Turning a sharp eye on the ‘good-old days’

child's grave

David Boaz of the Cato Institute pulls excerpts from three books to demonstrate how different – and difficult – life was not too many generations ago.

The first is from a Washington Post review of Flyover Lives, a family memoir by Diane Johnson, and describes, among other things, the once all-too-common reality of infant mortality:

It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses – mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere – slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: ‘Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.’ Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: ‘When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.’

Having walked through many an older cemetery and seen family plots with several infant gravestones – sometimes a half-dozen or more – next to those of their parents, I can only wonder at the grief previous generations often had to endure, and their ability to do so.

Boaz next highlights an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal’s review of Abigail Carroll’s book about the “invention of the American meal,” titled Three Squares:

Invited to dine with a ferryman and his family, [a 1744 traveler from Maryland to Maine] declined. He described the meal: ‘They had no cloth upon the table, and their mess was in a dirty, deep, wooden dish which they evacuated with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, and all. They used neither knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin because, I suppose, they had none to use.’

By the standards of the age, the ferryman’s repast was ordered: ‘Only about a third of the families in seventeenth-century Virginia had chairs or benches, and only one in seven had both,’ writes Ms. Carroll. Only about a quarter of the early Virginian houses had tables.

Perhaps most disturbing is contemplating life before the Industrial Revolution. Boaz cites a passage from James G. Leyburn’s The Scotch-Irish: A Social History:

The squalor and meanness of [lowland Scottish] life around 1600 [or 1700] can hardly be conceived by a person of the twentieth century. A cluster of hovels housed the tenants and their helpers…. A home was likely to be little more than a shanty, constructed of stones, banked with turf, without mortar, and with straw, heather, or moss stuffed in the holes to keep out the blasts…. The fire, usually in the middle of the house floor, often filled the whole hut with malodorous clouds, since the smoke-clotted roof gradually stopped the vent-hole. Cattle were tethered at night at one end of the room, while the family lay at the other end on heather piled upon the floor…. Vermin abounded … skin diseases … Infectious diseases were propagated readily.

Even individuals born in my grandparents’ generation weren’t likely to have advantages that we take for granted today, such as indoor plumbing, air conditioning and not having to have most of your teeth pulled due to disease by early adulthood.

And this is just in the US and a few other affluent countries. Much of the world is still living a lifestyle more closely aligned to the 18th century than that of the 21st century.

Something to ponder next time you’re whining about waiting in line while preparing to pay for a $6 cup of coffee at Starbucks.


12 thoughts on “Turning a sharp eye on the ‘good-old days’

  1. I’m just reading a book by Eugen Weber on fin de siecle France….the squalor only just beginning to lift from the stae you describe.
    A girl from the aristocracy describing how at 17 her hair was long…but filthy. It was never washed.

    • In many respects the contrast between life today and 115 years ago is truly astounding. We here in the States are in a continual political battle regarding welfare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs, but one of the remarkable aspects of this country and many other Western countries is that, for example, no one who needs medical care is turned away from a hospital. That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get the absolute best care around, but you’re still going to be treated. Until a few decades ago, I’d imagine many of the poor who were in desperate condition healthwise simply would have been allowed to die.

      And don’t even get me started on the reality that for centuries no one bathed more than a few times, at most, during their lifetime because they thought it was unhealthy. I suppose one can get used to that kind of environment, but the fact that the human race progressed past the late Middle Ages is nothing short of miraculous.

      • From what I can gather the middle ages went in for baths…there were certainly a bevy of public bath houses on the south bank of the Thames outside the limits of the city of London…..but there was a reaction in the period of the counter reformation which held that paying attention to one’s body was sinful….

      • According to a book I’m reading on the Black Death, individuals in Europe stopped bathing frequently once the plague struck in the mid-14th century because it was believed it opened one’s pores to the disease, which was believed to be airborne. This continued until the plague largely disappared in the mid-17th century. It says that even individuals such as Napoleon rarely bathed, instead getting a daily massage with French cologne. This practice was apparently common among European nobility by 1400.

        I don’t care how cologne you put on, a population that doesn’t bathe a whole lot isn’t one that I want to spend an inordinate amount of time around.

    • True – and I’m as guilty as the next person; when the donut shop is out of fritters I’m madder than a wet hen.

      One hundred fifty years ago I’d have had to chase down that wet hen with a knife if I was going to eat at all.

  2. There is a cemetery in Galena, IL. Galena is just off the Mississippi River on a tributary that was known as the Fever River in French. There was a cholera outbreak in the 1840’s or so that wiped out entire families in a matter of weeks. You can walk through the cemetery and read the dates of death, one after the other on the tombstones. Sobering walk for sure.

  3. 1) I don’t go to Starbucks, there isn’t one in Gib or near me in Spain, but if there was I wouldn’t go. And $6 sounds inordinately expensive.
    2) I saw lots of those cottages when we were on holidays in Scotland. I like them. Given that I sleep on the floor, the little dog jumps on top too, it doesn’t really sound too different. OK, so we live in a flat. We don’t have any heating, or rather we don’t use it at the moment.
    3) Not sure I would describe today’s consumerist society as having advantages. And much of our supposed health care is unnecessary. One of my medical colleagues said he much preferred working in the middle east where he could save lives rather than dishing out pills for people with a sniffley nose.

    • The advantage we have today is that diseases and conditions that claimed thousands or more annually just 75 years ago are now almost unheard of, thanks to advances such as antibiotics and advanced surgical procedures. No doubt, some of what passes for health care in the western world is overkill for the weak of spirit, but when one considers the number of deaths that once resulted from “childhood” illnesses, it’s fair to say we do have an advantage today.

      Anyone foolish enough to shell out $5 or $6 for a cup of coffee on a regular basis has more money than common sense, as I see it.

      I think the difference overall, is that today, at least in west, we have options. We can choose to live in a cottage if that suits us, or we can choose something “less airy,” particularly if we’re in a colder environment. I am no fan of consumerism, but I do like having options. I’d like to think I make the best use of my options, rather than spend for the sake of spending, or buying something because everyone else is buying. Perhaps that is the difference between our era and that of the past: Some of us, though not all, have a great deal more options than our ancestors.

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