… 1885 that is, month by month
A century ago next month, 56,500,000 Americans woke to face the New Year. Many people, then as now, spent some time wondering what it held in store for their lives—which were, for the most part, rural ones. Although America had already established herself as an industrial power among nations, the majority of her citizens lived on farms. Of a labor force of 17,380,000 by the most recent census, 8,920,000 were farmers, and only 3,290,000 worked in industry. A handful of these latter tended the electric power stations that were beginning to operate in the Eastern cities, but steam was still the muscle that made things run—steam and the horse: Americans were using 15,500,000 horses to pull their streetcars and plow their fields.
All those farms weren’t making many people rich; the average hand was paid $11.70 a month. The skilled laborer—blacksmith or stonemason—might get a shade over $2.00 a day, and the average nonfarm worker would earn a salary of $446.00 in 1885.
That was enough to live on, but not to live well, and many wondered, just as we do, how they could improve their fortunes and what pleasures or crises would color the twelve months to come.
A dozen of the year’s events appear on these and the following pages. They are drawn from the fifty-two that make up the first American Heritage Century Calendar , our newly published desk diary that shows the days and weeks of 1985, with each week accompanied by a picture of an incident that took place during that same week a century before. With these selections, we can follow our counterparts of a hundred years ago as, month by month, their future revealed itself to them.