20 Life Lessons from the 1900s Still Relevant Today

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The early 1900s were a time of dramatic changes in America. The western frontier had closed. The telephone and electricity were transforming homes.

Cars were putting people on the road and the invention of the airplane would soon put them in the air. Industrialization was shifting workers to the cities from farms.

More children were going to school and not to work. Immigrants were flowing in from Europe.

Laborers were demanding higher wages and safer working conditions. The women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum.

As these changes took place, Americans were taking to heart lessons that would help them navigate their lives.

24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of life lessons from that time that are still relevant today by consulting sources such as britannica.com as well as gleaning attitudes and perspectives from Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” which depicted small-town American life from more than a century ago.

Many of the lessons Americans in the early 20th century learned were the product of age-old proverbs and adages from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Those lessons were learned in schools that bear little resemblance to the schools of today. This is what school days used to look like.

Lessons such as being punctual, learning from failure, and seizing opportunities would help Americans maneuver through the workplace in fast-growing metropolises in the early 20th century. Read on to find out more!

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Everything changes

This adage was brought home frequently at the start of the 20th century, with the advent of the automobile and the invention of the airplane. These changes altered small-town life in America forever.

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Help others, but they have to help themselves

In the early 1900s, as people tried to help alcoholics overcome their addiction they’ve learned that those with an addiction ultimately have to want to help themselves.

This applies today to all types of addition, be it alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or anything else.

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People we may detest are still people

It is important to remember in this hyper-polarized political world that people may disagree over issues. Other people may simply be unpleasant. But not liking a person for any reason should not degenerate into hatred.


Everyone’s talents are useful

Like in the early 20th century, the economy today is evolving rapidly, requiring new skills and talents to adapt to the changing world.

At the same time, talents acquired from years in the workplace are still valued. And don’t be bashful about using them.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Hide not your talents, they for use were made. What’s a sundial in the shade?”

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You are responsible for who you are

Responsibility means taking ownership of your actions and taking control of your life. This became a challenge for people in the early 20th century as life accelerated. Failure to take responsibility for who you are can result in failing in your career and your personal life.

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Forgiveness is a theme revisited many times in the Bible. Among the biblical verses that discuss forgiveness is Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

People find it hard to forgive for several reasons — they feel that the offending party should be punished or that forgiving would condone their actions. However, forgiveness is a powerful and empowering thing.

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People can change

If change means altering one’s habits and behaviors, then people have the ability to change. But the person must first recognize that his or her behaviors might be harming their lives and have the desire to make those changes.

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Learn from the past

One of the most-quoted phrases of the 20th century was by essayist and philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Let the past go

We find it hard to let the past go because of how we are wired.

According to physicist Frank Heile, human consciousness has a difficult time living in the present, and we recall past events that hurt us.

The more we think about these events, the more attached we become to them.

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Be empathetic and kind

Being empathetic and kind puts us in touch with our essential humanity. Buddhists believe there is enough material wealth in the modern world and that we are lacking loving-kindness and goodwill — which doesn’t cost anything.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover

This is one of the English language’s most famous metaphorical idioms. According to bloomsbury-international.com, the phrase first appeared in the Piqua Democrat in Piqua, Ohio: “Don’t judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants.” The phrase was probably well known to those in the early 20th century.

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Try avoiding debt

Literature is full of references to personal debt, and none are approving. The ancient Roman writer Publilius Syrus said, “Debt is the slavery of the free.”

In the early 20th century, before the widespread use of credit cards and other financial instruments, large household debt was rare.

Mortgages as we know them first came on the scene in 1934. Today, consumer debt is exploding. It stood at $14 trillion in the first quarter this year.

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Fear is mostly illusory

President Franklin Roosevelt sought to allay the nation’s concerns about the economy in his first inaugural address by saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

What people fear most is a failure – in relationships or in a job, for example. According to author and psychologist Dr. Susan Jeffers (“Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”), in order for people to overcome their fears, they must confront them.

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Stop and smell the roses

Even though the pace of change was quickening in the early 20th century, people still spent time enjoying life’s pleasures.

New modes of transportation and better roads allowed Americans of many socioeconomic strata to go on vacation, enjoy the new diversion of movies, or spend an afternoon in an urban park.

Americans were also made aware of the physical benefits of exercise to fend off stress.

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Learn from failure

History is peppered with accounts of failure by those who eventually made a difference in people’s lives.

Even though Thomas Edison’s inventions were changing people’s lives in the early 20th century, it is important to know he failed a thousand times before his light bulb worked. He didn’t look at it that way. “I didn’t fail 1,000 times,” he said.

“The light bulb was an invention that took 1,000 steps.”

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Friends are worth keeping

Good friends are worth holding on to, and good friendships need to be cared for and nourished.

One hundred years ago, that was easier to do because many people lived and worked in the same town all their lives.

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Manage anger

Losing control of your anger has repercussions such as hurt feelings, resentment, and regret.

Culturally, losing your temper in the early 20th century was frowned upon because it was associated with losing one’s self-control and being overwhelmed by emotion that clouds reason and intellect.

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The importance of exercise to reduce stress and improve one’s health was becoming more widely known in the early 20th century.

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Keep learning

It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that child-labor laws were enacted and children had to attend school.

By 1900, 31 states required children aged 8 to 14 to attend school. After school, lifelong learning was limited to what one read in books and newspapers.

Today, lifelong learning is important for personal and professional development and more accessible.

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Worry makes you stressful

The early part of the 20th century was called “The Age of Anxiety,” with European powers vying for military supremacy.

Even though those concerns were an ocean away from the United States, Americans were concerned about getting drawn into the gathering storm.

Today, the stress comes from external factors such as terrorism as well as concerns about paying for college to saving for retirement.

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