It was only 100 years ago!


What was it like living in 1918, 100 years ago?
1918 was the year my mother was born. It was also the year that World War I ended.
Unfortunately, It was the year of the Spanish flu epidemic (an unusually deadly strain) that infected about 500 million people and resulted in the death of 50 to 100 million people around the world. It was the H1N1 virus, as we know it now. Overcrowded medical facilities and poor hygiene increased its effect on the population of the world.
One hundred years ago, almost 95 percent of all births took place at home. I think what a scary time it must’ve been for my grandmother to have a baby in those circumstances. But on the other hand, maybe she didn’t even know how bad things were. News didn’t travel so quickly. You would mostly know only about what was going on in your immediate area in those days.
Life expectancy for most adults was around 56 years, that is, if you made it through infancy as many babies died then.
Gas stations were rare and didn’t really become common until the 1920s. Gasoline was sold in many different locations such as drug stores. In those days, steam and electric cars were still very popular and a lot of people didn’t need gasoline for their vehicles. Only about one in 10 had a car in 1918, and the maximum speed in most cities was 10 mph.
Now we come to an interesting statistic – only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub. Those must’ve been interesting times hygienically, but then if everybody’s in the same boat, maybe they didn’t notice body odor.
Only eight percent of homes had a telephone. Residents really had to rely on newspapers.
Speaking of newspapers, in 1918, the Union County Journal had been in the hands of the Gaumer family for 14 years. Later, it would become the daily Journal-Tribune. Today it is run by the founder’s great-grandson, Kevin Behrens. Getting information to people 100 years ago was certainly different. That seems obvious since our lives now change quite a bit … even one year to the next. Much of that is due to technology. Imagine what people living in 1918 would think of our rapid release of information, including all the unkindness that often goes with it.
The average wage in the U.S. was 22 cents per hour. The average male worker made about $700 per year and a woman about half that amount. A competent accountant could expect to earn $2,000 per year, a dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
In 1918, 90 percent of all doctors had limited college education, but reforms were coming quickly at that point. Previously, most attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press as substandard diploma mills. No wonder so many people died. Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo. This whole statistic gives me the creeps. Of course, they didn’t have all the products that we add to our hair to be washed out regularly. Still, wouldn’t that be smelly?
In 1918, the leading causes of death were pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, diarrhea, heart disease and stroke. Sadly, some things haven’t changed. I noticed cancer wasn’t mentioned. Maybe it wasn’t recognized easily in those times.
Here’s an interesting one – the population of Las Vegas, Nevada was about 1,500. It was founded in 1911. The city didn’t boom until it was established as a tourist/gambling destination in the 1950s. Air travel must have helped its growth.
Only about 10 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school in 1918. Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at local corner drugstores. Back then, pharmacists said, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health!” Oh my gosh!
The country’s first drug prohibition law was in San Francisco in 1875 to target Chinese immigrants smoking opium. In other cities, heroin remained completely legal until 1924, but even after that you could get it over-the-counter. Well, we know where that problem has gone!
So, although most things are different, some are the same, even 100 years later.
(Melanie Behrens –

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