In the fall of 1909, the United States flag was flying across the country with just 45 stars in the upper left hand corner. Only 14 percent of the homes had bathtubs and those without tubs usually bathed in a galvanized wash tub on Saturday night which might account for the colossal sale of Evening in Paris cologne. Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone, and if you had a phone the line might connect to 9 other families making it a “party line” so you didn’t get to talk on it often.
In 1909, there were only 8,000 cars in the United States and just 144 miles of paved roads so there were no traffic jams, no red lights and no car wrecks. There were also few gas stations, no drive-through windows and lots of cars stuck in the mud. Tires were narrow and had inner tubes that were easily punctured on the unpaved, rocky, hilly roads so flats were common. And oh yes, the maximum speed limit in most towns was 10 mph and there were traffic cops to enforce it.
The average wage around here was 22 cents an hour with the average US worker taking home $200 to $400 per year. Farmers paid hoe-hands $1 for a 12-hour day and they paid cotton pickers 50 cents a hundred pounds to gather in the crop. Cotton farmers got $100 for a 500 pound bale of cotton at the gin. Sugar and coffee were each 15 cents a pound and eggs were 14 cents a dozen, but most folks kept a few chickens for eggs and fried chicken on Sunday.
A sack of Bull Durham tobacco and 20 cigarette papers was only a nickel. That was long before the dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco were known, but on the other hand, the life expectancy was just 47 so most men died before smoking could kill them. Of course, women did not smoke (at least not in public) but many of our grandmothers dipped snuff.
Most women only washed their hair once a month and they used lye soap with a vinegar rinse to get it clean and shiny. They dried their hair in the sun and curled it with steel rods heated in the chimney of a coal oil lamp. Trips to the “beauty shop” were scarce as there were few in business. There were likewise no permanent wave machines available to the masses, no tanning beds, no nail salons and no massage tables to pamper a flabby body. In fact, in most places, a woman who painted her face or cut her hair meant that she was a “bad” woman, shunned by “good” women. On the other hand, dressing in pointed toed shoes with a dozen tiny buttons up the side that had to be fastened painfully; lacing up her body in a corset that defied normal lung activity, and bearing children at home with or without the help of a midwife was the norm.
Only 10 percent of the doctors in 1909 had any college education. Instead, 90 percent of the physicians attended medical schools, many of which were declared substandard by the government. The leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhea, heart disease and stroke. Today, only two of those five have disappeared from the list and a new one, cancer, has been pushed to the front.
Plutonium, insulin, and penicillin had not been invented. There was no diet Coke, duct tape, sticky notes or canned beer. No Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, no CDs, no microwave ovens, and it would be another 46 years before scientists could figure out how to split an atom and cause a massive explosion. Only a few city folks had electricity and nobody in the county ever expected to get it. Only 1 in 10 could read and write and just 6 percent graduated from high school.
One astonishing fact about life styles 100 years ago in America is that marijuana, heroin and morphine were all available over the counter at corner drugstores. According to one pharmacist, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and the bowels, and is in fact a perfect guardian of health.”
Maybe that is why there are some who often refer to that time period as “The good old days.”