Friday, October 7, 2011

I'm going to be Captain Obvious here, but I don't see what was so good about the old days

You can get all kinds of interesting and free ebooks at Amazon, so if you have a Kindle it can be a real journey into the classics, quirky-how to's and ebooks uploaded by new authors.  I am a history dork so I got one on Medieval life, I got the Art of War (because every CEO seems to love that book and I cackle evilly at the thought of these guys trying to tough it out in battle, especially in Sun Tzu's lifetime--I don't think these guys who buy $6,000 shower curtains would actually deal well with every day life of 1,000 years ago, let alone war), and The Prince, to name but a few.  This is like when I go to the library and just browse; I will come home with the most eclectic and weird collection of books ever. 

I also got The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Francis Child.  It was published in 1832.  Amy Dacyczyn had talked a little about this book in The Tightwad Gazette.  I saw it on the free offerings for Kindle and I figured I'd get it because not only does it tie in to this humble little blog, but it feeds into my history dorkiness.  I like learning how ordinary people lived day-to-day in different times. 

So far, I'm a couple of chapters in, and it reinforced my idea that people who look back at the old days and go on about how these simpler times were best are completely clueless.  I don't think some folks get just how hard life was.  And this book, in its blithe way that takes these hardships for granted (in that they are hardships the way colds may be a hardship to a very advanced civilization in the future) showcases how difficult life could be.

First of all, Child talks about cholera.  OK? The woman gives some home remedies to relieve the symptoms of cholera.  That illness is unheard of in industrialized nations today, but it was a real possibility back in 1832. 

She also talks about what to do if you cut yourself--and how to prevent mortification of wounds.  And by mortification, she doesn't mean embarassing them, or whipping it.  No, she's talking about them putrefying.  Rotting.  Becoming gangrenous.  (She also doesn't mention washing with soap or water, and I'm not sure if it's because handwashing and germs were not really known, or if the water was bad.  Either way, wow.)

So--look.  This was a real risk back then.  Real enough for her to mention.  Can you imagine any book of home remedies touching upon what to do to prevent gangrene, and how to tell if your wound is going in that direction?  I don't think any of us would really know what those signs are. 

So I'd like to take a minute and, instead of looking back with rose colored glasses, look around me with some measure of appreciation.

Antibiotics.  Yay, antibiotics! If it weren't for you many of us would be dead from a cut or infection.  Yes, antibiotics, I do love you.

Ibupropherin and other pain relievers.  Before aspirin, you were kind of our of luck if you had a headache or a backache.  And no, just resting wasn't an option unless you were wealthy.

Indoor plumbing and a clean water supply.  Oh, lord.  CHOLERA.  Need I say more?  Also? Things like composting toilets sound all good and nice and green until you realize that before there was a concerted effort to create santitation systems and root out corruption, poor neighborhoods in places like New York City were knee deep in squalor and filth because of the fact that people only had public latrines to use, and the city never, ever cleaned them. 

Cold medicine.  Yes, I know, they don't cure colds, but it's easier to get the sleep you sorely need when you can breathe.  I'm just sayin'.

Modern medicine.  Yes, it keeps us away from our natural selves.  But the maternal death rate during labor was very high.  It was not uncommon for children to die in infancy, and many of the surivivors to die in childhood.  Also, please see "mortification" above. 

Readily available soap.  There are people who make their own soap, and they do seem to enjoy it, but back then, it wasn't a hobby, it was a necessity.  And you made your own lye with ashes from your fireplace.  Good for reusing and recycling, but kind of hazardous when you think of what lye is.  Also, if you had kids, probably anxiety inducing (see above).  Also, very time consuming.  You could spend a lot of your time making soap.  And it's not like this stuff was particularly gentle on your skin.

Ready made clothing.  Yes, we can romanticize making our own clothes, and it's quite rewarding to do it, but can we please get real?  There's a difference between making something because it's fun and you're feeling creative, and being charged with making clothing for your entire family. 

Food.  Seriously.   Look, I love gardening and local food, but I've always been clear about how I'd starve if I had to rely on my own abilities to feed myself.  One bad season and you were in deep trouble.

OK, those are just a few things that I'm liking about the modern era.  Any other things you all like about this modern life of ours?


  1. A recent boil order certainly highlighted the benefits of clean tap water for me. And not just clean water, but *hot* water is high on my list. I love my bath and consider one of the greatest blessings of civilization. Also, the fact that most people know how to read. You can't have a democracy without educated people, and literacy is the foundation for that, along with (here comes another one of my favorites) free public libraries.

  2. Oh, my lord, yes, Denise! The educational system! Literacy (something that was not particularly widespread back in the days of old). Education for all.

    And yes, I remember that boil order and let me tell you, it made even more grateful for what we have today. Because it was a pain (though my town switched to the well water, which had its own worries for me) people were mad, but here's the thing--we had the ability to boil water without smoking up our homes. We could let it cool and put it in the fridge. OH! REFRIGERATION. Another good thing.