These Insane Facts About Life In Early 1900s America Will Make You Thankful You’re Alive Today

Image: Preus Museum/Library of Congress

The early 1900s may well have been all about the American Dream, but life in the United States certainly wasn’t all it was perhaps cracked up to be. Indeed, from low literacy rates to poor diets and even poorer life expectancy, there was plenty about our existence back then to make you glad that you’re alive today.

19. Doctors didn’t have college educations

An incredible 90 percent of physicians in early 1900s America never went to college. Instead, they received their training at medical schools, most of which were viewed as “substandard” by both the government and the media. There’s a reason why doctors today must go through such extensive training.

18. Washing your hair wasn’t a frequent activity

During this era, most women would only bother washing their hair around once a month, if not every six weeks. Moreover, shampoo as we know it definitely wasn’t on the table. Instead, a single well-beaten egg mixed with an ounce of water did the trick.

Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

17. Illiteracy was rampant

Back in 1900 just over 10 percent of people aged 14 and over lacked the ability to read or write in any language. And while that rate had gone down by 3 percent a decade later, more than 30 percent of the black and minority population were still illiterate come 1910.

16. High school graduation rates were low

Yes, high school graduation rates were so low back in the day that only 6.4 percent of students graduated in 1900. Just imagine if that rate was still the same today; there’d be no hope for anyone. Thankfully, come 1940, graduation rates had leapt to just over 50 percent.

Image: via US Slave

15. Heroin was a common prescription

Back at the turn of the 20th century, doctors were happy to prescribe heroin as a treatment for all manner of illnesses. Those conditions ranged from phthisis and bronchitis to asthma and tuberculosis. In fact, heroin was even used to treat coughs. It wasn’t until years later that the medical profession began to realize just how harmful the drug really is.

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14. The average American diet was even worse than it is today


As the stereotype goes, the average 21st-century U.S. diet isn’t exactly the healthiest around. That said, you can be sure that it’s a darn sight healthier than it was 100 years ago. Back then, people consumed just as much lard every year as they did chicken.

Image: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

13. Life expectancy wasn’t particularly high

Back when, most white Americans could only expect to live until the ripe old age of 48. African-Americans, meanwhile, had it even worse, with a life expectancy of 33 – similar to that of a 19th-century Indian peasant. Hardly the embodiment of the American Dream.

Image: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

12. Bathtubs weren’t commonplace


Bathtubs with running water were basically a luxury item in America until the 1920s. In fact, just 14 percent of homes were blessed with one in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. These days, of course, it’s hard to imagine a home without one.

Image: Library and Archives Canada/PA-038455

11. You couldn’t drive very fast

If you were lucky enough to own a car in the early 1900s, you still couldn’t put your foot down. Indeed, the first speed limit, set in Connecticut in 1901, was 12 mph for cars in cities. And while speed limits are a good thing, we’re glad we aren’t still crawling along at those paces.


10. Your parents would have been unlikely to live to see you grow up

In the early 20th century, at least one of your folks most likely wouldn’t have survived to witness major life events such as your wedding or the birth of your first kid. In fact, around 50 percent of people had suffered the loss of one of their parents by the time they were 21.


9. School wasn’t the norm…

As much as you may have lamented your high school days at the time, looking back, they were at least preferable to the alternative that many teens faced in the early 1900s. Indeed, the majority of those teens weren’t even at school; instead, they were doing manual labor on farms and in factories.

Image: Preus Museum/Library of Congress

8. …but work wasn’t very safe either


Yes, working conditions in the early 1900s were generally poor, with long hours commonplace. Moreover, the work itself was pretty dangerous – around 30 times more dangerous, in fact, than today’s jobs are. For every 100,000 workers in the early 1900s, a sizeable 61 died on the job.

Image: via TLN Genealogy

7. Women worked in education – for all the wrong reasons

Way back in the early 1900s, female teachers were all the rage – but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking. Sure, they were usually thought of as being more loving towards kids. However, the real reason why school boards preferred hiring women was because they could pay them less.

Image: Celpics

6. Clothing was far more expensive


Such was the cost of clothing in the early 1900s that the average American could expect to spend a massive 13 percent of their income on clothes. By contrast, due to globalization bringing down production costs, we now spend around 3 percent of our income on fashion.

Image: via Cha com Estilo

5. Wages were much lower

Even taking into account inflation, workers earned far less in the early 20th century than they do today. Indeed, the average income for a family totaled around $3,000 per year – and that’s in today’s money. Can you imagine supporting a family on that in modern society?

Image: via Babycenter

4. Home births were the standard, not the exception


Nowadays, the vast majority of births take place in hospitals. In fact, that was the case by as early as 1957, when 95 percent of newborns were brought into the world in hospitals. Not so in the early 1900s, however, when the opposite was true: 95 percent of births actually happened at home.

Image: Lewis Wickes Hine

3. Workers’ rights didn’t exist

While there was plenty of work to go around in the early 1900s, it wasn’t exactly pleasant or secure. The pressure to perform was intense, with most employees facing constant inspections to ensure that their work was up to standard. Moreover, they also had to be prepared to do pretty much whatever was asked of them.

Image: Harry Shipler

2. Cars weren’t in abundance


Even by 1915 there were only two million cars driving around the few roads that existed in the U.S. That’s approximately one car for every 50 Americans at the time. Nowadays, there are over 250 million cars, trucks and motorbikes populating the roads of the United States.

Image: via The Modern Man

1. Dating was horrifying

A standard first date these days usually extends to dinner and drinks between two people. Back in the early 1900s, though, a young man could expect to spend his first date meeting the girl’s parents – followed by what must have been the most awkward family dinner imaginable.