This Atlantic story reveals how Americans lived 100 years ago. (HT Warren Smith) By the standards of a middle-class American today, that lifestyle was poor, inconvenient, dreary, and dangerous. (Only a few years later – in 1924 – the 16-year-old son of a sitting U.S. president would die of an infected blister that the boy got on his toe while playing tennis on the White House grounds.)
You could, however, afford the state-of-the-art phonograph of the era. Obviously, you could not download music.
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So here’s a question that I’ve asked in one form or another on earlier occasions, but that is so probing that I ask it again: What is the minimum amount of money that you would demand in exchange for your going back to live even as John D. Rockefeller lived in 1916? 21.7 million 2016 dollars (which are about one million 1916 dollars)? Would that do it? What about a billion 2016 – or 1916 – dollars? Would this sizable sum of dollars be enough to enable you to purchase a quantity of high-quality 1916 goods and services that would at least make you indifferent between living in 1916 America and living (on your current income) in 2016 America?
Think about it. Hard. Carefully.
If you were a 1916 American billionaire you could, of course, afford prime real-estate. You could afford a home on 5th Avenue or one overlooking the Pacific Ocean or one on your own tropical island somewhere (or all three). But when you traveled from your Manhattan digs to your west-coast palace, it would take a few days, and if you made that trip during the summer months, you’d likely not have air-conditioning in your private railroad car.
And while you might have air-conditioning in your New York home, many of the friends’ homes that you visit – as well as restaurants and business offices that you frequent – were not air-conditioned. In the winter, many were also poorly heated by today’s standards.
To travel to Europe took you several days. To get to foreign lands beyond Europe took you even longer.
Might you want to deliver a package or letter overnight from New York City to someone in Los Angeles? Sorry. Impossible.
You could neither listen to radio (the first commercial radio broadcast occurred in 1920) nor watch television. You could, however, afford the state-of-the-art phonograph of the era. (It wasn’t stereo, though. And – I feel certain – even today’s vinylphiles would prefer listening to music played off of a modern compact disc to listening to music played off of a 1916 phonograph record.) Obviously, you could not download music.
There really wasn’t very much in the way of movies for you to watch, even though you could afford to build your own home movie theater.
Your telephone was attached to a wall. You could not use it to Skype.
Your luxury limo was far more likely to break down while you were being chauffeured about town than is your car today to break down while you are driving yourself to your yoga class. While broken down and waiting patiently in the back seat for your chauffeur to finish fixing your limo, you could not telephone anyone to inform that person that you’ll be late for your meeting.
There was no American-inspired, British-generated rock’n’roll played on electric guitars. And no reggae.