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Life Used to Be Miserable: Things I Learned From the Book "The Big Change"

By Morgan Housel - Jan 16, 2015 at 1:47PM

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The book "The Big Change."

I read Frederick Lewis Allen's book The Big Change.

Written in 1952, it's a fantastic read about how American culture changed from 1900 to 1950. 

My big takeaway: Life back then used to be pretty miserable compared to today. Here are nine things I learned. 

1. Things you would never think about today were luxuries in 1900. Like food: 

In most parts of the United States people were virtually without fresh fruit and green vegetables from late autumn to late spring. During this time they consumed quantities of starches, in the form of pies, doughnuts, potatoes, and hot bread, which few would venture to absorb today. The result was that innumerable Americans were in sluggish health during the months of late winter and early spring, when their diet was short of vitamins. If as a visitor from 1950 you found yourself staying in an average American house in the winter season at the turn of the century, you would soon find yourself yearning for orange juice, tomato juice, fresh lettuce, or grapefruit -- every one of them unobtainable then.

2. And bathing: 

Not until 1907 did Ellsworth M. Statler build in Buffalo the first hotel which offered every guest a room and private bath at a moderate price ...

If the Saturday-night bath offered to millions of Americans their only weekly immersion in warm water, this was chiefly because bathrooms were few and far between. 

3. Work was pretty awful in 1900: 

[Many kids of] junior high school age had to spend the hours from five o'clock in the morning till eight o'clock at night -- with half an hour off for breakfast and half an hour for dinner -- six days a week, in an ill-lighted, ill-ventilated factory, foregoing sunshine, recreation, education, and health itself to keep the family alive; and all this even if the employer was raking in high profits. It had been conditions such as these, appearing wherever the new industrial capitalism seemed to be making its most active forward progress, that had prompted Karl Marx to see if he could not invent a different system.

4. And long: 

The average working day was in the neighborhood of 10 hours, 6 days a week: total, 60 a week. In business offices there was a growing trend toward a Saturday half holiday, but if anybody had suggested a five-day week he would have been considered demented. At the time when the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union was established in 1900, the hours in this trade, in New York, were 70 a week.

5. Even when we did awesome stuff, people didn't want to believe it:

People were so convinced that flying was impossible that most of those who saw [the Wright Brothers] flying about Dayton in 1905 decided that what they had seen must be some trick without significance -- somewhat as most people today would regard a demonstration of, let us say, telepathy. Never before or since, in all probability, have the news hawks of America taken longer to apprehend a momentous story. It was not until May, 1908 -- nearly four and a half years after the Wrights' first flight -- that experienced reporters were sent to observe what they were doing, experienced editors gave full credence to these reporters' excited dispatches, and the world at last woke up to the fact that human flight had been successfully accomplished. 

7. The car was dismissed as a rich person's toy: 

In the year 1906 Woodrow Wilson, who was then president of Princeton University, said, "Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the automobile," and added that it offered "a picture of the arrogance of wealth."

8. Even when the economy was "booming" in the late 1920s, most Americans lived in poverty: 

During that very year 1929, according to the subsequent estimates of the very careful and conservative Brookings Institution, only 2.3 per cent of American families had incomes of over $10,000 a year. Only 8 per cent had incomes of over $5,000. No less than 71 per cent had incomes of less than $2,500. Some 60 per cent had incomes of less than $2,000. More than 42 per cent had incomes of less than $1,500. And more than 21 per cent had incomes of less than $1,000 a year. "At 1929 prices," said the Brookings economists, "a family income of $2,000 may be regarded as sufficient to supply only basic necessities." One might reasonably interpret this statement to mean that any income below that level represented poverty. Practically 60 per cent of American families were below it -- in the golden year 1929!

9. Then the Great Depression pretty much destroyed everything: 

At the middle of the year 1932 -- more than two and a half years after the crash of 1929 -- American industry as a whole was operating at less than half its maximum 1929 volume. During this year 1932, the total amount of money paid out in wages was 60 per cent less than in 1929. The total of dividends was 57 per cent less; and these dividends represented the earnings of the more fortunate concerns -- some might say the more ruthless toward their employees -- while American business as a whole was running at a net loss of over five billion dollars.

Go buy the book here. It's great. 

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