What was it like living in America 100 Years ago?


By James F. Leiner

November 2016

One hundred years ago; 1916, and I think you might be amazed at what a difference a century makes! I spent a few days recently on reading the Nyack Evening Journal and then using Google and found some of the country’s information and statistics for the Year 1916.
Only eighth percent of our homes across the country had a telephone, and no one ever heard of a cell phone! Even the few homes that had a telephone didn’t use them very often as a three-minute call from Denver, Colorado to New York City cost eleven dollars when you could wake up the operators. Most everyone sent telegrams, and depending on the length, a wire across the country averaged fifty cents.
There were about 8,000 cars in the country and but only 144 miles of paved roads. There are more cars today cross the Tappan Zee every morning. Automobiles of the day may have had something to do with it, but the maximum speed limit in most areas was 10 mph. You know, strange as it may seem, but that is still about the maximum speed in a cross town jaunt in Manhattan.
The states of Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and Tennessee each were more heavily populated than California. With a mere 1.4 million people, California was the 21st most populous state in the country and the Golden Gate Bridge was a mere dream.
Across the country the average wage in America was 22 cents per hour with a worker making between $200 and $400 per year. I know a few families in Rockland who spend that much a month in gasoline alone. A good accountant could expect to earn $2,000 per year, and yes 1916 was just after we had our Federal Income Tax. A dentist might earn about $2,500 per year, a farm veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and what few mechanical engineers there were in the country could expect to bring home about $5,000 per year. A new home was usually built by a family and the materials would cost about $500, and few areas had yet to levy property taxes. One could purchase a home in Nyack for about $1,600.
I was surprised to learn that more than 95 percent of all births in took place at home, but even more surprising was that 90% of all doctors in the country had little or no college education! Instead, they attended medical schools that were often condemned in the press and by our government as “sub-standard.” I guess it is no wonder that the average life expectancy in the America was only Forty Seven. Long before the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics the leading cause of death in America was pneumonia and influenza followed by Tuberculosis, Diarrhea, Heart disease and Stroke.
Sugar cost four cents a pound; Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen. Coffee was fifteen cents a pound and the average breakfast in a local eatery cost Fifty cents and included the coffee. A long way from the cost of today’s latte… A good steak at Delmonico’s in the city cost $3.50 and they threw in the coffee with that price.
I can see most women today might be surprised to learn that they would only washed their hair once a month, and use borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
If you think back, our flag had forty eight stars. Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico had just become states and Hawaii, and Alaska hadn’t been admitted to the Union yet. The population of Las Vegas, Nevada was only thirty hearty souls as they didn’t have electric power! Electric in our homes was one of only a few things we take for granted and there were plenty of homes across Rockland who had yet to install wiring. Things like; Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and ice tea were in the future. Television sets were not existent and only a few homes could boast of having a radio. There was no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day and few sent greeting cards as two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write, and only six percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
If you visited the local apothecary you could find that Marijuana, Heroin, and Morphine were all available over the counter. Pharmacists often told patients that “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.” Wow and today we have a serious problem with the drug killing people.
I guess though if you were among those fortunate to be living 100 years ago and had a few dollars you were doing well as about eighteen percent of households in the country had at least one full-time servant or domestic help, and there were only 230 reported murders across the entire country, and many of folks my age long for the good old days.