Living Standards in the United States: Housing

Last week we began a series in the Historical Perspectives section about living standards in the United States. We mentioned that there are almost constant comparisons of the living standards of one group of society as opposed to another: blacks versus whites, men versus women, and so on. Yet, rarely are the conditions of groups looked at over long periods of time.

In his scholarly book, “The State of Humanity,” Julian Simon does just that; he looks at how measurable things have changed over time. Last week we looked at water. As it turns out, water is much more expensive now than in 1800. But it had to be hauled, typically by women and children, from its free source, rivers and streams, which was back-breaking labor. The consumption of water has also greatly increased, in large part because it is now much cleaner, and it is used in applications that did not exist 200 years ago, such as the washing of cars and machine-washing of clothes.

In a previous Historical Perspective we examined the housing conditions of peasants in Medieval times, and found them sharing their meager shelter with their livestock. This week we look at housing conditions in America in the much more recent past. The source material for this week’s section is chapter 14, “Long Term Trends in U.S. Standard of Living,” by Stanley Lebergott, (from Simon’s “The State of Humanity”).

Conditions were much improved by 1910, at least in America. The Immigration Commission performed a major study at that time and found that about one-third of blacks, one-third of foreign-born, and about one-sixth of native whites shared their living space with boarders. Thirty-nine percent of foreign born, and 17 percent of native whites, had three or more occupants per bedroom. But by 1980 the percentage of all Americans with three or more people to a sleeping room had fallen to less than five percent.

An even more dramatic example of the improvement of living standards with regard to housing may be the case of plumbing. At the turn of the century, in 1910, few Americans had running water, bathtubs, hot water, or flush toilets. A very small number had electricity. Baths in homes were very unusual. But 80 years later (a blink of the eye of human history), these items were universal. In 1980, 97 percent of Americans had indoor flush toilets, hot and cold running water, and a bathtub or shower. Ninety-nine percent had electricity and central heating.

How good do the “good old days” look to you now, if you examine the way people really lived?

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