Looking back 90 years on the 'good old days'

It's a familiar dilemma: A father is worried that he can't give his three children a bicycle and other toys they want. He asks, "What should I do - deny my youngsters what they see other children have, or get them and face bankruptcy?"

Spoken like a parent in the consumer-oriented 1990s. But his lament actually dates back 90 years, to 1908, when it appeared in one of the first issues of The Christian Science Monitor. Like other family-related subjects making headlines in the newly launched paper, it illustrates the timelessness of certain economic and social problems.

In 1908, journalists hadn't yet created a "social issues" beat. And words such as preschooler, teenager, retiree, and downsizing hadn't yet been coined. But already day care, juvenile delinquency, pensions, and unemployment were in the news.

Even then, some 5 million American women were working, most of them in factories. Their hours were long and their wages abominably low, averaging $6 a week in the mills. As the Monitor wrote, "The average a woman received last year was about half as much as the average man." Teachers fared better. In Illinois, women in the classroom averaged $39.62 a month, or 83 percent of the $47.47 their male colleagues earned.

As more mothers took jobs, a debate arose "in every home - whether the wife can be of greater economic value to the family by going out and earning a small wage, or by staying at home and taking care of what is earned by the other members of the family."

In a comment that sounds strikingly modern, a Monitor editorial expressed concern for the children of working mothers. It stated that "as yet the little ones seem to be forgotten and neglected." But as a sign of hope it added that one man who had studied the problem "ventures to dream that in 1958 there will be cooperative day nurseries where factory women may send their children, thus being able to afford them 'more light, more air, better food and better nurses than they had been able to afford individually.' "

Older children needed another kind of protection - from working in mills and mines. Child labor was common. In Rhode Island, legislators introduced a measure that would lower the working hours of women and children in factories from 58 to 54 hours a week. The same month, the North Carolina Legislature gave child labor its "complete approval," nullifying a bill "designed to put an end to the employment of 13-year-old boys and girls in the mills."

For older workers, other challenges made news. Ninety years ago this month, a Massachusetts state commission rejected a proposal to establish old-age pensions. Such a law, it claimed, "would tend to destroy thrift" and might turn the state into an "almshouse."

So much for the good old days. To readers looking back, these stories serve as a useful measure not only of problems that remain, but of the significant progress that has been made. Onward to the next 90 years of headlines - and solutions.

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