by Mark Tarses
In every generation, people always imagine that their parents and grandparents grew up in "the good old days", a time when the world was a safer, simplier, and kinder place; without the anxieties of our modern times. Plus, as people get older, they tend to remember their youth as "the good old days", whether they actually were good or not. What old people are really nostalgic for is their youth, not the time of their youth.
But, more often than not, the "good old days" really weren't so good.
In the United States in the year 1900....
Life expectancy: The average American lived to age 47.
Disease: The 3 leading causes of death were pneumonia, influenza, and tuberculosis. There were no cures or vaccines for any of these diseases. Epidemics of contagious diseases killed millions every year. In 1919, 10,000 Americans a week died of the flu.
Medical Care: 90% of all physicians in the U.S. had no college education. Instead, most attended for-profit medical schools that were unregulated and unlicensed. People dreaded going to hospitals, which were breading grounds for disease. A person's odds of recovering from nearly any disease were much greater at home than in a hospital.
Drugs: Cocaine, heroin, and morphine were legal and cheap, and were sold over-the-counter at neighborhood drug stores. The Sears Roebuck catalog featured "Peruvian Wine of Coca". A large bottle cost 50¢. The percentage of Americans addicted to narcotics was 4 times greater than it is today. It was legal to sell narcotics to children.
Medicine: The Pure Food & Drug Act had not yet been written. There was no FDA. Most of the medicine sold in the U.S. was medically worthless "snake oil". More people were killed by taking toxic medicines than were cured of their diseases. 75% of all cough syrup contained opium or morphine. Coca Cola, which was advertised as a "health tonic" and "brain food" contained cocaine and cola, which is how the product got it's name.
Drive-by Shootings: Many cities, particularly in the West, were plagued by drive-by shootings. Teenage boys and young men rode down streets on horseback, usually while drunk, shooting randomly into houses, carriages, and stores. In Denver alone, between 1890 and 1900, several hundred people were killed and wounded in drive-by shootings.
Gangs. In the late 1800's, all major U.S. cities had street gangs. New York City had the largest and most violent gangs. Most were based in a section of the city known as Five Points or Hell's Kitchen. The biggest gangs were the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Bowery Boys. These gangs made money by burglary, armed robbery, extortion, kidnapping, protection rackets, and many other crimes. Each gang had it's own territory, and they frequently had shootouts over border disputes.
Cleaning: Most housewives spent 1 or 2 full day every week just washing and ironing clothes. Working men normally changed their shirts once a week. Pants were washed even less frequently. Most coats were never washed. Only 14% of all U.S. homes had a bathtub. Heating the water for a bath could take an hour or more. Once the tub was filled, every member of a family would bathe in the same bath water, one after another. Most hotels rooms had no private bathrooms or bathtubs.
Children: 95% of all child births took place at home. Working mothers commonly gave laudanum (a mixture of distilled alcohol & opium) to their babies and infant children before they left for work. It kept the kids quiet until they returned home.
Child labor was legal. Boys as young as 6 years of age worked in coal mines for 8¢ an hour. Girls worked in textile mills for even less. Employed children typically worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. There were no workman compensation or occupational safety laws. Children who were injured or crippled on the job were simply fired.
Food: There were no federal food inspectors in 1900, and food processors were not required to list their ingredients on product labels. New York City had food inspectors, and this is what found in a 1901 study: 90% of all the milk sold in New York City was watered down. 50% of all the bread sold in New York contained sawdust. 90% of all sausages contained fillers unfit for human consumption. Most meat markets did not have refrigerators, and 1/4 of the raw beef and pork sold in New York City was rancid or contained maggots. Virtually all canned food contained lead from solder joints. Food coloring contained lead, arsenic, and mercury. Not surprisingly, food poisoning was one of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. The chocolate bar was invented in 1900 by Milton Hershey. Prior to that, chocolate was a luxury for the rich.
Education:10% of all Americans were completely illiterate. 20% of all Americans couldn't read well enough to read a newspaper article. Only 6% of all Americans graduated high school. Public school teachers were allowed to beat children with their hands, sticks, and canes. It was quite common for school teachers to beat at least one child every day. In California, the only legal limitation on school teachers beating children was if the beating resulted in permanent injury or death. In most places, children had to buy their textbooks. If they couldn't afford to buy their textbooks, then they didn't have them.
Cars: There were only 8,000 cars in the whole U.S. and only 144 miles of paved roads. Only very rich people owned cars. The average car in the U.S. sold for $5,000. The average wage in the U.S. was 22¢ an hour or $400 a year. A competent C.P.A. could make $2,000 a year. A good dentist could make $2,500 a year. The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 miles an hour. Safety glass had not yet been invented, and cars did not have seat belts. Even minor car accidents at 10 miles an hour were often fatal.
Telephone: If your parents were wealthy, they might have a telephone in their home, although children were not usually allowed to use it. Telephone calls were very expensive. Only 1 house in 12 had a telephone. A 3 minute phone call from San Francisco to New York cost $18.00, more than a whole week's salary for the average worker!
Are you still nostalgic to return to The Good Old Days?
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