Roger Lane '48

Roger Lane '48 provided us with a history starting in 1939 when he entered Shady Hill School.
Any history of the world since 1939 has been dominated by efforts to keep another Big One from happening. Thus a series of international institutions and alliances, such as the United Nations and NATO, that have managed to keep the United States as the world’s greatest power, whatever the objections of Russia, China, more recently Iran, and a host of often anti-American “Third World” nations to the East, West, North and South of us. There have been threats, of course, and many small wars, several of them started by us, but except briefly on 9/11 no harm has come directly to our shores.

The domestic political history of the United States, too, was already set in place by 1939. In that year we were debating, extending, or attacking the New Deal Agenda set in place by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And we’ve been doing that ever since, but with no serious threats to its most basic principle, that is using the power of the Federal Government to advance the General Welfare, and expanding its beneficiaries. Even Ronald Reagan expanded Medicare, and reformed rather than eliminated Social Security, two iconic programs that no one except a few modern Republicans with a death wish want to mess with.

I’ll mention just in passing that the early 20th Century witnessed in WWI the biggest war in human history, and a second was just breaking out.  The United States in 1900 was by later standards isolated and easily ignored, but by 1939 it had the strongest economy in the world, which would shortly prove decisive in WWII. And its culture --see Hollywood, and Jazz -- had already conquered that world. 

But what I would like to cover, instead of politics, is the history of ordinary life. And to deal first with the notion, especially common among us Americans, that history these days is speeding up, change accelerating. In 2023, what gives juice to this idea is of course the way that our lives, beginning in the late 20th Century, have been affected, first at work, then at home, by computer, internet, and most recently the promise, or threat, of Artificial Intelligence more generally. Today we carry in our pockets the kind of computing power that needed, back in 1980, a machine half the size of a city block.   

We’ve long since lived in a world in which digital assistance undergirds our lives. At home many of us have been asking Alexa and her competitive cousins to perform routine household tasks. At work, one measure of the speed of change is that as of 2003 one in twenty jobs required some degree of digital sophistication; now it’s closer to one in four. Another measure of change over the past thirty-nine years is that in 1984 the five biggest American Corporations were, in order, General Motors, Exxon Mobil, Ford, Mobil Oil, and IBM. Excepting that last one, the newcomer, all had been around since the early 20th Century. But in 2023, the Big Five are Apple, Alphabet (basically Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook -- every single one of them dependent on digital technology. 

Much of this is leaving us oldsters behind. In a traditional society, the old were revered for good reason. They --we -- had and have long experience and were thought to know how to deal with life’s recurrent problems, having survived famine and war, earthquake and flood, prosperity and depression, love and the death of those we love. And we’re more than willing -- you don’t even have to ask -- to share our superior wisdom with those around us.

But in America’s always fast-moving society, our experience, for equally good reason, is thought at best irrelevant, and we are the only disadvantaged minority it’s OK to laugh at, as Grandpa needs his Granddaughters to show how to use the latest technology, has never heard of the singers in top of the pop charts, still uses a landline, plays music on CDs after reluctantly surrendering vinyl -- which the real mavens are now nostalgic for.

Certainly the 21st Century has been leaving me behind. Maybe the key marker is the smartphone, invented in 1999 -- the year I retired -- and perfected, sort of, with the first of the iPhones, introduced by Apple in 2007.

I don’t have one -- or rather I was given one (don’t recall the number), by my younger daughter, but hardly use it. I don’t use any of the social media they have enabled, not even Facebook. And I don’t intend to, belonging as I do to the Ol’ Fart contingent which bitches about “kids today” and bemoans the way that a bunch of folks staring down at their iPhones or iPads are kept from interacting with the real people right next to them, or, when encountered on my daily nature walks, are missing out on birdsong and cherry blossoms. 

In any case, however big the changes over the past thirty-nine years, they don’t compare with those of the first thirty-nine years of the last century, or the eve of our arrival at Shady Hill.

For illustration of what daily life was like, let me compare two very different households. Both my parents were born within a couple of years of 1900, but into two very different families. My father, Alfred Baker Lewis, arrived as the eldest son and thus scion of a family positioned at the highest echelons of Old Philadelphia Society. My mother, Eileen O’Connor, in contrast, was born working class, on Hungry Hill, in Springfield, Massachusetts. She never finished high school, having to help support the family by taking a job, at fourteen, in a paper box factory, forty-five hours a week at forty-five cents an hour.

Maternal Grandmother Margaret Rayel O’Connor had worked as a housemaid until pregnant with Mother, when she became a housewife, but either way her housework was backbreaking.

It all started with the fact few places in 1900 had access to running water, which didn’t reach the outskirts of a small city like Springfield. Which meant that Margaret, like the vast majority of her contemporaries, who were still rural, had to carry water in from a pump. And the only source of heat, for water or anything else, was a big old iron stove, a kind of penal rockpile for those who had to 
tend it. It had only one temperature, hot, and was hard to modulate -- especially since before central heating it was the only source of heat for the whole house. 

One great pot was needed for the weekly laundry, or the weekly bath.  People then generally did not immerse themselves, only dabbed at groins and pits with a wet cloth. The used water had then to be carried back out to the street and gutter, where in the absence of flush toilets, as yet, the contents of bedpans and buckets had to be taken out daily to a cesspool and scrubbed out. 

Much clothing, certainly for women and girls, was still made by hand, on a sewing machine powered by a foot treadle. A few consumer goods were delivered to the house; milk, for example, was brought in open buckets. This was before  Pure Food and Drug laws, with a contemporary study showing its contents were more than likely adulterated by some combination of water, chalk, and Plaster of Paris.
Coal for that stove was delivered too. And if they were lucky enough to have an icebox, a late 19th Century invention, the ice, too, had to be delivered daily, and the melted ice carried back out. For other purchases, decades before Pittsburgh hosted the first supermarket, in 1930, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker had to be visited one by one.

Margaret made these trips all but daily, trudging from one to the other while dodging horses and wagons. These days we watch period dramas from that and earlier eras -- featuring clean cobblestone streets. But in the real world every horse daily released many gallons of urine and maybe 25-50 pounds of horseshit into streets full of muck, stink, and flies. Opening windows for fresh air was a problem, because as of 1900 no one had yet to invent the simple window screen, cheesecloth the poor but only solution.

The Lewises, meanwhile, offer a lesson in what money could buy, and couldn’t, such as those window screens. Grandmother Ann Rush Lewis certainly didn’t do the kind of physical work that Margaret O’Connor did, but only because she could pass it on to others. The townhouse in the 1800 block of Spruce Street boasted 6 servants, not counting the chauffeur, and for the 600 acre estate in Paoli there were, not counting the tenant farmers, 4-5 other men to keep up the grounds. In the city, although not in Paoli, they had cold running water, a sewer, flush toilets, and gas lighting. And for shopping, the telephone, a new and relatively rare device, could summon tradesmen at will.

In fall and winter, central heating still in the future, they could afford fireplaces in the living room and bedrooms. But on summer nights no amount of money could buy relief from Philadelphia’s notorious heat and humidity, Paoli no more than a temporary respite until the annual July retreat to Mt. Desert in Maine.

Technologically, THE big difference was that when on Spruce Street, but not Paoli, the Lewises were among the 3% of American households with access to electricity, then meaning electric lighting.

This was important at night, for reading. The O’Connor women, heavy patrons of Andrew Carnegie’s public libraries, were great readers, by kerosene lanterns, dirty, sometimes dangerous, always in need of cleaning. But they had no access, in Springfield, to gas lines --which in any case even the Lewises did not use in small rooms, especially bedrooms, on account of the odor as well as fear of fire. 

The Lewises, when a single 100-watt bulb provided three times the light of one of those kerosene lamps, could in addition to reading for amusement play board games and cards -- the family was and still is famous for its bridge players. The fact that John Frederick Lewis served, among other positions, as President of the American Academy of Music, meant that on special evenings a harpist, even string quartet, might be brought in to supply background music. At the same time, constant exposure to the best in contemporary music would surely have kept him from enjoying the first ever major invention in non- live entertainment. That was the gramophone, then just moving out of barrooms and soda fountains into private homes. But the primitive acoustics of these early proto-phonographs, just beginning to take off in 1899, playing scratchy marches and waltzes on what amounted to tinfoil, were in 1900 still an insult to the sophisticated ear.

But daily living was transformed over the following 3 and 9/10ths decades.

Some of this was simply the spread of existing progress and inventions to new places and classes. My Mother’s memoir recalls how exciting it was to have (briefly) a telephone, in 1911, when the O’ Connor party line was “the first among immigrants, and was used by families for blocks around to call the doctor, or other emergencies.” 

The countryside always lagged, especially in poorer regions like the South, and it was not until 1920 that the majority of Americans lived in “urban” places, defined modestly as those with a population of 2,500 or more. But by 1939 or so 40% of us had telephones, 60% flush toilets, and thanks to the New Deal’s Rural Electricity Administration 80% were wired up.  

Add to these the kinds of improvements like central heating and piped hot water, which even the Lewises had not had back in 1900, but 40% of us enjoyed by 1940. We cheered all these things, as more of our fellow citizens joined use in enjoying middle class amenities.

Much more dramatic, over the same period, was putting to actual use an invention, the internal combustion engine, that dated from the 1880s. At the turn of the century there were about 8,000 “auto-mobiles” in the entire country, cranky, unreliable, and extremely expensive, in the hands of millionaire hobbyists, with no practical use whatever.

But then came Henry Ford, production of whose Model Ts opened in October of 1908. Two years later there were nearly half a million autos on the (increasingly paved) roads, mostly Ford’s Tin Lizzies, and their total “horsepower” -- significant phrase -- already exceeded that of all the nation’s farm animals combined. By 1920 there were nearly 8 million, and by 1940 the majority of American households owned one or more, counting rural trucks and tractors.

Airplanes had never been far behind. Wilbur and Orville Wright first tested their flimsy machine in 1903. War is a great spur to invention, and within a decade, in 1912, Italian pilots were dropping bombs on astonished, and helpless, Libyan colonials. (Once manned balloons were first flown, in 1783, the notion of dropped bombs was soon raised; Ben Franklin saw this possibility as so horrific he was sure that no nation would ever do it. A few years later, in WWI, the daredevils who flew fighter planes, spitting bullets at each other, were instantly romanticized, their mystique living on still through the comic strip Peanuts, with Snoopy’s fantasies as The Red Baron.) 

Meanwhile, back inside the house, the big story between 1900 and 1939 was the multiplying uses of electricity as homes got wired up.

It would be hard to exaggerate the revolution in entertainment. Constant improvement in the fidelity of phonographic reproduction made the best in classical as well as pop music available whenever wanted: Enrico Caruso alone had made nearly 500 recordings by 1920, while Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker followed behind.

Radio came on even faster. In 1920 the first commercial studio opened in Pittsburgh, and by 1940 80% of American homes owned a set, as families gathered ’round to listen to news, sports, music, comedy, and soap operas.

The movies actually got there first, as Pittsburgh opened a tiny pioneering commercial theater, or Nickelodeon, back in 1905. The first feature film was made the next year, and in 1910 D.W. Griffith shot the first short in Hollywood. By 1920 weekly attendance was up to about 35% of the American population. As sound was added in 1927, Al Jolson starring in “The Jazz Singer,” that attendance figure more than doubled, to 73%. The next step, color, followed in 1932 -- and in the single year 1939 animated the two all-time classics “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.”

Less glamorously, picking up especially after 1920, electrification was contributing to the revolution in household technology that beginning with running water, flush toilets, central heating and the modest window screen was continuing to make life easier. Electric irons, more importantly washing machines, greatly eased the physical burden borne by Margaret O’Connor. Vacuum cleaners were a more modest help.

Regular meal preparation made major strides. The temperature of an electric oven, with range on top, could be modulated to suit a variety of dishes. And the electric refrigerator, with freezer, allowed for a fresher, healthier diet.

By 1939-40 then, all the essentials of the 2023 bathroom and kitchen were in place. With respect to the other key areas, living rooms and bedrooms, I’m going to cheat a little.

I’ve been writing up to here about technologies not in terms of their date of invention but of when they got commercially viable and were widely used in ordinary households. But in the 1930s The Great Depression greatly slowed diffusion, WWII even more so, as industrial production was almost wholly diverted to the military -- no more new cars, refrigerators, or other major appliances were produced at all. As pre-teens you and I remember horse-drawn wagons delivering ice and milk among other things.

And so, the two inventions that would complete the transformation of living and bedrooms lagged in terms of actual adoption. By the mid- 1930s, air conditioning had been installed in a few select places, such as the U.S. Capitol. But it was not until a hot day late in the 1940s that, as a teen, I first encountered it, in a movie theater in Scituate Harbor -- and a few years later in my mother’s bedroom. 

Television, finally, had been displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that my friends, in the morning, started sharing jokes they’d heard from “Uncle Miltie” Berle the night before. (My own parents were opposed on principle, so we didn’t get a set until my youngest brother stopped coming straight home after school, but stopped instead to watch at friends’ houses.)

So- you all have gotten the point by now -- in terms of change the invention of self-driving cars is a big deal, and so is the ability to check your refrigerator or thermostat back home in Philadelphia while visiting (for whatever reason) in Cleveland. Just not as big as getting a car for the first time, or a refrigerator, or a thermostat, as happened early in the 20th Century.

Medicine, of course, has indeed made great strides in recent decades --how many of us have all the organs, hips, and shoulders we were born with? But none of that progress, after 1940, has so far done much for the bottom line; life expectancy. For females -- and it’s a good demographic/actuarial guess that a majority of you are female --life expectancy was about 79 years in 2022. That is actually down a year since 2020. In 1940 it was about 65 years. But in percentage terms the 14 years added in the 82 years between 1940 and 2022 was far smaller than the big leap in the 40 years between 1900 and 1940 when it moved from 48 to 65. Running water, sewers, improved diets and central heating were all contributors.

And much of the dramatic stuff that for better and worse we now anticipate across the board hasn’t truly been realized yet.  (Check out those self-driving cars.) There was a consumer electronics show a couple years ago when various whizzbang novelties were shown off. My favorite was (at $5,568 for the basic model) a toilet that flushes via voice command. That met a previously unsuspected need in our lives. Fill in your own joke -- I’m working on something involving awkward issues in the restrooms of the United Nations. But according to the good gray New York Times, nothing in the whole show provided anything of more convenience than a clock radio.  

Radical developments in space exploration MAY mean that we can someday live on Mars. But the big downside is that equally radical developments in cloning suggest that any travelers may have to ride along with an exact genetic replica of Elon Musk. 

And there is a huge downside. Recall that the two drivers of change between 1900 and 1939 were the internal combustion engine and the spreading use of electricity. No one was thinking, back then, of climate change. But we are now, we must. And we must face the fact that the two biggest drivers of that change were, and are, precisely the internal combustion engine and the spreading use of electricity.

What now, then? Lane’s two banal Laws of History are that things will change -- see all above -- and that at any given time -- see also all above -- we can’t predict how it will come out. But I will venture a guess, and it’s ugly. 

We have been a lucky generation, history good to us. We guys all wanted to fight in WWII but were too young. Our peers fought in the next one, in Korea, but we got college deferments, or went into ROTC. For Vietnam, and all those that followed, we were too old. And the women among us have been even bigger winners. 

Recall that all the improvements in daily living I’ve been touting in the decades just after 1900, (I do get a little hung up-on flush toilets), primarily benefitted women, who were then the first line housekeepers. But not much else did. Politically women for the first time got the right to vote in 1920, but that did little -- for a long time. 

Women, at first, voted less often than men and rarely ran for office: Just seven women served in the U.S. Senate between 1920 and 1945.   Until the arrival of Maine’s redoubtable Margaret Chase Smith, in that later year, all of them were appointed by their state’s governors, to fill the remaining years of a senatorial husband who had died in office. Otherwise there appears to have been no “women’s vote” per se at all 
-- or not one different from the men’s -- as wives, daughters, and sisters made the same choices as husbands, fathers, and brothers. 

Contrast that with today when women vote more often than men, differently, and smarter, meaning that they favor the Democrats by several percentage points. And that is only part of a broader trend towards opening opportunities. 

In 1900 women earned only 19% of bachelor’s degrees from the nation’s colleges. By 1940 that had a little more than doubled, to 39%, and by 1982, they made up a majority of American students, a lead they’ve been padding ever since. And those gains have been reflected in the growing number of women who have chosen to follow the respected professions.

For all their other gains, the women of 1940 were -- despite a very few doctors, lawyers, college professors, and chartered accountants -- basically restricted to two professions:  teaching, mostly of younger children, as extension of their motherly role, and nursing. But there were never any legal bars -- unlike with Blacks -- and there was a steady rush to join the ranks. By 2021 40% of all American lawyers, and a solid majority of doctors, at over 54%, had been born female.

All this has not of course been easy. Breaking glass ceilings is progress, yes, but it’s hard and bloody work that leaves a lot of dangerous shards around even after a given break. But it is still progress, and the women of our generation have made great strides.

What we’ve not made strides towards is global warming. And we -- the nations of the world, especially the developed world -- are not equipped to handle it. It’s already proving impossible for nations to surrender any of their energy consumption, each pointing fingers at those they believe should share even more. And the politics of warming has already shown its face.  

We here in the USA face a crisis at the border; so does Western Europe.  Basically, although we’ve all seen hints of some of the floods and droughts that lie ahead, it is the southern hemisphere that has suffered more in terms of crop loss and general disruption. And those who suffer have been showing up desperate at our Mexican border. Or in the Mediterranean, they’ve been setting out from Libya, among other North African nations, on flimsy boats, in an effort to get past Italy to Germany and other more northern places where agriculture, the economy, and government still work. In both cases, the politics has been highly emotional and unwelcoming, “us” vs “them.” The basic idea being that we stand our ground and let in no more Latinos or Muslims. I see no way out. I do see the xenophobia ratcheting up.

So -- late in life our generational luck has run out. We’ve been tested, and we’ve flunked. The only consolation -- if you have a better one let me know -- is that we’re so old that we won’t be around to see the worst of it.
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