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When Bread Bags Weren't Funny

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last week, in her State of the Union response, Joni Ernst mentioned going to school with bread bags on her feet to protect her shoes. These sorts of remembrances of poor but honest childhoods used to be a staple among politicians -- that's why you've heard so much about Abe Lincoln's beginnings in a log cabin. But the bread bags triggered a lot of hilarity on Twitter, which in turn triggered this powerful meditation from Peggy Noonan on how rich we have become. So rich that we have forgotten things that are well within living memory:

I liked what Ernst said because it was real. And it reminded me of the old days.

There are a lot of Americans, and most of them seem to be on social media, who do not know some essentials about their country, but this is the way it was in America once, only 40 and 50 years ago:

America had less then. Americans had less.

If you were from a family that was barely or not quite getting by, you really had one pair of shoes. If your family was doing OK you had one pair of shoes for school and also a pair of what were called Sunday shoes -- black leather or patent leather shoes. If you were really comfortable you had a pair of shoes for school, Sunday shoes, a pair of play shoes and even boots, which where I spent my childhood (Brooklyn, and Massapequa, Long Island) were called galoshes or rubbers. At a certain point everyone had to have sneakers for gym, but if you didn’t have sneakers you could share a pair with a friend, trading them in the hall before class.

If you had just one pair of shoes, which was the case in my family, you had trouble when it rained or snowed. How to deal with it?

You used the plastic bags that bread came in. Or you used plastic bags that other items came in. Or you used Saran Wrap if you had it, wrapping your shoes and socks in it. Or you let your shoes and socks get all wet, which we also did.

I am a few years younger than Noonan, but I grew up in a very different world -- one where a number of my grammar school classmates were living in public housing or on food stamps, but everyone had more than one pair of shoes. In rural areas, like the one where Joni Ernst grew up, this lingered longer. But all along, Americans got richer and things got cheaper -- especially when global markets opened up. Payless will sell you a pair of child's shoes for $15, which is two hours of work even at minimum wage.

Perhaps that sounds like a lot to you -- two whole hours! But I've been researching historical American living standards for a project I'm working on, and if you're familiar with what Americans used to spend on things, this sounds like a very good deal.

Consider the "Little House on the Prairie" books, which I'd bet almost every woman in my readership, and many of the men, recalls from their childhoods. I loved those books when I was a kid, which seemed to describe an enchanted world -- horses! sleighs! a fire merrily crackling in the fireplace, and children frolicking in the snow all winter, then running barefoot across the prairies! Then I reread them as an adult, as a prelude to my research, and what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

There's a scene in one of the books where Laura is excited to get her own tin cup for Christmas, because she previously had to share with her sister. Think about that. No, go into your kitchen and look at your dishes. Then imagine if you had three kids, four plates and three cups, because buying another cup was simply beyond your household budget -- because a single cup for your kid to drink out of represented not a few hours of work, but a substantial fraction of your annual earnings, the kind of money you really had to think hard before spending. Then imagine how your five-year-old would feel if they got an orange and a Corelle place setting for Christmas.

There's a reason old-fashioned kitchens didn't have cabinets: They didn't need them. There wasn't anything to put there.

Imagine if your kids had to spend six months out of the year barefoot because you couldn't afford for them to wear their shoes year-round. Now, I love being barefoot, and I longed to spend more time that way as a child. But it's a little different when it's an option. I walked a mile barefoot on a cold fall day -- once. It's fine for the first few minutes, and then it hurts like hell. Sure, your feet toughen up. But when it's cold and wet, your feet crack and bleed. As they do if the icy rain soaks through your shoes, and your feet have to stay that way all day because you don't own anything else to change into. I'm not talking about making sure your kids have a decent pair of shoes to wear to school; I'm talking about not being able to afford to put anything at all on their feet.

Or take the matter of food. There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn't sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn't quite enough of that.

These were not the nation's dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery. And don't tell me that things used to be cheaper back then, because I'm not talking about their cash income or how much money they had stuffed under the mattress. I'm talking about how much they could consume. And the answer is "a lot less of everything": food, clothes, entertainment. That's even before we talk about the things that hadn't yet been invented, such as antibiotics and central heating.

In 1901, the average "urban wage earner" spent about 46 percent of their household budget on food and another 15 percent on apparel -- that's 61 percent of their annual income just to feed and clothe the family. That does not include shelter, or fuel to heat your home and cook your food. By 1987, that same household spent less than 20 percent on food and a little over 5 percent of their budget on apparel. Since then, these numbers have fallen even further: Today, families with incomes of less than $5,000 a year still spend only 16 percent of the family budget on food and 3.5 percent on apparel. And that's not because we're eating less and wearing fewer clothes; in fact, it's the reverse.

The average working-class family of 1901 had a few changes of clothes and a diet heavy on beans and grain, light on meat and fresh produce -- which simply wasn't available for much of the year, even if they'd had the money to afford it. Even growing up in the 1950s, in a comfortably middle-class home, my mother's wardrobe consisted of a week's worth of school clothes, a church dress and a couple of play outfits. Her counterparts today can barely fit all their clothes in their closets, even though today's houses are much bigger than they used to be; putting a family of five in a 900-square-foot house with a single bathroom was an aspirational goal for the generation that settled Levittown, but in an era when new homes average more than 2,500 square feet, it sounds like poverty.

At that, even the people living in the last decades of the 19th century were richer than those who had gone before them. I remember coming across a Mauve Decade newspaper clipping that contained a description of my great-grandmother "going visiting" in some nearby town during the 1890s. On the other side of the clipping was a letter to the editor from a woman in her 90s, complaining that these giddy young things didn't know how good they had it compared to the old days -- why, they even bought their  saleratus  from a store instead of making it from corncobs like they did back when times were simpler and thrifty housewives knew the value of a dollar.

Joni Ernst, who is just a few years older than me, had a much more affluent childhood than the generation that settled the prairies, and more affluent still than the generations before them. But in many ways, she was much poorer than the people making fun of her on Twitter, simply because so many goods have gotten so much more abundant. Not just processed foods and flat-screen televisions -- the favorite target of people who like to pooh-pooh economic progress. But good and necessary things such as shoes for your children and fresh vegetables to feed them, even in winter. 

In every generation, we forget how much poorer we used to be, and then we forget that we have forgotten. We focus on the things that seem funny or monstrous or quaint and darling. Somehow the simplest and most important fact -- the immense differences between their living standards and ours -- slides right past our eye. And when Ernst tried to remind us, people didn't say "Wow, we've really come a long way"; they pointed and laughed.

  1. Baking soda.

  2. Yes, apparently people really used to do this.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net