Remembering how things were

| August 30, 2007

Brad DeLong, economics professor at UC Berkeley, has posted a great article reminding us just what life was like for most US citizens back in the early 20th century:

A quarter of American households in 1900 had boarders or lodgers (compared to two percent today). Half of American households in 1900 had fewer rooms than persons (compared to five percent today). A quarter of American households in 1900 had running water (compared to ninety-nine percent today). An eighth of American households in 1900 had flush toilets (compared to ninety-eight percent today). Less than a fifth had refrigerators, less than one-twelfth had gas or electric lights, less than one-twentieth had telephones or washing machines, and of course there were no radios or televisions or vacuum cleaners or central heating, to list just those major appliances that have greater than ninety percent coverage today….

The diets of workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania at the turn of the century were composed primarily of meat of widely variable quality, bread, butter, potatoes, oatmeal, and tea and milk–with luxuries such as sweets added in more or less regularly. We would find the diet somewhat monotonous (however, a lot of time and effort went into finding different ways to make potatoes). Almost always the first luxury that a working-class family moving up would purchase would be the services of a laundress: since laundry was expensive and difficult, few working-class families could maintain upper-middle-class standards of cleanliness. How often would you take baths if the water had to brought in from an outside pump, and then heated on the stove? How often would you wash your clothes if everything had to be washed out in the sink, if the fabrics were three times as heavy and the detergents one-third as powerful as the ones available today, and if as a result the laundry was a full day’s chore? Hand laundry was not a two hour a week task. Those who could afford the resources to maintain bourgeois styles of cleanliness flaunted it. White shirts, white dresses, white gloves are all powerful indications of wealth in turn of the century America. They said “I don’t have to do my own laundry and ,” and they said it loudly….

Well worth reading the whole thing. Most notably, his article is entitled “Slouching towards Utopia?” After spending two years living in Central America (1972-74), I came back to the United States with a realization that — with rare exceptions — we in the US don’t know what real poverty is anymore. De Long’s article underscores all the riches and opportunities that we take for granted these days, even at the lowest economic levels, whether that’s compared to our own past, to the third world, or even to Europe. There’s a reason why 10% of Mexico’s entire population lives in the US illegally.

Hat tip to Megan McArdle over at the Atlantic. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 08/30/07 – 1147 MDT]

My mom recalls when we moved as a family from San Diego to Chicago back in 1956 (I was 3 at the time):

I was very glad we only lived at Little Silver Lake in Illinois for two weeks – we had to use an outhouse, and I had to haul water 50 feet, heat it on the stove, and put it in that big tin tub to bathe you kids. After a couple of days of that, when the Big Four came home from school, I’d give them a bar of soap and tell them to go wash in the lake! And they loved staying there! Mom

The “Big Four” referring to my older siblings (heh). In other words, she was dealing with a family of 5 kids, all 10 and under, with no hot water or indoor toilets.

By the way, Little Silver Lake is my earliest memory. There was a slide of some kind that went into the lake. I remember going down the slide, going underwater (which I recall as being a bit dark and murky) — and then sitting there, wondering how I was going to get out. Someone came and lifted me out of the water. ..bruce..

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Category: Economics, History, Main

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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