Then and Now

Jessie: Enjoying the heat of summer finally finding its way to the coast of Maine!

As I have mentioned on the blog at least a few times in the past, I adore the research part of writing historical mysteries. The past is filled with so many intriguing tidbits and inspirations and I never leave off a session of poking round in historical archives or boxes of old photographs without a few new ideas whirling through my mind. Sometimes I am even lucky enough that things I have researched and events and experiences in my present converge. So often peeks into the past make the present feel more endurable, less unusual, or even more beneficent.

The fourth book in my Beryl and Edwina series, Murder Comes to Call, takes place in June 1921 in the U.K. and as I was researching events that were current at the time I discovered that the census had taken place then. The census was taken two months late that year because there was a tremendous amount of unrest throughout the country. When the soldiers who managed to survive the horror of the trenches returned to the country they had given so much to defend, they were promised a nation fit for heroes. What they got was a country with rather less on offer.

The economy was in terrible straits and most of the population was feeling the strain. Unemployment numbers were through the roof. Families were stilling reeling from the grief of loved ones lost to the war or the wave of influenza that had swept across the globe, another sort of world war.

In times like that the rules that have always gone unquestioned were more easily held up to scrutiny. People who had never questioned the notion that there were some people who were better, at least not aloud, found themselves far less likely to simply accept the status quo. Suddenly working-class people were not willing to stand by without comment as the government forced miners back down below ground for less than a living wage.

Instead, they organized into unions and joined socialist causes. Unions banded together into alliances that had enough clout to grind the nation to a halt. Surplus women chose to live on their own, or with female housemates, in large numbers for the first time in history. Multitudes of women also embarked on careers rather than putting their energy into raising families. Motorcars, household appliances, and contraceptives all became commonplace.

All of these changes led the powers that be to worry that so many members of the public would feel sufficiently disenfranchised to refuse to participate in the census as a form of protest. The government delayed the census long enough for some of the support to ebb away from the unions before they felt certain that they could trust the people to do what was asked of them.

I thought about these things as I filled out the census this year for my own household. So much feels similar now to the situation then. The economy has taken a discouraging downturn. Illness romps across the globe. Technologies make work different than it has been in the past. People are speaking out about what is unfair and are questioning in droves the way things have always been for some members of society. Even the census is running on a different timetable than it has in the past with the government allowing the results to trickle in to them more slowly than usual because of the state of affairs across the nation.

It wasn’t easy for the people my sleuths Beryl and Edwina would have known. It isn’t easy for us now. But it turned out that there was so much ahead to look forward to for people then, much of created it because of all the struggle and strife. I like to think that we may have just as many wonderful things ahead for us before long too.

Readers, if you were alive for the 1920 census what do you think you would think was the most amazing, surprising or delightful thing about today?

29 Thoughts

  1. Communication for sure but easing of “women’s work”–i,e, washing machines, microwaves, super markets–all the good stuff grandma didn’t have! And they say women didn’t work back then!

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    1. The home appliance made such an enormous difference! I have my great-grandmother’s scrub board from that era hanging in my laundry room next to my washing machine. It always makes me look at mountains of laundry with gratitude!

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  2. Not around in 1920, but I think it would be a world of wonder.

    I know just from my own time, 50’s forward, it’s amazed at how the job market has opened up allowing women to be more than teachers and secretaries and that they not only have a voice but that voice has an importance.

    Many advances all round to make life easier and things to run smoother. I also think we have lost some precious things like the importance of the written word and anticipation of the mail run to hear from a friend or loved one or full on attention face to face communication done without fingers flying. I just hope that years from now as folks reflect back on the 2020’s they think we succeeded in progressing as well as from the 1920’s to now.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

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    1. I second that, Kay. I miss getting letters in the mail. I used to be a huge letter writer–especially when I was stationed overseas with the Air Force in my twenties. I loved writing letters home to friends and family, and especially loved going to the post office on base and finding letters from home there–the highlight of my week. I still send cards to friends and family, and receive the occasional one, but it’s rare.

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      1. It is rare! I think I’ve seen something online about an annual February correspondence month. I cannot remember where I saw it but essentially it was a challenge to write one physical note or letter to someone each day of the month. Maybe you would enjoy being involved in something like that! Perhaps it would catch on!

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  3. I think the medical advances would be pretty amazing as well. The Spanish flu pandemic lasted, what, three years? I think the fact that we now have vaccines for a lot of the common diseases of the time, and the speed at which we are pursuing a vaccine for the current pandemic would be amazing.

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  4. Thanks so much for the history lesson, Jessie. It’s amazing how history repeats itself.
    If I would have been alive back then, the wireless technology of today would leave me dumbfounded. After all, I live with it, depend on it, and have no real idea how it actually works! lol

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  5. My grandmother who was alive in 1920 and had a farmhouse, a large family of children, a farmer husband and tenants to look after lived only 15 miles from her own mother. They did not travel to visit one another often and relied mostly on penny postcards for correspondence. They wrote to each other daily and I now have some of the postcards that my grandmother saved. What my grandmother was amazed about toward the end of her life in the early 1970s was airplanes and how quickly a person could get from one place to another. She also never did quit writing cards and letters, continuing to communicate with family and friends through the USPS. I try to keep up that habit as I enjoy writing letters and receiving them, too.

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    1. Judy, what a lovely story and how fortunate you are to have some of the postcards! I​ often think of how we will not have the same samples of personal correspondence in future unless we digitally archive tweets and emails.

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      1. I remember every time I visited the US from England I was unable to decide which detergent and shampoo to buy. There were dozens and dozens of kinds and I’d stand there, blocking the aisle, unable to choose. And this was fairly recent history.

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  6. So much has changed in the last 100 years that it is hard to pick just one. However, I have to mention the internet since it is how I am working from home and how I am communicating with you right now.

    It’s hard to believe that we had the proper information to do accounting without the internet. We are so spoiled with how quickly we can get accurate information to do our job. Of course, it is also a downside since we have to be more accurate and faster because of computers and the internet.

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  7. My grandparents were all born at the turn of the century and were very much of the generation of Beryl and Edwina. I used to marvel at the changes they’d seen. From gaslights to electricity, from horses to cars, from ships to airplanes to a man on the moon. So many of the changes they saw in their lifetimes were in the field of transportation, I think that’s why they imagined a future of jetpacks and hoverboards. But the real innovations of my lifetime have been in communication. Now we can work with people across the globe without teleportation.

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  8. Fascinating comments about life after the war and especially the changes for women. Some I knew others I didn’t know. I look forward to the new book.

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