By David Schmidt
Main Line Life Correspondent
Since the middle of the 19th century, people’s lives have steadily become easier.
The amount of time the modern person saves because of the advance of technology and prosperity means we can do much more each day, include relaxing and doing things we enjoy.
Almost everything in people’s lives is more efficient. At the turn of the century, figure the time it took to do the everyday tasks of living and add the chores all members of a family had to do. Include people’s daily work and that left much less time for fun than today.
Consider activities we so casually accomplish today.
For example, a typical start to a work day: taking a shower, fixing a bagel and a cup a cup of coffee then getting to work on time.
In less complicated times, instead of turning on the hot water tap and jumping under the shower, you would have hauled the water a gallon or two at a time from the back yard to the kitchen. Once those five or so trips were over, you could start heating the water.
Of course you would have lit the wood stove before you dragged the tub into the kitchen and filled it. If you had coffee, you’d have ground the beans and put a pot on the stove.
But you’d probably be drinking tea – Starbucks would never have made it on the Quaker Main Line.
Grabbing the family’s bar of soap, you shucked your clothes and started your bath. Unless you were reasonably affluent, you’d put the same clothes back on. Considering the time to wash and iron, clothes weren’t changed often.
With your tea brewing, you sliced bread off yesterday’s loaf to toast over the open fire in the stove because the day’s dough was still rising in the warm air behind the stove. If you were lucky there might be some unsoured milk left. If not, you milked the cow. Butter and jam made for a good snack. Breakfast waited until several hours of work were done.
Before trotting off to work you had to give the transportation a bucket of oats and rolled a bale of hay into its stall. Add up the time and it had been four hours until you unlocked the door of your office that may have been about a mile from your home.
Clearly this wasn’t what people did. But everything took a great deal more time to accomplish, which is why so many parts of our modern lives seem to be accelerating exponentially.
All the time it took maintaining ourselves is replaced by time to make things happen.
For the Main Line’s early inhabitants, leisure was centered on worship and the major events such as weddings and funerals. For a teenager, most activities involved being with others in group settings.
Also the community helped each other, and these were occasions for a little fun mixed in with the work.
Barn raisings were not only the best way to get a structure off the ground, but they also brought families together. In the winter, without crops to tend, there was more time for fun, but even this usually had a utilitarian result. Quilting bees, for instance, weren’t to support someone’s crafting interest, they were necessary to keep warm.
Historian Mary Woods looked at what Main Liners did over the generations and determined it was both the same as in other places but with a very different flavor.
“Only the few wealthy families had leisure for anything other than weddings, funerals, meeting and church,” she said. But the religious nature of the Main Line’s communities focused available time on good works. “Spare time was often devoted to the care of the ill, elderly and indigent,” she said.
Quakers and Mennonites alike were normally glad to share with those less fortunate or physically infirm. Financial records show money paid to support the poor in colonial times that was often about 12 pounds a year.
Later these efforts would be institutionalized.
“There was an organized effort in Lower Merion to feed the deserving poor, which became the Bryn Mawr Citizens Association in 1888,” Woods said.
Community responsibly was still important to the people of the 19th century, and it wasn’t just women who did good works. “As communities grew, businessmen cleaned up muddy walkways, public dumps, and the like, working to improve life around them,” she said.
But life wasn’t easy and in spite of the good will of the Quakers, not everyone behaved themselves. Bars and taverns were centers of conviviality, where men gathered to discuss the crops and the weather and manage their communities. Many served less noble purposes.
Drunkenness was an extremely common escape from the fierce drudgery of a mill worker’s life or the boredom of a farmer’s daily chores. The good wages earned by mill workers meant there were women willing to show men a good time for a share of the money.
Gambling, fighting, boxing and racing were all popular.
Each generation gained in leisure time, and leisure activities migrated down the social scale. Where only a wealthy settler would have a book to read in 17th century Pennsylvania, the great-grandchildren of their laborers could read and even own a book or two. Their great-grandchildren probably don’t know anyone who doesn’t read.
Thanks to the increasing leisure time, some women’s good works still benefit us today. “Main Line women organized the Woman’s Club in the 1890s and opened the Ardmore Library, staffing it themselves,” Woods said.
Over the generations, more time and less work continued to change the lives. Perhaps that is why every generation for the past three centuries (and perhaps millennia) have complained about how easy life was for the younger generation and how lazy they were.
Young people were still more interested in social activities and when their parents allowed them they found ways to meet each other.
“Young people met one another at Magic Lantern exhibitions, performed comic skits and mock trials, arranged dances, hay or sleigh rides,” Woods said. Even this had a serious purpose – that was where mates would be found.
Technology was making many things possible so quickly that life was changed in scores of years rather than in centuries. A person in the 1880s had a life more like their great-great-grandparents than their grandchildren.
Take the telephone. “It was first introduced in the 1870s and ’80s and became a necessity for many,”
Woods said. A telephone meant hours saved as well as contacts maintained with friends and associates in ways impossible the generation before.
In the same way that the telephone reduced distances, so did transportation. People could actually live some distance from where they worked for the first time in history.
Automobiles furthered independent movement even more. “They were rare and expensive, and contributed both problems and pleasures on the Main line,” Woods said.
Now that people could get around, and modern equipment got the work done more quickly, organized activities became very popular.
“The Wayne Swimming Pool, largest of its kind, was completed in 1895, but by 1904 it was deemed obsolete because the golf and bicycle craze had lured away users,” Woods said.
Sports gained in popularity both to play and watch. Ardmore Ball Park installed an awning over the grandstand and soon attracted women out the ballgames. The Ardmore Bowling Alley advertised curtained alleys for ladies.
The increased leisure time and ease of movement began the process of separating the involvement of both the family and the community from recreational activities.
Instead of finding their own entertainment, technology was making it easier for people to watch rather than participate. Not that there weren’t still plenty to do dancing, riding, traveling, card playing, singing and amateur diversions still were popular, but the seeds of the couch potato were definitely planted in the early 20th century.
Devices were even making entertainment more efficient and less time consuming. Instead of learning to make music themselves, people could listen to Al Jolson sing on a Victrola or over a radio, making Victrola inventor Eldridge R. Johnson of Merion and radio tycoon Atwater Kent of Ardmore even richer.
The next step was movies. “The Methodists of Ardmore presented an Edison Motion Picture film in color, 1,500 feet long and requiring 40 minutes showing time,” Woods said. Soon there were movie houses in almost every village.
Then came television. Now it was possible to be entertained at home, without having to do anything but watch. You didn’t even have to get dressed and drive to a theater. Leisure time had become totally personal and totally local you could be entertained to your heart’s content without leaving your house.
Now technology is taking us full circle, as computers help people reestablish themselves within an almost infinite number of communities, without the limitations of space and distance. With a computer and an Internet connection, people can electronically meet with others of like interests and find out more about the world than was ever possible without ever leaving a chair.
Sitting in your bathrobe, you can actually discover, for instance, what our forefathers did with their hour, or maybe two, of leisure time a week.