March 8, 2015


It's Complicated. But Hopeful. (Megan McArdle, March 4, 2015, Cato Unbound)

Diet. We have a tendency to romanticize "the good old days" of fresh foods and home cooked meals. Yet when you look at what the majority of people were actually eating on an average day in 1930, it looks considerably less appealing: fresh vegetables in season, yes, but the rest of the year it was grain, milk, more grain, beans, and cuts of meat, like salt pork and calf's liver, that most Americans won't touch today. Bread and milk was an actual meal that many people ate for supper, and not because it was homey and charming, but because most people could not afford the rich diet of the modern American.

In 1901, the average "urban wage earner" spent nearly half their family budget just on the raw ingredients for their meals. They ate less, and less appealingly. Meat, eggs, and fats and oils were precious and expensive, so they economized on them to what now seems a ridiculous degree--old cookbooks praise one-egg cakes not by saying they are good, but on the grounds that they are "economical." We've all read the articles on the obesity epidemic, but in the first half of the twentieth century, similarly worried pundits were obsessing about the high percentage of draftees who showed up too malnourished to qualify for service, with diseases like rickets and pellagra that are now seen only in extreme cases of child neglect.

Food processing. And without the much-reviled modern American food processing industry, the average American housewife spent more than thirty hours a week preparing those meals: plucking birds, grinding coffee, shelling nuts. Her raw materials were also inferior to what is now available: if fresh produce wasn't in season, or she didn't feel like cooking, canned goods were her only alternative. Frozen produce didn't arrive until after World War II, and it wasn't until late in the twentieth century that trade liberalization and container shipping made a variety of produce and fresh meats widely and cheaply available year round. Today families with less than $5,000 in annual income still only spend about 16% of their budget on food. It's not surprising that we're fatter; what's surprising is that we aren't all perfect spheres.

Household appliances.  If you do not think that we are living in miraculous times, I suggest you go read these old instructions for doing laundry. But I don't suggest that you try them, as they involve hydrochloric acid and lye. Laundry is perhaps the worst job that has been automated, in the process changing from backbreaking labor into a slightly tedious chore. But of course we also have clean-burning stoves that don't require constant tending of a fire, refrigerators that keep our food safe and refreshingly cold, vacuum cleaners that keep our carpets vastly cleaner without hours of beating, mixers that save our aching arms, drip coffee makers that make our favorite beverage better, faster, and with much less work ... the list is potentially endless, but the general results are the same: our homes are cleaner, and our food requires a few hours a week to buy and prepare, instead of most of a housewife's day.

Homes. A 1,000 square foot home in the first Levittown was an aspirational goal for people who had grown up cramming large families into smaller quarters.  Now the average new home is over 2,500 square feet, well insulated, stuffed with bathrooms and closet space, and of course, climate controlled year round.  We are fooled into thinking that our ancestors had huge and lovely homes because most of the homes that survive from earlier eras are the houses built by the prosperous; the ugly, tiny, unventilated spaces that most previous generations grew up in have been long ago torn down and replaced with something else.

Posted by at March 8, 2015 10:38 AM

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