Life 100 Years Ago Essays On Success

Perhaps you've seen that viral list of facts about what life was like in 1915, which was printed in the latest issue of The Tower (a monthly publication of a gated community in Florida).

Or maybe you saw the very same list of of facts years ago, when it said it was about 1906, or 1902, or 1900.

The origin and sources of the original list are unknown, but the idea is provocative: What was life actually like 100 years ago?

We decided to find out. Not all of the data we dug up references 1915 precisely, but we got as close as we could with accurate and trustworthy sources — all of which are linked below.

The results paint a fascinating portrait:

  • In 1915, cocaine had only been illegal for a year; marijuana was still perfectly legal, available for purchase in pharmacies; and doctors still regularly prescribed heroin to patients.
  • In 1915, the word "teenager" was not yet in use.
  • In 1915, the constitutional amendment granting American women the right to vote had not yet passed.
  • In 1910, there were just over 14,000 people incarcerated in the US for first- or second-degree murder.
  • The population of Las Vegas was 22 in 1900, 800 in 1910, and 2,304 in 1920.
  • In 1900, the average life expectancy for an American man was 48.3. The average life expectancy for a woman was 51.1.
  • In 1913, the first dedicated gas station in the US opened in Pittsburgh. Before that, selling gas was a side business for various stores.
  • In 1940 (just 75 years ago), when the Census collected information on the plumbing in American homes, almost half lacked the trifecta of hot/cold water, a tub or shower, and a flush toilet.
  • In 1901, Connecticut passed a law that included the country's first speed limit: 15 mph on general roads and 12 mph within city limits.
  • In 1915, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world— a status it had held since its completion in 1889 and that it maintained until 1930.
  • In 1938, the US set its first minimum wage: 25 cents an hour.
  • In 1910, the average annual per capita income in the US was estimated at $332, or about $7,800 in current-day dollars. But that was decades before truly representative income samples were available.
  • In 1910, less than half of the US population lived in urban areas. (Today, it's 80%.)
  • In 1915, many practicing doctors in the US had been educated haphazardly since, according to the National Library of Medicine, "medical schools had become mostly diploma mills." That slowly began to change when the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, considered the first modern medical school, opened in 1893.
  • In 1915, a dozen eggs cost 34 cents; a gallon of milk cost 18 cents; and a pound of coffee cost 30 cents.
  • In 1910, agriculture was the most common industry Americans worked in. (By 1920, it had been surpassed by manufacturing; today, it's service jobs.)
  • In 1915, the three leading causes of death in the US were heart disease, pneumonia/influenza, and tuberculosis.
  • In 1915, canned beer, modern supermarkets, and Barbie dolls had not yet been invented.
  • In 1915, the US did not have an official national anthem.
  • In 1910, 7.7% of Americans said that they couldn't read or write, a sharp decline from 1870, when 20% said they were illiterate. (True rates of illiteracy may have been higher, since these were self-reported.)
  • In 1900, only about half of American children between five and 19-years-old were enrolled in school. Ending formal education after eighth grade was typical.

So you want your college essay to show admissions how amazing you are, but you don’t want to say, “Hey admissions—I’m amazing!”

Displaying your accomplishments without bravado is harder than most people think, especially in an assignment like the college application essay, which, when done well, can be a vehicle for highlighting some of your best assets and triumphs. Admissions truly wants to know what distinguishes you from the competition, but who wants to read 650 words of someone tooting his or her own horn? (Not me!) Talking about yourself requires a fine balance between humility and horn tooting.

Over the course of my 12 years of essay advising, I have worked with teenagers of all styles and comfort levels when it comes to presenting their talents and achievements. There are those who routinely undersell themselves (“Sure, I raised $10,000 for cancer research last year, but it’s not a big deal.”), and those would fill a sheet of paper long enough to reach the moon with the details of their every last exploit if you gave them the chance. (“I once decided not to kill a spider in the house and released it back into the wild instead, because I have so much respect for other living things.”) In between these extreme ends of the spectrum, fall the many students who feel moderately comfortable talking about themselves and their successes, but don’t know how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel braggy or self-important.

But it is absolutely possible to land in that sweet spot between overly humble and obnoxiously self-congratulatory. Here are some tips for displaying your landmark successes and defining these moments with grace and without the risk of leaving a sour taste in the mouth of an admissions officer.

Describe your actions and let your accomplishments speak for themselves. This is an offshoot of the classic “show—don’t tell” rule. Telling is boring. Showing engages. It reveals an understanding of the event or activity in question and can reveal thoughtful details about your involvement. Are you a Model United Nations champion? Describing the process of preparing for a tournament—your methodical preparation and bizarre-but-hilarious pre-competition rituals, for example—will allow admissions to grasp your level of investment in the activity, your sense of pride in your mastery of a subject, even your sense of humor. Revealing the process behind your passions can even show an admissions officer why you are so good at what you do. Admissions officers are insightful. They don’t need you tell them how to interpret your achievements. Describe your actions and let admissions infer their value.

Don’t list your activities. Instead, detail your motivations. Providing admissions with a list of your résumé’s greatest hits is a surefire way to sound like a self-impressed blowhard. Also: Zzzzzzzzz. These activity inventories are sure to appear elsewhere on your application (like in the Activities section of the Common or Coalition applications). What admissions will find truly impressive and interesting about your service initiative or your fundraiser or your gold medal at the math fair isn’t the fact of your accomplishment or participation, but rather the reasons behind your actions. Qualities like empathy, self-reflection, and determination don’t reveal themselves on your transcript, so show admissions your personality and humanity by shedding light on why you do what you do. Is there a reason you volunteering for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society instead of, say, Memorial Sloan Kettering? Why do you wake up at 4 a.m. to dive into a freezing cold pool every morning? What drives you, and how do you apply that motivation to your interests and goals? That is what admissions wants to know.

Be grateful. Do you feel lucky to have organized a book drive that has given underserved members of your community access to some of your favorite novels? Does debating the safety of long-term cell phone use on a Sunday afternoon make you nerdily giddy? How can you show admissions that you enjoy life, that you’re invested in your commitments, and that you think about how you have come to be in the place you’re in? Expressing gratitude is a surefire way to contextualize your standout moments and signal that you understand the importance, not just of your own actions, but of their relation to the bigger picture.

Related: 3 Big College Essay Taboos—and When to Break Them Anyway

Ultimately, no matter who you are and what you have done in the first 17 years of your life, representing yourself with confidence in the college essay is crucial. You don’t have to have a heavy hand with the self-praise (and probably shouldn’t), but this is the time to give yourself some credit and show admissions what you’re made of beyond your transcript, test scores, and activity lists. There is a balance to be found in the presentation of your finest qualities and most impressive triumphs. I know you can achieve it because—as admissions will soon find out through your own subtle cues—you’re pretty amazing.

Stacey Brook is a writer, admissions expert, and the founder and chief advisor of College Essay Advisors, an education company that offers online courses and in-person college essay advising to students around the world. Brook has over a decade’s worth of experience and teaches the Supplemental Essay Writing course at nytEducation: The School of The New York Times. She has helped more than 1,000 students build lifelong writing skills while crafting compelling and effective admissions essays.

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