I have recently read a very interesting book with which I first became acquainted through reviews in the NY Times and the NY Review of Books – Robert J. Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living Since the Civil War”.
Mr. Gordon’s book is a fascinating mixture of economics and history which describes in great detail through prose, numbers and graphs the growth of the economy and the corresponding improvement in the standard of living in mainly what he calls the “special century” from 1870 to 1970. The main point of the book is to demonstrate that the improvement in the standard of living since the Civil War until about 1970 was huge and, despite our faith in continued progress through the benefits of technology, neither can nor will ever happen again. Gordon names “five great inventions” of this particular century – electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication – any one of which, he asserts, had a far greater impact on our standard of living than the recent IT revolution.
Professor Gordon sketches for us what life was like right after the civil war and compares this to life in 1970. By that year homes had central heating, electric lighting, toilets and electrical appliances to assist with household chores. We had automobiles, paved roads and telephones and performed our work in comfortable environments. We dressed in clothing that we bought from stores and ate fresh or well preserved food from supermarkets. If you could take people living then back to 1870, they would find city streets knee deep in horse manure, extensive travel very difficult or almost impossible, homes dark and cold. If you were a man you did backbreaking manual labor for a living; if a woman, you worked dawn to dusk washing clothes with a washboard in water you carried and cooked over a wood or coal stove. You had no fruit or vegetables in the winter and the meat and milk you bought could be bad. Your children were often ill or died of disease because there were no medicines to make them well. You carried in water to be heated for bathing in a tub. Your bathroom was a cold outhouse or a chamber pots emptied outside into the streets or fields. The contrast between 1870 and 1970 was quite stark, almost black and white, in terms of how people lived.
In reading this fascinating book and its descriptions of what life was like before the “five great inventions”, I couldn’t help but think of my parents and grandparents and what they experienced growing up. My Dad and Mom were both born in 1915, pretty much right in the middle of this “special century”, both into large farming families – Dad one of six children in Missouri and Colorado and Mom one of seven in North Dakota. I certainly wish Dad and Mom were alive today so that I could develop a more complete picture of what their lives were like as children and through them, what their parents’ lives had been like growing up.
I remember my father telling us children that he walked three miles to school every day when he was young. I’d like to know – on what kind of roads? Did anyone have automobiles or were his neighbors limited to horses and carriages? I do know that as a boy on the farm in Versailles, Missouri, he plowed fields and planted and cultivated crops with teams of horses or mules. Also I remember visiting the Missouri farm as a child and, looking back, I don’t remember the house having bathrooms. There was a primitive outhouse with an old Sears catalogue hanging on the wall from which you could rip a few pages to clean yourself up. Instead of a bath or shower, you cleaned up with a sponge bath in a protected area of the kitchen.
I wonder when my father’s family got electricity and how they lived without it when he was a child. I presume kerosene lamps provided the light and a wood cooking stove or a pot bellied stove provided some heat in the wintertime. And I presume that one’s body on top of and beneath a featherbed, with the bodies of brothers and sisters close by, was enough to keep warm in the unheated bedrooms of that day.
My grandfather, Conrad Adam Friedly, lost his farm in Versailles, Missouri in 1927 and moved the family to a farm on the plains of Colorado, east of Denver where the family tried again to make a go of it. I know little of these circumstances – if the farm in Missouri was lost, what means did the family have to buy a farm in Colorado? Or did they rent the farm or just work on a farm? My grandfather later moved back to Missouri with what remained of his family to the farm he used to own. How and when did that happen?
More to the point and considering the book I read which raised all the questions, what was life like for them in Missouri, then Colorado, then Missouri again? Professor Gordon stresses that even while cities and towns across the country were making progress with electric lighting, bathrooms, sewage and running water, farms, especially in the rural south, lagged far behind the rest of the country. Looking at my father’s situation, I would have to assume that outhouses, carrying cooking and cleaning water, bathing in the kitchen, kerosene lamps, wood or coal stoves for cooking and heating were exactly what he had in his youth.
Gordon points out that there were differences between rural areas and suburban/city areas in how quickly these modern conveniences were provided. I would have liked to compare Dad’s primitive, hard-scrabble farm life in Missouri, which indeed was the south, to Mom’s prairie farming life in North Dakota, on the northern plains when they were both little children in the 1920’s. What do they remember about how their houses were heated, about bathing? Going to the bathroom? Running water? When did their families obtain their first tractor and put the mules and horses out to pasture? When did each family obtain their first automobile? How were their crops harvested? What were their dietary staples and how was most of their food preserved? I do remember Dad talking about butchering hogs and hams hanging in the smokehouse. And I know that farm families at that time “canned” food in the summer for consumption in the winter, filling and sealing mason jars, then “cooking” the sealed jars in huge pots of boiling water on top of a wood stove. Wait a minute, there was no wood on the treeless prairie plains of North Dakota. What was the fuel they used for heating and cooking?
What was school like for Mom and Dad when they were children? What memorable teachers did they have? Did they obtain their respective love of reading and desire for learning from them or from their parents? Mom’s parents were not educated but nevertheless obviously instilled a love of learning in their children. I know Uncle Arnold had a college degree and of course Uncle Emil, and finally Mom. Who else?
I would love to ask the same questions of my father, were he still alive today. What do you remember of your teachers when you were a child? Does any one remain in your mind as a special inspiration? I suspect that Dad would claim that his love of learning began when, as a youth of 14, he left his family home and cast his lot with the Pillar of Fire church. And I know that Dad would eagerly tell me about one teacher in his Pillar of Fire experience as a high school student who inspired him – Agnes Kubitz, whom I remember too as a gentle, soft spoken, dignified, white haired teacher. I believe that she may have still been teaching at Zarephath when our sister Barbara was in high school.
Gordon makes a point of describing how clothing was sewn by hand in many families. Did both my Dad’s and Mom’s families have to purchase cloth from local stores and then sew their own clothing? Mom was an accomplished seamstress, perhaps this is why. When exactly did they begin to buy ready made clothing from department stores or from mail order catalogs? I certainly wish Mom and Dad were alive so that I could better understand this and so many other aspects of their childhoods and through that knowledge better understand them and myself.
I miss my parents for other reasons as well. Charles Ralph Friedly, my father, and Ida Marie Baxstrom, my mother, were not perfect people by any means. As noted in my article about him, Dad was rarely home when I was little. He fled family responsibilities by being busy teaching school in the Pillar of Fire Church’s Alma Preparatory School, or taking taking courses at Alma White College, both at nearby Zarephath. As noted in that article, Dad also pursued several part time vocations – such as serving as the community barber, with his faithful Oster hair clipper at hand, by serving as pastor at other nearby Pillar of Fire churches, like the one in Brooklyn, New York and by farming and selling his produce. But Dad had an awesome intellect that I never properly appreciated, my perception being clouded by my bitterness and resentment caused by his frequent absences. I wish he were here now so I could get his take on for example, today’s Republican Party. Even though a faithful member and supporter of the Republican Party (he even attended the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago), I would fancy that Dad had a great deal of sympathy for the less fortunate and for the common working man. What would he think of the Republican Party today compared to that of his day, exemplified by these provisions in the Republican platform of 1956:
1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities;
2. Protect Social Security;
3. Provide asylum for refugees;
4. Extend minimum wage;
5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people;
6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union;
7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.
What would he think about the perennial Republican tax cuts for the wealthy and attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? I know that he was constantly surprised and pleased by his own Social Security check which, though small, arrived faithfully every month, from that same Federal government that his political party liked to condemn.
I would love to ask my mother more about how her family came to send virtually all of its children at one time or another to the Pillar of Fire schools in Denver, where Mom and Dad eventually met in high school. I know that Mr. Clarence Yoder, somehow a church member, owned a quarter of land adjacent to the Baxstrom farm in North Dakota. But why and how exactly did Mr. Yoder wield such influence on Mom’s family? And who was primarily responsible for the final decision – her mother or her father? I know one brother, her youngest, Uncle Emil, left the Pillar of Fire in disgust after a few months there, calling the church a “cult”. How did the others feel? How did my mom really feel about the church? I do know that Dad’s parents adamantly disagreed about the church – his mother embracing it and backing Dad’s decision to leave his family for the church at 14. I wonder if Mom’s parents had conflicting opinions as well.
And I would like to ask my mother about how she developed her affinity for music which exerted such a pervasive influence on all of us children? Did they sing a lot in her little Mylo school? In her Lutheran church when she was a child? Did her parents also enjoy music at home? Did they have a piano in the house? Who played it? How did she learn “Star of the East”, that song on the piano which became her trademark? Incidentally, thanks to the magic of Google, I was surprised to learn that this song was actually a Christmas carol, has beautiful lyrics and was recorded on the B-side of a Christmas record by Judy Garland.
And Dad, too, enjoyed music, enjoyed singing, which surely influenced all of us as well. Where did that come from? What church did he and his family attend when he was a child in Missouri and in Colorado? I know I could have asked many of these questions to some of Dad’s siblings when they were alive. But they are all gone now too and I didn’t ask. So I will never find out.
All the questions outlined above could have been extended to what Mom and Dad knew of their own parents’ childhood. What Mom knew about the difficulties of everyday life faced by her Swedish parents, Nels Baxstrom and Anna Jonsson, when they were children would have been very interesting. Also, I would like to have known what Dad knew of the daily challenges faced by his parents, Conrad Adam Friedly and Audra Arnold and their respective families when they were growing up. I just didn’t ask Mom and Dad these questions and regret it very much today.
So I miss my parents more than ever and at age 75 I’m wondering why. Right now I’m attempting to prepare a huge page of the Friedly Family with Mom and Dad, their birthdates and birthplaces on top and their children and progeny listed in order below, replete with birth dates, occupations and so on. Ralph and Ida Friedly would have been so pleased and proud to see this extensive list of individuals who, with an assist from the infusion of other rich blood, descended directly from them, and have pursued such a huge variety of careers and vocations.
It hit me the other day, during one of my early morning reveries, during which I seem to think most clearly and write most fluently, that perhaps the reason I miss my parents so much now, is that I’m getting on in years myself and have a clearer sense of my own mortality. Mom and Dad did indeed pass away but they continue to live richly in my mind. With the inevitable end of my consciousness, they will finally fade away completely for me. So along with a final goodby to my own loved ones, it will be a final farewell to Mom and Dad as well. They are missed.