Was 20th Century Prosperity Just a Blip in History?

I recently read an article in a quilt magazine about Ida Stover Eisenhower, mother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It included several photos of quilts made by the president’s mother from the time she was young.

The quilts were pretty, and representative of their time (late 1800s to early 1900s). But what really interested me was the story of her married life.

She met her future husband, David Eisenhower, at college. After they were married in 1885, David sold the prime Kansas farmland his father had given the couple as a wedding gift, raised an additional $2,000 and started a mercantile store with a friend.

The business did very well for two years, but then local farmers began asking for credit after losing their crops to drought and grasshoppers. Eventually David and his partner had to borrow money to keep the shop afloat, but the store failed anyway.

The Eisenhowers then moved to Texas, where David found a job working for a railroad company as an engine wiper for $40 a week. These were hard years for the Eisenhowers. It was during this time that the future president was born.

After two years in Texas, David was offered a job in a creamery in his hometown, and the family moved back to Kansas and lived with relatives for seven years. Then Eisenhower’s brother, a doctor, sold them a house on a few acres at the edge of town. They would raise six sons in that 818-square-foot house. And Ida and David would live in that little house for the rest of their lives.


Ok, it’s a bit of history, but what’s so interesting about it? I think it shows that up until the mid-20th century, getting started in life was tough. People had a hard time making it. If it wasn’t drought and grasshoppers, it was financial trouble. But people persevered and got through it.

However, after World War II, our country became unusually prosperous compared to the past. My generation (the tail end of the Baby Boomers) grew up believing that life wouldn’t be so hard. You go to college, get a degree, buy a nice house, drive nice cars, and as long as you show up to work each day, you’ll keep moving up and getting in a better position financially until you retire comfortably like your parents did.

It’s not working out that way in my family. I’m one of four sisters, three of whom are married. Of the three husbands, two have been out of work for some time and one is watching his business shrink. The unmarried sister is the mom of two boys and has been out of work for over a year. The other two sisters work in the public schools and are employed, for now.

And it’s not just our family. One friend’s husband has had his hours cut and faces an uncertain future. Another quit her church preschool teacher job because of something immoral going on in the church; a few weeks later, her husband was laid off. Friends who retired early had to go back into the work force as substitute teachers because their retirement account took a beating.

Up until recently I was thinking something strange was going on, with so many people I know losing their jobs, and unemployment rates across the country skyrocketing. But now I’m wondering if the “something strange” was actually what happened while I was growing up, when for fifty years or so it was so much easier to earn a living than it had been for most of history.

Maybe it was a glitch, a blip, and now we’re going back to normal, like the normal of Ida Stover Eisenhower’s time, when making a living was a struggle, and you were grateful to have an 800-square foot house to raise your six boys in. I wonder….

6 thoughts on “Was 20th Century Prosperity Just a Blip in History?

  1. Very interesting perspective! I think I would tend to agree with you. It seems impossible for our society to keep up the prosperity and growth of the past 30-50 years without coming to a crashing halt at some point.

    One thing is for sure – it will be difficult, but good for our society to work itself away from a consumerist, “buy,buy,buy” mentality and move more towards a saving and “living within our means” way of life.

    Maybe going back to when things weren’t so easy will be a good thing for all of us.

  2. Pingback: Was 20th Century Prosperity Just a Blip in History? | History degree online

  3. Great question, Barbara! I also wonder if somewhere along the lines, ‘we’ (as a people) didn’t start thinking that right out of the starting gate called Life that we were entitled to the same standard of living that our parents had worked their own lives to achieve…

  4. Makes sense. And it seems almost likely at this point, doesn’t it? My rental is larger than 800sf, but by most people’s standards it’s far too small for our family of 3 children and 2 parents. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s just fine for at least 1, possibly 2 more kiddos – ESPECIALLY if those are both girls! And, if it came to it, we’d house kiddos in the garage to sleep – though it gets quite warm in there during the day it’s quite comfy through the night because there’s SOME AC and heat to it.

    I guess, as far as I’m concerned, having to live with what I have is something I’m quite okay with. President Gordon B. Hinkley said, “Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” and I try to REALLY make that my lifestyle!

  5. I think about such things when I read Little House on the Prarie or similar stories. Most of life was about food, getting it and storing it. And most of the individuals in this world live like that still.

    It is not easy cutting out things that we consider necessary in our culture, but will we be better for it? Will we help our neighbors again? Will we realize what is truly important? I hope and pray so.

  6. Jules, I agree with you. I don’t think a lot of good has come out of the consumerist mentality. Maybe having less stuff will give us more time to spend with people instead of things?

    Iva, it’s easy to think that way in a society like ours, isn’t it?

    Tori, somehow I think you will have an easier time adapting to “the new economy” than many people! My grandma raised four little ones as a single mom during the 1930s, and she never let a thing go to waste.

    Renae, I’m hopin’ and prayin’ right along with you on that one!

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