Or: The Most Privileged Millennial Post You’ve Seen Today
From time to time, I find myself reflecting on my research with great relief. While there are so many things to learn from how things were done in the past, there are also some major reasons to celebrate living in the present. Here are a few items I’ve been counting my blessings for recently.
1. Indoor Plumbing
If you’ve ever entered a well-used port-a-potty, you’ve had that errant thought. How on earth did people survive without indoor plumbing???
In some cases – they didn’t. Exposed sewage and refuse disposal, especially in urban areas, lead to rampant infection and disease in many cities during the industrial revolution. (In 1900 in some U.S. cities, up to 30% of infants died before reaching their first birthday.) While I am proud of the fact that I can enjoy my time in Mystic despite the lack of plumbing, I am eternally grateful for my ability to flush away refuse in my day-to-day life.
2. Pain Medication
At about 6 pm the night before TR was born, I thought I was going to lose my ever-loving mind. My contractions were coming on so strong I could barely focus on who I was. I chanted the Hercules Mulligan rap from the Hamilton musical like it was a sacred prayer because my contractions were lasting about as long as the rap verse. I kept insisting our pediatrician’s name was something outrageously different from what her name actually is. I hyper-venilated while they put the IV in my arm. I was so tense that I did not dilate AT ALL in the two hours between when I was admitted to the hospital and when I got the epidural.
My great grandma Irene had her first baby on a remote homestead in Montana. The number of women who were there to attend her numbered on one hand and I’m willing to bet none of them had any formal midwifery training. (And as an aside, since the hospitalization of birth, maternal mortality decreased by 71% between 1939-1948.)
With my epidural, I could still feel my contractions, I could still move, and it still hurt like hell when TR was born but I was able to think straight and focus on the work I needed to do to bring him into the world safely. I am so so so so grateful that I had that choice.
3. Washing Machines
Before the washing machine, laundry day was literally an entire day of washing, scrubbing, wringing, and drying. If you thought you hated laundry now, just try doing laundry like Great-Great-Grandma did. Washing machines were available in 1920 but were not common and were certainly an extravagance to women like my great-grandmas.
The wash consisted of scrubbing garments one by one, by hand, in the wash bin. Then, one by one, wringing out each garment either with a wringer or with pure elbow grease. Then, one by one, you had to hang each garment on the line to dry. After the garments were dry, you took them down and ironed them. Then, finally, you hung or folded them and put them away.
While I am a huge fan of the scent of fresh clothes dried on the line, I am not a huge fan of individually scrubbing everything. The closest I come to my husband’s underwear is tossing them into the washer if they happen to get mixed in to my laundry (because he does his own laundry, thank you very much). He is able to maintain that air of mystery, for which I am very grateful!
4. Disposable Diapers
God bless the mothers who are committed to using cloth diapers. There should be some sort of environmentally conscious award for those mothers who spend the time every day spraying poop off of individual diapers and laundering them. Can you imagine what that had been like for our great-grandmas without washing machines?
5. Birth Control
Do I really need to explain this one?
6. Vaccines and Antibiotics
So many people in the early 20th century died of disease. Great Grandma Loney’s mother died from the influenza outbreak in 1920. Great Grandma Kingley’s mother also died of disease unknown (and her father got hit by a train, orphaning her by the age of 10). Great Grandma Loney’s sister died of disease. With the exception of James Loney’s parents, none of my grandparents knew their grandparents because they all died by 1924.
The discovery and widespread use of antimicrobial agents (e.g., sulfonamide in 1937 and penicillin in the 1940s) and the development of fluid and electrolyte replacement therapy and safe blood transfusions accelerated the declines in infant mortality; from 1930 through 1949, mortality rates declined 52%.
Let’s be real. The infant mortality rate has gone down from 1 in 10 babies in 1915 to less than 5 for every thousand. Between 1915 and 1997, the infant mortality rate was decreased by 98%. Can’t argue with results.
While concerns about overuse of antibiotics curbs our use of it, the fact that we have access to medicine to treat some of the most rampant and devastating diseases of the 19th and 20th centuries leaves me feeling very grateful. I am hopeful that we will not take it for granted and leave our future generations vulnerable to that devastation.
7. Cars and Airplanes
Our family is large and while most of them live in the Twin Cities area, we are all sprawled across on all ends of it. My dad lives over 40 miles away and many of our relatives, while closer, are at least a 30 minute drive away. My mother-in-law lives in DC.
If we lived like great-grandma, it would be unlikely that we would see many of these people very often – if ever. My great-grandma Irene rode to her Montana homestead on horseback. My great-grandfather Loney’s job was to drive lumber workers up north – he earned his livelihood off of his access to a car. When I interviewed my great aunt Nor, she said she walked most everywhere because her husband used their only car to commute to work.
I’m hoping to integrate more walking and biking into my daily routine. But in spite of my best efforts, I find myself frequently thankful for the convenience of my vehicle. The time it saves me is precious time outside of work that I get to spend with my son. And my car and access to air travel allows family to spend more time with TR too. While I love the idea of commuting by bike, I love that extra twenty minutes with TR more.
8. The Internet
This week my mom got us a set of encyclopedias from 1946. It was at that moment that I remembered that before the internet, people had to use encyclopedias to look up general knowledge. Dictionaries too. They couldn’t just read an eBook and tap and hold a word they didn’t know to see what it meant. They had to go to the library to do research. And when they got to that library, they had to use the card catalog to look up the book they wanted to read and find it using the Dewey Decimal system.
I can search an incredible amount of primary documents and secondary articles from the comfort of my couch. I can look up on Youtube how to repair my water heater, knit a m1 stitch, and build a crib. Thomas Jefferson believed that the way to true freedom and self-sufficiency was through yeoman farming. But it was the internet all along.
9. Infant Formula
Breast is best, these days. But aren’t we lucky to have a viable alternative when breast feeding isn’t working? In the 19th century, formula was made with water and bread crumbs. In Lena Stadler’s book The Mother and Child, she provides the following recipe to make your own infant formula:
11 oz. Whole milk
2 level Tablespoons Cane sugar
12.5 oz. Boiled water
1 oz Lime water
Makes 7 feedings.
She spends three chapters detailing how to find sanitary milk, how to sterilize and pasteurize cow’s milk at home, how to prepare the milk, how to store it, how to do everything possible to ensure that it does not give the child a bacterial infection.
Now, infant formula is so regulated that I can safely buy an off-brand formula off the shelf for half the price as the name brand and mix it with distilled water. Poof. Fed baby.
Breast is best. But it’s very nice to have a safe, 2nd best alternative when things don’t go as expected.
Oh my gosh I almost forgot about the fridge! Talk about taking my conveniences for granted. I love my fridge. I love being able to keep food for a long time. I LOVE my freezer, which enables me to keep food good for up to a year. Amazing. AMAZING.
Great Grandma had to go shopping every day to get fresh ingredients for meals. Or have a carefully cultivated garden that she regularly canned to preserve. GG Irene lived over 10 miles from any other town. (Luckily, she and her husband ran the store in Mystic so all she had to do was cross the street for general supplies.) But think of the meat. How difficult would it be to have fresh meat to eat without a chill chest? Better hope your husband has a gun and knows how to use it.
All of these things make life easier. Could we survive without them? Probably. But one of us would have to quit our jobs just to get everything done.
Technology and modern innovation has served to liberate women more thoroughly than we could ever have lobbied for ourselves. With the daily household management assisted by technology and with our reproductive health within our own control, women can now endeavor to work outside the home, innovate new and exciting ideas, and contribute to public life at a capacity unprecedented.
The work my great-grandmothers did in the home was admirable. Impressive. Would kick my butt. They made the world a better place by providing a safe home-base. I’m so glad I can stand on the foundation they laid and add my small piece in the way I choose.
I am thankful, most of all, for that ability to make my own choice.