You Decide

Are these the best of times?

May 23, 2014 

I like looking back. I love to read and talk about history. Initially, I wanted to become a history teacher before being smitten by economics. While my wife might take a crime novel to the beach, I’ll carry a history book.

One of the cherished memories from my youth is talking to my paternal grandmother about her life. She was raised in the city – where her mother did washing for other families – but moved to a farm when she married my grandfather. There she did it all – raising four children (one being my father), baking bread, canning vegetables, washing clothes by hand and using every conceivable part of the hogs my grandfather raised. She worked from dawn to dark. If she was lucky, she went to the nearest town once a month for shopping. Life was tough.

This was in the 1920s and 1930s. Recently I discovered a wonderful book discussing life in those years, “Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940” by David Kyvig. Kyvig recounts the everyday life of people, what they ate, how they washed their clothes, how they kept warm, where they worked – in short, the unglamorous, common routines that consume most of people’s days. It’s a history about how people lived, not the history of business and public leaders, elections and international events that make up most books. It’s the history of a time that might have been more interesting and transformative than what we’re living in today.

Consider how cleaning clothes occurred then compared to now. My wife and I have a fabulous washer and dryer. We pop clothes into the washer, set the controls indicating the type of clothes and the cleaning method, push a button and then walk away. About a half-hour later, a pleasant melody plays indicating the washing is done. We remove the clothes from the washer, toss them into the adjoining dryer, push another button and again walk away. Thirty minutes later, the clothes are dry. Some then need ironing (I actually do my own ironing), but most can be folded and put away. Washing and drying one load of clothes takes about an hour with minimal effort on our part.

Now think about how my grandmother washed her family’s clothes in the 1920s. She had no washer or dryer; in fact, the farm had no electricity. She’d first have to haul pails of water to a stove and heat them. Then she’d carry the warm water to a large trough or bucket, fill it and scrub the clothes by hand. Drying the clothes was the natural way: outside in good weather or inside by the fire.

Life wasn’t a picnic for my grandfather either. He was responsible for making sure his family didn’t starve. Each year, my wife and I plant a small vegetable garden. But if the garden doesn’t do well, or if the squirrels eat everything, we don’t go hungry. In fact, we can buy excellent fresh vegetables from the farmers’ market or from most supermarkets.

Not so for my grandfather. His family ate what he planted and raised. Plowing was done the old-fashioned way – behind a mule – and this was some of the most exhausting, back-breaking work anyone could imagine. The major protein sources were the hogs raised on the farm. The family ate sausage for breakfast, ham for lunch and pork for dinner. My father – who as the oldest son had the task of “processing” the hogs using a World War I revolver – told me how excited he was to see beef on the menu when he entered the U.S. Navy during World War II.

But big changes came to the American family in the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps the most significant was electricity, which began in the cities and then spread to the rural areas. Household appliances like mixers, refrigerators and washers were quickly developed and sold to eager families. Although my grandmother gradually lost her memory later in life, she always remembered her first washing machine. Electricity was also used to illuminate homes, allowing families to replace dirty, dimly lit kerosene lamps.

Four other innovations were life-transforming. In 1920, only a third of households owned an automobile; by 1930, 80 percent did. The scope and range of personal contacts and possibilities now exploded. The tractor made farming less physically demanding and much more productive. The work of children on the farm declined, and so did the birthrate. With farm output up, America needed fewer farms, so many farm families moved to the city. The nation changed from being rural to being urban. Finally, the development and adoption of the telephone and radio lowered the cost and increased the speed of communication and gave families an in-home source of news and entertainment.

I was born in 1951, and most of my current students were born after 1990. We have all seen our lives altered by new inventions and innovations, especially in information technology and communications. But some say that while these changes have been significant, their impacts have not been as transforming on daily lives as those brought about by electricity, the automobile and tractor, the telephone and the radio in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s popular to say we live in a fast-paced, highly connected, ever-shifting world. But a strong case can be made for that world actually occurring 90 years ago. You decide.

Dr. Mike Walden is a professor and N.C. Cooperative Extension Service economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at N.C. State University.

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