Special Reports

At work, at play: A day in the life 1903

A family on Bellingham Bay could rightly think the future looked bright.

The towns along its shore boomed with industry. The surrounding forest and farmland provided products and produce.

There were family-wage jobs to be had: $2.50 a day for a laborer, $2 plus board for a farmhand, $45 a month for a teamster, $45 to $75 a month for a teacher.

And there was new technology, such as telephones and electric lights.

So what was it like for a family in October 1903, when Whatcom and Fairhaven agreed to come together and create Bellingham?

For one, the children were in school, enjoying the eighth week of their 36-week school year. There were 2,097 students, attending one of the eight brick or wood elementary schools or Whatcom or Fairhaven high schools.

Columbia was the largest elementary school, with 440 pupils. The current Whatcom Middle School, originally built as a high school, stood a few months shy of completion.

Arithmetic and science books were provided for the upper grades, but parents were responsible for supplying tablets (5 cents), cloth slates (35 cents) and pencils (two for a nickel). Money for school supplies was available for the poor.

At work, at play

Fathers in 1903 were the family breadwinners - fishing, running their own business, working at the numerous shingle and logging mills.

On weekends, people might amuse themselves watching a local boxing match or enjoying a night out at a secret society club. Baseball was in the news; fans followed results of the Pacific Coast and Pacific National League games, as well as the national leagues.

Mothers generally stayed at home, though, depending on their class, some women did work. Like mothers today, they were involved with their children's lives at school and at church, in amusements at home, and in their circle of friends, finding enrichment in such clubs as the Aftermath Reading Circle, the PEO or Women's Relief Corps.

The society page and local news section in the Daily Reveille recorded their comings and goings, often mixing in the sale of $1 shoes and announcements of Acker's Blood Elixir with: "Mrs. G. P. Perley of Blaine was visiting friends in the city Friday and Saturday." Or, "one of the very pleasant small parties of the week was in the nature of a birthday surprise. The guests went by car to Silver Beach and rowed across the lake arriving in time for dinner."

In a time of no television, radio or movies, families found fun at the annual fair, visiting the free libraries, attending Halloween parties, going to the theater and enjoying dances.

Dances for adults seemed numerous, but they were a way to meet, socialize and, in some cases, make money for the sponsoring organization. Cascade Soda Works, 938 Elk St., provided refreshments in "mineral waters, sarsaparilla and iron, ginger ale and iron brew."

High school football games were popular and followed closely in the newspaper. When Whatcom High School played against Seattle High School, 100 people went with the team on the side-wheeler George E. Starr. They returned with a scoreless tie, but everyone felt the local team had outclassed Seattle.

Fewer amenities

Bellingham of 1903 had growing pains. Depending on where one lived, most city streets were graveled and had planked sidewalks. In what is now the Sehome Hill area, clamor arose for improved roads and for electric lights, as the streets were essentially mud with wood sidewalks.

House construction was brisk. W.H. Gates announced the building of his home on Iron Street for $1,100. Other homes were built on High Street for $1,200 and for $300 on Maple Street.

Bellingham Bay Improvement Co. sold lots from $100 to $500, at 7 percent interest. City water, "improved streets" (most likely graveled), and electric streetlights were some of the amenities.

Inside the homes, life was simple. Families had a choice of gas or electric lighting, but homes were heated with wood or coal or a newfangled portable oil heater.

Whatcom County Railway and Light, based at the corner of Bay and Holly streets, covered all bases, selling coke for cooking and heating stoves and electricity for lights, while also providing gas for the new modern cookstoves.

There was indoor water, but no bathrooms. Outhouses were the order of the day.

Some houses never plumbed for the bathtub, if they had one. Instead, they simply drained water from the tub to the ground under the house. There was no refrigeration, but people had iceboxes in the kitchen.

Sunset Telephone Co. provided telephone service, but fewer than 100 subscribers had phones at homes. Three public telephone offices offered phone service that linked people around town and all the way to California. A local call cost 15 cents.

Life was generally good in 1903, though diphtheria, consumption and many other diseases were stark reminders of life without antibiotics.

Most babies were born at home. Without birth control, families were large, but it was the beginning of the New Woman movement and women were finding ways in married life not only to be equal partners, but also to control the size of their families.