Material progress: how very recent

There was a news story a few years ago in which some academics were reported as suggesting that pretty much everyone of West European descent alive today was descended from Charlemagne, first Holy Roman Emperor.   That he had 18 children, legitimate and otherwise, only increased those probabilities.  35 generations back we each have about 34 billion notional ancestors and yet the total population of north-western Europe back then was only about 20 million.

I didn’t give the story much thought until last week.  For the last few months my 12 year old daughter has been hard at work tracing family trees, with a bit of help from Dad.   I was mostly interested in the last couple of hundred years, but she has been keen to trace every line possible as far back as we could go.  We’ve put in some intense effort over the holidays and last week she stumbled on the path that took us all the way back to Charlemagne (and a couple of centuries before him).   Just seeing that continuous path –  one of the billions that made her her – on a couple of sheets of A3 gives a fresh vividness to those earlier centuries.

Of course, the other thing that even a little economic and social history does is to serve as a reminder of just how recent our material prosperity is.  I downloaded a copy of the UK 1861 census form for one particular set of ancestors –  just before they got on the (slow) boat for New Zealand.   They were farm labourers in a small town in Yorkshire, living in a street where the other residents were also farm labourers and the like – and one is explicitly described as a pauper.  The UK in 1861 had (on the Maddison database numbers) the best material living standards anywhere, rivalled only by Australia.  But life was tough, hours were long, amenities were few, and (for example) infant mortality rates were shockingly high.   According to a book a distant relative wrote recently, 26 people were to die on their trip to New Zealand –  quite an “investment” in the prospect of better opportunities.

One of the children of that Yorkshire family, then just one year old, made the most of the opportunities 19th century New Zealand offered.  He built businesses and served as mayor of Christchurch from 1912 to 1919 (and later as an MP).  At the time, New Zealand is estimated to have offered among the very highest material standards of living anywhere in the world.  But I wrote last year about what those “best material living standards” amounted to only a hundred years ago.

Imagine a country in which the average age at death was only about 45, 6 per cent of children died before their first birthday, and another 1.5 per cent before they turned five.  Not many children are vaccinated.

Most kids get to primary school –  in fact it is compulsory –  but only a minority attend secondary school.  By age 15 not much more than 15 per cent of young people are still at school.   Only a handful do any post-secondary education (total university numbers are about 1 per cent of those in primary school).   Houses are typically small –  not much dedicated space for doing homework – even though families are bigger than we are used to.   Perhaps one in ten households has a telephone and despite the street lights in the central cities most people don’t have electricity at home.

Tuberculosis is a significant risk (accounting for seven per cent of all deaths).  Coal fires – the main means of heating and of fuel for cooking – mean that air quality in the cities is pretty dreadful, perhaps especially on still winter days.  Deaths from bronchitis far exceed what we now see in advanced countries. There isn’t much traffic-related pollution though – few cars, so people mostly walk or take the tram.  The biggest city is finally about to get a proper sewerage system, but most people outside the cities have nothing of the sort.      And washing clothes is done largely by hand – imagine coping with those larger families.

Maternal mortality rates have fallen a lot but are still ten times those in 2018 in advanced countries.  One in every 50 female deaths is from childbirth-related conditions –  which leaves some kids without mothers almost from the start.

Welfare assistance against the vagaries of life is patchy.  Most people don’t live long enough to be eligible for a mean-tested age pension.   Orphans aren’t in a great position either, and there is nothing systematic for those who are seriously disabled.  There is a semi-public hospital system, but most medical costs fall on individuals and families, and there just isn’t much that can be done about many conditions.

There are public holidays, and school holidays, but no annual leave entitlements.  No doubt the comfortably-off take the occasional holiday away from home, but most don’t, because most can’t (afford it). Only recently has a rail route between the two largest cities been opened –  but it takes 20 hours for cities only 400 miles apart.

I wouldn’t choose to live in that country.  Would you?

And yet my grandparents did live there –  they were all kids then.  This was New Zealand 100 years or so ago, just prior to World War One.  I took most of that data from the 1913 New Zealand Official Yearbook.

In constructing the family tree those infant mortality rates were brought home more vividly, when I found one great uncle and one great aunt both of whom died aged less than one in the years just prior to World War One, both in comfortable Christchurch families.

Over the holidays, I read an old masters thesis –  written at Otago in 1950, and still occasionally cited –  that somewhat updated the picture, at least as regards household management and facilities.   According to the Maddison collection of data, New Zealand in 1950 still offered perhaps the third or fourth best material living standards anywhere in the world.   This particular student had conducted what appeared to be a reasonably well-designed survey, and set of interviews, with women in a sample of households in central Dunedin, looking at what appliances each household had, which of a variety of services they used, and so on.  The survey and interviews were conducted in early 1950.   Here is one summary table.

appliances 1950

You can see the spread of technology.   100 per cent of these households had an electric iron, and 72 per cent had a vacuum cleaner (presumably none would have in 1913).  76 per cent even had an electric toaster.  But many were still cooking using a coal range, just under half had an electric jug or kettle, and only 7 per cent had a refrigerator –  in a major city in one of the richest countries on earth, less than 70 years ago.   There were, of course, few (probably no) domestic freezers, microwaves, dishwashers –  or the myriad of more specialised appliances that now line the shelves of Briscoes.  And, on the other hand, sewing machines were widespread.

The student recorded the occupational status of each household (typically, the employment of the husband) and analysed the incidence of these appliances across different occupational classes.    The incidence of domestic technologies (those in the table above) in professional occupation households was, for example, about about twice that among labourers and pensioners (the differences being statistically significant).

The second strand of the survey that underpinned the thesis was the use of various external services.    When only 7 per cent of (these) households had a refrigerator –  and presumably none a freezer – fresh food was a major issue.

Bread for example


(If you didn’t bake your own) it had to be collected every day it was baked.  According to the survey most walked to the shop to buy it.

Around half of the respondents had their groceries delivered, and around 10 per cent shopped using their own car.  The rest walked and carried the groceries home (typically from choice, since delivery was generally available).   Meat couldn’t be stored with long without a fridge, and the survey found that few butchers offered to deliver, so a walk to the butcher was pretty much a daily requirement.   Many of the respondents didn’t have a telephone, so even if delivery had been available, they’d still have to have walked to the butcher to place the order.

What of fruit and vegetables?

fruit and veg

The thesis goes on to look at the use of commercial laundry services, house-cleaning and window-cleaning services (including a slightly arch comment about the one respondent who claimed never to clean their windows), and the employment of people to assist in household chores or child-minding.

Perhaps like all writing, that 1950 thesis is also something of a period piece. There are asides about the price controls and butter-rationing still in place in post-war New Zealand, and a near unwavering sense that household management is a woman’s work.  And if there is a recognition of the importance of price –  this was, after all, a thesis partly done under the Economics Department


there were also some curious asides

tech 2

Best national accounts estimates suggest that average material living standards in New Zealand in 1950 were not much more than a third of those today (and over that period New Zealand has had among the slowest rates of productivity growth of any country).   The data captured in that thesis help illustrate some of the concrete differences.

That thesis was my mother’s.  She is the great-granddaughter of that 1861 Yorkshire farm labourer, and the great-niece of that former mayor and MP – she was told to blame him when she couldn’t start school at five (Depression-era economies by the government of which he was an MP).  She was the first person on either side of my daughter’s family tree to graduate from university (at least in modern times), at a time when only about 5 per cent of young people went to university (and only about 1 per cent of women).  In one of the richest countries in the world.

It is her 91st birthday today.    There have been staggering material changes over the span of her life, let alone that of her grandparents and their generation.     Echoing Robert Gordon perhaps, I’m less convinced that if I live to 91, there will have been anything like that scale of improvement over my life.  I’m just about to walk to the butcher and supermarket.  Then again, in 1962 one couldn’t trace back generations of ancestors from the comfort of one’s own computer screen.


19 thoughts on “Material progress: how very recent

  1. Happy New Year Mike. Something you might be interested in is a book called “A Farewell to Alms” by Gregory Clark. It’s a very good description of Malthusian economics and the drivers of the industrial revolution. Clark makes many interesting points about demographics, economics and the causes of the industrial revolution.


  2. Absolutely marvellous and so much of that 1950 survey fits in with my memories (born 1941 in Christchurch) – we got many things as the 1950’s went on. In the 1930’s and 1940’s most people who had a car lived in the country. Living in the city really meant that we didn’t need a car anyway and we all had bikes-second-hand and reconditioned by Dad. Pretty sure that a refrigerator was the first appliance in the 1950’s which replaced the safe at the back of our upstairs Fire Station flat and a washing machine soon after. I see that the survey didn’t mention a radio which after the war was almost universal I would have thought. Mum would order her groceries at the grocer’s shop and it was delivered by a boy on a bicycle who carried the box upstairs to our flat. We had no outside garden but Dad rented the backyard from a old lady and grew his own. Heating either by gas or an open fire – the coal was delvered by the coalman and dumped below the outside stairs.
    And all of that progress after the war came of course from capitalism and the free enterprise system. I am always a little suspicious of claims that New Zealand was so well off compared with the rest of the world….its a rather difficult comparision from this distance.


    • Thanks. Just re your final point, one of the ways to cross-check such claims is to look at what possessions people had. The data on things like fridges, washing machines, cars etc all tend to support views that around 1950 NZ was still in the top tier globally (in fact, I have a book written in about 1968 by the American journalist John Gunther visiting various prominent cities, and his descriptions of Paris then still make clear how far ahead NZ living stds still were then over those typical in France).


      • After visiting Los Angeles in the new year, it was rather an eye opener how poor the city is. Most of the cities police cars look rather beatup, dusty and looks like they belong to an 80s movie. There was homeless people everywhere sleeping on streets and the stench of human waste was overpowering on some streets.

        The walk of fame in Hollywood needs to be renamed the walk of shame. Paving was cracked and the entire street was lined with 2 dollar T shirt and souvenier shops with tour operators with their vending boxes harassed you every step on your walk of Shame.

        As nightfall approaches, angry drunken people roamed and the smell of hard whisky liquor and smoked weed drowned some of the human waste stench.


  3. Fascinating article. I wonder how many of your readers know what a ‘copper’ was? I remember my parents first washing machine was delivered the day after my youngest sister (fourth child) was born and I was six. Someone has claimed the washing machine changed society more than the computer or the mobile phone.


    • They were the old agitator type washing machines and must have made a huge difference to the women of the time. The only lament for the ‘copper’ being it’s other uses such as for cooking the Christmas ham. The ritual of Monday washing day etc and the use of blue bags gradually passed away. Actually the arrival of the refrigerator probably made less of a difference as living in the city made regular buying easy enough. The only longer period when we really needed a fridge was at Christmas when we kids were sent around to the Farmers cool store to get a big chunk of ice on our trolley. Mounted in the wooden laundry tub this extended the period we could keep food cool.


  4. I was born in the 1980s. I remember when I was a kid, my father talking to someone born in the first decade of 1900s saying that they saw much more change in their lifetime than I would in mine.

    With all the respect due to him, I don’t know if that’s true. Right now we don’t know how far AI could take us. I won’t use electrical devices to do housework so much as have it all done for me by a robotic assistant. If I’m in a rest home, I wonder how often I’ll see a human staff member – I expect not very much. If I live to 91, I expect cars driven automatically by computers, perhaps a majority of jobs existing now to exist no longer, and a world dominated by powerful technology giants operating out of California and China. I only hope their rivalry will be more economic than in military force.

    I’d go bolder actually and say I tentatively expect all these predictions to come true not only by the time I’m in my 90s but probably by the time you reach that age, too.


    • Interesting but generally I feel that attempts to predict much about the future tend to just be projections of the present…..I am sure that you are wrong about the change since say 1903 when my father was born-I mean basic changes like flight and availability of electricity or nuclear energy etc. but it certainly makes for an interesting discussion and many thanks for that. I enjoy thinking about it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps you are right – I’m not much one for forecasts – altho many of the items you list would struggle to count as “improvements”.

      I suppose my perspective is partly based on looking back 34 years (it is 34 years until I would turn 91), or even 50 years. There have been huge huge social changes over that time – many not at all for the better – and yet there aren’t too many important material ways in which life now seems much different than it was then. There is more ‘stuff’ to be sure – bigger houses, more holidays, longer life – and – echoing my mother’s point – some stuff is hugely cheaper and more pervasive. Much seems to come down to how one would rate the importance of the internet and mobile phones. I mostly discount the importance of the latter, and am ambivalent about the former: there are gains (including my ability to write this blog) but I’m less clear the improvements in material living standards match those of, say, the first half of the 20th century.

      Perhaps the pace of improvement really will accelerate in the next 34 years? I hope to see.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My mother born 1913 did home science in 1932. My grandmother (her mother) got every grocery delivered but never had a frig until the end of the 1950’s. At school when I said my mother graduated from university it was never recommended as a path for me. Of course I went and graduated twice. Loved this blog

    Cleone Blomfield P.O. Box 787 Queenstown 9348 New Zealand


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    • The comment that Charlemagne had 18 children and so much of humanity could be decended from him rather reminded me of the comment made when Charles and Diana were first engaged. Some reporter said that they were likely related as they could both trace back to Charles II but then someone else pointed out that Charles had 52 natural children so it was likely that much of the English aristocracy could trace their ancestry back to Charles! I would imagine the 52 was likely a conservative guess anyway!

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  6. I was born in 1959 into a lower middle class family in a small town in one of Central European countries. While our family enjoyed, for as long as I can remember, most of the conveniences now taken for granted such as indoor plumbing, fridge, washing machine and TV (from about 1965 or so) etc. it was by no means the standard of living enjoyed by the majority of our neighbours. For example, there were only 2 TV sets in our apartment block of 64 flats and I remember very well, neighbours coming to our place to watch television. The main reason for my comments here is a comparison between the general standard of living in the country of my birth, as I remember it from my childhood, and New Zealand, so here it goes.

    My home town didn’t acquire electricity supply available to its all inhabitants until 1956 (!). Before then there’s a small privately owned power station, which was not connected to the grid, however the supply was intermittent at the best and very few people could afford it. Domestic water reticulation was implemented by the local council even later, if I remember right, in the late 1970’s. Similarly with town sewage collection – most of the houses, even in the mid 1970’s still enjoyed the pleasures of the timeless long-drops. The situation in the country side was even worse; I spent parts of my childhood at my grandparents’ home, where their every day life was lived basically in the same way as it was in the centuries past, the only modern convenience being electricity, which was connected sometimes in the late 1950’s and used only for lighting with no such “luxuries” as home appliances. The only things ever purchased from the shop were shoes, sugar and tobacco for Grandfather’s pipe; virtually everything else, including food was grown or made at home. And this is how it was for the majority of the population in the region. Things started changing slowly only in the late 1960’s…

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    • 30 years ago In Port Moresby I had a colleague whose was responsible for our computers communicating with one another. He had been raised by his grandfather who was a grown man when the first plane passed over the valley. It is hard to grasp how dramatic the changes brought by the first white men, for example his grandfather stole a piece of a mirror. Imagine not knowing what you look like; a mirror would be magic.

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