First Things: Facts of Life in the 1900s

Hay rakes and the Froelich engine in a time of giants.

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Memories Of A Former Kid

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Buckle your seatbelts, time travelers: We're taking you back further than usual. Two articles in this issue of Farm Collector dip well into the 1800s. One deals with the evolution of the hay rake (a development that began in the 1830s); the other with the Froelich engine, the first gas "tractor," dating to 1892.

Giving credit where credit is due, folks in this hobby are quick to marvel at the sophistication of early engineering. But that often comes with less than full consideration of what life was like more than 100 years ago. Context, as political candidates remind us, is everything.

A forwarded e-mail recently provided a bit of context for me. According to statistics cited there, in the years following Froelich's invention (roughly 1900-1908), two in 10 American adults could neither read nor write. Only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school. The average wage in 1908 was 22 cents per hour. Eighteen percent of all households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help. The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year. A competent accountant could expect to earn $2,000; dentist, $2,500; veterinarian, $1,500-4,000; and mechanical engineer, about $5,000.

In the same time period, more than 95 percent of all births took place at home. The average life expectancy was 47 years. The five leading causes of death were (in order) pneumonia/influenza, tuberculosis, diarrhea, heart disease and stroke. Ninety percent of all doctors had no college education. Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press and by the government as "substandard."

Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub, and only 8 percent had a telephone. There were just 8,000 cars and 144 miles of paved roads. Sugar cost four cents a pound; eggs, 14 cents a dozen; coffee, 15 cents a pound. Half of all Americans lived on farms or in towns with fewer than 2,500 residents, and the country had 6 million farms.

Think of it: Is it any wonder that agricultural technology exploded at a time when half of the entire nation's population either lived on a farm or in close proximity to one? How could it be otherwise, when half of the nation had a clear understanding of agriculture? Today, more than a few Americans think milk comes from the grocery, but that is a topic for another day. For now, consider the legacy of an era when talents and energies were focused as never before. Truly, it was a time of giants.

Leslie McManus, Editor
LMcManus@OgdenPubs.com