I Sing of Fizzy Fluid Retention

The decline of spinsters? Smoke-free living? Drawing on a vast new statistical compendium, our commentator unearths, examines, and extrapolates the hidden challenges to America.

As I was saying, Historical Statistics is a valuable source of primary data concerning a broad range of material and social conditions constituting the American experience. For example, how come our public schools used to be so good, but now they stink? The answer is right here in tables Aa625 and Aa626: spinsters.

Once there were women of a certain age with steel in their spine, ice in their gaze, buns in their hair, and remarkable reflexes for smacking knuckles with a ruler. They led three generations of bonehead O’Rourkes through the rowdy wilderness of crowded big-city schools and into at least a shallow pool of learning. Miss Prescott may have been a terror, but I didn’t emerge from her American-literature class under the misapprehension that the philosopher, poet, and author of The Last Puritan, Santayana, performed at Woodstock.

According to nuptiality records, in the last decades of the 19th century the proportion of women 65 and older who had never married was slightly above 6 percent. But by 1920, just in time for my father to go to high school, this number had risen to 7.08 percent. Dad very nearly graduated. In 1930, the spinster percentage was 8.11 percent. Thus my Uncle Mikey-Mike could count to five without removing his mittens. By 1940, the rate was 9.31 percent, and all of my older cousins acquired job skills enough to keep them from going on welfare. (They’ve been in jail occasionally, yes, but not on welfare.) And I more or less attended college, owing to the fact that by the time I started kindergarten, the spinster rate was still almost 9 percent. Competition at my school was fierce. Only the toughest of the tough could get the prize job of being the old lady who scared the bejesus out of me.

It’s all been downhill since then, alas, with spinsterhood plummeting to 5.49 percent by 1990 (when there weren’t really any spinsters anymore anyway—just strong women without concern for conformist social pressures, leading their own lives and owning too many cats).

During the golden age of American public schools, teachers also had the advantage of a level of educational funding very different from today’s. Table Bc925 shows that, in constant 1982–1984 dollars, annual per-pupil spending in public schools was $4,090 in 1996 (the last year for which figures are given). By contrast, in 1921, when my father was a high-school freshman, annual per-pupil spending (in the same constant dollars) was $399. Of course my father got a better education: With $399, you can’t afford to let the kids do anything but sit and study. Dad was forbidden to squirm, for fear he’d wear out a precious desk seat.

Americans may have gotten stupider in the late 20th century, but at least they were eating sensibly. We can see Americans becoming more lean and fit in tables Bd568 through Bd580, which detail per capita food consumption from 1970 to 1995. The amount of red meat on the average American’s plate declined from 192.4 pounds a year to 166.6.

Meanwhile, the intake of healthy and slimming fruits and vegetables rose from 564.4 pounds to 685.9 (if you count both fresh and processed). True, table Bd598 shows that between 1970 and 1994, Americans, on average, increased their daily intake of kilocalories from 3,300 to 3,800. But kilocalories are those European-style, metric-system calories that keep the French so thin.

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke

P. J. O’Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic . His most recent book is On the Wealth of Nations (2007).

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In