The concept of “senior living” has changed a lot, even within the past few decades. The golden years, retirement and old age were associated with as many, if not more, negative connotations than positive.
Thank goodness all that has changed. Today’s seniors embrace this chapter of life with energy, enthusiasm and a spirit of adventure, personal growth and exploration of new opportunities.
A glance through local archives of a century ago, however, provides even more evidence of how significantly the senior experience has evolved.
First, the entire idea of who qualified as “elderly” must be considered. One article reported the outcome of a lawsuit in which a divorced woman protested against giving custody of her daughter to her “elderly” mother – age 63. The grandmother admitted that she “smoked an occasional cigarette, enjoyed ‘holding hands,’ and would appreciate a cocktail now and then – if prohibition weren’t here.” The judge awarded custody of the child to the grandmother anyway.
Newspapers of the day had no qualms about publishing derogatory remarks and jokes at the expense of the older generation. One such example is an observation directed toward “elderly women,” cautioning them against where they might sit on a yacht, lest they “appear to be an old hen sitting on a hatch.” And at least the hen provided the benefit of “looking good when sitting, when you can sell the eggs.”
Another writer sneers at the idea of “elderly ladies” who advertise for the services of gentlemen who would escort them to tea or evening dances. Referring to the men who might respond to such ads, the writer says, “From what I have seen of the elderly ladies who make use of these hired dancing partners, I should say theirs is just as hard a life as that of the garbage man, iceman or any other weight shifter.”
Elderly women – and that’s how they were consistently referenced – had a friend in the local Women’s Christian Association if they found themselves living in poverty in Owensboro. The WCA engaged in vigorous fundraising to support the Mary Kendall Home, described as “one of the finest institutions of its kind in Western Kentucky and the state. It is the home of friendly children and elderly women.” The WCA provided shelter, meals and Christmas cheer for residents … who were actually called “inmates.”
More affluent members of the senior demographic could focus their attentions on fashion.
An article published in the Feb. 25, 1923, edition of the Messenger-Inquirer wondered whether the hoop skirt, bustle and bodice were coming back in style. The consensus of this article was bustle, possible; hoop skirt, perhaps; and bodice, almost definitely.
“Not many people now living can remember so far in the past as hoops,” the article admitted. “The bustle, however, is recalled by merely elderly folk. The tight bodice is within the recollection of those hardly yet within the middle-aged.”
Nevertheless, the return of the bodice was acknowledged to be a good thing. After all: “A woman is not a marble statue. The perfect figures have bumps and imperfections which only a corset can conceal.”
Men were not to be overlooked! Salinger’s Manufacturers Department Store, located on East Main Street in Owensboro, advertised a “men’s plain toe shoe” as “an extremely comfortable shoe for elderly men.” Made of the “best quality kid leather,” a pair could be purchased for $3.35.
But as they say, when you have your health, you have just about everything. Toward that goal, newspapers of 100 years ago were packed with all kinds of advertisements promoting wellness … although the validity of the cures might be debatable.
Trumpeting a headline of “Good Health In Happy Old Age,” an ad for Dr. Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin promised to “make them feel jolly again.” Just one magic spoonful would ensure “regular daily bowel movement.” And by the way, the ad mentioned, you could also “give it to the children when they are restless, feverish or have a cold.”
An ad for Doan’s Kidney Pills urged readers to “Make Old Age More Comfortable,” while reciting a litany of ailments plaguing “old folks”: Lame backs, aching kidneys, rheumatic pains and distressing urinary disorders. One little pill could cure it all!
Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t.
But thank goodness, most of us are blessed with the opportunity to enjoy our senior years in far better health and happiness than did our ancestors of 100 years ago. OL