My ancestors participated in society in one way or another for 6 generations in and around the town of Rush, NY. It was little changed during 4 of these generations. I have been looking at family records for the last 3 or so years and I have more than enough to put together a story or two from their records collection. I hope it will illustrate what life was like for my family in a time without most of the modern conveniences that we enjoy today.
Of course, my family acquired and adapted to the times as citizens and consumers over the years as every family did. I would say were typical of many small farmers of this area. I am sure that my ancestors had no idea where the future would lead. I imagine they wished the best for their children, but a “man’s word” was earned. It was rarely given.
From the evidence, I believe my ancestors preserved their past to educate their relatives of the future. They invested copious time in recording the past diligently. I believe that they thought it might give their future family a benefit. I doubt they understood how dramatically society would change in the future.
I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.
Psalm 138:2 King James Version
The Law of the Conservation of mass says that matter is never destroyed. It is converted. Which means there are two things that humanity has always valued: raw matter that needs to be converted to something of greater value, and the energy needed do the conversion and distribution. Almost all wealth forever has been measured by these things. Land, crops, gold, ships, manufacturing machines, trains, and on and on. If you could touch it, make it, or move it, it had value.
Mankind, being as it is, always wants to “speed things up”. Since a physical law like the Conservation of Mass can’t be sped up without help, the methods used to “get more stuff” – get more value or money – have always been creative. The most obvious way to get more raw material is to buy or steal it. The most obvious way to get more power for the conversion of matter is to become more efficient. All of this is sped up with technology.
Mankind has always embraced technology that replaces labor. This is nothing new. What is new is the alarming pace of technological progress in the last 20 years. Systems that were new and modern as little as a year later can seem old and obsolete today. Young people understand and drive this process. Older people resist in bewilderment.
The Law of Conservation of Mass concerns only matter: objects that can be touched. In one way or another, most of civilization has always used tangible items to determine value. Except when speculating.
The word “speculation” has two meanings. The first is “investment in stocks, property, or other ventures in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss”. The best way to speculate would be to never guess wrong on the future value of something. If one is invested in something at a lower value and sells it at higher value, then it is profitable. Investment with guaranteed return and no risk is everyone’s goal. The other definition of speculation is: “the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence.” In other words, saying or believing in something without knowing it to be true.
What follows is a speculation on how a typical small town has evolved. There is evidence, but rational people will disagree. This is understood as speculation is with limited evidence. Some of this is my opinion. I could be wrong.
At some point, thousands of years ago, people started speculating on The Law of the Conversion of Mass. A farmer would speculate on the future. He would borrow money, so he could buy seed and other resources to grow a crop which would pay off at a profit. If the farmer profited, he shared the profit with the lender. If a farmer was unproductive, the lender and the farmer would lose money.
Borrowing and lending has evolved over time. The Bible and Shakespeare both refer to the perils of lending, but also encourage it. Society and religion has always struggled with it. Speculation is truly beneficial when everyone has a “stake” in the process. If a lender has no risk, then they will not care for the borrower. If the borrower doesn’t pay back, lenders will not lend. Speculation on loans that are not understood is one cause of this.
In the Town of Rush, NY in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was little or no speculation in the community by participants who did not have an active stake in the local society. There never was a Bank in Rush to put money in. The 250 or 300 people who lived within 50 miles of each other just had to “get along” to conduct commerce with each other without a Bank. This meant that local society had value. If you needed money, and there was no Bank, and your family couldn’t provide, then local society was the Bank.
Isolation from local society was only possible for the wealthy. In a local society without a Bank, a wealthy person could become a lender and risk becoming wealthier or poorer. Or they could withdraw from local society completely and pursue other endeavors.
In Rush without a Bank, a man’s name was his word and therefore his value. A person’s actions defined who he was. If he did what he said he would do, then society rewarded him with trust which equated to his standing in the community. Men with higher standing would be better able to conduct business.
The word “man” is chosen purposely in this context. With exceptions, women almost universally did not participate in the business process until well into the 20th century. Women talked, discussed and socialized apart from men. They worked in the home where a separate and parallel society existed. Paths between the male and female society were polite and cordial and a woman’s influence had impact on the man. Women without men had no children. Since this was also a measure of society, childless women either excelled or vanished. Women did not balance the ledger of their husband’s business initially. Times did change, and they continue to do so.
All of this is hard to imagine today. People were operating their own credit and debit system using merely a man’s name which was literally his word of trust and integrity. Accounts of credit and debit were kept in books, and there was much “figuring” to determine the value of business between the participants. It was detailed, time consuming, and necessary. Every farmer and every merchant was running a Bank in the absence of a big building with the word “Bank” on the front of it.
Business without a bank meant that there was time needed to do accounting. Without electricity, good roads or coal or oil for heat and energy, keeping the books in addition to making a living was time consuming. Daytime and good weather would be used for working or selling or traveling. Night time would be for doing the books by lantern.
In nearby Honeoye Falls a bank was established in the early 1900’s. At some point in the early 20th century, a crossover point occurred. People could easily travel to the Bank where they could safely store their money and valuables. The Bank could easily do the accounting on finances and ultimately assume credit risk instead of farmers and merchants taking the risk between themselves. The Bank made money a little at a time on interest and service fees. Banking was not a profession where one could become rich.
Still a man’s name was his word that he would pay. Bank checks had no account numbers printed on them. A check was just plain paper with bank’s name and no personal information printed on the check. Simply a man’s signature was good enough for the instrument to be negotiable. Banks and other conveniences created leisure time that allowed families to travel and enjoy the world around them.
Tabulation of checks was mechanical until the 1960’s when computers changed the process. Cheats of trust were common, but offenders often confessed or were convicted. Banks could only use account numbers in their computer systems. A signature today is merely the vestige of the time when a man’s name was his word to pay. Starting in the 1960’s the concept of, “a man’s name is his word” passed to the Bank in the form of a charge plate with an account number and a credit rating by an anonymous algorithm. This year, 2018, will be the last year that people will need to sign credit card receipts when paying.
What was society and economy like when there was a small group of people living in a small geographical area with no financial or legal go-between’s? What kind of goals or ambitions did they have?
Our ancestors probably never gave much consideration to the future beyond the next season of crops and the well-being of their children. Our Great Grandfather’s saw the horse evolve to the tractor and then the tractor evolve to the space program. It is scarcely possible to believe that anyone from the past would know how to react to the events that confronted them in the 20th century.
The anonymous mass production of goods and services today is beyond the scope of anything our ancestors could imagine. It has depersonalized human interactions. At one-time man had dignity and purpose in producing something by his own hand. In Rush, NY people were producing by their own hand, or supporting those who did, for many generations. Only in the last two generations has this changed dramatically. The old ways are still vivid in the memories of the oldest residents of the town.
We have moved to an automated, mechanized and computerized society. We are not living in a time where a man’s name is his word anymore. This means that “faith” must be in an institution that can be trusted and is trusted by others to distribute wealth. Trust has become a commodity. The more people trust you, the more you are worth. This is done with quantitative precision in Electronic Social Media. There is now an electronic score board that tells each participant how many anonymous “likes” they have which can be converted into value.
We have gone a long way in removing a man’s name from his word. Society and economy are no longer local like they once were in the town of Rush and so many other places for so many generations.
Unless we prefer social isolation, we all must participate in this new society in some way. Electronic Social Media now equates to monetary value in the same way that local society equated to value in the early 20th century. The Law of the Conservation of Mass does not apply to digital anything. “Likes” can be created on Social Media from merely pushing a button. No matter needs to be converted to do this, unless one counts for the programming and electricity to make the button on the Internet. Since the Internet is making wealth in the way that factories once did, it is no wonder that the digital economy has a widespread effect on the traditional economy.
For the future, we veterans of the past should seek to preserve and exalt the benefits of a physical world over a purely digital one. Just in case the electric power goes off.