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Fri Jul 19, 2013, 12:21 PM

thinking about the past [View all]

Last edited Fri Jul 19, 2013, 02:58 PM - Edit history (1)

I often think of the past. For one thing, because I am old and can remember when Isaac Asimov and Arthur Ashe and Robert Kennedy were still alive.
But for another thing because I do historical research every day, looking for distant relatives and family connections.

Today I am looking at John Loomis in the 1880 census. He was 52 years old and his wife Sarah was 46. Living in Butler County, Iowa and working, of course, as a farmer. They have seven children living with them in 1880, including their two oldest sons George 26 and Burton 24 and down to their youngest son Sherman 6.

1870 census tells me they have two more daughters who were not with them in 1880 when they would have been 23 and 21. And it also tells me that John is apparently the anti-christ, since it says his personal property was worth $666 in 1870 and his land was worth $350.

In the 1900 census, George was still with them, a widower, and Sarah's mother, 86 year old Sallie Vincent was also with them! The 1900 census also says that only 7 of their 9 children are still lving (perhaps the 7 listed in 1880?) and that only 1 of Sallie's 5 children was living. I know that sons George, Charles and Sherman were alive in 1900. I cannot find Burton and cannot identify John Wesley. The daughters I will not be able to find unless a) I get lucky and a widowed parent is living with one of them in later censuses or b) somebody posts their own family information online including one of those daughters.

As it turned out, I got lucky and after her husband passed away, Sarah was living in 1910 with her daughter Minnie B, who had 3 children by a Mr. Fuller and was now married to a James H. Miller. Her daughter Amanda is also with them in 1910.

But that is getting into the weeds of research, which was not why I started this essay.

I wanted to think about, to talk about the way they lived back then. 1880 was only 133 years ago. Hardly a blink in terms of history. I mean, the other day a 103 year old woman was on the news chatting away with her interviewer. My mom and dad's grandparents were living in 1880.

How did they live? Consider John's family. He and his wife raised 9 children on just what they could get from the land. John was not paid a living wage. John did not have a 40 hour work week or paid holidays or paid vacation or paid sick leave or health insurance with his job. (And, as I well know from experience, neither do most self-employed people today). He did not have electricity or central heat or air conditioning either.

He probably heated his home with firewood, and if he got hot, the best he could do is drink a cold drink (with no refrigerators) or take a cold bath (with no running water). They fed their family with what they got from the ground and from their livestock, and with farm products that they sold. They had to can their own food, probably slaughter their own meat and churn their own butter and make their own clothes. Unlike me, they probably did not have a closet or three full of old clothes and multiple pairs of boots and shoes.

Think of Sarah giving birth to 9 children between August 1853 for the first and June 1873 for the last. No such thing as an ultrasound and likely almost no pre-natal care.

Think of what the kids did not have. No bicycles (invented in the 1860s). No skateboards. No board games. No such thing as basketball or football (baseball though, dates to before 1850 but how readily was equipment available - balls, gloves, bats?) And in some ways they are better off too, because there was no such thing as four square either. No such thing as a radio, a television, an ipad, an ipod, a computer, a VCR, no playstation (although I guess pong was invented in about 1872) (see how old I am, I remember pong). no records, no CDs (I guess they did have these things called 8 tracks) and very few musical instruments. There were very few public libraries, if any.

Not much in the way of schools. The 1940 census tells me my dad's maternal grandfather (born in 1860) had a 4th grade education, his wife had a 6th grade education (but their daughter graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1927 (yes, my grandma rocks!) Dad's paternal grandfather (born 1875) had a 10th grade education and his wife had a 6th grade education. Only one of my mom's grandparents lived past 1940, her paternal grandfather, who had an 8th grade education.

It was like living in North Korea, there was no such thing as Coca-cola. No such thing as a la-z-boy. No such thing as McDonalds (all you hitchhikers try not to pass out when you consider that reality) or Amazon. Billions and billions of consumer items that we are able to buy today, including DVDs of Carl Sagan's TV show, were not available in 1880 even if they could afford them with their average income of perhaps $3,000 a year. John lived to be almost 80 and Sarah lived to be 87. Did they think life was hard or that life was good, or both at various times?

Something to think about. There has been a lot of improvements and inventions in the last 130 years, and in spite of the unfairness of those at the top grabbing a gigantic slice of the pie thanks to Reagan, we do still have it pretty good in San Dimas these days. If only we would be excellent to each other. Drop one of us back in 1880 and we would have no doubt about the hardness of life back then. Today, we have lots of benefits and advancements that we perhaps do not appreciate enough. Even advancements in justice. In 1880, Sarah could not vote. She lived long enough to see women's suffrage. Did she register and vote in the 1920 election before she died in 1921? Or just celebrate the progress?

Considering the years as well, Sarah lived through the Civil War and WWI. We have had nothing like those in my lifetime. 117,.000 Americans died in about two years of WWI and 620,000 died in the four years of the civil war. The battle of Gettysburg itself, with 51,000 casualties was almost as deadly to Americans as all of Vietnam (it is worth remembering though, that the Vietnam war, like the Iraq invasion, was far more deadly to those living in the country where it was fought and feeling the brunt of our military might) , and that when the US population was much smaller.

The future may not be bright. I worry about things like population, resources, and environmental damage that even my nieces and nephews will face in their lives, but the present seems pretty good compared with the not-so-distant past.

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