The Good Old Days

Were they really good? I am talking about the days following the Civil War and extending to the early 1900’s. Most of us have an image of the fun and charm of the Gay Nineties. In Winslow Homer’s 1872 painting of “Snap the Whip” we see a picture of a blue-skied meadow where children play happily during school recess. In our history books we see photographs of millionaires sitting on the deck of ocean liners drinking tea in the afternoon sun. In our mind’s eye we imagine Poland, Ohio, in the late 19th Century as a quiet village with tree-lined streets and attractive colonial-style houses behind freshly painted fences. It is true that the old days were good for the privileged few, but for the average breadwinner living in America’s cities, life was an unremitting hardship.
If we delve deeply, we learn that the diet of America was bread, potatoes, root vegetables and meat, often dried, smoked, or salted. Cucumbers and pickles were the only salad in winter. The grocery store had no produce section; fresh vegetables and fruit were unknown outside of Florida. Oranges were only found in Christmas stockings and tomatoes were an exotic Mexican fruit. The Cholera epidemic of 1832 was believed to have been caused by fruit. The New York City Council had forbidden the sale of all fruit, and though the ban had been lifted some years later the mistrust was to remain. The masses were forced to subsist on a crude and scanty diet of which tea and bread were staples, supplemented now and then by a soup or stew of questionable origin.
the good old days, craving for a cup of really good coffee was just as intense as it is today, but hard to come by. A report of the 1870’s suggests why. “How complacently we receive from the hands of the grocer a package of ‘pure Java’ – which is not Java at all but a mixture of roasted beans and peas, flavored with the ever-present chicory and rye.”
As America migrated westward, it was corn planted in the woods even before the stumps were cleared, that kept the pioneers from starving. But although it yielded sustenance, corn did not provide an adequate diet, even if more than thirty-two ways were contrived to prepare it in the form of bread, hominy cake, and pudding. Corn was eaten three times a day as boiled, roasted, mashed or popped. In eastern Ohio the markets for the farmer’s abundant corn crops were far removed and the farmer found it cheaper to convert his crop into sought after alcohol and ship it at a reduced bulk in a barrel.
The causes of heavy drinking were both ethnic and social. Each successive group of immigrants appeared in the cities carried its own bottled tradition, whether it was the German addiction to beer or the Irish fondness for malt liquor. Dismal living conditions and loneliness magnified the city dweller’s thirst and the liquor that was a gratifying indulgence for the rich was an inescapable crutch for the poor.
Here in the Mahoning Valley saloons became the place where a half-naked iron-puddler gulps down – after a 12 hour shift in the steel mill – an enormous hooker of straight rye with each wallop followed by a tall glass of beer as a chaser.
The drunkard’s wife was an object of deepest tragedy. Cast into despair by a lack of love and seeing her husband’s earnings disappear, her suffering was increased by the fears – often realized – that in their poverty and demoralization the children would follow in their father’s path. Child alcoholics were not uncommon, having developed an early taste for drink as the result of constant trips to the saloon to have a pitcher filled with “beer for Father.”