The presidential campaign is replete with allusions to better times and eclipsed golden ages of American greatness. But in a new review from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economist Carol Boyd Leon paints a sociological portrait of America as it was 100 years ago, when technology was meager, financial ruin was one downturn away, war was ongoing in Europe, and the choices that Americans have come to expect—in their cars, clothes, food, and homes—were preceded by a monotonous consumer economy. In 1915, Americans walked everywhere (or took a streetcar, if they lived in cities), lived in three-generation homes that they rarely owned, ate almost as much lard as chicken, and spent Friday nights dancing to player pianos. In short: Everything was worse, except for the commute.
Here is a closer look at America, one century ago.
America suffered worse working conditions, in just about every way.
- For men: Work for men was more widespread, more dangerous, worse paid, and, well, just more annoying. According to the 1920 census, 85 percent of men over 14 were in the labor force, compared with just 69 percent for men over 16 today. It was the dawn of scientific management, with factory workers introduced to a brand new office colleague, the time clock. Manufacturing workers averaged 55 hours at work per week, 10 percent more than self-reported averages today. And the jobs were more dangerous: With a fatality rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers, the workplace was about 30 times more dangerous than it is today.
- For women: Women were much less likely to work, and in 1915, many were finding employment at elementary and high schools. The reason for women’s early entry into education in the U.S., however, is a little depressing. School boards preferred female teachers not only because they were seen as more loving, but also because they would do what male principals told them while accepting less than a man’s wage.
- For the elderly: For those who did make it to old age (something of a feat back then), Social Security didn’t exist, and in bad times, poverty among the old was so bad that contemporaries wrote of growing old as if it were a dystopia—the “haunting fear in the winter of life.” In 1938 a writer with the American Association for Old-Age Security said "our modern system of industrial production has rendered our lives insecure to the point of despair.” The industrializing economy was no country for old men or women. As families moved off farms into cities and suburbs, it became harder for some old people to find work in factories, which ran on limber sinews and sweat. In the 40 years before 1920, the share of men over 65 working on farms dropped 39 percent.