Today, we live in a world of technological marvels. We take most of them for granted. Yet so many of the innovations we enjoy did not exist within the lifetimes of many people alive right now. A few years ago, a woman who had reached the age of 100 was asked what was the greatest improvement she had seen in her life. Her answer was simple” “Central heating.” She might have added, “And air conditioning.”
Even in the mid-Twentieth Century, central heating and air conditioning were luxuries enjoyed only by the wealthy that lived in the cities. Everyone else was still dependent on open flame for heating and had no defense at all against excessive heat. In the depths of winter, people clustered around fireplaces of wood-burning stoves to keep from freezing. At bedtime, fires were banked to preserve live coals. Temperatures within houses soon dropped to match that outside. People wore heavy sleeping clothes and scarves or nightcaps on their heads to stay warm.
In the rare instances where running water existed, faucets were left open to prevent water from freezing and breaking the pipes. Water in open buckets would freeze overnight. When a family arose the next morning, the first chores were to get the fires going to provide heat. Women cooked breakfast either in the fireplace or on wood-burning iron “ranges.” Providing an ample supply of split wood consumed a great deal of time, usually for the male children. Just staying warm and preparing food consumed a large percentage of human energy.
In the heat of summer, people sweltered. Heavy sweating was taken for granted. In that age before deodorant, people used perfume or cologne to cover the smell. Daily bathing was limited to well-off city dwellers. Rural families were limited to sponge baths or a once-a-week dip in a galvanized washtub.
Most of the country lacked electricity until well into the Twentieth Century. Those lucky enough to own radios depended on batteries not much smaller than those in an automobile. Listening time had to be carefully rationed to preserve the battery charge for as long as possible. Indoor lighting was limited to candles and oil lamps. Only those lucky enough to own “Aladdin” lamps using mantles like Coleman lanterns enjoyed illumination anywhere close to that of an electric bulb. A can full of coal oil (kerosene) was a necessary weekly purchase. Television and computers remained undreamed of luxuries.
Having painted what to my grandchildren is a horrifying picture of life in my early youth, it saddens me to realize that a large segment of humankind still exists in such conditions. Those of us in the Western world should consider ourselves extremely blessed to enjoy our current circumstances. We should be thankful people, not resentful that this or that person might have more “stuff” than we do. And we need to do what we can to relieve human suffering throughout the world. We need to get outside ourselves and focus on making the world a better place for all.