The Myth of the “Good Old Days”

Life in the 1800s has taken on an almost Utopian quality in the minds of many Americans. The images associated with this era of our history are, on the surface, pleasant to recall: one room school houses with a heavy dose of the 3 Rs; rugged self-reliance; living close to the earth, no income tax, steam-powered railroads and individual freedom.

All-in-all, we seem to recall a well-scrubbed past taken from the pages of those Currier & Ives prints.

Maybe, as we move forward in this new century, it’s time to take another look at the so-called “good old days.”

On the job

Workdays in the mid to late 1800s were long and hard. The average worker could expect to labor anywhere from ten to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. A sixty or eighty hour work week was the rule, not the exception.

By 1830, a skilled worker or experienced machinist earned as much as $1.25 a day. However, jobs that paid that well were uncommon. An average worker could expect to earn between fifty and seventy-five cents a day. A woman lucky enough to find a paying job earned far less than a man. Her standard wage was anywhere from half to two-thirds less than her male counterpart.

Unions were almost unheard of. Where they existed they were considered, by factory owners and industrialists, to be “un-American.” When horse-car drivers in New York City demanded that their traditional 16-hour work day be reduced to only 12 hours, their demands were branded as “communistic” by state assemblyman Teddy Roosevelt. When strikes did occur, they were often put down by troops and militiamen.

Child labor

Children often worked the same long hours as their parents. By 1900 there were nearly two million children under fifteen years of age working in factories across the nation. Child labor was in great demand by employers who considered children to be a bargain. Kids were paid between $1.50 and $2.50 a week for up to 84 hours of work. (Two or three cents an hour was considered low pay, even by the standards of the day.)

Safety in the workplace

In the days before government regulations and the union movement, the place where you worked could easily become the place where you died. President Harrison observed in 1892 that, “American workmen are subjected to peril of life and limb as great as a soldier in time of war.”

During the 1890s it was estimated that nearly a million workers were killed or injured each year in the work place. Power shafts and belts to drive the machines were open and unprotected. Factories were dimly lighted and the workers’ machines and equipment were not equipped with the safety devices now required by law. The rule of thumb,for those lucky enough to still have one, was, “if you take the job – you assume the risk.”

Railroads were especially dangerous places to work. In 1900 alone, more than 2,600 rail workers lost their lives in rail accidents and more than 41,000 were maimed or injured. Between 1898 and 1900 American railroads lost as many workers to accidents as the entire British Army did in its three-year Boer War.

Workers’ compensation was unknown. Disabled workers received no pay, benefits, or social security. During this same period, the wealthiest men in America were the owners of railroads. Railroad Barons amassed fortunes ranging into the billions of dollars.

Industry and energy

In the early 1800s people and animals were the number one and two sources of energy. In that order. Machinery was relatively uncommon and the amount of work a person could complete in a work day was almost entirely dependent upon strength and personal endurance. As the century progressed, there was a noticeable decline in wood cover around America’s growing communities.

By 1860 most of the firewood used in Boston, Massachusetts was being hauled by ship from Maine. Energy was expensive in terms of human labor and cash. Getting enough fuel to last the winter was a year-round chore for rural folks.

A miscalculation in the amount of wood collected could mean, at worst, freezing to death and at best, a long miserable winter. In the industrialized north, water power was the source of energy for mills. By the 1830s, five to ten horse power was typical for a country mill and twenty-five to fifty horse power was standard for a large city mill.

Mills often had to shut down for extended periods in the summer and winter months because water power was not available due to droughts or frozen ponds and rivers. Clocks in many mills were tied to the water wheel. The slower the flow of water – the longer the work day. It was a practice called “mill time” that came to an end when towns and churches installed clock towers on the commons.

The standard of living

While life may have been cheap for the industrialists, the cost of living was high for the workers. Looking at the ads in old newspapers, we are often struck by seemingly low prices of goods and groceries. Some typical prices at the turn of the last century were:

Prices in the “Good Old Days”

Butter …….. 19 cents a pound
Bacon ……… 10 cents a pound
Fowl ………. 12 cents a pound
Eggs ………. 15 cents a dozen
Shoes …… $2.50 a pair
Flour …… $6.50 a barrel
Fire Wood .. $3.00 a cord

. Today’s Price Equivalents

Butter ……… $36.48 a pound
Bacon ………. $19.20 a pound
Fowl ……….. $23.04 a pound
Eggs ……….. $28.80 a dozen
Shoes ……… $480.00 a pair
Flour ……. $1,248.00 a barrel
Fire Wood ….. $576.00 a cord

When “Old Days” prices are translated into the numbers of hours worked and then charged against today’s typical wage of $12.00 an hour, a different picture emerges. For example: butter at 19 cents a pound meant that an average worker making 75 cents a day on a 12 hour shift had to work just over three hours for his pound of butter. If it took as many hours to earn a pound of butter today as it did in the 1800s, butter would sell for about $36.48 a pound. Hardly a bargain.

Hard times

Without the safety-net of unemployment insurance, food stamps, or other state or federal service programs, folks of the 1800s were pretty much at the mercy of their employer and the whims of a changing American economy.

In the early days, when a man lost his job, he faced the very real prospect of watching himself and his family starve to death. To a large extent, employers realized this and had a steady, if not willing, pool of people ready to work at any price.

In 1887 America experienced a depression that saw nearly three million workers loose their jobs. Many families lost their homes or were thrown out of their city tenements. Thousands of homeless families lived on the streets of major cities.

Between 1893 and 1898, another economic crisis swept the country throwing nearly four million workers off their jobs. Almost one in five workers was jobless.

Factory owners faced with diminishing profits often cut wages. When workers refused wage cuts or attempted to unionize, the factories simply shut down. Lockouts usually ended after workers pledged to the owners that they would not form a union.

Hard times

Without the safety-net of unemployment insurance, food stamps, or other state or federal service programs, folks of the 1800s were pretty much at the mercy of their employer and the whims of a changing American economy.

In the early days, when a man lost his job, he faced the very real prospect of watching himself and his family starve to death. To a large extent, employers realized this and had a steady, if not willing, pool of people ready to work at any price.

In 1887 America experienced a depression that saw nearly three million workers loose their jobs. Many families lost their homes or were thrown out of their city tenements. Thousands of homeless families lived on the streets of major cities.

Between 1893 and 1898, another economic crisis swept the country throwing nearly four million workers off their jobs. Almost one in five workers was jobless.

Factory owners faced with diminishing profits often cut wages. When workers refused wage cuts or attempted to unionize, the factories simply shut down. Lockouts usually ended after workers pledged to the owners that they would not form a union.

Lighting

After a hard day at work, in the fields or factory, most people returned home, ate whatever dinner was ready, and collapsed until the start of the next work day. Folks who wished to stay up and socialize or finish chores often did so in dim, candle lit rooms.

By the standards of yesterday, our homes blaze with the brilliance of day. A twenty-five watt bulb burns with the light of more than 200 candles. An average family room today has about 175 watts of light – or the equivalent of more than 1,400 candles.

Horses

Horses were common forms of transportation and their pollutants were everywhere. The early street sweepers and sanitation men who were hired to keep the streets clean were not just picking up gum wrappers. In twelve months a city with 15,000 horses produces enough manure to cover an acre of ground to the depth of 175 feet. That amount of waste, when mixed with summer rains and the hot August sun turned large cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago into the worst kind of steam baths imaginable.

Rural towns and villages weren’t much better. The areas around hitching posts were open cesspools. When the rains came, everything mixed with mud. The quaint wooden boardwalks were not constructed as a convenience. They were a necessity.

Civil Rights

Racial and religious minorities were at the mercy of the times. In 1836 a school for black children was burned to the ground by an angry white mob in Canton, Connecticut. Slavery was the law of the land until it was ended by the civil war and a constitutional amendment.

Between 1882 and 1903, more than 3,300 people were lynched across the United States. Lynching of blacks alone totaled 2,060. Guilt or innocence made little difference to a mob driven by a blood lust. Lynching went far beyond simple hanging and often include anything from boiling the victim alive, castration, and torture to burning at the stake.

Discrimination in the workplace was rampant. Blacks, Jews, and Catholics were not allowed to work at many jobs. The law of the land did not protect minorities in the good old days.

Pollution

As cities became industrialized, the air was modernized. Smoke stacks were considered a sign of progress and large industrialized cities had hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Clouds of pollutants –- sulfur, ammonia, and coal dust – settled on laundry, lungs, and gardens. Tanneries with their slaughter houses, bone boiling, and manure added their own unique flavor to the air around them.

Government regulations to protect citizens and the environment were nonexistent. Business resisted then, as much as it does today, any attempt to make it clean up its act. Pollution was accepted as the necessary price of progress.

Food

Food in the good old days wasn’t always that good. Reports abound of stores selling food products that were adulterated or mixed with questionable ingredients. Without refrigeration, butter was often rancid. If not rancid, it might contain a mixture of casein and water. If butter was in short supply, a local concoction of calcium, gypsum, gelatin, lard and mashed potatoes might be offered to the consumer. Sometimes bleach was added to produce the creamy appearance of real butter.

In the days before the Food and Drug Administration the rule was definitely “buyer beware.” Coffee might be anything from coffee to a high priced blend of roasted peas, beans, chicory, and rye. Some bakers were known to add large amounts of alum to flour in addition to an unknown quality of roaches, bugs and other insects.

Before the days of refrigeration, store-bought meat was a real adventure. In the slums of the larger cities, the poor could buy their meat from second-hand meat stores places that specialized in collecting and re-selling other people’s table scraps.

Poverty

In the slums of large cities and rural towns, the poor lived lives of utter despair. If you were poor, life tended to be harsh and short. Disease and starvation were grim realities. In the 1830s the first “poor farms” were established in smaller communities.

In the early days of the 1800s, the poor were viewed as a community problem and were often assisted by the town and some private charities. As the poor migrated to large cities in search of work, and their numbers grew, charities were overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

By 1880, an estimated 100,000 homeless children wandered the streets and back alleys of New York City.

Life and Death

A child born in the 1800s had a 40 percent chance of dying before they could grow to adulthood. Disease and high infant mortality were facts of life and epidemics were common. Hundreds of thousands died each year from cholera, small pox, yellow fever, influenza and other common diseases. Antibiotic drugs and vaccinations were not yet discovered.

An attack of appendicitis was almost always a fatal occurrence. If you became ill there was little a doctor could do except hope you got better. A simple splinter could lead to an infection that could be fatal if left untreated.

A bleak Picture

If you think this article has painted a pretty dreary picture of the “good old days,” you are right. The reason behind this walk down memory lane is simple: In our frustration with modern problems we hear more and more leaders at the state and federal level say, “What America needs is old-fashioned values and a return to the ‘good old days’ before government regulations and welfare.”

The simple truth is that the “good old days” were never that good for the vast majority of the people who lived them. We cannot expect to return to a past that never really existed.

The next time you hear someone suggest a return to 1830 (or 1890 or 1920) ask them what kind of life they are talking about. Is it the life of the wealthy factory owner, or is it the life of the man, woman or child who labored on the factory floor?

History is written by the victors. It is usually written for, by, and about the wealthy and influential people of the times. Who knows the history of the Roman Empire from the point of view of Carthage? And what about our own history? How many of us know the history of America from the point of view of the Native American, the slave, or the working poor?

This article is not an attempt to suggest that the past was all bad and the present is perfect. The truth does not rest at either extreme. The answers to our problems do not lie in a return to yesterday. They lie in our future and with our children.

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For a more extensive look at the past without the rose colored glasses I recommend reading The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible by Otto Betteman, founder of the Betteman Archives. Otto’s book was the source for many of the facts and figures mentioned in this article.

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