I’ve just finished The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (personal favorite: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914).
I’ll do another posting about the (recommended) book per se but with this post I just want to highlight some of the changes in American society over the past 130 years revealed by the book.
What constitutes a middle class lifestyle has certainly changed quite a bit:
The brothers were well into their twenties before there was running water or plumbing in the [Dayton, Ohio] house. Weekly baths were accomplished sitting in a tub of hot water on the kitchen floor, with the curtains drawn. An open well and wooden pump, outhouse, and carriage shed were out back. There was no electricity. Meals were cooked on a wood stove. Heat and light were provided by natural gas. House and property had a total value of perhaps $1,800.
Despite the lack of a Starbucks “Race Together” campaign, being black in 19th century Ohio does not seem to have been a bar to success:
A high school friend of Orville’s, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had been the class poet and the only black student in the school, became a contributor to the West Side News. Later, when Dunbar proposed doing a weekly paper for the black community, Orville and Wilbur printed it on credit, but it lasted only a short time. … In 1893, through the influence of Bishop Wright, a first collection of Dunbar’s poems was published by the United Brethren Church, for which Dunbar himself paid the cost of $125. In another few years, having been discovered by the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, Dunbar had become a nationally acclaimed poet
Being Jewish was not a plus:
In a letter from Katharine [the Wrights’ sister], dated June 30, he was to learn that things were not going at all well at home, that she and Orville felt left out of what was happening in Paris. “Orv can’t work any,” Orv was quite “uneasy,” Orv was “unsettled,” “really crazy to know what is going on,” “wroth” over how things were being handled in Paris without him. Clearly she was, too. She and Orville had lost all patience with Flint & Company and questioned whether they could be trusted. She had had little or no experience with Jews, but having seen a photograph of Hart Berg, she wondered if he might be one. “I can’t stand Berg’s looks,” she wrote. “It has just dawned on me that the whole company is composed of Jews. Berg certainly looks it.”
Women were scarce as both pilots and passengers in the first decade of powered flight, though a rope tied around the ankles and bottom of a long dress was a big help in those “no-cockpit” days. (see this history of female pilots) On the other hand, Katharine Wright, after a career as a school teacher ($25/week; about $24,000 in today’s money), was selected as a trustee of her alma mater, Oberlin College.
Bicycles were potentially shocking and certainly shockingly expensive:
Bicycles were proclaimed morally hazardous. Until now children and youth were unable to stray very far from home on foot. Now, one magazine warned, fifteen minutes could put them miles away. Because of bicycles, it was said, young people were not spending the time they should with books, and more seriously that suburban and country tours on bicycles were “not infrequently accompanied by seductions.
In 1895, their third year in business, they moved to a corner building at 22 South Williams Street, with a showroom on the street level and space for a machine shop upstairs. There, on the second floor, the brothers began making their own model bicycles, available to order. The announcement of the new product read in part as follows: It will have large tubing, high frame, tool steel bearings, needle wire spokes, narrow tread and every feature of an up-to-date bicycle. Its weight will be about 20 pounds. We are very certain that no wheel on the market will run easier or wear longer than this one, and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner. It sold for $60 to $65 and was called the Van Cleve, in honor of their great-great-grandmother on their father’s side, who was the first white woman to settle in Dayton. With the Van Cleve in production, and available in all colors, a second, less-expensive model was introduced called the St. Clair, in tribute to the first governor of the old Northwest Territory, of which Ohio was part. Their income grew to the point where they were earning a handsome $2,000 to $3,000 per year.
… As it was during the first several months of 1904, bike repairs were numbering a steady fifteen to twenty a week. Then there were the sales of a great variety of bicycle “sundries,” as they were referred to in the shop’s large ledger books, including bike tires ($3.25 each), bike bells (10 cents), lamps ($1.00), pedal guards (5 cents), spokes (10 cents), bike pumps (35 cents). Also, as usual in winter, sharpening ice skates (at 15 cents each) provided a steady additional sum
The BLS inflation calculator goes back only to 1913 but $65 in 1913 corresponds to $1541 today and the $3,000 in 1913 would be about $70,000 today. A high-end camera was about the same price as today: “In 1902 they had made what for them was a major investment of $55.55 in as fine an American-made camera to be had, a large Gundlach Korona V, which used 5 × 7-inch glass plates and had a pneumatic shutter.” (Though of course today we don’t have to buy chemicals to develop images from our Canons, Nikons, and Sonys.)
Everything was pointing up:
With the arrival of the New Year 1903, the outlook in Dayton was more promising than ever. The local population had reached nearly 100,000 and according to the Evening News, an equal number were now finding their way there to do business. It was no town for a pessimist, said the paper, “but if there is any hope for him, here he may breathe the glorious air of prosperity and imbibe the spirit of optimism and be cured.” To Americans throughout most of the country, the future was full of promise. A New Year’s Day editorial in the Chicago Tribune said one would have to be of “dull comprehension” not to realize things were better than they had ever been and would be “better still when new science and new methods, and new educations have done their perfect work.” The tempo of popular tunes was appropriately upbeat. Pianists north and south were playing ragtime, people singing and dancing to hits like “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” and “In the Good Old Summer Time.” Employment was up nearly everywhere. In the state of New York practically the entire labor force was working. Wages were rising, the national wealth increasing. Instead of a national debt, there was a surplus of $45 million. In Washington one sensed “a new velocity” under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt. The country was about to take on the building of the Panama Canal, picking up where the French had failed. No new year had “ever brought the people of the United States a more encouraging outlook,” said the Albuquerque Journal-Democrat. Further, as noted in numerous editorials, Sunday sermons, and at many a family dinner table, the world was at peace. One of the few puzzling questions to be considered, said the Philadelphia Inquirer, was why, so far, after so much attention had been paid to “aerial navigation,” had there been so few results?
Transportation to Europe was somewhat more expensive than today:
The Campania, part of the Cunard Line, was known as one of the finest vessels of its kind, and one of the fastest, a “flying palace of the ocean,” which Wilbur particularly liked. The ship was 622 feet in length, with two tall stacks, and burnt some five hundred tons of coal per day. The predominant interior style was Art Nouveau, with staterooms and public rooms paneled in satinwood and mahogany, and thickly carpeted. The weather was “splendid,” the sea smooth, and he had a cabin to himself. With only about half the usual number of passengers on board, he was able to get a $250 cabin for only $100, and he was quite happy about that, too, even if Flint was covering expenses
($100 in 1913 corresponds to $2370 today)
Military aircraft were way cheaper: “On February 8, 1908, their bid of $25,000 for a Flyer was at last accepted by the War Department.” (less than $600,000 in today’s dollars; compare to at least $100 million for an F-35 even using what are likely ridiculously optimistic accounting methods)
Wilbur Wright could have written Bringing Up Bébé: “He especially enjoyed watching the French children, amazed by how well behaved they were.” Italy suffered by comparison to Paris:
But for Orville and Katharine, Rome, after the time they had had in France, left much to be desired. That April was “the choice season” in Rome, that the palaces of the Caesars, the Arch of Constantine, and the Colosseum were even more impressive than expected, was not sufficient. As Katharine told her father, “I was homesick for the first time when we reached Rome.” She and Orville both were “very anxious to come home.” She found their hotel appallingly dirty. “We would appreciate a good clean bathtub and clean plates and knives and forks much more than the attention we receive.” In another letter she reported, “The waiters at the table are so dirty that I can hardly eat a mouthful of food.”
What did it mean to be “fat” in the days before the infinite river of corn products began pouring through American streets?
As it turned out, no one could have been more genial or helpful or generous with his time than Léon Bollée [French car manufacturer]. Short and dark bearded, he was extremely fat, weighing 240 pounds.
President Taft formally presented two Gold Medals on behalf of the Aero Club of America. At six feet two and weighing three hundred pounds, the president loomed large as he stood beside the brothers.
Life without DEET was not pleasant:
Among long-standing summer visitors to Nags Head, the old wisdom was that the infamous Outer Banks “skeeters” struck en masse only once every ten or twelve years. On July 18, it suddenly became clear 1901 was one of those years. As Orville wrote, the mosquitoes appeared “in the form of a mighty cloud, almost darkening the sun.” It was by far the worst experience of his life, he would tell Katharine. The agonies of typhoid fever were “as nothing” by comparison. There was no way of escaping the mosquitoes.
Journalists could be humble:
Writing his autobiography later, James Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News, remembered reports coming “to our office that the airship had been in the air over the Huffman Prairie [near Dayton, a year after the Kitty Hawk flights] . . . but our news staff would not believe the stories. Nor did they ever take the pains to go out to see.” Nor did Cox. When the city editor of the Daily News, Dan Kumler, was asked later why for so long nothing was reported of the momentous accomplishments taking place so nearby, he said after a moment’s reflection, “I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.”
There were hardly any taxes back then (Sixteenth Amendment was adopted in 1913) but death was a more prominent factor in Americans’ lives:
In the first week of May 1912, thoroughly worn down in body and spirit, Wilbur [having survived a crazy number of what we would consider to be unacceptably risky flights] took ill, running a high fever day after day. It proved once again to be the dreaded typhoid fever. Wilbur Wright died in his room at home at 7 Hawthorn Street at 3:15 in the morning, Thursday, May 30, 1912. He was forty-five years old.
… The financial rewards for their efforts and accomplishments had been considerable for the Wright brothers, though not as excessive as many imagined. In his will, Wilbur had left $50,000 each to brothers Reuchlin and Lorin, and to Katharine. The rest of his estate, an estimated $126,000, went to Orville. With the success of the Wright Company and its sale, Orville prospered far more. His total wealth at the time of his death [1948, age 77] was $1,067,105, or in present-day dollars $10,300,000. Though a fortune then, it hardly compared to that of any number of multimillionaires of the time.
Layout criticism: The book has a bunch of photographs but they are low-res and parked at the end of the book rather than intertwined with or linked from the text. What function is the publisher serving in the digital book world if they produce a layout that you could get for $100 on freelancer.com?