“How glamorous to live in an old English manor,” many say after watching the sensational Downton Abbey series on PBS. Set in England in the World War I era, we see a gaggle of servants attending the needs of the prominent Crawley family, which has owned the spectacular Downton Abbey for many generations. “How nice to be waited on hand and foot,” viewers say as they watch the rich living their epicurean lives, surviving the war and continuing their life style in the 1920s.
True enough–if we had to live in England almost 100 years ago, Downton Abbey is the place to hang out. But those who are servants today have it better in many ways than the luxurious Crawleys had it in the Roaring Twenties. In fact, machines have replaced many servants–to the benefit of master and servant alike.
In cleaning for example, Downton Abbey’s servants had to remove rugs and hang them outdoors, then beat them to remove dust and grime. Vacuum cleaners today suck up the dust quickly, just as dishwashers and stoves today do household tasks more efficiently and safely. Life expectancy in the U.S. in 1920 was 54 years, and rich and poor alike feared tuberculosis and polio. Death from childbirth was common everywhere in the 1920s (as we shall see in a future episode), and neither insulin nor penicillin was on hand to save lives.
In the 1920s, before air conditioning, Akron, Ohio was bigger than Atlanta, Georgia. But today, thanks in part to air-conditioning, southern cities such as Atlanta are growing rapidly. (Greater Atlanta has a population of about five million.) We had almost no zippers before 1920–and isn’t a copy machine better than servants who copied your letters? Life without TVs, computers, and talking movies makes life in the 1920s, even for the elite, harder than it is for many poor people today.
We could take this story further and note that even the servants at Downton Abbey in many ways had it better than the rich of the mid-1800s. Smallpox, the great dread of the 1800s, had begun to disappear by Downton Abbey’s era of the First World War. By 1920, the Crawleys’ servants also have trolleys, aspirin, electric lights and sometimes novacaine.
The inventions and improvements of technology today are made possible by profits and the protection of private property. Those inventors who have upgraded our lives have operated mainly in countries where people could keep most of what they invented. Tax rates on our best entrepreneurs in the U.S. in the 1920s dropped from 73 to 25%. Those entrepreneurs helped give us a life so bountiful that even today–with our ipads and fax machines–we may look poor to the people of the year 2100. But only if we will continue to limit government and give people a chance to keep what they invent and earn.
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