52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 3: Longevity

Week 3 of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.  This week’s topic is “Longevity”.

Longevity as defined by Merriam-Webster:
1. a: a long duration of individual life
The members of that family are noted for their longevity.

b: length of life
a study of longevity

Great-Grandma Nelle was my longest living grandparent (that I know of). Her life spanned nearly the entire 20th century. She was born in July 1900, and passed away in January1995 at the age of 94.  She lived a long life in a fast-paced century that birthed all the modern conveniences we enjoy today.  Imagine of all the innovation Nelle witnessed during the 20th century!

Modernization of the Home

Electricity: Nelle went from cooking dinner on a wood stove to cooking with gas or electricity. Living on the North Dakota prairie in the early 20th century, the only means of refrigeration at that time would have been a root cellar or nearby stream. She would later know the joy of an ice box, and eventually a home refrigerator. And what about all of the other wonderful electric gadgets that came after? The vacuum; can opener; clocks that didn’t need to be wound; irons that didn’t need to be warmed on the stove; lighting that didn’t involve flame; fans, heating, air conditioning, the water heater, slow cooker, roaster, toaster, microwave, coffee pot.

She even had my great-grandfather convert her Singer treadle sewing machine into an electric machine with a electronic foot pedal.

Plumbing: When she was born, all of the water would have been outside the home. Nelle probably lived in places where, at times, there was no well drilled, and the only water available would have been gathered by stream. All of the outdoor activity eventually moved inside the home during her lifetime – running tap water, washing clothes, bathing, using the bathroom, etc.

Food: In her younger years, most of the food her family survived on was probably home-grown, and certainly made from scratch. During the war years, she would have found her cooking ingredients rationed and limited. Mass production of food would have been a lifesaver for Nelle (cooking was not her favorite thing). The invention of frozen foods, readily available foods, and instant foods would have been welcomed in her kitchen. Instant cakes, instant pudding, instant potatoes, instant coffee, instant tea …… instant everything. A plethora of beverages options over the years included Kool-Aid, Ovaltine, Tang, and Red Bull. She even survived the cola wars.

Nelle and Lamar, 1921 —— Early Homemaking Days

Entertainment and Information in the Home

Telephone: She no longer had to dress up to go out on a rainy day to hear the gossip. Nelle could pick up the phone at home and listen to all the juicy details on the party line. I’m sure it was nice to put down the pen and pick up the phone to talk to her sisters out west too.

Music: At one time, the only music she could hear in the home would bet the music the family made. The home Victrola and records were introduced in the early 20th century. Then there would be radio – which delivered news and shows right to the home! Eventually, would follow record players, then 8 tracks, cassettes and CD’s.

Photography: Home cameras were introduce and changed over the years. Cameras like the Brownie made it possible for families like Nelle’s to capture pictures of everyday life. She would also live to see instant cameras, like the Polaroid, and flashy disk cameras, like the Le Clic. Films in all shapes, sizes and colors – and printing fads also came and went.

Television: Movie theatres were starting to pop up in the early 20th century. Outdoor theatres would follow and Nelle could watch the movie from the comfort of her car. Eventually, Nelle wouldn’t need to leave her home to catch a flick. Behold! The television! Later in her life, she could watch movies at home through mediums like cable television, video disks, Betamax, and VHS.

What kind of camera took this picture? Nelle’s Boys – Darrell, Max & Lamar, 1926

Changes in Transportation

Horses to Cars: It is said that when the family moved to North Dakota in 1903, they went by covered wagon (although there were trains at the time). Within a short time, horses were replaced by the auto as the preferred means of transportation. Bikes turned to motorcycles. Nelle saw mud roads turn into beautiful graveled roads which turned into glorious paved roads.

Airplanes and Spacecraft: She was around when man first flew. Trains fell out of fashion, and she witnessed the first flights that took travelers over the roads – to others cities, states, and countries. Nelle witnessed the first flights into space, and the first moon landing.

Horses to spacecraft. Amazing!

Nelle’s Husband – Lamar Knowlton, 1921

Modern Medicine

The aspirin had been just made available when Nelle was born. Penicillin and modern antibiotics weren’t discovered until the 1920’s. Vaccinations had been around, but more vaccines would be developed – tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, polio and many more. These discoveries significantly reduced the chance of death by disease and illness. Medicine went from morphine teething treatments to heart transplants. Band-aids, chemotherapy, birth control, insulin, aspirin alternatives, Rolaids, dialysis, drugs taken for chronic illness…. Imagine the progress we made in medicine since 1900.

Events – U.S. and Worldwide

  • She saw her brothers go off to a World War, her sons a second World War, and her grandsons to a war on the other side of the world.
  • She witnessed the Russian revolution, the beginning and the end of the cold war, and the rise and the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • The atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race.
  • Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
  • The Great Depression
  • The 200th birthday of America.
  • The civil rights movement and desegregation in the south.
  • The first generation of women in her family to vote.
  • The influenza outbreak of 1918-1919.
  • Prohibition and its repeal.
  • Watergate and Watergate Salad.
  • The eruption of Mount St. Helens.
  • Halley’s Comet (twice).

If you had told Nelle at age 21 that we would send people to the moon, or that there would be a machine that would wash her dishes, or that Polio would be nearly eradicated – would she have believed you? I wonder if she ever stop and reflected on how much she change she had witnessed during her lifetime.  

Nelle drying dishes in the 70’s – when you still put on a dress and stockings for company.


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