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Vintage Freelancer

Vintage Freelancer: A Look at the Freelance Writer’s Life 100 Years Ago

Today, freelancers have it a lot easier than they did 100 years ago. The biggest advantage to writers now is time. Living in the so-called information age, the high-tech world where everything is at our fingertips research has become almost instant. Mail and maybe even phone calls have become a thing of the past as today its email, texting, and websites, yet it’s still just as challenging to get your words published. Just a century ago, the life of a freelancer involved weeks, if not months of waiting by the mailbox, retyping entire manuscripts from page one, and waiting even longer to see their work in print. How different is the world of a freelance writer today compared to 1916?

A Routine

A morning routine for most writers is waking up, the coffee is ready, the computer is on, and instantly you begin your research, check emails, do a little networking via Twitter or Facebook and comb through any writing periodical or the Writer’s Market looking for the next assignment you can land. That’s the freelancer’s lifestyle for 2016.

A century ago a freelance writer would wake up and have to make their coffee. There was no instant coffee or coffee makers. You’d fill a kettle with water and wait for the whistle to go off, and then mix your brew in a cup. No computer to turn on, you had a manual typewriter, with a stack of blank white paper sitting beside it ready for your words to be inked on them. With no internet to search for information, you used your encyclopedia set, dictionary, thesaurus and other sources in a book format. Very few people in 1916 had telephones in their homes, so that was not really an option for conducting research. Most all correspondence was done through what we today call snail-mail, in which waiting for replies and responses could take weeks, whereas sending an email sometimes yields an answer within minutes.

With the information world literally at our fingertips 24/7, it’s easy to type in a search word or phrase and get countless sources (what we call “hits”) within a second. Back when the new century was but a decade and a half old you had to travel to the library to examine periodicals and other resources not commonly found in one’s home or even a bookstore to find that elusive fact. With gas at 21 cents a gallon, that’s not a bad deal, but the average household income in 1916 was roughly $15,000 (according to the Visualizing economics website) and not every family had an automobile. And you had to visit the library, museum or historical society during their hours of operation, unlike today where we do most of our research from the comfort of our home while still wearing our pajamas.

What To Write About

Today, just as 100 years ago, there are endless topics and current events to write about and research. While most publications and websites are filled with articles on everything from President Obama to the newest high-tech gadget; it was pretty much the same back then. A freelance writer might write about President Woodrow Wilson and what his administration are working on with Congress; or the arrest of Emma Goldman for lecturing on birth control; perhaps how two summer hurricanes hit North Carolina and produced massive flooding; or how in Mexico a revolution began.

With a simple log on into the social media world, you have opinions, theories, facts and solutions on all the current events and the latest trends in fashions and relationships. In 1916, there was nothing to log on or in to. You read the morning or evening paper to keep abreast of what was happening in the world. Television was still years away, and not every home had a radio either. To get the latest about what’s happening in your town, you spent some time at the local tavern, associated with people at church or paid a visit to the town hall and the asked the First Selectman or Mayor what’s happening in your town.

Ethics is also very different when writing about people’s personal lives. While today as back then, everyone loves a bit of gossip, in 1916 it was just that – a little bit. The internet and various tabloid publications today are littered with defaming articles about celebrities, the next reality star, and who is doing what and with whom.


Editing is one thing that has drastically changed and for the better (or at least easier). Today when your manuscript is returned to you, it’s most likely in a Microsoft Word format with a function called “Track Changes,” which allows the author to see and accept/reject the edits as they wish.

By simply placing the cursor at the desired location the writer can delete or add a word, rewrite an entire scene or delete an entire page, and “cut and paste” material to move it around in the manuscript. Although, should your computer crash, you can lose all of your work and/or your entire manuscript. Hopefully you thought ahead enough to have a back up copy, or have emailed it to yourself, if not it’s likely your editor still might have a copy on file. Not so in 1916.

Imagine having to add a sentence or scene right at the beginning of chapter one. You would probably have to retype the whole chapter, perhaps the whole manuscript. What if the postal system lost your manuscript? You might have some hand written notes and all your sources, perhaps a long hand written copy of your work, but it would all need to be retyped, then reedited. The process could take months.

It Was In 1916. . .

It was during this year that J. R. R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt married. James Joyce’s novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is published in New York. H. G. Wells, Mark Twain (posthumously), Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Franz Kafka, Muriel Stuart, and Albert Einstein are just a few of the many writers to have published some of their work in 1916.

Shirley Jackson, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Walker Percy were all born in 1916, while sadly we lost such literary greats as Jack London, Molly Elliot Seawell, and Henry James. There were of course many others in the field of literature that were both born and would pass in 1916, but this was just to name a few.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam, a Swedish poet and novelist.


Today, Stephen King, James Patterson, and Nicholas Sparks write block-buster novels and occupy the top rankings on the New Times best seller list. Sadly, this year we have already lost Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mocking Bird), and Margaret Forster (Georgy Girl).

It is time now to make 2016 your year, especially as were are in National Novel Writing Month. One can only imagine what the writers of 1916 would have accomplished in their lifetime if they had high-tech of today.

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