Coxsackie Antique Center

Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

Windows On The Past

Interlocutor, Diane Johns

Magazines are among the most interesting of all collectibles. Beginning with this issue, we shall run a regular column, Windows on the Past, which will review or quote excerpts from late 19th and early 20th century periodicals. These articles give us a valuable perspective on our contemporary lives and endeavors. Here, we take a look at a fascinating article delving into the question of man's mortality. Interlocutions, observations, and editing by Diane Johns in square brackets.

When is Man Old?

Technical World Magazine, March 1914

By Byron C. Utecht

There was a time when man sought an elixir ro keep him young. Nowadays he strives to find ... nature's laws and ... obey them, with the end ... of attaining a ripe old age. Throughout the world there are now living scores of men and women who are near or even beyond the century mark. [There are, today, between 20,000 and 30,000 centurions in the US alone. What was once extremely rare is becoming increasingly common.]

If the average length of life of mankind continues to increase at the same percentage of gain of the last century, the time is not far distant when one hundred and fifty years will be the usual span of human life ... The average longevity in the United States at present is placed at 44 years. Records kept in New England show that in 1789 the average life was 35 years; in 1855, 40 years, and in 1903, 45 years. [The average age in the US now stands at about 76 years.]

Flourens and Haller, famous physicians, pointed out the fact that other mammals live five times the length of their growing period. They put the human growth period at thirty years, and asserted that one hundred and fifty years, therefore, should be the span of human life... [The casual references to "famous" authorities and "scientific" statistics are surprising to us. This is typical of the time. Most of the population was still unfamiliar with the "scientific method" and gave quick credence to claims of "experts", especially Doctors.]

It was not so many years ago that little or no attention was given to sources of water supply... Between the years 1902 and 1906, figures on typhoid fever victims showed that the death rate per one hundred thousand inhabitants in four cities which used water from wells was 18.1 ... while figures from nineteen cities that used polluted river water showed the death rate of 61.1. [Statistics such as these explain the almost automatic optimism of the pre WWI era. We were making tremendous strides in every field and everyone could see it!]

In the 18th century, fifty million people died in Europe of the ravages of smallpox. This was easily half the population. But when vaccination was introduced, this disease lost its terrors. [Here is another optimistic statistic, but it almost certainly exaggerates the effect of small pox in the 1700's to make the modern improvements seem even more dramatic. And, only recently have we felt confident enough of the eradication of smallpox that we stopped requiring universal vaccination.]

Of course, we are still searching for the secret of longer life. And today, with all our wealth, comfort, and scientific knowledge, we seem to be even more sure of success.


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