America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley – The Atlantic

The second key development in the creation of the teenager was the invention of cars. It might be a horrifying consideration for today’s singles, but a first date once meant an introductory chat in the living room with a girl’s parents. This might have been followed by a deliciously awkward family dinner.

But cars emancipated romance from the stilted small talk of the family parlor. Just about everything a modern single person considers to be a “date” was made possible, or permissible, but the invention and normalization of car-driven romance. (If you think Tinder and dating apps are destroying romance today, you would have hated cars in the 1930s.) The fear that young men and fast cars were upending romantic norms was widespread. The chorus of the 1909 Cole Porter song “Keep Away From the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile” is instructive:

Keep away from the fellow who owns an automobile

He’ll take you far in his motor car

Too darn far from your Pa and Ma

If his forty horsepower goes sixty miles an hour say

Goodbye forever, goodbye forever

Americans didn’t drive: They walked, rode horses, and acrobatically dodged trolleys.

In the last 100 years, perhaps nothing about daily life has changed more than the commute.

Half of all families lived on farms in 1915, which means work was typically a walk away. Many city-dwellers also lived close enough to factories to arrive at the office on foot. Others went by horseback. In lieu of parallel parking spots along Main Street, there were hitching rails up and down central boulevards, where one might park a mule.

Horse use was peaking. The number of horses and mules on U.S. farms reached its all-century high around 1915, as tractors gradually replaced them. Streetcars were peaking, too, although their legacy would live on in surprising vestiges. My favorite anecdote in Carol Boyd Leon’s remarkable essay concerns the origin of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ name:

The Brooklyn Grays baseball team, nicknamed the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers in 1895 and later the Brooklyn Dodgers, was so named “in tribute to their fans, who had to avoid speeding [trolley] cars in the maze of trolley lines crisscrossing the city.”)

One thing that wasn’t peaking was cars. There were just 2 million cars on the sparse roads of 1915, or about one for every 50 people. The Model T was a hot commodity, but outside of a handful of cities, there weren’t many places you could easily drive it. Today, after several decades of car-friendly policies and public construction, there are more than 255 million registered vehicles in the United States. The number of vehicles has grown by 100 times in 100 years, conveniently for memory’s sake.

America danced to phonographs in blue serge suits and long skirts.

Globalization has dramatically brought down the cost of clothing in the last few decades. But before the United States exported its textiles to Asia and Mexico, Americans paid handsomely for handsome American apparel. Now just 3 percent of a typical consumer’s budget, clothing demanded 13 percent of one’s income in 1915.

Even those sick with nostalgia for debonair hats and gloves must acknowledge that the era’s style was monotonous. Men uniformly wore blue serge suits at work. Women wore skirts whose length varied, according to the fashion and the amount of material available for apparel manufacturers (since some was conserved for the war).

There were all sorts of tech amenities that might seem quotidian today that were rarities in 1915. Thirty percent of the country had a telephone. Less than 20 percent had a stove. Very few people owned a refrigerator, and almost nobody owned a radio. Within 60 years, clothes washers, dryers, air-conditioning, and television sets would all be household staples, but in 1915 they were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the most popular media product of the time might have been the player pianos or the phonograph.

America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley – The Atlantic

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