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55 Things Your Grandparents Lived Without — Can You?

55 Things Your Grandparents Lived Without -- Can You?

I once heard a story about a young woman proudly showing off her new kitchen to her grandmother.  The kitchen had the latest and greatest of everything—high-end range, refrigerator with water and ice through the door, gentle-glide drawers, and granite countertops.

As the older woman admired the kitchen, her granddaughter asked her, “Grandma, what is the thing you like most about it?”

“Running water,” the grandmother replied.

For me, that story has always reminded me to keep my blessings and challenges in perspective. Many of our grandparents grew up with what we would likely consider privation by today’s standards. Depending upon the ages of you and your grandparents, and on your family’s geography and lifestyle, it’s possible there is a wide gap between that which you take for granted and what your grandparents once lived without.

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Assuming your grandparents were born somewhere between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, here are a few of the things many of us consider to be necessities today that our grandparents probably lived some or all of their lives without.

  1. Personal computers. Actually, most people old enough to be parents today have lived at least part of their lives without home computers.
  2. Laptops. There’s a good chance that anyone born before the year 2000 has not always had one.
  3. Smartphones. We all remember life without smartphones.
  4. Tablets and other modern devices. Most of us remember when the word “device” didn’t have anything to do with communication.
  5. Voice-activated devices. Hey Alexa, how long ago were you invented?
  6. Mobile phones of any kind. Lots of us grew up without one.
  7. The Internet. Our grandparents probably grew up using encyclopedias, if they were lucky.
  8. Google. Most of us remember the teacher telling us to look words up in the dictionary.
  9. Cloud storage. Some of our grandparents might have thought humanity had gone ‘round the bend if someone told them they were storing photos in a cloud.
  10. YouTube. Mindblowing, when you think about it.
  11. Credit cards. The rule of thumb was once that if you didn’t have the money today, you didn’t buy it today.
  12. Debit cards. Our grandparents probably grew up on just cash and checks.
  13. Big houses. Homes are much larger than they once were.
  14. Multiple bathrooms in one home. Your grandparents likely got by with just one bathroom for the whole family to share.
  15. Indoor plumbing. Your grandparents might have even had to use an outdoor privy and lug water for washing.
  16. Electricity. Although urban areas had electricity for most of the last century, it was not available to many rural residents until decades later.
  17. Central heating and air conditioning. Many of our grandparents might consider this a real luxury.
  18. Online shopping. Once upon a time, in a galaxy not all that far away, people had two choices:  They bought from the local store, or else they pored over a print catalog and filled out forms with pens and put money in an envelope and waited for weeks for the thing they ordered to arrive. Now, we can lie on the couch in our pajamas and buy just about anything—the world of shopping is literally at the tip of our fingers.
  19. Cheap airfare. Buying an airplane ticket was once a really big deal, mostly reserved for very special occasions or for wealthy people.
  20. Uber rides. Call some stranger and ask them to come pick you up? Sure, strangers helped people out in the good old days. But it wasn’t Uber.
  21. Online financing and mortgages. For most of our grandparents, seeking a loan was a lot harder process than it is today. It included a long paper application, at least one face-to-face interview, and a multi-day wait.  The last time I took out a mortgage, I entered a few facts and figures on my home computer and got an answer within minutes.
  22. Medical test results available almost immediately. In the old days, people got blood drawn at the hospital and waited for two weeks for the results to arrive in the mail. Nowadays, your doctor often gets the results later the same day.
  23. Huge closets full of clothing, shoes and accessories. I don’t know how many purses or pairs of shoes my grandmother had, but I bet I have more. Way more.
  24. Dishwashers. Many of us alive today have lived part or all of our lives hand-washing dishes.
  25. Kitchen electrics. Our grandparents might have had a toaster or a stand mixer, but probably didn’t have the wide range of small electrical appliances available to us today, from smoothie machines to stick blenders to juicers to expresso makers to spiralizers.
  26. Automatic icemakers. Filling ice cube trays and setting them in the freezer without spilling them and then busting the ice out of them is hard. Especially if they’re those old-fashioned aluminum kind. Reaching into the freezer and grabbing a few ice cubes that your freezer made and dumped into a container for you is easy.
  27. Overnight mail delivery. Some of our grandparents lived in a time when a letter took several days just to cross a few state lines, and people spent extra on “air mail” when it was urgent. But even air mail didn’t arrive the next day.
  28. Reliable weather forecasts. Meteorology wasn’t as precise as it is today. They didn’t have access to radar and other modern tools, and it was often a guess at best.
  29. Warnings for natural disasters. Scientists and officials still don’t get it right all the time, but warnings for blizzards, tsunamis and floods are far more efficient than they were in our grandparents’ day.
  30. Comfortable passenger cars. Some of our grandparents could never even have imagined the creature comforts in modern cars.  Power windows and mirrors, heated seats, air conditioning, state-of-the-art sound systems, cruise control, lumbar support, navigation systems—wow!
  31. Fast food. The ability to zip in, order, pick up, and zip out with a bag of food in your hand is a relatively modern concept.
  32. Drive-up windows. We can do a lot without getting out of our cars these days. We can buy food, do our banking, pick up prescription meds, grab a few groceries, and in some regions even do convenience-store shopping.
  33. Life-saving vaccinations. A world where diseases like polio, diphtheria, pertussis, influenza, tuberculosis and smallpox threatened lives and caused irreparable disability existed in many of our grandparents’ lifetimes.
  34. Life-changing medications. From antibiotics to statins to antipsychotic drugs to hormone replacements to synthetic insulin to pain relief to cancer chemotherapy, our grandparents had far fewer choices.
  35. Surgeries and other medical advancements. Our grandparents might not have had the option of knee- or hip-replacement, or prosthetic limbs, or cataract surgery, or even cutting-edge diagnostic procedures like MRIs and mammograms.
  36. Food imported from all over the globe. Our grandparents probably couldn’t walk into the produce section and choose from hundreds of different fresh vegetables and fruits 365 days a year. Buying local is important, but it’s nice to be able to occasionally indulge in fresh produce on a cold winter day.
  37. Replacement formula for babies. Our grandparents had far fewer choices when it came to infant nutrition. Mother’s milk is not always possible, and cow’s milk by itself is incomplete.
  38. Television. Many of our grandparents grew up without TV.  And even those who did have a television often had just one, in the living room, with just black-and-white pictures and limited selections.
  39. TV on demand. Today’s viewers can choose between cable, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and dozens of other channel choices. Our grandparents? Not so much.
  40. Remote controls. I have one for my TV, one for my Roku box, and one for my Internet radio. That’s not a lot of remote controls by today’s standards, but it’s three more than my grandparents had.
  41. Power tools. Anyone who has ever used a cordless impact driver or a table saw or a belt sander can testify to how much easier and faster and more efficient they are than their manual counterparts.  Our grandparents did it the hard way.
  42. Plastic. The amount of plastic most of us use in our everyday lives is staggering. Very little of our lives is untouched by plastic, from sandwich bags to house siding to toothbrush handles to storage totes to snow sleds to rakes to water buckets to trash bags to lawn furniture to car dashboards to dishware to children’s toys to zippers.  Our grandparents had products made out of wood, pottery, glass, metal and natural materials. But they might not have grown up with much plastic.
  43. Disposable diapers. Many people alive today spent their early years in cloth diapers, or possibly even used them for their own children. The convenient remove-and-toss method was not an option a few generations ago.
  44. Disposable tissues. Many of our grandparents used reusable handkerchiefs.
  45. Paper towels and napkins. People used reusable cloth for cleanup jobs far more often in our grandparents’ day.
  46. Disposable tableware. Plates, cups and flatware were items which our grandparents bought once, used every day, and washed over and over.
  47. Microwave ovens. When I told my young children that I had not had a microwave in my childhood home, they asked me in hushed astonished tones, “How did you live?!” I got by, it turns out. Just like most of our grandparents did.
  48. Synthetic fabrics. A lot of garment labels today list fibers I’ve never even heard of. Our grandparents had far fewer choices of materials for clothing, outerwear, accessories and home décor.
  49. Ready-made foods at the grocery store. In our grandparents’ day, the grocery store carried mostly whole foods. Heat-and-eat options are a relatively recent phenomenon.
  50. Ready-made coffee. Our grandparents made their own coffee at home. Without a Keurig machine, and possibly even without an electric drip coffeemaker. Going out to the local coffee shop, or even the corner gas station, for a cup of coffee, hasn’t always been a thing people do.
  51. Automatic laundry machines. Many of our grandparents didn’t have dryers. And if they had a washer, it was probably a lot less user-friendly than the ones we have today.
  52. Refrigerators. If our grandparents did have refrigerators, they were not like the ones we have today.
  53. Riding lawn equipment. Our grandparents probably used a walk-behind mower, with or without a gas-powered engine, to mow their small lawn.
  54. Electric heating pads and chemical heating patches. Our grandparents probably used hot water bottles and poultices instead.
  55. Paid time off work. Paid vacations have not always been common, and maternity/paternity leave didn’t always exist.

This list could truly go on forever, and I have barely scratched the surface. Such a lot has changed in just a few generations that it must be difficult for some of our grandparents to even recognize the planet we inhabit today as the same one they grew up on. Some of the changes truly represent advancement, while others make us all wonder if modern-day goods and services might have gone too far. But most of us embrace the things we’ve grown accustomed to, and we may find it challenging to live without the things our grandparents didn’t have.

What would you add to our list? Share your thoughts in the section below: 

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  1. Quite often, our grandparents used animals (chickens, goats, sheep) to cut the grass. They didn’t waste things like grass when something could be eating it and feeding them.

  2. Grandma didn’t have indoor plumbing until 1959! She had to use the outhouse and in cold, snowy Michigan winters, that was not a fun thing to have to do. She did have a hand pump at the kitchen sink. Mom had it made into a lamp and I have it now. As for changing channels on the b and w TV, you had to get up and do it. When remote controls first came out, there were only three channels on it: NBC, CBS, and ABC. The Red Skelton show was at 8 PM. He reasoned, correctly, that people needed a couple of hours to have dinner and time to clean up before prime time. Hence, all the major shows or prime time, start at 8. We have meat tenderizers now that you can just turn the crank and get it done. I remember Mom pounding meat using a hammer type tenderizer. It was hard work and probably did a better job!

    • Your post is bringing back fond memories. I tried finding Red’s poem that ends, “Thank God they still make babies in the good old fashioned way.” I miss simpler times and try to live as such. I love the saying, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” I do enjoy some modern conveniences and tech but make a habit of trying not to become dependent on it in my everyday life as much as possible. My cousins had the same “plumbing” setup as your grandma. It was my favorite place to go as a child. Living more simply keeps you healthier and is more often than not less time consuming and saves money.

  3. Looking at this list of things our ancestors did without, and that most today couldn’t, leads me to believe in the next generation our intelligence agencies will need older people to decrypt code. Because few people will be able to read cursive writings that foreign countries would be able to use as a secret code for messages. But fear not soon there will be robots doing all our work and won’t need to mow, wash dishing, cook or work. We will be able to sit infant of the TV all day and be totally waited on by robots. We won’t have to interact with others, in person. We can text or video chat.

  4. People have become lazier. Unfortunately because so many people don’t do as much physical activities it may cost them health wise .

  5. Families used to have only one car, not multiples. And people worked in the same town that they lived in.

  6. My grandparents would be horrified at some of the things we consider ‘conveniences’ today. Thankfully, I can still write and read cursive, read an ‘old fashioned’ map, know how to start and maintain a garden, and so on. The modern ‘conveniences’ of todays’ online society while useful, are still a drain on intelligence. Younger people don’t know anything but ‘google it’. Scary.

  7. I’m assuming that #28 is a joke since we check two different weather services routinely to guesstimate what to expect from the weather here in the interior of Alaska. I can’t speak for their reliability in other parts of the U.S., but the locals are much better at providing far more accurate info simply based on observation. Most of the time, yahoo and msn are WRONG.

    If you walk outside and you get wet, it’s raining. If you need your sunglasses,…you get the point.

    #33, 34, and 35 are questionable improvements considering the actual statistics for the number of people that are dying from medical injury, pharmaceutical issues, including opioid addictions that are killing record #’s of people every day for the last several years, and the amount of questionable medical intervention based on the “money trail” (as in “follow the money”) that people get dragged into simply for profits. (Before you try to start an argument here, do your own research.)

    On a funny note, my children grew up with a microwave in the home. Now, due to their own health concerns about using a microwave, they don’t have one in their own homes.

    Bottom line, not every so-called improvement has made life better for the human race. As others have noted here, it definitely serves to make people lazier.

  8. “”””Life-saving vaccinations. A world where diseases like polio, diphtheria, pertussis, influenza, tuberculosis and smallpox threatened lives and caused irreparable disability existed in many of our grandparents’ lifetimes.
    Life-changing medications. From antibiotics to statins to antipsychotic drugs to hormone replacements to synthetic insulin to pain relief to cancer chemotherapy, our grandparents had far fewer choices.””””

    If you call those things “improvements”, you are mislead. The one thing our grandparents didn’t have was a thorough brainwashing by oligarch corporations . My mother lived to 85 and NEVER used any medication. My dad, who did trust his “doctors” lived to 72 and was killed by blood pressure “medication”.

    Almost everything else on the list are more recent developments which could be termed computer byproducts.

  9. It’s scary to see people connecting their whole house to their smartphones to get in without any keys, I’m just wondering if they can get in or out if there’s a poweroutage.

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