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