Looking Back A Century–and Forward

Interesting, the things we’ve learned–and haven’t learned–in the past 100 years. I can’t help wondering whether we’ll have learned some lessons, or most, or all, in the next 100. Or perhaps none? OMG.

Let’s see. A century ago, Americans faced long working hours, crowded homes, no antibiotics, no insulin, no minimum wage, no Social Security, death by trolley car, and an average life expectancy for men around 53.6 years, for women 54.6 (compared to today’s approximately 80 years). So far, so good; a vast improvement. The main causes of death were a worldwide pandemic (the Spanish Flu or H1N1 virus, which infected about 27 percent of the world’s population, is estimated to have killed at least 50 million people, and for which there were then no vaccines); and heart disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and stroke. The average American ate roughly equivalent amounts of lard and chicken. Our homes were crowded: few couples got divorced, older folks lived with their adult children out of financial need, and children remained under their parents’ roofs until marriage. Owning a home was a rarity. Infants were both plentiful and precarious: women had three children on average, to help on the vanishing farm in the old agrarian economy–but also because children were likely to die: 10 percent of infants died in their first year, compared with one for every 168 births today in the U.S.; 80 percent of births happened outside of hospitals. Hygiene was pretty awful. Until 1940, when the census collected information on plumbing in U.S. homes, almost half lacked hot/cold water, a tub or shower, and a flush toilet. There were no supermarkets, canned beer, Barbie dolls, Scotch tape, crossword puzzles, or iced tea.

Half of all families lived in rural areas or towns with populations below 2500. Today, 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Eighty-five percent of men over age 14 were in the labor force, compared with just 69 percent over age 16 today. The workplace was 30 times more dangerous than it is now. Women were less likely to be employed in the formal labor force so found jobs at elementary and high schools, where they were forced to accept less than a man’s wage. For older Americans, since Social Security did not exist, in hard times poverty was so bad that contemporaries wrote of aging as if it were a dystopia. One year earlier, in January of 1920, the 18th Amendment had gone into effect, outlawing the production and consumption of alcohol. Prohibition would remain in effect until December of 1933, with its attendant phenomena (black market alcohol, bootleggers, speakeasies, organized crime, etc.).

The 20s, which formally began with 1921, were also the age of dance clubs, flappers, and jazz. This was the decade when the automobile’s popularity soared. Before the 1908 invention of the Model T, car ownership hadn’t been possible for everyday Americans, but once assembly lines and the $850 car became available, people all over the country began learning to drive. Gas stations were a new thing, since people had previously purchased their gas in a can from the pharmacy. (Today, some folks can just plug their car into a wall outlet to charge it.)

The American flag had 45 stars, “In God we trust” had not yet been signed into law as America’s official motto instead of the Founders’ choice, E pluribus Unum; and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag remained free of the words inserted in 1956 by Eisenhower, “under God”– thus running counter to its original intent when written in 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy and later defended by his daughter, who fought the imposition of the phrase “under God.”

The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower. Canada passed a law prohibiting poor people from entering the country for any reason, as travelers or immigrants. Sugar cost $0.04 a pound, eggs were $0.14 a dozen, and coffee cost $0.15 a pound. The Chinese Communist party, the Italian Communist Party, the Communist Party of South Africa, and the Communist Party of Spain, all were created that same year, 1921. (Was something in the water?)

Miraculous advances in medicine and health–despite the mask-refusing vaccine-fearing crazies among us–have been especially dramatic and welcome. The Black Plague had lasted 300 years in Europe because no one knew anything about vaccines. Just a century ago people died from diabetes! The slightest infection could turn septic in an instant, and insulin and antibiotics hadn’t been discovered yet. Bloodletting (otherwise known as the application of leeches–eeeeuw) was recommended as a treatment for infections and other ailments all the way through the 1940s, and mercury, a literal toxic substance, was used to treat syphilis for many years.

Ninety percent of all American physicians had no college education, instead attending medical schools–many of which were condemned by the press and the government as substandard. More than 95 percent of all births in the United States took place at home. Though the vaccine to fight tuberculosis had just been found, penicillin would not be discovered until 1928. But heroin, first introduced in 1898, was still included in many cold remedies. Morphine and opium were being sold jauntily over the counter at pharmacies across the nation, with one pharmacist claiming that “heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is in fact a perfect guardian of health.” Oh, and Coca Cola contained cocaine instead of caffeine.

Women saw the birth of Miss America and Betty Crocker: 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, dubbed “the most beautiful bathing girl in America,” won what became known as the first Miss America contest. Meanwhile, Betty Crocker was “born,” that is, created, by the Washburn Crosby company as part of an advertising campaign. Her surname came from the retired director of the company, Betty was considered a wholesome moniker, and her signature came from a handwriting contest.

The 19th Amendment had been ratified a year earlier. World War I had slowed the suffrage movement, as women took on unprecedented responsibilities and entered the workforce, but the movement persisted agitating, so women–that is, white women–had finally won the right to vote after 100 years of struggle. Women of other racial and ethnic demographics . . . hmmm, not so much.

Although the 15th Amendment passed in 1870 granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race, it wasn’t until the Snyder Act that Native American women and men could actually enjoy full citizenship (when not barred locally). Asian American women were targeted by the first U.S. restrictive immigration law Congress ever passed against any group: The 1875 Page Act barred forced laborers from Asia, particularly “immoral” Asian women who would “potentially engage in prostitution” as “undesirable people henceforth barred from entering the United States.” The law was enforced to institute near complete exclusion of Chinese women from the U.S., and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 followed, prohibiting virtually all immigration from China. Barriers to suffrage for Latinas, especially in large cities on the East Coast and across the southwest, were common practice, and anti-Black suffrage discrimination persists to this day. In fact, anti-Black racism and voter suppression honors another dubious centennial this year: 100 years ago the Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood known as Black Wall Street because of its prosperity was the scene of a white riot during which more than 300 people were killed and the segregated area was left in ruins. No white people were ever arrested.

Anti-immigration bigotry also was rife, and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was passed–the first federal law in U.S. history limiting European immigration: “no more than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants from any specific country already living in the U.S. can migrate to America during any year.” Nativism peaked with the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti–workmen, foreigners, and anarchists who were widely believed innocent of the charges. The Klan was born. The first federal child labor laws had been passed in 1916, but child labor was only ruled as unconstitutional two years later, and there would be no real regulation until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Young children worked full time jobs in mines, factories, and other unskilled jobs as a norm. One in 10 adults couldn’t read or write, and the United States had no minimum wage.

Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics, Anatole France won it in literature, and silent movies, although ebbing, boasted “The Kid,” the first full length silent comedy drama–written, produced, directed by, and starring Charlie Chapman. Radio was the big thing. Meanwhile, a farm boy named Philo Taylor Farnsworth came up with the idea for an “image dissector,” an electron tube also known as a television transmission tube, that was essential in the creation of modern television. Edith Wharton’s great novel The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize, the first time a woman won for literature.

Adolf Hitler rose to become leader of the National Socialist German Workers party, which would become the Nazi party.

One hundred years from now? Will it finally be possible for us to have what every other developed country in the world has: a minimum wage? And will reproductive freedom and a woman’s rights over her own body at last cease being a political football?

Doubtless (if we survive), we’ll have bigger and better gimmicks, and sure, cars might fly. But will another century cure us of our misogynistic hatred, our systemic racism, our anti-immigrant bigotries, and our other societal diseases of the mind and heart? One hundred years is a short time, after all . . .

More people today are literate, and fewer are starving in absolute poverty than ever before in the history of the planet–that’s a great good. It’s also true that authoritarian leaders are appearing across the world, making a Hitler seem in retrospect a bit of a loner looking for company. What will we learn and when will we learn it?

Do we congratulate ourselves today on having ended child labor, yet still think sending adult human beings into coal mines is OK? Do we celebrate the end of chattel slavery and its long trail of systemic racism, while ignoring the reality that more female people at this moment are bondaged in sexual slavery around the world than were enslaved in the old American South? Will we go to Mars only to mine it for salable water or to establish military bases? Will we have found an alternate economic system beyond the simplicities and savageries of corporate capitalism, or will we have settled for disguising it so efficiently that we’ll be anesthetized to its effects?

Let’s say we pull ourselves out of planetary crises in that weird, magical way our species tends to do, always at the very last moment. Let’s say that human stubbornness and inventiveness prevail, and we learn from our mistakes. Let’s say we forgive each other, and the planet forgives us. We have managed this far, after all. A century ago, a doctor (male) published a hilariously inaccurate book titled Private Sex Advice To Women. Doctor R. B. Armatage advised that sex during pregnancy must be avoided, and wrote that pain during menstruation was caused by wearing too tight clothing, not getting enough exercise from housework–and eating pickles. We’ve come a long way, maybe.