Redefining 'Poor': The Fifty-Year Change in Quality of Life

About a year ago, my niece and her new husband bought an older house on the edge of Denver. From the looks of it, it had been built in the late ‘30s and had some additions but very little in the way of actual renovation -- a cute, well-maintained little bungalow in a pleasant old-fashioned sort of neighborhood.

There was one little architectural detail that puzzled them as they showed me the house: a pass-through nook, maybe a foot wide and little taller, with a shelf about a foot square and another shelf below with about a six inch gap between them. This was in the wall between the kitchen and living room.

They had no idea what it was. Readers my age and older will remember: it's a phone nook.

I explained to them that, once upon a time, before they were born, telephones were expensive items wired to the wall, and a lot of people only had one. That nook was where it had gone, and it was a pass-through so people could reach it conveniently from both the kitchen and the living room.

This had never occurred to them. They remembered wired phones -- both of their families still had land lines but they considered them a little silly, and the notion of having only one phone for the whole house seemed unbelievably primitive -- you just plugged in a $10 phone in any room you wanted, or you got a wireless. Or, of course, you do what they do, and don't bother with a land line. They already have phones.

This came back to me this morning as I was watching some youngsters (yes, it hurts a little to find myself saying that, but as I near 60 it happens more and more) on Facebook repeating this week's talking point about the foolishness of "trickle down" economics. And that got me thinking.

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Fifty years ago, I was a seven-year-old boy in Alamosa, Colorado. We were reasonably well-off with the family business; we lived in a pretty big, older house, and we had a phone in the phone nook and an extension phone in my parents' bedroom. But we had a septic tank even though we were right in town -- when the house had been built there were no sewer lines -- and the fireplace was arranged with extra ducts to let you heat the house with it, albeit inefficiently.