We read a lot about life in the 19th century–you know, the 1800s. But few of us really know how or when life transitioned to the modern life we know now. What kinds of things would you have owned or experienced in those first couple of decades of the 20th century? What changes were making their way into people’s daily lives?
While this is by no means a comprehensive list, I wanted to highlight a few things I found while researching A Home for My Heart. The setting is 1910, central Pennsylvania. A small town and yet a center of industry and commerce, mostly due to the river running through it. The area has been settled well over 150 years. The train has run through town for decades, making it possible to travel over the mountains to cities like New York and Philadelphia. There are immigrant workers as well as men of education and wealth. Brick and stone buildings as well as simple wooden structures. Some streets are paved, or cobblestoned, while others are still simply dirt.
A college is well established in the center of town, associated with a Christian denomination, as many were. Veterans of the Civil War are old men now. The Spanish-American war has ended. The Great War hasn’t yet begun. Teddy Roosevelt takes the oath as President after William McKinley is shot in 1901. He resides in the White House until early 1909, where he is succeeded by William Howard Taft. This is the Progressive Era, a time of social activism and political reform.
So all of that is a good overview, but my mind always asks what was life like for the regular people?
Of course the automobile now increasing shared the road with the older, horse-drawn conveyances, but also with electric streetcars. I love this picture from nearby Ohio:
Of course, telephones had made their way into many people’s daily lives, especially in the context of business. Don’t you love the early telephones?
Electricity and natural gas had almost completely replaced candles and kerosene lamps, especially in the towns themselves. See this “Main Street” picture with the electric lines strung above the buildings.
Some homes still used out houses, while others had water closets or bathrooms in the house itself.
Baseball was growing in popularity as an American sport during the first twenty years of the 20th century.
And what about fashion? These were years of the Gibson girl look overlapped with Edwardian hobble skirts and empire waists. Of course working women still wore simple working dresses or skirts and shirtwaists. Many tailored, suit-like outfits came into style as well. And hats. Oh, the hats!
All in all, the first decade of the 20th century was a time of change, a time of moving into the modern era. Some embraced those changes more slowly (or quickly!) than others, but the new conveniences, new games, new gadgets, new modes of transportation and new styles would soon become a integral part of American life.