11 Skills Your Great-Grandparents Had That You Don’t

This is a repost of commentary I did a few years ago about the skills my great-grandparents had that few people have today. When I examine what life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from about 1885 to 1905, I am amazed at how self-reliant and independent my great-grandparents were.

Those of us who write historical fiction are always striving to make sure our characters are part of the period in which our novels are set. A farmer in 19th Century Kansas, for example, had to know how to hunt and fish, how to forage and butcher livestock, pluck chickens, and shoe a horse, etc.

There were no supermarkets, no computers or online shopping, no clothing stores or malls. There were Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs where women could order ready-made dresses and men could order overalls and shirts, but ordering from them was considered an infrequent luxury.

Your great-grandparents didn’t buy butter; they churned it!

A while back, I received an e-mail from Ancestry.com, the online genealogy service that asked: “How old school are you? Do you think you’ve got what it takes to live in your great-grandparents’ era?”

I was intrigued by this question, having just completed the third book in my Finding Billy Battles Trilogy, the first of which is set in the late 19th Century American West. As someone who spent time on a farm, who hunted and fished and cleaned hundreds of chickens, rabbits, and squirrels, I figured I would be OK if I were suddenly transported to my great-grandparents’ time.

But there was more to living back then than hunting and fishing. Life was much, much harder, and so were the people.

Take a look at what Ancestry.com had to say:

Our parents and grandparents may shake their heads every time we grab our smartphones to get turn-by-turn directions or calculate the tip. But when it comes to life skills, our great-grandparents have us all beat. Here are some skills our great-grandparents had 90 years ago that most of us don’t.

  1.  Courting

While your parents and grandparents didn’t have the option to ask someone out on a date via text message, likely, your great-grandparents didn’t have the option of dating at all. Until well into the 1920s, modern dating didn’t exist. A gentleman would court a young lady by asking her or her parents for permission to call on the family. The potential couple would have a formal visit — with at least one parent chaperone present — and the man would leave a calling card. If the parents and the young lady were impressed, he’d be invited back again, and that would be the start of their romance.

Home, sweet home on the Kansas prairie
  1. Hunting, Fishing, and Foraging

Even city dwellers in your great-grandparents’ generation had experience hunting, fishing, and foraging for food. If your great-grandparents never lived in a rural area or lived off the land, their parents probably did. Being able to kill, catch, or find your own food was considered an essential life skill no matter where one lived, especially during the Great Depression.

  1. Butchering

In this age of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, it’s unusual to have to chop up a whole chicken at home, let alone a whole cow. Despite the availability of professionally butchered and packaged meats, knowing how to cut up a side of beef or clean a rabbit from her husband’s hunting trip was an ordinary part of a housewife’s skill set in the early 20th century. This didn’t leave the men off the hook, though. After all, they were most likely the ones who would field dress any animals they killed.

  1. Bartering

Before shopping malls and convenience stores, it was more common to trade goods and services with neighbors and shop owners. Home-canned foods, hand-made furniture, and other DIY goods were currency your great-grandparents could use instead of cash.

Before automatic washers and dryers, there was the sun and plenty of hard work.
  1. Haggling

Though it’d be futile for you to argue with the barista at Starbucks about the price of a cup of coffee, your great-grandparents were expert hagglers. Back when corporate chains weren’t as ubiquitous, it was a lot easier to bargain with local shop owners and merchants. Chances are your great-grandparents bought very few things from a store anyway.

6. Darning and Mending

Nowadays, if a sock gets a hole in it, you buy a new pair. But your great-grandparents didn’t let anything go to waste, not even a beat-up, old sock. This went for every other article of clothing as well. Darning socks and mending clothes was just par for the course.

  1. Corresponding by snail mail

Obviously, your great-grandparents didn’t text or email. However, even though the telephone existed, it wasn’t the preferred method of staying in touch, especially long-distance. Hand-written letters were the way they communicated with loved ones and took care of business.

  1. Making Lace

Tatting, the art of making lace, was a widely popular activity for young women in your great-grandparents’ generation. Elaborate lace collars, doilies, and other decorative touches were signs of sophistication. However, fashion changed, and technology made lace easy and inexpensive to buy, so their children probably didn’t pick up the skill.

            Tatting, the Art of Making Lace
  1. Lighting a Fire without Matches

Sure, matches have been around since the 1600s. But they were dangerous and toxic — sparking wildly out of control and emitting hazardous fumes. A more controllable, nonpoisonous match wasn’t invented until 1910. So Great-grandma and Great-grandpa had to know a thing or two about lighting a fire without matches.

  1. Diapering With Cloth

Disposable diapers weren’t commonly available until the 1930s. Until then, cloth diapers held with safety pins were where babies did their business. Great-grandma had a lot of unpleasant laundry on her hands. 

Where’s the dishwasher? Oh, she’s standing right there.
  1. Writing With a Fountain Pen

While it’s true that your grandparents were skilled in the lost art of writing in cursive, your great-grandparents probably were, too. However, the invention of the ballpoint pen in the late 1930s and other advances in pen technology means that your great-grandparents were the last generation who had to refill their pens with ink.

Thanks to Ancestry.com for sharing this. I hope it helps you realize how easy you have it today compared to 100 years ago.

About Ronald Yates

Ronald E. Yates is an award-winning author of historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy. Read More About Ron Here

3 thoughts on “11 Skills Your Great-Grandparents Had That You Don’t”

  1. My grandfather used to tell me about his youth, when most people he knew could make or repair almost anything that was a part of their daily life. At the farthest remove, they personally knew the person who could—often a blacksmith, a cooper, or a wheelwright. I’m capable of making or repairing almost nothing that is part of my life. But, I guess, one of the hallmarks of civilization is specialization. And I’m a generalist in a specialist’s world.

    • My grandfather could fix anything and make just about anything he needed. I don’t think he ever bought anything ready-made. All of those skills went to the grave with him.


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