Satirist and humorist Douglas Adams, probably best known for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote:
"Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty- five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
We tend to view our era as a time of unprecedented change while assuming the world before our birth was virtually stagnate. In fact, rapid radical change has been the norm for at least the past few centuries. The case can be made that the generations living just prior to our generation experienced changes every bit as disorienting as ours.
I recently came across this graphic from The Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States, published in 1932. Look at these maps showing the improvement in travel times from New York 1800 to 1930.
I remember first coming across similar maps in Allan Pred's Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790-1830. Pred demonstrates that not only did travel times shrink but the cost per mile of travel shrank as well.
Early in the nation's history, most travel was by water. We built cities on major waterways. Most states in the eastern half of the United States have a major river or the ocean as a boundary. This meant that each state had access to the water transportation super highway. Travel by land was exceedingly difficult. There were few roads. It took days to reach even nearby cities by stagecoach and each night meant fees for food and lodging that were not part of the stagecoach price. You had the labor of a driver spread across a few people. The cost of travel for even short distances could consume a week or more of wages for a typical working person. Only the wealthy and merchants could afford such travel.
I believe it was Pred who said travel from New York to Pittsburgh did not typically take a route across Pennsylvania. It involved boarding a boat in New York, sailing down the east coast around Florida to New Orleans, and then navigating up the Mississippi and the Ohio to Pittsburgh. Boats could handle far more people per trip, required no extra lodging expenses, food was generally provided on board, and laborers per person was much smaller. Water travel was far also more energy efficient and thus less costly.
As turnpikes and canals were built, and with the advent of the steamboat in the 1820s, travel times shrank and so did the prices. Depending on travel destinations, Pred shows the cost of travel per mile between 1800 and 1840 dropped by 50-90%. Railroads shrank distance and dropped costs even more. Today, we can fly from New York to Los Angeles in a few hours for one or two day's wages for someone earning around the US median Salary.
The world continues to change in significant ways but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our age is the first to encounter sweeping technological and economic changes.
[Note: If you have an interest in American economic history, you really need to investigate the interactive Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States.]
You may also find this clip by Louis C. K. sums up well our lack of appreciation.