What Was Life Like in the United States 100 Years Ago?

The life of American Workers in 1915 “… begins with a look at demographics in 1915, including age, life expectancy, fertility rates, and race, and then provides an overview of labor force participation rates, education, and unemployment. It goes on to discuss the daily life of workers: their housing, clothing, food, hours, working conditions, leisure time. The emphasis in this article is on the 70 percent of workers in nonfarm occupations.”

Using primary sources, statistical compilations, and secondary literature, this article presents an array of what could be surprising observations: there were four times as many renter as homeowners; homes were heated by coal (our house was heated by coal until about 1960 and that was in Brooklyn!); running water was not always available and hot water was a luxury; fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to come by; you commuted to work by foot, by horse, by streetcar; there were already 2.3 million cars by 1915 but did not come with a gas gauge, shock absorbers or an accelerator – they were purchased from the Sears catalog; an annual working wage was on average $687 for a man, half that for a woman; and paid vacations and sick leave were rare. More insights like these are contained in this fascinating read that is a distillation of many works.

Additional information can be gleaned from the features attached to the PBS program America 1900; City Life in the Late 19th Century; and the virtual tour of the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum.


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