Monday, September 5, 2011

The Good Old Labor Days

You ever stop to wonder what you life would be like if it was 1911 instead of 2011?


Imagine what it was like to be your great grand parents.

In 1911, the United States was in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.  It was a time of wonder and ever advancing technology. It started in the 1860’s and would last right up until the beginning of World War I. It began with steel, the Bessemer process to be specific, a cheap and easy way to mass produce strong and reasonably lightweight metals.  Strong lightweight steel was the skeleton of the modern age, the core of everything from the new cars to steamships and oil rigs to utensils and lunchboxes, to the machines that manufactured the future, to the finest handgun ever made – Colt’s model 1911, named for its year of first issue and still in production a century later.  In 1911 a tall skinny fellow by the name of Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss #2 Pusher on the deck of USS Pennsylvania and took off again – and thus was born naval aviation, a profound moment that would change the very way wars were fought and thus change almost everything else too. Many of the pilots who, a few years later, would fly over the battlefields of WWI carried Colt’s Model 1911.  In 1911, for the first time, you could buy a Cadillac with an electric starter – and despite the fact that there were still plenty of horses out there on the roads, the car had become so ubiquitous – due in part to Henry Ford lowering the price of a Model-T to $690 that year – that Michigan created the first modern roads when the state started painting white lines down the middle of the more heavily traveled avenues. Electricity itself was no longer a novelty.  Though many factories were still powered by steam, electricity was becoming increasingly common.  The first modern public elevator began operation in London, England, and soon became common everywhere – leading directly to the modern city skyline.  And above that skyline in 1911, Goodyear flew their first blimp.

In 1911, America was booming. Her factories were churning out new products at a record pace. The western frontier had all but disappeared – oh, there were still a few bandits and cattle rustlers out there, but the wild wooly west was long gone.  The gold rushes, the boom towns and gun fights were long over.  Hell, by 1911 Wyatt Earp was living in Los Angeles working as a “trouble-shooter” for the city police department.  He’d fought his last armed battle a year before and would soon move to Hollywood as a consultant for the new movie industry. 

It was certainly a marvelous time.

If you could afford it.

If you lived through it.

See, those churning factories were horrible places.  In 1911, most were still powered by a massive central steam engine which drove an enormous flywheel, which in turn powered shafts and belts and pulleys, which finally powered the machines.  And though, as noted above, electricity was becoming increasingly common, most of those factories were still poorly lit simply by the light coming in through skylights and banks of single pane glazed windows.  Often boiling hellholes in the summer and freezing dungeons in the winter – both air conditioning and central heating were still decades away – the buildings were filled with smoke and poisonous fumes from the various manufacturing processes, lead vapor, heavy metals, acids, chlorine, bleaches, all were common.  Normal working hours were from dawn to dusk, typically anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day, sixty and seventy hours per week for wages that would barely pay the rent and put food on a factory worker’s table.

Child labor was common, especially in the textile industry, though in some states there were supposed to be laws regulating it.  The kids toiled right alongside their parents.  The children typically worked the same hours as adults, but for a quarter, or less, of the pay.  Pictures of the time show children working barefoot among the machines, ragged sleeves flapping near the flying belts and spinning pulleys.  Whole families hired out to the factories, the men doing the heavy labor, the women and children doing the more delicate tasks. Towns sprang up around the mills, often controlled by the factory owners. Company towns, where workers very often became little more than indentured servants.  Life in a company town was often better than the alternative on the streets of places like Hell’s Kitchen or out in the fields of the South. Company towns gave workers a higher standard of living than they would otherwise be able to afford. But the running joke was that while your soul might belong to God, your ass belonged to the company.  Mill towns and mining towns and factory towns and logging towns were common across America, places where the company owned everything from your house to your job to the church you prayed in to the store you bought your food from. And prices were whatever made the company the most profit and in many places there were laws that prevented you from renting or buying outside the company town.  The company might pay you a decent wage for the time, but they got a lot of it back too.  Get crosswise of the company and you lost it all.  Get injured on the job and could no longer work, and you lost it all. Get sick, and you could lose it all.  Get killed, and your family was out on the street.  There was no workman’s comp. No insurance. No retirement but what you managed to save – and since you probably owed a significant debt to the company store, your savings were unlikely to go very far.

Of course, you could always take a pass on factory work and return to the land.  In 1911, millions of Americans were farmers.  Farming, especially in 1911, was hard back breaking work (it still is, just in a different way) – so hard that seventy hours a week in a smoke filled factory with a high probability of getting maimed or killed looked pretty good in comparison.  Most of those farmers, especially in the South, didn’t own their fields. They were sharecroppers, living in conditions little better than slavery or the serfdom of the Dark Ages.  Of the small farmers who did own their own land or rather owed the bank for their own land, more than half lived in abject poverty.  In the coming decade, the decade of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, most would lose everything.

Most of America was powered by coal in those days and if there was anything that would make life in a factory town or in the sweltering fields look good – it was working in a West Virginia coal mining town.  It was a race to see what would kill you first, explosion, cave-in, or the black lung.  And just like in the fields and factories, children worked alongside their parents – if they had parents, orphanages were also common. And orphan labor was even cheaper than the average child, both in life and in pay. Renting out orphan labor was a good gig, if you could get it.

You could always become a merchant seaman, though life at sea was damned rough. You could move west and become a logger, though you’d probably live longer in the mines of West Virginia. You could still be a cowboy, or a cop, or carpenter none which paid worth a good Goddamn and had the added benefit of a short lifespan.

Since people got sick and injured a lot, and most couldn’t afford even rudimentary medical care, many turned to patent medicines.  The pharmaceutical industry was only loosely regulated, but by 1911 there were some few laws in a handful of states regulating the more outrageous claims for the various elixirs. The big medicine shows were gone, but in 1911 there were still plenty of drug store shelves stocked with hundreds of varieties of patent medicines. Some were mostly benign – like Coca-Cola – and some were downright toxic – like Radithor, made from water and radium.  As late as 1917, The Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, was still making Stanley’s Snake Oil, a worthless mixture of mineral oil, turpentine, and red pepper, and fleecing sick people out of their money and making them yet sicker (hell, as late as the 1960’s TV’s commercials touted the benefits of smoking for sore throats. And, as late as 1970 there were still X-ray foot measuring devices in use in a handful of shoe stores across America).

In 1911, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only though elementary.  In the South segregation and Jim Crow Laws were in full force and civil rights were decades away. Lynching was common.  On the other hand, women could actually vote in exactly five states, well, six if you included California which grudgingly acknowledged in November that females might be citizens too despite their unfortunate plumbing. 

In 1911, maybe three out of ten Americans could ever expect to own a home, most would pay a landlord their whole lives. Few had any rights in those relationships either, you paid the owner and you lived with what you got or you got thrown out. Period.

In 1911, a lot of Americans were hungry. More than fifty percent of seniors lived in poverty, but then the average lifespan was only about fifty-five, maybe sixty if you hadn’t been breathing coal dust or lead vapor all you life.  Few of those seniors had pensions, most lived on the charity of their families – if they were lucky enough to have families.  Sanatoriums were a common place for the aged and infirm to spend their brief final years. 

In 1911, if you had ten kids, you might expect six of them to survive to adulthood.  If you were lucky. Polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, pneumonia, whooping cough, hard labor in the mines and factories and fields, lack of social safety nets, lack of proper nutrition, lead paint, food poisoning, poverty, orphaned by parents killed by the same, would probably claim at least four of those kids. Likely more.


People from that generation always wax nostalgic for The Good Old Days – and then they immediately proceed to tell you why life was so much harder and more miserable back then.


The simple truth of the matter is nowadays, even in this time of economic downturn, we Americans live a pretty damned good life.  And we live that good life because since 1911 we’ve put systems and laws and regulations in place to improve life for all of us.  Programs like Social Security and Medicare have a direct and measurable affect on how long we live, and how well. Regulations governing working conditions and workplace safety have a direct and measurable affect on the probability that we’ll survive to retirement.  Laws that prevent the rich from owning a whole town, or abusing workers, or turning them into indentured servants, or hiring children at pauper’s wages to maintain the machines in their bare feet, have directly benefitted all but the most greedy few. 

The American dream isn’t dead, far from it. 

I’ve been to countries where dreams have died, America is far, far, far removed those hellish places. 

It is a measure of just how far we’ve come, and just how big an impact that those laws, regulations, and social safety programs have had that those who directly benefit from those very same laws, regulations, and programs can complain with full bellies just how terrible they have it.

Things like Social Security, Medicare, Workman’s Compensation Insurance, The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance, child labor laws, federal minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, the Environmental Protection Agency, The Centers for Disease Control, The departments of Education and Health, Labor Unions and workers’ rights, and yes, even Welfare, all of these things were created for a reason. For a good reason. For a compelling reason. 

These things were created because when you leave it up to the church and charity to fed the hungry and clothe the poor and heal the sick, a hell of a lot of people go hungry and cold and ill.  It is really just that brutally simple. 

These things were created because when you leave it up to charity and family to take care of old people, a hell of a lot of old people end up stacked like cordwood in institutions. The moldering remnants of such places are all around us.

These things were created because when you leave it up to people to save for their retirement or a rainy day or for accident and infirmity, a hell of a lot of them don’t, or can’t, or won’t.

These things were put in place because when you leave it solely up to the market to weed out poor products and fake medicine and unsafe machines, they don’t, or can’t, or won’t

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to industrialists and share holders to treat their workers with dignity and respect and to pay them a living wage for their hard work, you get indentured servitude.

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to devoutly righteous people who go to church every Sunday to decide what is right and proper and moral, you end up with lynchings and segregation and Jim Crow. And that is a Goddamned fact.

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to the factory owners to decide wages and safety and working hours, you get this:


When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the industrialists, well Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get the scraps.

And right up until very recently that’s exactly how it was.

Fundamentally, government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless, otherwise what damned good is it?


Lately there are a lot of folks who think they want to live in 1911, rather than in 2011.

Chief among those people is this ruthless idiot:

Ever since the dawn of the so-called Progressive movement over a century ago, liberals have used every tool at their disposal — including notably the Supreme Court — to wage a gradual war on the Constitution and the American way of life…

(Click on the quote to find out which presidential candidate said it, and what else they think about the last century’s progress)


The question you need to ask yourself, on this of all days, is what century do you want to live in?


Happy Labor Day folks.


  1. How do you do it? I mean really - how does so much good stuff come out of one brain and ten fingers?

  2. I use my toes too. That's the secret.

  3. Excellent post! I'm going to print it out and try to get my right wing relatives to read it.

  4. Thanks again for another great post.
    I grew up in Iowa, where until the 1980's you could not buy Coors beer because Coors was so anti-union.
    People just do not get it - that the companies will not be good to us out of a generous heart!

  5. I say more bread at the circuses. The people are starting to catch wise. So more wonderbread for all.

  6. Rick Perry is the source of that scary quote at the end. Perhaps he'll get his comeuppance sooner, rather than later:


    Although I wish he were out of Texas, the White House is not a viable alternative.

  7. A lot of merchant vessels were still under sail - although they would have had auxilary engines to keep them off the rocks.

    I have always felt that it was the German destruction during WW1 that finally brought the sailing vessel to an end. One of the Germans most successful surface going sea raiders was a sailing vessel.

  8. Good post. Minor nitpick, though: in 1911, the Depression and the Dust Bowl were about 20 years away. First there's the World War, then the Roaring '20s.

    Still, you were on a roll.

  9. My mind boggles at the people who are hellbent on dismantling every protection and advancement that's been made in the last century. Do they think that all those things were temporary?

  10. If you want to see the history of the period, visit shorpy.com, and do a search for “child labor.’

    When you’re done, keep on clicking through the pics (careful, it’s addictive).

    Be sure to click on on ”Shorpy’s Page.” The photos of Shorpy were taken by Louis Wickes Hines, who seems to have thoroughly documented child labor in the early 20th century.

    The rest of the site is photos of America (thousands of them), from 1865 to 1965, or so.

    Again, a warning: it’s addictive

  11. @Jay, would you buy it if I said time compresses the decades? No?

    I meant to imply what you said, but I wrote "...in the coming decade..." and should have said decades. Doh. However, considering the vast number of really dumb typos in this post and the fact that I'm sick of correcting them, I'll leave the one you pointed out there as a bone to the haters. ;)

  12. @alfalfa, thanks for that suggestion. You're right, it is addictive, and fascinating.

  13. Well said. Thanks again for another concise and compelling post.

  14. I keep having this debate with the free-market wonks, in which they say "But if we let the free market decide, then employees are free to seek employment where they are given the most reasonable benefits," and I say, "I think you have been breathing some sort of chemical fumes, and should notify OSHA of your unsafe working conditions."

    I don't like all the things government does, not hardly. But as a Hazardous Waste Operations certified consultant, I sure do like the fact that if my employer poisons, threatens, harasses, abuses, or injures me, I have federally guaranteed legal recourse they can't buy their way out of.

    People have, in my time, paid me remarkable sums of money to clean up the mistakes they made on the environmental scale. Some of those mistakes were due to ignorance, some to negligence, and some to pure capitalism. But having worked for some Very Deep Pockets makes me extra-glad that the rules, such as they are, exist. I cannot imagine how Times Beach would have turned out in a society with no regulation or legal responsibilities.

  15. Jim, you're more right than you know about the Depression coming in a decade. If you were an American farmer, the years following WWI were the worst, price-wise, ever. More people lost their farms in the early 1920s than in any previous decade. A well known song of that decade had a line: "Ten cent cotton and forty cent meat, how the hell can a poor man eat?" And then there was the boll weevil. Wiped out my husband's grandparents' cotton farm, the combination of those two things. They went into sharecropping and his parents, too. Desperately poor people, long before the Great Depression hit.

  16. Thank you. Your writing is a breath of fresh air in room full of idiots, all running for some GOP ticket.
    This post IMHO should be used to teach kids in school (and their lame parents) just how lucky we are and how we need to speak up to keep from returning to the dismal days you write about. They are always lurking right around the corner.
    Fingers, toes, whatever you use, keep it up. I look forward to each of your posts.

  17. My father dropped out of school at 14, in 1923 because he could get a job as a printer's devil and his father couldn't find regular work. He worked the rest of his life, other than a 3 year vacation in North Africa starting Nov. 1942. He died not quite 55.

    My mother's memory was that while the Depression was no picnic, for her family the late teens, early 20s were far worse.

  18. Great post. These facts of life are not that long ago. I remember my Grandmother telling me of her childhood, some horrific tales, and I would guess that 1911 was probably close to the year she spent in a catholic orphanage where she was beaten regularily by her 'caregivers'. I witnessed the scars on her back still visible 60 years later. Oh, and she wasn't orphaned, her mother just couldn't feed all her children.

    Yeah, the good old days were only good for a very few. The free market proponents don't seem to realize that they are the very people who will become fodder for the rich and entitled? Sometimes I despair for the future of this country.

  19. Great post.

    My theory is that we have it too good now. We take good roads, good infrastructure, and all the benefits the labor movement fought so hard for...for granted. So like spoiled children, it's easy to complain and whine about our taxes, about socialism, about those damn unions.

    In my trade, they used to have a saying, in the era you discuss: "we don't die--we're killed". OSHA, workers comp ended that era.

    You have a flare for presenting history, Jim. I'd love to see you turn your talents to the Gilded Age, and remind people of what "class war" REALLY looks like...the Great Railroad Strike, Homestead, etc.

    -a union ironworker

  20. Marx pointed out that capitalism was not simply an economic system, but an ideology that would eventually become something more like a religion. We're seeing that today.

    Faith in the invisible hand is as strong if not stronger, than faith in Geezus (although they often occur together). Large temples of capitalism, such as the Heritage Foundation,have been created by the wealthy to provide its doctrines, and institutions such as FOX promote the faith. Let's face it, most Americans could not pass the final for a freshman class in economics, history, or geography.

    It takes a lot of reality to break through the white noise. Even now, here in Austin, the same nimrods who are complaining that we don't have enough fireman to battle fires still support the republicans who voted to cut funding for services. Some just don't have the lobes to make the connections, but as often as not, they just don't want to think about it. Their TV tells them all they need to know.

  21. I'll bet quoting Marx goes over really well in Texas. :)

  22. Quoting people doesn't go over very well in Texas! I have a Molly Ivins quote on a bumper sticker that I haven't put on my truck yet, because I still have a whole paint job and would like to keep it. Yes, I'm rather a wimp.

    Here's a new drinking game about recognizing quotes:


  23. Never cared much for crowds.

    Usually I'll give people the more benign quotes, wait to see what they say, then tell them where it comes from. Makes me even more popular than I already am.

  24. Jim, thanks for that great post. You are guided by a clear mind, and are not afraid of what you believe.

  25. The American Dream isn't dead... really... 1 in 3 of the unemployed out of work more than a year, 1 in 7 in the US on food stamps, and 1 in 8 households late or are in foreclosure.

    You might be correct the America Dream isn't die, but it's slowly dying because... 1. Humpty Dumpty fell off the Wall. 2. The foxes are guarding the hen house.

  26. Oh for crying out loud, I wondered when the defeatists were going to show up. The so-called American dream has survived war and civil war and world war and the great depression and the red scare and George fucking Bush. Millions who faced far worse adversity than most Americans do today found their dreams during some of the country's darkest hours. How you deal with adversity determines whether or not you'll achieve those dreams one hell of a lot more than how you deal with prosperity.

  27. Since people are talking about quotes, here's one that I just heard.

    "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

    And it isn't Marx, it isn't even close to Marx, it was a Republican President.

    Abe Lincoln

  28. Jim's piece makes an excellent companion to this one that came out a couple of days ago:

    Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult


    The author of the article despairs, but frankly, the fact that many people are seeing that the Republican party is no longer a groups of sane fiscal conservatives but an "apocalyptic cult" gives me some hope.

    (And I really liked Lofgren's use of the "Gadarene swine" metaphor. Nice touch.)

  29. Who cares if SS is constitutional? What's up with that? It is the primary reason a lot of people can EAT. Oh yeah, eating's not guaranteed in the Constitution either. These people are a complete mystery to me, and that's probably a good thing.

  30. Well, frankly I care if a Federal law or program is Constitutional. I suspect most other readers here do as well.

    With that said, the Constitutionality of Social Security was decided long ago. Just as abortion was found constitutional, or public education, or the separation of church and state. And that is specifically what chaps the extremists' collective asses. They took it to the Supreme court and lost - so now, instead of living with that decision, they wave the flag and proclaim the greatness of the Constitution ... and call for the dismantling of one of the three pillars of the Republic as defined in that Constitution so that they can have their way anyhow. Perry, Bachmann, Palin, the Religious Right, et al love the Constitution only so far as it agrees with their version of America.

    Of course, the same could be said about how they regard the Bible and the words of their own prophet.

  31. Thank you, I am posting a link and a small excerpt to help spread the word. There's also been some interesting pieces in the NY Times about how the last fifty years show increasing income disparity (another contributor toward making the powerful less accountable and more inclined to regard the rest of us as indentured scum). These pieces explain why having just a handful of the population own everything makes for an unstable boom-bust economy. Unfortunately most of them are more like Op-Ed pieces, even when they're packed with stats, so too many folks like to dismiss it as "just opinion."

  32. Yes, I'm seeing quite a bit of traffic from the NYTimes at the moment.

    Welcome, NYTimes people, I hope you come in peace bearing pie.

  33. Well, obviously I am not a constitutional scholar, Jim, but I think the "constitution" argument is beyond the point at times. Some programs are just socially necessary for the viability of the nation. Arguing about whether SS is constitutional is just a smoke-screen for justification of removing the monetary underpinnings for it.

  34. Oh yes, agreed. Apologies if I sounded a little harsh, I didn't mean to. This is a sore subject with me, I tend to get a little testy about it.

    Like you, Beckster, I think that about half the time the constitutionality argument is a smoke screen. For what it's worth, I'm not a Constitutional scholar either - which is why I depend on the things like, oh, the Supreme Court to ensure that Congress and the President stay on the straight narrow.

  35. Oh, no apologies necessary! Besides, I think you are like me, you don't feel the need to apologize for your opinion very often! I enjoy a frank discussion, and I truly enjoy your posts. It is your blog, and you can sound as harsh as you like. The duplicitous use of the constitution argument goes into the "things that really chap my ass" category for me. If you let me keep talking back with nothing but verbal reprisals, you may get my vote for Emperor.

  36. Great post on an important topic. I've just recently discovered your blog thx to a link posted by Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture. I look forward to what ever comes next.

  37. You are a balm to my sanity. Thanks for another clear-headed post.

    If I may ask: You said you'd been in countries where the dream had died. I haven't had such an experience. What is it that tells you this? I know there must be something that tips you off. Is it something that can be articulated?

  38. Jim, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: great post. No, scratch that--FANTASTIC post.

    Nice to also end it with a Perry quote. I hope all those sneering about how Obama's worse than the GOP pay attention, because Perry will truly bring the pain on them.

  39. The Perry quote is what inspired the post. I'll say this about extremists, they provide me with no end of material.

  40. I spent some time caring for my grandmother, who was born in 1917. Basically up until the mid 1950's in the South life for small farmers in the South was *hard*. There was no telephone, no services, no way of communicating outside your local neighborhood. You had your little cash crop of cotton for those things you couldn't make yourself, and everything you ate, you grew yourself. There was no electricity, so there was no running water. Without running water, simple things like doing laundry and bathing were hard because you had to haul water by hand (water is 8 pounds per gallon, you figure out how many pounds of water you'd need to haul to fill a 20 gallon washtub!), and thus most of the time you *smelled* (those of you who've been in the military and done field service for extended periods know what I'm talking about, as do the hard-core long-distance hikers, the rest of you have no idea just how revolutionary the notion of hot running water really is for personal hygiene, when I've been in the field for a while I'd almost *kill* for a nice warm shower!).

    So anyhow, she reminisced about taking the laundry down to the springs. I've walked that slope. It's a pretty steep slope. She did it while hauling two large laundry baskets *and a washtub*. She then washed and hauled heavy wet clothes back *up* that slope so she could hang them on the line to dry in the sun (the trees around the spring would keep them from drying down there).

    Anyhow, she talked about being young and how they lived and I asked her, "would you want to go back to those days when you were young and could do things like that?" She looked at me as if I'd lost complete hold of my senses and said "No. That was a hard life." That's all she said. Given the many infirmities that afflicted her in her later years which caused her constant pain, the fact that she wouldn't have gone back to those days when she was young but life was hard is more telling than entire novels worth of words.

  41. Well said.

    1911 was the year before the Titanic's one-&-only voyage too.

  42. Wonderful post! People won't realize the value of government to their lives until it's gone. The Federal government has grown because it has had to fill the void created by unmet vital needs, unsolved serious problems and State and local government's inability to address them (see series of studies on Federalism by ACIR, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, now defunct thanks to Republican Presidents)
    Home Page: http://www.library.unt.edu/gpo/acir/Default.html

    One of my favorite quotes: "I prefer the evil to the stupid - the evil sometimes rest ..."

    Beware the Republicans, they never stop! They will send us back into the dark times you so well invoke in your article ('Starve the Beast' strategy).

    Our founders were right - the price of freedom IS eternal vigilance!

  43. My mother, when asked about the good ol' days had a ready rejoinder; "I'd like to know what the hell they were good for."

  44. asked about the good ol' days had a ready rejoinder; "I'd like to know what the hell they were good for."

    My property manager for my property in Louisiana called me a couple of years ago in a bit of a tizzy. Imagine the property manager's side in a 60 year old white man's voice with a prominent Boss Hogg Southern drawl. "I got a problem. Your tenant wants her boyfriend to move in to help her with things, because she can't get around too easy nowadays." Me: "And? What's the problem? Is he a drug dealer or something?" Manager: "Uhm, no." Me: "Is he a thug or something, who'll destroy my property?" Manager: "Oh no, he's a good boy. I know his mom, good church-going woman." Me: "So add him to the lease, then." Manager: "But he's BLACK!" Me: "So? What's the problem?" Manager: "But she's WHITE! A black man and a white woman, that just ain't right!" Me: "Add him to the lease."

    See, back in the Good Old Days, them nigras knew their place and didn't go runnin' round with white womens and such, and if they tried, why, we could have a good ole' fashioned LYNCHIN'. Yessiree! The good ole' days were *great* if you were the type of feller who loved caperin' 'round in the woods wearin' bedsheets, yo.

    Does that answer your question about "what the good old days were good for"?

    - Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  45. Thank you Jim for helping us remember the positive when taking in a barrage of depressing news every day.

    I've written this before, but my grandmother, her three little boys and a newborn boy, were stuck in a cabin with her husband dying from TB. No one would help them because everyone was afraid of the TB. Her husband died, her newborn died from malnutrition, and she almost died from the same. That was what life was like before social safety nets.

    Grandma went back to work as a crew cook for logging and wheat crews, but it was really tough making it without her husband's income.

    She married my grandfather, had two more children, and they lived through the Depression. It was hard for him because they were law-abiding people, but Grandpa sometimes sneaked out to poach a deer to keep them alive, risking arrest if caught. They worked in the wheat fields and logging camps. They and their children worked in strawberry fields. Grandma worked in the fields and kitchens, and did most of the work in the home. Children took care of each other because parents didn't have the time. They told us the story of their last pot of beans being knocked to the floor, and the entire family got down and scraped them off the floor to save them because they had nothing else to eat.

    She and other elderly, all of whom are gone now, told me they loved FDR because he saved their lives with the New Deal. They were disgusted by the 1980s rhetoric against the New Deal.

    They also used to say that they, their children, and we grandchildren paid into these programs, from Social Security to Welfare, since their creation, thus, any of us who ever needed them had every right to them with no apologies or shame. They belonged to all of us and were there specifically for when they were needed, so to use them proudly.

  46. The same sort of stories were shared by the other side of my family from the south. Men had to roam far from home in search of work to support their families left back on their small rock farms, if they had that much, so most children often had absent fathers.

    Most Americans were poor before WWII and migrant workers were poor whites. Even after the war, whites moved out of the fields, but there were still plenty of them working migrant seasonal jobs in produce sheds well into the 1960s to early 1970s.

    Most women worked in addition to taking care of their families, in agriculture, factories, cooking crews, as housekeepers, and taking in laundry.

    Children worked to contribute to the family coffers so they could all eat.

    In the PNW from where I hail, it took blood to organize and stand up to the mining companies, timber barons, and mill owners. Law enforcement worked for the rich, organizing posses of thugs to intimidate, beat, and kill workers trying to organize for safer working conditions and a livable wage. There were massacres against outside union organizers, and then kangaroo courts to hold them responsible for the violence local authorities committed against them.

    Greed and ruthlessness was without limits. What is more appalling is that the mill, mine, and timber owners purchased their land for almost nothing. They did the same thing big corporations do now, they used government programs to enrich themselves while also using the instruments of government to suppress the rights of their workers.

    It makes me feel really sad that generation is almost entirely gone because they had the memories to share. Without them here to tell it like it really was, historical revisionists get away with more deception.

  47. @Okra God: I read Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult and I agree it is well worth the read.

  48. Great post. But I read this and I think "it was all so unnecessary!". In Australia, by 1911, free compulsory secular education had been in place for several decades, the eight hour day was more or less standard, a national law set the minimum wage at that necessary to support a family in decency, and women had had the vote nationally since 1902 (in most states much earlier). Not that it was perfect, or that these things were easily won, or that they were everywhere observed. But what stopped Americans from reading the papers, saying "gee, those guys down south don't have to put up with all this crap. Why do we?"

    And what's stopping them from looking around now and seeing they still get more crap than their developed country counterparts?

  49. Thank you! I've been saying something of the sort for a while: What keeps me optimistic is the thought that however bad things are now, they're better now than in the past. Example: nowadays, the main problem is a bunch of literate people able to exchange ideas freely, spouting all sorts of nonsense; a thousand years ago, the problem was a bunch of illiterate people buying whatever the clergy told them. I'll take the problems of an educated public over the problems of an uneducated public any day.

  50. Drakvl, what use is literacy, if the supposedly literate people never actually read but instead watch or listen to their Party commissars on Faux News and Hate Radio then regurgitate the 10 Minute Hate that they were told to recite whenever someone had the audacity to confront them with, like, actual facts? In any event, the Goopers have an answer to that whole literacy problem too -- just teach superstitious nonsense in the schools rather than actual factual material, in classrooms that have 50 standing-room-only students with no textbooks and a "teacher" with no training hired off the streets for minimum wage due to budget cuts, and presto, problem of literacy (for tyrants) resolved! Hey, worked for generations in the American South, now it's being rolled nation-wide. Cool! (If you're an authoritarian who loves shiny black footwear, anyhow).

    - Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  51. @Bad Tux, wish Stonekettle had a like button.

  52. Also since information about contraception was illegal and unavailable, childbirth was a leading, if not THE leading cause of death for women during this time. My great-grandmother was the oldest of 19. Her mom died giving birth to the last one. I think 7 of the 19 children made it to adulthood and of course, she became the de-facto mother to the other 18, including the newborn, on her mother's death. Easy access to women's health information/services/contraception is something else they're trying to take away in the current environment.

  53. Jim, you are a gift that just keeps on giving, and I can't thank you enough for that. I'm a 72 year old woman, whose mother was born in 1909, and she told me many stories about the not so "good ole days." My dad could hardly speak of those times. I live in Texas and I must say Rick Perry is probably the worst governor one could imagine. The corporate people like him because he can be bought. He's really not all that popular, but most of the older folks and those in the rural areas would die before they'd vote for a Democrat. The local newspaper gets heat over it's "biased" reporting since none of the letters or stories are complimentary of Perry (although some letters bash President Obama). The editor wrote a column a couple of weeks ago in which he said if he received any letters or stories that explained why someone like Perry or the good things he had done, the paper would print them. So far no such letters or articles have appeared save one in which a man said he would vote for Perry but gave no reason why.

    Reading your posts somehow remind me of the greatly missed Miss Molly Ivins. You should have your posts published in a book. They are that good!

  54. My grandfather was one of fifteen children. Seven survived to adulthood. The family cemetery from the beginning of the 20th century is full of little tiny graves, they outnumber the adult graves.

    My grandmother dropped out of school after 8th grade when the Great Depression hit and money for textbooks became scarce and was allocated to the boy-children who could potentially better profit from it. She was grateful to have been allowed to go to school for that many years, because textbooks were expensive. Yes, schoolchildren had to buy their own textbooks, because the schools didn't have money for textbooks, they didn't really even have money to pay the teachers -- the teachers in Louisiana in the 1920's were often paid as much in foodstuffs as in money.

    My grandmother wrote a letter to my mother once per week up until she entered the nursing home at the end of her life. The good old days of "reading riting and rithmetic" apparently did not include spelling, because she couldn't spell worth a lick. Few of my other relatives could either. The notion that schools in the 1920's were better than schools today simply doesn't pass the laugh and giggle test.

    My grandfather on the other side of the family was illiterate. He could neither read nor write. He dropped out of school after third (3rd!) grade, when the principal called his parents in and said that since little Cleveland wasn't learning, don't bother sending him back to school for 4th grade, they'd just send him home. Nowadays he'd be diagnosed as dyslexic and receive special education help. But back then if you didn't learn how to read and write during your first three years of school... bam. Out of there.

    My other grandmother died of heart disease at a fairly early age. Based on what I know now, what she died of (apparently a heart valve damaged by rheumatic fever) is trivially curable by today's modern medicine. But back then, you got cancer, you got heart disease, you got kidney disease, you got liver disease, you died. There was no medical treatment for those, the Merck Manual (the GP's bible) was full of illnesses for which the only treatment was, "send patient home with palliative treatment to die."

    Just more remembrances of the "good old days", written here as I remember them.

  55. Great article - and a damned fine site. Thank you to Lane Smith for pointing me in this direction.

    They want to take us back to - and beyond the Gilded Age. They will.

    Get used to living in a country in ruins.


    Tom Degan

  56. Here's to two great blogs by Tom and Jim. To quote the tag line from the great Mike Malloy radio show "don't go gently into that good night, rage, rage against the flying monkey right!"


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