“Who wants to be a millionaire (in 1916)?” by George Will. His syndicated newspaper column, 5/7/2017.
Visitors to the Peirce-du Pont House at Longwood Gardens almost always exclaim how beautiful it is. Wouldn’t I like to live there?
Well, no, I have to admit. I enjoy being there, but at the end of the day, I am happy to go home to my air conditioning, my big-screen TV, and my Internet portal.
In the hot days of summer, I invite sweaty visitors into the House with a cheery, “Welcome to Pierre’s air conditioning—an open door. Air conditioning wasn’t invented yet.” Even electric fans were not common. I don’t think it occurred to them to be cool. Hot and humid was the accepted, natural condition in summer. They did have an ice house, but that was for the food, not themselves.
Will’s column discusses a blog by Don Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University. So, yes, you are reading a blog about a column about a blog. We all borrow from each other.
Boudreaux asks if you would accept Rockefeller’s 1916 wealth of $28 billion (in today’s dollars) provided you agree to live in 1916. I don’t know what Pierre du Pont’s peak wealth was, but it was up there where a difference didn’t matter.
“Boudreaux says that if you had Rockefeller’s riches back then, you could have had a palatial home on Fifth Avenue, another overlooking the Pacific, and a private island if you wished. Of course, going to and from the coasts in your private but unairconditioned railroad car would be time-consuming and less than pleasant. And communicating with someone on the other coast would be a time-consuming chore.”
When Pierre received the phone call to join his older cousins in buying and running the old Dupont company, he says it was a short, 3-minute conversation over a very staticky line. And that was only out to Ohio.
Boudreaux goes on to point out that commercial radio did not arrive until 1920. Exotic foreign foods that we do not even think of as exotic today were unknown in 1916. (Spaghetti was considered an exotic foreign food in my grandparent’s house and never served.)
Heaven help you if you got sick. Antibiotics were not available, and people died of diseases like pneumonia that are now treated with a simple prescription. Pierre died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. My father had a similar aneurysm, but his was found on a routine x-ray and was corrected with a Dacron tube well before it ruptured (a serious operation, but common).
“As a 1916 billionaire, you would be materially worse off than a 2017 middle-class American; an unhealthy 1916 billionaire would be much worse off than an unhealthy 2017 American of any means. . . . “
Boudreaux mentions modern dentistry, for which I am grateful, even for the advances made in my lifetime. Did Pierre and Alice wear dentures? I never saw it mentioned, but dentures then were so common, it would not be noteworthy.
I wear hearing aids. Alice, too, was hard of hearing, but the best she had available was a shoebox-sized apparatus that hung around her neck with a cord that led to headphones on her ears. I had a Penn State professor who wore one. He did well with it, but it was very old-fashioned. Women, maybe Alice, often hid the apparatus under their skirts.
Speaking of Alice, I would not presume to guess at her undergarments, but the brassiere did not reach its final form until fairly recently. Tradition says it was first worn by Jane Russell in the 1940 movie, The Outlaw. I prefer the legend that it was invented by Otto Titzling, (pronounced “tit sling”). I suspect Alice would be more comfortable and look better if she were living now.
Having John Philip Sousa play at your own home theater would be nice, but would that make up for the wide range of recorded music instantly available today?
The list goes on. Just glance at your $25 Casio watch, and you will get a more accurate reading that the most expensive Swiss clock of 1916. (An Art Deco clock similar to the one on the piano in the House was recently shown on Antiques Roadshow. It was valuable.)
Be happy you are living now. I sure am, I kid you not.