In recent years I have been exploring the Viking Era. You can see lots of posts on my blog about finances and technology of the time.
After looking at descriptions of life on the farm during the 1930s and in particular the economic activity we can see in my grandfather’s probate document I’ve been wondering about life on a South Dakota farm during the 1930s and 1940s.
Did that life look more like what it would have been living on a farm in Scandinavia during the Viking Age or does it look more like the life you and I live today anywhere in the United States?
Did my dad grow up in circumstances closer to the Viking age than to now?
Let’s consider the question from several directions.
Grandma and grandpa were born on this side of the discovery of germ theory of disease transmission. Penicillin was just coming into use as my aunts and uncles were growing up on the farm.
Essentially every vaccination we currently have has come into play since my aunts and uncles were born. That includes chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough, yellow fever, cholera, shingles, pneumonia, and now even Covid-19. Those crippling or life-threatening diseases can be prevented with a shot the cost a fraction of an hour earnings.
CAT scans, MRIs, minimally invasive surgery, and chemotherapy are things no one would have ever dreamt of in the 1930s.
If pills to control diabetes which are available today for pennies or maybe a dollar apiece had been available in the 1940s my grandfather would not have died of diabetes when he did, instead he would have lived another decade or three.
Like my grandfather in the 1930s, Vikings in the 900s would have known nothing of vaccinations or advanced medical treatment. Neither my grandfather nor a Viking era farmer would have known anything about medicine to control diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol or any one of dozens of other diseases which were similarly untreatable.
Standard of living
A few things that arrived on the farm after my grandfather died:
Automobiles with automatic transmission, heating/air conditioning, audio entertainment so normal that you don’t need to list it as a feature on a vehicle in a probate document.
Every farmer has multiple tractors, each of which has a huge multiple of the productivity of a team of horses.
GPS controlled tractors that can plow, plant, or harvest a farmer’s field with the farmer touching nothing other than the start button after entering coordinates to the GPS device.
Yields on crop astronomically higher than anyone had ever dreamed of in history.
Such incredible productivity that a tiny fraction of the American population feeds all of America and a large portion of the rest of the world.
So much excess production that one would never have to dream of adopting out a child because the family did not even have food to keep another child alive.
In the Viking era families were concerned whether they had enough food to literally survive until the winter was over. Having one more or one less cow could mean the difference between seeing the spring thaw versus everyone in your family being dead by then. When my grandfather was growing up families were concerned whether they had enough food to keep everyone healthy or whether they might need to adopt out a child. Today our biggest food concern as an individual is to keep our weight under control and as a society trying to figure out how to control widespread obesity.
Instructions on how to repair any device on your farm are readily available by looking at your phone.
Electricity on every farm.
Refrigeration in every home.
Central air conditioning is most homes; swamp coolers cheaply available for the rest.
Natural gas powered central heating is normative.
Never have to worry about chopping enough word to keep the house warm to keep the family from freezing to death in the midst of the winter.
A farmer during the Viking age would raise the crops he ate, raise the sheep to spin the wool to make the clothes, and raise the animals to provide food to include milk and meat. He had to have a wife to share the chores. They needed all the children they could feed to help on the farm. He was heavily self-sufficient.
My grandfather raised the oats to feed the horses to plow the fields to raise the corn to feed the pigs and cows to provide meat to eat, milk to drink, and live animals to sell for cash income. The inputs visible in the probate document include coal to heat the house, gasoline to power the only two tractors they had, and seed.
Grandma made clothes out of the bags the seed and ground floor came in.
Everything was patched, repaired, fixed, or repurposed. Very little was thrown away because something in an item could be reused. That minimized the amount of contracted repair work and new purchases.
Already covered quite a bit of the factors here. Consider GPS controlled tractors which can plow or harvest an entire field without driver intervention compared to teams of horses that had to be directed every step they took.
Consider the productivity of the modern tractor compared to a team of horses for my grandfather or one mule or horse for a Viking farmer.
Consider the productivity improvement when around half of the United States was needed on the farm to feed the country compared to around 3% today which feeds the US and a large portion of the rest of the world.
When my aunts and uncles were young all the power was provided by horses. Sleeping sickness killed most of the horses and forced my grandfather to get his first tractor. Imagine the productivity increases in crops raised and the reduced time to maintain the tractors compared to horses. Compare that productivity to the several humongous, GPS controlled tractors and combines you see sitting around every farm in the North Dakota.
I haven’t thought this through completely, but after considering merely the brief comments above on medical care, standard of living, self-sufficiency, and farm technology, it sure does seem to me that my father, his parents, and his siblings grew up in conditions that are closer to what my very distant ancestors experienced in the Viking Era than the conditions I am living in today.
Life on a South Dakota farm in the 1930s was more like life in the Viking Age than like life today.
What do you think?