The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

May 19, 2014

Do we live in interesting times or not?

Sunday, May 19, 2014 — I like looking back. I love to read and talk about history. I initially wanted to become a history teacher before being smitten by economics. While my wife might take a crime novel to the beach, I’ll carry a history book.

One of the cherished memories from my youth is talking to my paternal grandmother about her life. She actually was raised in the city – where her mother did washing for other families – but moved to a farm when she married my grandfather. There she did it all – raising four children (one being my father), baking bread, canning vegetables, washing clothes by hand and using every conceivable part of the hogs my grandfather raised. She worked from dawn to dark. If she was lucky, she went to the nearest town once a month for shopping. Life was tough.

This was in the 1920s and 1930s. Recently I discovered a wonderful book discussing life in those years, called “Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940” by David Kyvig. Kyvig recounts the everyday life of people, what they ate, how they washed their clothes, how they kept warm, where they worked – in short, the unglamorous, common routines that consume most of people’s days. It’s a history about how people lived, not the history of business and public leaders, elections and international events that most books comprise. It’s the history of a time that may have been more interesting and transformative than what we’re living in today.

Consider how cleaning clothes occurred then compared to now. My wife and I have a fabulous washer and dryer. We pop clothes into the washer, set the controls indicating the type of clothes and the cleaning method, push a button and then walk away. About a half hour later a pleasant melody plays indicating the washing is done.

We remove the clothes from the washer, toss them into the adjoining dryer, push another button and again walk away. Thirty minutes later the clothes are dry. Some then need ironing (I actually do my own ironing), but most can be folded and put away. Washing and drying one load of clothes takes about an hour with minimal effort on our part.

Now think about how my grandmother washed her family’s clothes in the 1920s. She had no washer or dryer; in fact, on the farm there was no electricity!

She’d first have to haul pails of water to a stove and heat them. Then she’d carry the warm water to a large trough or bucket, fill it, and scrub the clothes by hand. Drying the clothes was the natural way: outside in good weather or inside by the fire.

Life wasn’t a picnic for my grandfather either. He was responsible for making sure his family didn’t starve. Each year, my wife and I plant a small vegetable garden.

But if the garden doesn’t do well, or if the squirrels eat everything, we don’t go hungry. In fact, we can buy excellent fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market or from most supermarkets.

Not so for my grandfather. His family ate what he planted and raised. Plowing was done the old-fashioned way – behind a mule – and this was some of the most exhausting, back-breaking work anyone could imagine. The major protein sources were the hogs raised on the farm. The family ate sausage for breakfast, ham for lunch and pork for dinner. My father — who as the oldest son was given the beginning task of “processing” the hogs using a World War I revolver — told me how excited he was to see beef as part of the menu when he entered the U.S. Navy during World War II.

But big changes came to the American family in the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps the most significant was electricity, which began in the cities and then spread to the rural areas. Household appliances, like mixers, refrigerators (replacing “ice boxes”) and washers were quickly developed and sold to eager families. Although my grandmother gradually lost her memory later in life, she always remembered her first washing machine. Electricity was also used to illuminate homes, allowing families to replace dirty, dimly lit kerosene lamps.

Four other innovations were life-transforming. In 1920, only a third of households owned an automobile; by 1930, 80 percent did. The scope and range of personal contacts and possibilities now exploded. The tractor made farming less physically demanding and much more productive. The work of children on the farm declined and so did the birthrate.

With farm output up, fewer farms were needed, so many farm families moved to the city. The nation changed from being rural to being urban. Finally, the development and adoption of the telephone and radio lowered the cost and increased the speed of communication and gave families an in-home source of news and entertainment.

I was born in 1951, and most of my current students were born after 1990. We have all seen our lives altered by new inventions and innovations, especially in information technology and communications.

But some say that, while these changes have been significant, their impacts have not been as transforming on daily lives as those brought about by electricity, the automobile and tractor, the telephone and the radio in the 20s and 30s. It’s popular to say we live in a fast-paced, highly connected, ever-shifting world. But a strong case can be made for that world actually occurring 90 years ago. You decide!

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.

1
Text Only
Opinion & Letters to the Editor
  • Doug Creamer Friends and contentment

    Last week I made my annual trip up the mountain to Sparta. My friends have a secluded home near a babbling brook. Their home and property are a haven for peace. It’s a two-plus hour ride to their home that doesn’t feel that long because I look so forward to my time with this great couple. When I arrive, the conversation seems to pick up right where we left it the last time we saw each other.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Thanks for the honest deed

    I would like to thank the person that found my wallet in the parking lot of Harris Teeter on July 23 and turned it in to the Albemarle Police.

    July 29, 2014

  • cleaning supplies Don't judge mothers with messy homes

    I was building shelves in my garage when a neighbor girl, one of my 4-year-old daughter's friends, approached me and said, "I just saw in your house. It's pretty dirty. Norah's mommy needs to clean more."

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • We need your help

    Hurray for the Albemarle City Council. Council plans to battle N.C. Department of Transportation’s ranking of all 13 projects in Stanly County to the bottom of their priority list. Council is setting up petitions in various city buildings for citizens to sign.

    July 28, 2014

  • Council asks veterans to seek office

    The terms of office for the leaders of the Stanly County Veterans Council ended June 30. A call is being sent to veterans council members requesting candidates for the four elective offices of the council. A meeting has been set for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at the DAV building. All council members are urged to attend.

    July 28, 2014

  • Mike Walden The gains and gaps in our economy

    Twice a year, I pull out my cloudy crystal ball and attempt to make some predictions about the direction and pace of the North Carolina economy. I just finished my latest effort and, as usual, the results are a combination of pluses and minuses.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jason O. Boyd Yellow journalism takes on new form, people are dumber for it

    Time to get on the soapbox for a few minutes.
    Let me clear my throat. Eh ... hem!
    People are dumb.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Brent Laurenz Special election adds to the mix

    RALEIGH – A busy slate of judicial elections this November got even busier recently when Judge John Martin of the N.C. Court of Appeals announced his retirement.
    A special statewide election to fill Martin’s seat will be added to the general election ballot, joining the four N.C. Supreme Court seats and three N.C. Court of Appeals races already slated for this fall.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Patrick Gannon Fake news or sign of some more trouble?

    RALEIGH – Of the three situations I can recall where agencies receiving large sums of taxpayer dollars wouldn’t divulge employees’ salaries, two of them ended badly. The third – involving a group of charter schools in Southeastern North Carolina – is playing out right now.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Almost half of America's obese youth don't know they're obese

    WASHINGTON - The good news is that after decades of furious growth, obesity rates finally seem to be leveling off in the U.S.. The bad news is that America's youth still appear to be dangerously unaware of the problem.

    July 23, 2014

House Ads
Seasonal Content