Only Yesterday

It is interesting to reflect on how much the world has changed in the last 175 years. My father was born in 1873, his father in 1841.  Both were born at a time when there were no automobiles, no radios, few or no telephones, very limited medical facilities, etc.  Railroads were new phenomena when my grandfather came on the scene, and automobiles were just becoming popular at the time of his death.  For centuries before this time, technological advances had been comparatively slow.  Insofar as modes of transport and the way goods were produced, a person born in 1400 would not have felt that much out of place had he stepped into the year 1841.

All during my grandfather Clement Jordan’s life crowned heads ruled most of the great nations of Europe, and sailing ships plied the oceans during the days of his youth.  The American Indians were still very active on the American plains, and much of the country was sparsely settled.  California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada were not yet part of the United States when he was born.

At the age of 20, in April 1861, Clement was swept up in the great conflict that divided our country, and he spent the next four years in the Army of Northern Virginia.  He was finally invalided out in early April 1865 after suffering his second major wound.  In the intervening years he had experienced typhoid fever, had his first serious wound, and known the horrors of bloody conflict at places like Bull Run, Malvern Hill, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  Somehow Clement and his five brothers, all of whom saw active combat, survived the war, though four of them suffered battle wounds  My particular branch of the Jordan family was extremely fortunate. Five sons of Henry Jordan, Jr. of Tennessee, Clement’s cousins, were old enough to for military service, and three died during the war.  Two of the four adult sons of Dr. Clement Hobson Jordan, cousins from North Carolina, also died during the conflict..

My father, Saunders Jordan, was born in the Reconstruction South, and times were very hard.  Crushing poverty was widespread among both whites and blacks.  Somehow my father managed to accumulate enough capital to attend medical school, and he received his medical degree in 1899.  Before attending medical school, he worked for a time as a telegraph operator for the Southern Railroad, and he still remembered the code and could key a telegraphic message four decades later.

As a young physician practicing medicine in a rural setting, my father had to do almost any medical procedure that might be required – setting bones, delivering babies, performing operations such as appendectomies and amputations, etc.  Sulfa drugs and penicillin were many years in the future, and  typhoid fever, pneumonia, small pox, tuberculosis, and diphtheria were big killers at that time.  It is also of some interest to note that there was no such thing as malpractice insurance in those days.

Sometimes we tend to look at those olden times through a rosy, nostalgic mist that obscures all the rough edges.  Yes, there were certain good things about growing-up in 19th century America.  Families tended to be more close knit, and they looked out for one another.  But let us not deceive ourselves.  Life was hard for both men and women.  In many ways we have it so much easier today. My own dear mother wrote the following description of a day in the life of a woman from that era:

Grandmother, on a winter’s day, milked the cows and fed them hay, slopped the hogs, saddled the mule and got the children off to school; did a washing, mopped the floors, washed the windows and did some chores; cooked a dish of home dried fruit; pressed her husband’s Sunday suit; swept the parlor, made the bed, baked a dozen loaves of bread; split some firewood and lugged in enough to fill the kitchen bin; cleaned the lamps and put in oil; stewed some apples she thought would spoil, churned the butter, baked a cake, then exclaimed “For heaven’s sake!  The cows have got out of the pen.” — went out and chased them again; gathered the eggs and locked the stable, back to the house and set the table, cooked a supper that was delicious and afterwards washed up all the dishes; fed the cat and sprinkled the clothes, mended a basketful of hose; then opened the organ and began to play, “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day.”

Would you want your days to be like that?  It is a bit exhausting to read about it.  No, despite our sometimes yearning for simpler times, not many of us would wish to return to the past. We have grown too accustomed to the creature comforts of the present age.  Those of us who have only modest incomes live as well or better than the potentates of yore.

My father was born in the time of the horse and buggy, and he lived to see the first satellite launched into space.  Yes, in many ways it seems that my father and grandfather were born and walked this earth only short years ago, but think of how much the world has changed since the time of their birth.






One thought on “Only Yesterday

  1. As you know my family experienced a different history during the period of time you referenced. I not sure that we weren’t better off (especially after slavery). We had strong family bonding, strong civic and moral values, as well an enthusiastic willing to work hard. It appears to me that we have become a more materialistic and selfish society.


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