Ringing in the New
December 31, 1900: Fifteen thousand of Kansas City's elite brave the cold to usher in the new century at Convention Hall.
With the temperature hovering near zero degrees on December 31, 1900, some 15,000 people gathered in Kansas City's Convention Hall to welcome the beginning of the 20th century. The revelers were in an optimistic, even jubilant mood. In just 50 years, the region that is now greater Kansas City had grown from a few small towns into a thriving metropolitan area of 268,000. While Kansas City's high poverty levels and poor public sanitation remained serious problems, (even by the standards of 1900) the future looked bright. For the United States as a whole, the 20th century seemed likely to witness great improvements in civic institutions and continuing technological achievements.
New Year's Eve the year before, in 1899, had been comparatively quiet. By a strict interpretation of the modern Gregorian calendar, the twentieth century began on the first day of the year 1901, not 1900, because the first year of the calendar had been A.D. 1, not A.D. 0. Subsequent centuries technically began in 101, 201, and so forth. Many of the major celebrations for the 20th century were held in 1901, accordingly.
As a matter of coincidence, the year preceding the Century Ball served to highlight the innate optimism that Kansas Citians brought to the new century. Just eight months before, the one-year-old Convention Hall, which was slated to host the Democratic National Convention, had been completely destroyed by a fire. In a remarkably short period of 90 days, Kansas City rebuilt the hall in time to host the convention in July, 1900. This incident made the "The Kansas City Spirit" into a celebrated phrase that signified civic optimism and determination in the face of adversity.
On December 31, 1900, Convention Hall stood ready to host the Century Ball, which would celebrate the city's special qualities and welcome, it was hoped, a new century of unparalleled progress. Tickets were a then-expensive $10 per couple, which ensured that only the city's well-off residents were in attendance. Garland lined the rafters of the ceiling, from which hung a large hourglass-shaped panel with electric light bulbs. The lights, which were still something of a novelty, were timed to turn off one at a time, every minute, until all were dark by midnight.
Aside from the usual dancing and merriment, the partygoers filled a time capsule that they dubbed the "Century Box," to be opened on December 31, 2000. The box contained items that symbolized "cow town" Kansas City at the turn of the century, including posters from the 1899 American Royal, materials from the Kansas City Livestock Exchange, and a John Deere company catalog. It also contained letters written to the future citizens of Kansas City that communicated best wishes, advice, and predictions of the future.
Of special note was a letter from Kansas City mayor James A. Reed, to whomever was the mayor in the year 2000. After Convention Hall was razed to make way for Municipal Auditorium in the 1930s, the Century Box was housed at the latter location. On December 13, 2000, the box was moved to Union Station, where on January 1, 2001, 900 spectators watched Mayor Kay Barnes carefully open the box and proceeded to read James Reed's letter. Laughter soon erupted as Kansas City's first female mayor read the words, "Dear Sir." The remainder of Reed's letter described the advancements in technology of the 19th century, and his hopes for continued progress in the 20th century.
Later in the day on January 1, 2001, a smaller ceremony was held to dedicate a new Century Box, prepared by the Kansas City Sesquicentennial committee, known as KC150. The new stainless steel capsule will presumably be opened on January 1, 2101. Among its various contents are brochures for local businesses, hundreds of messages for future Kansas City residents, advertisements, an "I Voted" sticker, coins, a football signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, a baseball from the Kansas City Royals, a computer chip, and assorted consumer items such as a Ziploc-brand bag.
Read full biographical sketches of people involved with the Century Ball, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:
- Biography of James Alexander Reed (1861-1944), attorney and politician, by Nancy J. Hulston; Reed, the mayor of Kansas City in 1900, wrote a letter for the Century Box.
- Biography of Lucy Drage (1876-1965), interior decorator, by Daniel Coleman; Drage was the "Belle of the Century Ball."
View images relating to the Century Ball that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Former mayor James A. Reed with other Kansas City mayors, 1923.
- Kansas City Major James A. Reed
- Second Convention Hall; location of the Century Ball.
- Interior view of Convention Hall during the 1900 Democratic Convention
Check out the following books and articles about the Century Ball, held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- "Grace Kemper Toll Describes the 1900 Century Ball," by Grace Kemper Toll, in The Jackson County Historical Society Journal, Spring 2001.
- "Up Front in Historic Northeast: 'The Century Box: To Be Buried in the Masonry of Convention Hall 1901 and Opened in 2001,'" by Tracy Abeln, in Northeast News, January 4, 2001; about a time capsule buried after the Century Ball.
- "99 Bottled-Up Years on the Wall, But Count 'Em Up and They're - Still not a Century," by Donna McGuire, in The Kansas City Star, December 31, 1999; article gives a historical and mathematical explanation of why the 21st century began on January 1, 2001, not 2000.
- Kansas City: An American Story, by Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper; one chapter describes the turn of the twentieth century in Kansas City, including the Century Ball events, pp. 142-163.
Continue researching the Century Ball using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
By Jason Roe, doctoral student, Department of History, University of Kansas.
Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 144-145, 152-153.
George Fuller Green, A Condensed History of the Kansas City Area: Its Mayors and Some V.I.P.s (Kansas City, MO: The Lowell Press, 1968), 256.
Henry C. Haskell, City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950 (Kansas City, MO: F. Glenn, 1950), 92-93.
Rick Montgomery, "Letters for Future KC Area Residents will be Locked up for a Century," The Kansas City Star, September 18, 2000.
Judy L. Thomas, "History Revealed; Present is Sealed - Century Boxes Link KC Past - and Future," The Kansas City Star, January 2, 2001.
Brian Burnes, "A Box of Mysteries Sealed 100 Years Ago Awaits," The Kansas City Star, December 28, 2000.