TGIF: Ancient history really isn’t so ancient, it just seems that way

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

If you’re on Facebook, I hope you are following the posts of groups like the Brown County Museum of History, Pecan Valley Genealogical Society, Blanket TX-History in Pictures, and others like them.

And if you’re not on Facebook, it’s almost worth signing up to routinely receive the fascinating information that their administrators and members post.

Just this week, the Blanket group shared a photo of the 1912 graduating class of Howard Payne College — all 14 graduates. The year 1912 seems like a long time ago, but as someone who is blessed to have celebrated yet another birthday late last month, a century doesn’t seem quite as ancient as it did when I was half my current age.

That 1912 Howard Payne College class photo prompted me to do searches of websites detailing how people in America lived a century ago. Other than the fact that the nation, and the entire world for that matter, was emerging from a deadly viral pandemic, there’s more to contrast than to compare. At least, I hope we are still in the process of emerging from this tragic COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the differences found from the years before, during, and after World War I are related to prices, which are almost unbelievable to those of us alive in the 21st century. Things like this:

In 1917, the price of coffee was 15 cents a pound, sugar was 4 cents a pound, and eggs were 14 cents a dozen. Those amazing “bargains” by today’s reckoning are offset by the fact that the average worker made between $200 and $400 a year.

But the following points are even more telling:

Before 1907, the U.S. flag had only 44 stars. Utah was admitted in 1907, New Mexico and Arizona were admitted in 1912, and Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in 1959.

According to statistics for the U.S. from 1917 and the pre-World War I years, more than 95 percent of births happened at home.

Only 8 percent of homes had a telephone.

Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub.

There were only 8,000 cars on the roads, and only 144 miles of those roads were paved.

The typical speed limit in cities was 10 mph.

The population of Las Vegas, Nevada, was a whopping 30 people.

The average life-expectancy was around 50 years.

Talking movies, sliced bread, iced tea, canned beer, and crossword puzzles didn’t exist.

The leading causes of death, in order, were pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. Heart disease and stroke rounded out the top five. Notable for its absence in the top five is cancer.

There was no Mother’s Day nor Father’s Day.

The Pledge of Allegiance was still decades away from being officially adopted by Congress (which happened in 1942), and it said only “the Flag” instead of “the Flag of the United States of America.” That was added in 1923. The words “under God” were inserted in 1954.

And yes, children, we didn’t have any internet, television, indoor air-conditioning, Kool-Aid, Miracle Whip, or Rice Krispies.

Any such study is not complete without including limitations society had in place then that limited which citizens, for example, could and could not vote, or could and could not go to certain schools. Such restrictions were carried over from practices put in place centuries earlier.

Many social and political issues have been addressed over the past 10 or 11 decades, and the extension of equality to women, minority populations, and other marginalized people may be the primary social advances. Also, there’s the accommodations made for those with physical disabilities. We’ve come a long way, baby, indeed — with still a long way to go.

Many of those changes involved recognition that as a nation and as a people, we hadn’t been living up to the noble ideals stated in the nation’s founding documents — paragons like the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Future years will apparently require an ongoing effort not only to build on progress already made, but also to avoid losing what’s been accomplished.

Plus, advances most of us take for granted in the areas of education, transportation, sanitation, entertainment, health care, and access to basic services have been life-changing over the past century. On the negative side, we’ve seen frightening advances in how we wage war against other nations and ethnic groups. Also, we’re still working on improving how we treat each other individually, and how we take care of ourselves physically and mentally.

Speaking for those who, like me, were born during the baby boomer years, may I say to younger generations, it’s mostly in your hands now. The baton is being passed. I truly wonder what a comparison of American society between 2121 and 2021 will show.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at