Monday, July 27, 2015

From Luxury to Necessity

While without a computer for the past several weeks I devoted my time to -- what else? -- non-computer activities.  I had no internet access, no ability to type letters, and was unable to add information to my genealogy computer program.  I felt disconnected except for my cell phone and occasional trips to the library where I was able to use one of their computers for a brief time.

During those weeks my mind often drifted to family history and my ancestors.  I mused on how accustomed I had become to having a computer with internet service and how I take for granted the many resources I have at my fingertips.  I thought about other inventions that have become standard in most American homes.  I don't give a thought to running water, electricity and all the machines it operates including electric lights, until the pipes break, the power fails, or the equipment breaks.  This little rhyme by an unknown author came to mind:
There, there, Little Luxury, don't you cry.
You'll be a necessity by and by.

I began to think about the inventions that were welcomed into homes as luxuries but soon became necessities. 

I'm sure my ancestors in the 19th century used water from a well, a cistern, and perhaps from a stream, because indoor plumbing was either not known or not available.  The hand pump at the back door and the outhouse a distance away were common sights.  My parents and grandparents all awaited the arrival of indoor toilets.  These days we consider indoor plumbing with running water and flushing toilets nothing less than necessities.

Before the advent of electricity in homes the darkness was kept at bay by candles and gas lights.  Heat came from fires or coal furnaces.  People used hand-powered washers, crank wringers, and clotheslines and clothespins to dry clothes.  Instead of vacuums, people swept floors and carpets with brooms and brushes.  Toasters stood bread against wood-burning stoves to brown.  Refrigerators were cooled by ice collected from lakes in the winter and stored for summer use, or people used spring houses.  Freezers did not exist.  Neither did microwave ovens.  Before electricity entertainment included someone playing a piano or other instrument.  Then came hand-crank Victrolas.  With electricity people could listen to radios, watch television, and play tapes or CDs. 

Before there were smart phones, there were cell phones, car phones, and home land-line phones connected by wires.  What did my ancestors think when they first used a telephone?  Surely it must have been strange to hear the voice of a loved one from miles away.  Now we take cell phones and smart phones without permanent wires for granted.  And they do so much more than let us speak to another who is miles away. 

Before there were computers there were manual-powered typewriters which required strong fingers for evenly dark letters on a page, at least until electric typewriters were invented.  Before typewriters people wrote letters and postcards by hand with ink or pencil, added postage stamps, and dropped them into a mailbox or handed them to a post office employee.  To some extent, computers have replaced file cabinets.  We were members of a recycling organization where companies donated items they would no longer use.  Paper and metal filing supplies inundated the center, free for the taking to members who were still attached to paper products.

There are many modern inventions that have become expected pieces of equipment in our home.  When they break and can't be repaired, we buy new ones because we wouldn't know what to do without them, or at least we can't imagine living without them.  If I made a list it would be pages long.

What about you and your ancestors?  What inventions have become necessities in your life?  Are there conveniences you'd give up that have not become necessities?  What inventions became necessities in the lives of your ancestors? 


Copyright © 2009-2015 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Interesting post! I think we definitely come to take for granted technology as it comes along and it becomes a necessity.

    1. I agree, Brenna. We just can't live without Facebook, cell phones, and computers, these days!


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