What Were Your Ancestors Doing?

What Were Your Ancestors Doing in the 1890s?

The 1890s were an important decade in American and world history. There were many scientific and cultural inventions and improvements that were made that your ancestors would have enjoyed and celebrated. The world changed in some important ways in this decade. Here are some of the highlights the 1890s offered us.

Listen to the Genealogy Clips podcast on YouTube or iTunes.

The 1890s were known as the Gay Nineties because this decade in world history was popularly considered to be one that was full of fun and optimism. It was also part of the so-called Gilded Age (a phrase invented by Mark Twain), which alluded to a profitable era in American history. Additionally, this decade is sometimes known as the Mauve Decade because a new aniline dye invented by William Henry Perkins allowed that color to be used in fashion, and it became very popular. What else were your ancestors doing or celebrating during the 1890s?


In 1893, Thomas Edison completed work on his invention, the Kinetoscope, which was the earliest known device for showing motion pictures. It was developed by William Kennedy Dickson and introduced to the public the next year. There were several moving pictures that had been made for it while it was being invented (work on it having begun in 1889), so there were some interesting things to show on it when it made its public debut at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The first film shown to the public on this machine was called Blacksmith Scene, which was produced at the new Edison movie-making studio called Black Maria. The era of movies had begun.

Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Alva Edison

Scientific Discoveries

There were some interesting and important scientific discoveries made in the 1890s. Some examples include the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel. X-rays were also discovered during this decade, by Wilhelm Rontgen. The elements Argon and Helium were discovered, by Lord Rayleigh and William Ramsay, respectively. Ramsay actually confirmed the existence of Helium on Earth, as its existence on the sun had been detected in 1868. Ramsay also discovered Neon, Xenon, and Krypton during this decade, with help from Morris Travers.

Besides, the very first suggestion that humans may be producing emissions from their inventions that could lead to global warming was made in the 1890s by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius and US geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin.

E-Ray of Left Foot
E-Ray of Left Foot

Cultural Improvements

The 1890s saw several important additions to the culture of America and the world. Some of these include the Temperance Movement. This was a popular movement in America that advocated for a significantly reduced level of alcohol consumption by users, or prohibition of it altogether. This movement became quite organized, and people rallied under the banner of the American Temperance Movement, and the people who were devoted to the cause marched, handed out anti-alcohol pamphlets and other literature, did public speaking engagements, and more. The movement continued with enthusiasm in the United States until Prohibition was (temporarily) achieved a few decades later.

Temperance Movement
Temperance Movement

Some important and well-known books were published in the 1890s, such as The Time Machine, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Spring Awakening, The Jungle Book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Uncle Vanya, Heart of Darkness, The Yellow Wallpaper, and The War of the Worlds. Also, the first of many Sherlock Holmes stories were published in Strand Magazine in 1891.


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.