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1880s: A Time of Technological Revolution in Norfolk

By Brian Morgan

Perhaps more than in any decade before or since, the 1880s were a time of transformation for the City of Norfolk.

The decade was one of social evolution but particularly one of technological revolution, according to Harold Wilson, associate professor of history at Old Dominion University. Wilson spoke about Norfolk's technological history at a recent program sponsored by the Historical Society.

A city of 17,000 "crowded into the streets along the downtown waterfront," Norfolk of that era had no slogan to define its space or time, Wilson said. In their 1994 book, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries, co-authors Thomas C. Parramore, Peter Stewart and Tommy Bogger defined Norfolk as a city with a permanently arrested frontier mentality.

"Professor Parramore, a resident of North Carolina, finds the city to be the domicile of permanent vices, sporadic class conflicts, and occasional, bitter outburts of racial disharmony," Wilson told the audience. Parramore concluded, Wilson said, that the Norfolk of the 1880s "was populated with a shifting cosmopolitan collection of tars, tourists and the tarnished."

In addition to the city's somewhat tarnished reputation, the residents of Norfolk in the 1880s had to contend with a host of diseases, including botulism, yellow fever, malaria, and "the new, terrible importation from central Europe named and defined as 'La Grippe,' or modern influenza," Wilson said.

There were more positive aspects of life, however. Many of them came courtesy of advances in technology.

For instance, Wilson said, the technology of locomotion was making great strides during the decade and by 1890 the "silent steed," or bicycle, was quickly supplanting the horse as the preferred means of transport. A bike race at the new baseball stadium drew throngs of ladies, who, according to the Virginian of October 11, 1890, ". . . wore the colors of their favorites pinned on their jaunty fall jackets."

The decade saw the sail begin to yield to steam propulsion and the railroad come into its own as a vital engine of trade.

Electricity brought Norfolk its own telephone "central," electric cable cars and a source of light much more intense than the gas-powered variety.

Steam-powered engines compressed cotton bales for shipping efficiencies. They also pumped clean water into homes and evacuated waste, dramatically improving public health.

In all, technology played an important role in the transformation of Norfolk into a modern community. As Wilson put it, ". . . in the decade of the 1880s, Norfolk waltzed to the rhythm of steam and electricity and seized the potential of the moment."


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