In 1913 US life expectancy was 53 years. A few years later, in 1918 it would drop to 40 because of a flu pandemic that nowadays would almost certainly be preventable. In 1910, 8% of Americans could not read or write. In the south, that was 20%, which included 70% of southern blacks. Now, all those numbers are under 1 percent.
Leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea, all generally preventable or curable now. Nobody knew that smoking was dangerous. Cancer, even tumors considered trivial today, was a death sentence. Even appendicitis was a significant cause of death, especially in rural areas.
Most Americans had not traveled more than 15 miles from their home and would never do so. (This changed in 1917, when we went to war in France.)
Chronic skin diseases were mostly incurable, so what was going on under all the wonderful clothes people wore in those days might have been quite disturbing. Most Americans bathed only once a week, and many not at all.
Pharmacies were filled with dangerous and addictive drugs. Heroin was sold by the Bayer Company for pain
relief. Anybody could buy it in a drugstore. Because of the pain of corsets, large numbers of women were addicted to pain remedies. There was little
regulation of food supplies or drugs, with the result that milk was routinely adulterated with chalk before being sold, especially in large cities,
and meats were notoriously dangerous, leading to the 1906 muckraking Upton Sinclair book the Jungle.
The cars of 1913 had a top speed of about 30, but brake technology was far behind engine technology, so stopping them at any speed took skill, and at high speed also luck. They generally lasted about 2 years, after which so many mechanical problems developed that they had to be replaced. Assuming you had survived.
I could go on, into the rates of lynchings in the south, the death rate of mothers during childhood, etc., etc., the difficulty and danger of travel, the endemic and routine injustice and cruelty, the choking pollution in the cities, the prevalence of things like lice and hookworm, but instead I’d like to say that, contrary to the ceaseless uproar of the media, in fact we are living right now in the best time in human history. Sure, a lot is wrong, but it’s nothing compared to the past.
Mankind is rising out of the muck. This, for all its flaws, is an amazing period, perhaps the best that the human species has ever known. Not only that, the demon of climate change, while very much with us, may abate before it becomes catastrophic, because CO2 levels are slowly turning around.
My best guess is that the long rise of mankind, which has been steady throughout our history, is going to continue and, unless we are struck by some black swan or other, is going to leap exponentially over the next century into undreamed of realms.
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