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Rural Life in a Modern Age

What does it mean to live a modern life?

Where you live has a critical impact on your lifestyle, your options, community services and even your health. Historically, the transition from rural to urban has meant that a household has options to use specialties the community offers and not to rely entirely on its own resources. A bakery can supply bread, a hospital health care, transportation services like buses or taxis, a school graded classrooms and clubs social outlets. On the other hand, rural families avoid urban noise and often pollution, ethnic tensions from different neighborhoods and sometimes the loss of tight-knit neighborhoods and family connections. Depending on one's priorities, urban or rural living may have more or less appeal.

Rural, Urban Growth

For the first time in American history, the urban population surpassed the rural population in the 1920 U.S. Census. The census showed that 51.2 percent of Americans lived in cities with a population over 2,500 (the definition of urban). In Iowa, rural residents still commanded a distinct majority with 36 percent. But there was a definite trend toward urban living, especially in the big cities in the East, and many Iowans found this disturbing. Descendents of Northern Europeans countries (British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland) had traditionally dominated the countryside throughout the 19th century, but Eastern and Southern European immigrants had been swelling Boston, New York, Philadelphia and the manufacturing centers around the Great Lakes. Railroads and automobiles had greatly increased travel exposing Iowa residents to urban values that threatened long-standing traditions. World War I had witnessed the beginning of mass migrations of African-Americans to Northern cities creating new racial tensions. Additionally, due to the collapse of high wartime practices and agriculture growing surpluses created by wartime stimuli, Americans experienced economic hardship.

American values were in flux in the early 1900s. Prohibition was officially the law of the land with the passage of the 18th Amendment but the bootlegging industry and widespread disregard of the law created tensions. The rise of motion pictures and radio brought images of urban life to rural areas. As troops returned home from the fighting in Europe, many hoped that the U.S. could withdraw from international affairs and return to a more isolated foreign policy, but world affairs continued to draw America into diplomatic issues. Technology, economics and political tensions prevented the United States from returning to the pre-war "normalcy" - as President William Harding described it - and the nation would face unprecedented challenges in the coming years with the Great Depression, World War II and the onset of the Cold War in the Atomic Age.  

Supporting Questions

What did modern life look like at the beginning of the 20th century?

What did rural life look like at the beginning of the 20th century?

How did rural people advocate for the conveniences of modern life?

What did modern life mean to people at the beginning of the 20th century?

Rural Life in a Modern Age Teaching Guide
Printable Image and Document Guide

"Thomas Edison Prophesies," July 10, 1907

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"Thomas Edison Prophesies," July 10, 1907

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Description

By the early 20th century, Thomas Edison was a well-known inventor whose work on the incandescent light bulb, as well as the phonograph and other inventions would have been well known.

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"Woman and Her Ways," January 10, 1907

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"Woman and Her Ways," January 10, 1907

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Description

This essay by Estelline Bennett looks at the roles and "ways" of a woman in a modern age. The publication was printed in the Wood County Reporter in 1907. 

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"Experienced Teacher" and "Newspapers" Article, October 12, 1907

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"Experienced Teacher" and "Newspapers" Article, October 12, 1907

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Description

By the end of the 19th century, many children were attending primary school, but most did not attend high school and even fewer attended college or university. The newspaper industry was highly competitive. Major urban areas had multiple papers representing a variety of…

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"Typical Eastern City" Newspaper Article, September 1, 1900

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"Typical Eastern City" Newspaper Article, September 1, 1900

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Description

This news article described the towns in Hardin County on a drive from Iowa Falls to Eldora, Iowa. While this account was published in The Eldora Herald, the story was written for publication in the Omaha World-Herald

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State Street in Chicago, Illinois, 1905

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This image provides a double view of State Street in Chicago. Tall, multi-storied buildings line both streets. The sidewalks on both sides of the street are full of people walking. The street traffic includes a tram, several horse-drawn wagons or buggies, and a couple of automobiles. A street light is prominently in the foreground.

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Description

This view of State Street in Chicago, Illinois, is presented as a stereographic image. These images were designed to be used in a viewing device so the viewer would see a 3D image. These images were popular as a way to see other places.

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Iowa City, Iowa, 1907

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This image shows a panoramic view of an intersection in the business district of Iowa City. A few pedestrians are standing on the sidewalks, and several horse-drawn buggies are tied at hitching posts. The street is lined with 2-3 story brick buildings. Electrical poles are present on both sides of the center street and on one side of the street to the left. Each pole carries several electrical wires.

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Description

In 1900, Iowa City was the 13th largest city in Iowa. While it saw rapid population growth in the 1850s, population growth slowed after 1860 when the state capital was moved to Des Moines. This image shows a panoramic view of an intersection in the business district of Iowa…

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Fort Dodge, Iowa, 1907

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This image shows a panoramic view of an intersection in downtown Fort Dodge. The streets are lined with 2-3 story brick buildings. A few people are walking on the sidewalks. Several horse-drawn buggies are in the street. A couple of cars are driving down one of the streets, and the tracks for a tram run down the middle of one street.

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Description

This image shows an intersection in downtown Fort Dodge, Iowa. In 1900, Fort Dodge was the 12th largest city in the state of Iowa. The image shows the streets lined with two- to three-story brick buildings. A few people are walking on the sidewalks. Several horse-drawn…

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Interview of Harry Reece about His First Trip to Chicago, Illinois, November 29, 1938

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This interview was collected in 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project, a component of the Work Projects Administration. In the interview, Harry Reese described his first trip to Chicago around 1900. Reese was born and grew up in rural Illinois.

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Description

This interview was collected in 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project, a component of the Work Projects Administration. In the interview, Harry Reece described his first trip to Chicago around 1900. Reece was born and grew up in rural Illinois.

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Woman, Man and Child Between a Corn Field and a Stream in Iowa, 1897

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The side-by-side images show a man, woman, and young boy standing at the edge of a corn field. The corn is on the left of the picture. It has tassled out and is almost twice as tall as the two adults. The two adults are looking towards a tree-lined stream/river that runs on the right side of the picture. All three people are dressed up, not in work clothes.

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Description

This image is intended to be used in a stereograph viewer. The side-by-side images in the viewer would provide a 3D image. Stereograph images were popular ways to see the world. This image was sold in the United States, Canada and Britain. These side-by-side images show…

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Rural Wagon Delivering Mail, 1903

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The subject is the delivery of the U.S. mail in a rural area. The camera was positioned in full sight of a standard rural free delivery post box located in front of a well-kept house and garden. A small boy and girl walk past the camera position in front of the mail box. At that moment, a standard rural horse-drawn postal delivery wagon comes into sight. The postman places the mail in the box, and the wagon continues on its way.

Description

In the early 1890s, Postmaster General John Wanamaker proposed the extension of mail delivery service into the countryside. In U.S. cities, mail delivery to homes began in the 1860s. Wanamaker's proposal gained wide support in rural areas where farm families often went…

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"Country Life," 1904

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The bottom third of the image shows a “typical Arabian horse” and a “typical Percheron horse.” The top of the image shows a scene with pastures on the left and grain fields on the right. One pasture has hogs, and the other sheep. The grain fields show a wheat field after harvest and a corn field growing.

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Description

This "Country Life" image was published as part of a collection about rural life. The collection was published in 1904. The bottom third of the image shows a "typical Arabian horse" and a "typical Percheron horse." The top of the image shows a scene with pastures…

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Excerpts from the Report of the County Life Commission, 1909

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Transcribed Excerpts from the Report of the County Life Commission, 1909

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In this summary of their final report, the Commission on Country Life provided information about the strengths of country life but spent most of the report identifying the weaknesses of country life and making recommendations for resolving those problems. This excerpt from…

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"Special Message from the President of the United States Transmitting the Report of the Country Life Commission," 1909

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"Special Message from the President of the United States Transmitting the Report of the Country Life Commission," 1909

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Description

In 1890, two events indicated the changing nature of American life. For the first time, the value of manufactured goods was greater than the value of agricultural goods produced that year. And following the 1890 census, the Census Bureau declared the frontier closed since…

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Family Posed with Haystack and Horse-Drawn Wagon in Dubuque, Iowa, ca. 1910

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A farm family poses in the foreground of the photograph. Two adults on the left each hold a small child. Two members of the family pose with pitchforks and hay on the wagon. A fifth member of the family poses on a tall ladder leaning against the pile of hay in the background, and a sixth family member stands next to the wagon. A matched pair of horses are harnessed to the wagon.

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Description

This posed image was taken near Dubuque, Iowa, in the first decade of the 20th century. A postcard was created using this image. Postcards were a relatively new invention at the beginning of the 20th century, and a variety of different images were used to create them. A farm…

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Children Reading the Sunday Newspaper in Dickens, Iowa, December 1936

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Children Reading the Sunday Newspaper in Dickens, Iowa, December 1936

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Description

This photograph was taken in the 1930s, a couple of decades after the other images in this set. The photograph came from the U.S. Resettlement Administration and was taken during the Great Depression. The agricultural sector was an area of concern for the U.S. government…

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Selected Graphs from "Changes in Agriculture," 1950

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Selected Graphs from "Changes in Agriculture," 1950

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This series of graphs are from a 34-page document published in 1950, detailing the changes that had occurred in agriculture over the previous 50 years. The report covered changing land use patterns and the major agricultural products produced in the United States during that…

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Excerpt from the Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States, 1891

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Excerpt from the Annual Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States, 1891

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Description

In the 1890s, the U.S. Post Office began the rural free delivery of mails. The program began as a few test cases in various places around the country. Rural people very quickly saw the benefits of this service and advocated strongly for the expansion of the program. This…

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"Rural Mail Report" Newspaper Article, October 24, 1899

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"Rural Mail Report" Newspaper Article, October 24, 1899

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Description

Newspapers regularly reported on the expansion of rural free delivery with the opening or surveying of new routes. These news stories often included information about the program and its success. This report came from one of the government officials responsible for…

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Excerpt from "President's Message" about Rural Mail Delivery, December 3, 1900

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Excerpt from "President's Message" about Rural Mail Delivery, December 3, 1900

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Description

In this address, reported in Marshalltown's Iowa Times Republican, President William McKinley acknowledged the benefits of rural free delivery for farm families.

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"Electricity and the Farm" Newspaper Article, February 28, 1901

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"Electricity and the Farm" Newspaper Article, February 28, 1901

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Description

At the beginning of the 20th century, several new inventions were changing life for many Americans, especially in the cities. Some changes were spreading to the countryside, like rural free delivery, while others would take longer to spread through the countryside. While…

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"Telephones on Farms" Newspaper Article, December 30, 1902

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"Telephones on Farms" Newspaper Article, December 30, 1902

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Description

As modern innovations spread in the cities, rural residents also desired access to those conveniences of modern life. Rural life, in particular, was often viewed as isolated, and the telephone seemed a good remedy. This newspaper article looks at the influence and use of…

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"The Marvelous Vogue of the Automobile," August 24, 1899

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"The Marvelous Vogue of the Automobile," August 24, 1899

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Description

The first automobiles were introduced in the late 19th century. They became more commonly available after 1900 when Henry Ford developed his assembly line production for the Model T.

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"Is Our Pace Too Fast?" June 18, 1903

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"Is Our Pace Too Fast?" June 18, 1903

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Description

This newspaper article, entitled "Is Our Pace Too Fast?", focuses on the words of a New Haven physician. The doctor said at an address before the American Therapeutic Society that weakness of the heart and the circulatory system are common among certain classes of men…

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"Physical Culture of Beams and Girders," May 12, 1904

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"Physical Culture of Beams and Girders," May 12, 1904

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Description

With Bessemer process and later Open-Hearth process, steel could be mass produced and began to be used in a wide variety of ways. In cities, steel girders were used to build much taller buildings.

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Additional Resources

  • "Good Roads and Rural Free Delivery of Mail" by Wayne E. Fuller
    This academic journal article was featured in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review and looks at the transition to rural free delivery of mail around the turn of the 20th century. 
  • "The Changing Nature of Country Roads: Farmers, Reformers, and the Shifting Uses of Rural Space, 1880-1905" by Christopher W. Wells
    This journal article follows the progression of road development and its effect on rural America. This includes the passage of the first state-aid road laws, the creation of the first federal road agency and the growth of a strong urban-rural coalition promoting rural road improvements.
  • "The Revolution in Rural Telephony, 1900-1920" by Claude S. Fischer
    This article from the Journal of Social History focuses on the evolution of telephone development and technology in rural America. 
  • "Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920" by David B. Danbom
    This article, which was published in the Agricultural History journal, looks at the parallels of education reform and rural America. 
  • Born in the Country: A History of Rural America by David B. Danbom
    This book features a general history of rural America. Ranging from pre-Columbian times to the enormous changes of the twentieth century, the book integrates agricultural, technological and economic themes with new questions social historians have raised about the American experience.

 

 

Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (9th-12th Grade)

Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are high school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for 9th through 12th-grade students.

 

No. Standard Description
SS-Geo.9-12.24. Identify and evaluate Iowans or groups of Iowans who have influenced Iowa’s environmental or cultural geography.
SS-US.9-12.18. Analyze the effects of urbanization, segregation, and voluntary and forced migration within regions of the U.S. on social, political, and economic structures.
SS-US.9-12.22. Evaluate the impact on inventions and technological innovations on the American society and culture.