing the early 20th century through rose-colored glasses.
  • The Gay Nineties Nightmare!, from Plastic Man #2 (August 1944), features a town stuck in the Gay Nineties.
  • One Golden Age Batman story (written in the 1940s) featured Batman and Robin visiting an island where all modern technology was banned and the population lived like it was The Gay Nineties. Modern crooks arrive and find the place easy pickings until stopped by the Dynamic Duo. The story ends with Batman persuading the island's leader that it is time to join the twentieth century.
  • Archie Comics did a few stories that featured Archie and the gang living in The Gay Nineties. This seems to have been a fetish of one particular writer; Al Hartley. Check it out here.
  • The Disney Mouse and Duck Comics used to be (and, occasionally, still are) extremely guilty of abusing this trope, often to the point where it stopped being funny or charming and crossed the line into annoying. In fact, some of their characters (Scrooge McDuck comes to mind!) never got over it.


Film

  • There were two films (one 1933, the other 1942) titled The Gay Nineties.
  • A good chunk of Citizen Kane takes place in the 1890's, when Kane is at his height as a media mogul.
  • Four of Mae West's films: She Done Him Wrong (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), Klondike Annie (1936), and Every Day's a Holiday (1937).
  • Abbott and Costello's The Naughty Nineties (1945), which includes the best recorded rendition of their famous "Who's on First?" routine.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is set in 1899.
  • Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). A good portion of Citizen Kane (1941)is also set in this period.
  • Vincent Price's House of Wax (1953)
  • Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925)
  • Other films set in this period:
    • The Florodora Girl (1930)
    • Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)
    • The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
    • My Gal Sal (1942)
    • Gentleman Jim (1942)
  • The Village (2004) is supposedly set in 1897. It features a completely pre-industrial farming community where everyone dresses like it's 1797 and no one has heard of electricity, automobiles, or anything else that has happened in the past century. Evidently the filmmakers were not even familiar with Hollywood's idea of what the 1890s looked like. One could argue that this is justified because it is not really 1897, but a "recreation" staged by the village elders. But since the elders supposedly did do the research, one can only conclude that the filmmakers decided there wasn't really any difference between a century ago and two centuries ago.
  • Moulin Rouge (1952) and Moulin Rouge (2001). In addition, the can-can and modern striptease were first seen in the titular cabaret during the 1890s.
  • Gigi (1958) is set at the "turn of the century," but the feeling of the book, play, and film is definitely Gay Nineties.
  • As is Meet Me in St Louis, which is supposed to take place in 1904.
  • Newsies (1992)
  • The Hope and Crosby film Road to Utopia was set in the '90s gold rush in the Yukon.
  • For All Time, starring Mark Harmon and Mary McDonnell, and based off The Twilight Zone episode "A Stop At Willoughby" mentioned below.
  • Return to Oz (1985) takes place near the end of 1899.
  • Bram Stokers Dracula (1992) is explicitly stated to be set in 1897 - which is, appropriately, the year in which the famous horror novel was first published. The prologue, however, takes place during the late medieval period.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is set in the late 1890s and is about the end of the Old West. It features a long sequence where Butch, Sundance, and Sundance's girlfriend Etta Place go to New York's Coney Island and travel by boat to Bolivia, all done in still photographs.
  • Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streissand, set in 1890.
  • Gay Purr-ee is set in Paris during the 1890s, with one scene in Alaska where the male protagonist unintentionally strikes gold.
  • This is Adrianna's preferred decade in Midnight in Paris, and toward the end of the film, she and Gil even get to travel there, with Adrianna deciding to stay.


Literature

  • Some novels written during the time period have also become classics, keeping the setting fresh for its next rediscovery, notably HG Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898), Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (1889) and some of Mark Twain's later work such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in 1898. The protagonists even run across Jerome K. Jerome and his companions (to say nothing of the dog) while they do more or less the same thing.
  • Whilst Jeeves and Wooster is set in The Roaring Twenties (or perhaps more accurately, Genteel Interbellum Setting), one story revolves around Sir Watkins Basset's Memoirs (and the multitude of parties who desire the destruction thereof) of the various things he and other prominent personages did during The Gay Nineties. By the sound of it he could give Bertie a run for his money any day of the week.
    • In the Blandings Castle series, the manuscript of Galahad Threepwood's Reminiscences is the McGuffin for two entire books. And Bertie Wooster's Uncle Willoughby wrote and published a similar book, again dealing with his disgraceful exploits in The Gay Nineties.
  • Jack Finney's Time and Again (1970) is set in 1882, which is technically outside the time period, but it seems to fit the idea of The Gay Nineties almost perfectly anyway.
  • Many of the Sherlock Holmes stories are set in (as well as written in) this period.
  • Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905).
  • The Magicians Nephew is set roughly in this time period, and was influenced by Lewis's own childhood. The time frame may be a little off (Lewis was born in 1898), but the nostalgia is clearly there:

  In those days Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road. In those days, if you were a boy you had to wear a stiff Eton collar every day, and schools were usually nastier than now. But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won't tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain.

  • Much of McTeague is set in this time period.


Live Action TV

  • The BBC Costume Drama Lark Rise to Candleford is set in rural Oxfordshire in the mid-1890s.
  • There was an episode of The Twilight Zone starring Buster Keaton (then pretty old) in which a man from the 1890s time-travelled to the 1960s with a mechanical helmet of sorts. He then meets a man determined to steal the helmet from him because he wants to go back to the 1890s when things were simpler. The whole episode is pretty much a nostalgia trip on the 1890s, until the end that is. The scenes that take place in the 1890s are also shot like a silent movie.
    • Another episode, "A Stop at Willoughby", features a man who is stressed out by his life and dreams about getting off a train at a quaint town from the 1890's that he keeps seeing in hallucinations.
  • The opening for Cheers starts off showcasing the Gay Nineties and then gradually goes through the decades.
  • The cast of Star Trek the Next Generation visits this time period in the two-part episode "Time's Arrow."


Theatre

  • Mae West's 1928 play Diamond Lil (the basis for She Done Him Wrong) may be the Trope Maker.
  • The 1929 musical Sweet Adeline was billed as "A Musical Romance of the Gay Nineties."
  • The 1964 musical Hello Dolly, which was based on Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker.


Western Animation

  • Walt Disney (born 1901) was absolutely in love with this period. One of his films set during this period is the animated feature Lady and the Tramp. His ultimate expression of it is Main Street U.S.A. in the Disney Theme Parks, a recreation of Disney's memories of his childhood home of Marceline, Missouri as it stood at the turn of the 20th Century.
  • Warner Bros loved this setting as well.One Froggy Evening (1955) featured a ragtime-singing frog from The Gay Nineties transposed into the cartoon's contemporary era. There was also a feature-length cartoon/musical, Gay Purr-ee (1962), featuring cats and set in France. The Alaska Gold Rush is a minor plot point.
  • A Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, These Are The Days (1974-5), took place in this period.
  • Family Guy features Phineas and Barnaby, two sideshow strongmen who travel via penny-farthing and perform calisthenics to the new musical craze called "Jazz." Peter also at one time tells Chris about his great-grandfather Turn-Of-The-Century-Take-On-All-Comers Griffin whom we see in a boxing ring with a kangaroo.

 Peter's Great-grandfather: All right, put 'em up! Put 'em up! Are you having a bully day? I'm having a bully day. Is everyone having a bully day?

Man in the crowd 1: Bully!

Man in the crowd 2: Bully!

Man in the crowd 3: Yes, Bully!

Peter's Great-grandfather: Oh, thank God we live in this time!

    • Let's not forget those two vaudevillian performers who show up every now and then.
      • And were killed, only to return in a later episode as ghosts.
  • The Simpsons featured a flashback to The Gay Nineties with Mr. Burns taking a walk with his grandfather who was explaining to him the fine points of capitalism.
    • Like his grandson, he also ran an "atom-smashing" business. This involved smashing metal ingots with sledgehammers. At one point, a worker is found with six "atoms" in his pocket. Things don't end well.

  Mr. Burns: Oh, how I wished we had listened to that young man instead of bricking him up in the abandoned coke oven.

    • In "Helter Shelter" the Simpsons go on a reality show "1895 Challenge" where they have to live like it's 1895. It takes some adjustment:

 Bart: Mutt and Jeff comics are not funny! They're gay, I get it!


Other

  • The pen-and-ink illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson (elaborate cartoons, really) are indelibly associated with this period and The Edwardian Era, not least by virtue of the famous "Gibson Girl" with her elaborate rolled-up hairdo and her Gorgeous Period Dress. What's not as well known today is that Gibson was active as an artist for nearly half a century, from the 1880's through the end of the 1920's, ending as editor-in-chief of Life magazine (just before it switched to its better-known photojournalism format), and that he was fundamentally a social satirist, whose wit could be downright lacerating on occasion (one of his favorite targets during the 1890's, for example, was the mania among some wealthy Americans for marrying their daughters off to titled Europeans).
  • Illustrator John Held Jr., when not creating the iconic imagery of The Roaring Twenties (he's currently the Trope Illustrator for that page), did woodcut-style art riffing on the "the dear dead days" of the 1890s.


Real Life

  • There was still a supper club in Boston called "The Gay Nineties" as of at least 1950.
  • Both Baskin-Robbins and Wendy's signage and store decor originally invoked this trope; some elements still remain.
    • There are pretty much no Gay Nineties elements left in "BR" now, but the old Farrell's Ice Cream Parlours reveled in this trope-- and it looks like the revival will use it too (along with some patriotic red-white-and-blue).
      • It was pretty much a stock trope for ice cream parlours of a certain era. Up until at least the 1980s, Swensen’s tried to evoke a Gay Nineties feel through the use of style and decor.
  • Las Vegas's Casino Royale is themed around this trope.
  • A nightclub in Minneapolis plays with this; it's called "The Gay 90's," and is, in fact, the best-known Gay Bar in the Twin Cities area, specializing in drag shows.

Notes

  1. The first three sequences are of the movie studio's employees leaving the factory, to show off the company's size; the last one is an example of the then-amazing special effects that could be created by, in this case, splicing in a segment of film backwards.
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