You Decide: Do we live in the most interesting times?

Dr. Mike Walden

North Carolina Cooperative Extension

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 did come 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 spread 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. I and they have certainly 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!


Dr. 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. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences communications unit provides his You Decide column every two weeks.


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