Saturday, September 8, 2012

What was America like 100 years ago? The answers will perhaps be a big surprise, especially among the younger generation...

While my grandfather Angus McSwain lived to be 92, the average life expectancy 100 years ago was 47 years. Some reasons for early death were illness and disease. Doctors in those days delivered 95 percent of the babies at home, and surprise-of-surprises, 90 percent of the doctors had no college education. Most had attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned by the press and government as being "substandard."

The leading causes of death were pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis (then called consumption), diarrhea, heart disease and stroke.

Home life must have been difficult: Only 14 percent of the homes in America had indoor plumbing, such as a bathtub and toilet. Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone, even fewer had electric lights, and only 8,000 cars were on the road. The country had only 144 miles of paved roads, and the maximum speed limit was 10 mph — it was that slow to keep from scaring the horses and mules used to pull wagons and buggies.

If you had a handful of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters in your pocket, you could buy a sandwich and drink, ride a trolley home and still have some change left. The average wage 100 years ago was 22 cents per hour, and the average worker made between $200 and $400 per year. Those making the most money were mechanical engineers at $5,000 per year, with dentists, medical doctors and veterinarians drawing between $1,500 and $4,000 per year.

It took a lot of pennies to buy some grocery items. Sugar cost 4 cents a pound, eggs were 14 cents a dozen, and coffee sold for 15 cents a pound.

A daily newspaper purchased on a street corner cost 2 cents a copy. Beauty aids and personal products were limited in supply and were expensive.

Most women washed their hair only once a month and probably used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo. Wintertime bathing was infrequent since water had to be heated on the stove. Children were bathed first, followed by the mother and father — all in the same bathwater, which was later poured on the garden.

A few other observations from 100 years ago: The American flag had 45 stars, the population of Las Vegas, Nev., was 30 hearty souls, mostly prospectors; the tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower, and few people knew of its whereabouts; there were about 230 murders reported in the entire country; and items such as marijuana, heroin and morphine were available over the counter at the local drugstore.

Perhaps the most shocking of all — two out of every 10 adults could not read or write, and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.

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