Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Rate of Change: a Historical Novelist’s Perspective

It’s all over the airwaves and tossed about at dinner tables all over the globe.  We are living in an era of enormous change.  EVERTHING has changed a LOT in the past say fifteen years.  The Internet has fundamentally transformed the way we live.  And, presumably, we are all either suffering from or benefiting from a tsunami of the NEW!!   Nothing like this has ever happened before.

You might be on the verge of believing all this hype.  Let’s talk.

We’ll start here.  My cousin sent me the following list in an email, which began with a picture of the 1910, Model T Ford:

At the time this car was made:
“The average life expectance for a man was 47 years.
Fuel for this car was sold in drug stores only.
Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub.
Only 8 percent of homes had a telephone.
There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower!
The average US wage in 1910 was 22 cents per hour.
The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year.
A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,
A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year,
And a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
More than 95 percent of all births took place at HOME.
Ninety percent of all Doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!
Instead, they attended so-called medical schools,
Many of which were condemned in the press AND the government as 'substandard.'
Sugar cost four cents a pound.
Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
There was no such thing as under arm deodorant or tooth paste.
Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
The five leading causes of death were:
1. Pneumonia and influenza
2. Tuberculosis
3. Diarrhea
4. Heart disease
5. Stroke
The American flag had 45 stars.
The population of Las Vegas Nevada was only 30!
Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn't been invented yet
There was no Mother's Day or Father's Day.
Two out of every 10 adults couldn't read or write and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
There were about 230 reported murders in the ENTIRE U.S.A!”

This list is pretty impressive.  But what strikes me about it is that pretty much all the radical departures from these hundred-year-old facts took place well before the arrival of the Internet and mobile phones, not to say the personal computer. 

Research during the writing of my historical mysteries brought home to me exactly when the biggest flood of change happened.  City of Silver takes place in what is now Bolivia 1650 and Invisible Country is set across in the border in Paraguay in 1868.  In the intervening two centuries, not much changed in the way people handled their daily lives.  In both stories, if you wanted to get from one place to another over land, you walked, rode a horse, or rode in a coach.  By 1868, there were railroads, but by their very nature, the places one could travel on them were very limited—and not many train lines yet existed.  If you wanted to get a message to someone who was not in the room with you, you had either to go to see the person or to write your message on a piece of paper and give it to someone to carry to its destination.  If you wanted to stay up past sundown, you lit candles or burned oil in a lamp.  If wanted to travel at night, you went when the moon was full, or you carried a burning torch.  If you wanted to cross the ocean, you went by boat.  Boats got a bit swifter between those two stories and somewhat more comfortable, but that was about it in terms of convenience.  If you got a wound that became infected, you were in danger of losing a limb or your life.

But then, consider what happened between how people lived in my first and second novels and how they lived in the third—Blood Tango.  The change was enormous.   In 1945, people in Buenos Aires had cars, telephones, electric lights, and the possibility of flying.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

The changes between 1868 and 1945 were much more transformative than the ones that have taken place since 1945.  The last fifteen years have brought us the Internet and smart phones.  Here is photo that gives you an idea of the progress:

Yes, what’s happening now is a big deal, but the difference between “no telephone” and “telephone” is much greater than the difference between “land-line telephone” and “mobile telephone.”

If you are looking for the era of biggest change, it’s the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth centuries, which saw, as the prime example, the building of the electrical grid.  Also, of course, the invention of the airplane, the telephone, recorded sound, the radio, etc. etc. That was the era that revolutionized life on this planet.  The building of the Internet, you should pardon my expression, can’t hold a candle to the impact electrification.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. This happens to be a topic I'm immensely interested in. Last night I listened to the radio program Coast to Coast for several hours, trying to glean the latest news re the Malaysian plane. Hourly the whole scene shifts - today's Times carried the early A.M. facts or coverups... Could I even imagine my parents glued to the news a bout a single plane from Malaysia !!!! T. Jackie Straw in Manhattan

    1. Thelma, I share your intense curiosity about the missing airliner. For our parents, they would have been glued to the radio for news about a child stuck in the well in Ohio. Which is, I think, pretty much the same thing. Before broadcasting, regardless of format, such obsessions with faraway crises would have been impossible.

    2. A very interesting & informative read thank you for sharing... my sentiments exactly..... what next ?

  2. Annamaria, I think about stuff like this all the time. Fascinating how our idea of the latest and greatest pales in comparison to other generations. Thanks for this. Loved it!