Reasons why living in the present is awesome
So, every now and then you come across one of these ‘many of my particular habits would fit in well with what I believe 18th century style living was like, maybe I’m living in the wrong century’ type posts. I just read one of them – which is why I’m posting this now. I’m not arguing people aren’t different and as thought experiments go, I guess you could do a lot worse. But here are some reasons why people perhaps don’t really compare apples to apples when engaging in mindgames like these:
i. Most people when engaging in these thought experiments seem to think that if they were to live in the 19th century, they’d be a nobleman or some such. Problem is, most people living in the 19th century (and earlier on) were peasants. Peasants who hadn’t even heard about tractors. Maybe they’d heard about Monsieur the Marquis, but that’s not quite the same thing. If you weren’t a peasant, you were probably a servant. Doing hard labour most of the time for very little pay.
ii. ‘I read a lot – and I mostly read the classics, so it’d be awesome to live back in the day where Dickens or Shakespeare lived!’ Guess what, if you go back 200 years, most people either couldn’t read or read very badly. They also couldn’t afford books, which was what got that whole library thing going. Because even if you could read, books were expensive. So was everything else. And if you’d like to read Mark Twain and you were living in Russia, good luck! Also, hardly anybody but those belonging to the nobility and the clergy spoke a second language. If you were to pop up in a relatively small linguistic region (like Denmark) in 1820, odds are no translations of what we now consider contemporary major works would even be available to you. If the book was not in stock, odds are you could not afford to get your hands on it.
iii. Spare time. A lot of it was spent doing stuff that wasn’t a lot of fun, like washing clothes without a washing machine. Also, for many people there wasn’t as much of it, on account of that ‘working 12 hours/day doing backbreaking labour in the sun’-thing. Further, not a lot of stuff to do if you actually had time for yourself. Reading classics probably isn’t as much fun if you have to do it in a small smelly hut with poor lighting late at night after a long days work.
iv. Travels! How far can you go in a horse carriage compared to a modern airplane? How long would it take you to go to Brazil for a vacation if you were living in Europe (ignoring the fact that you’d never be able to pay the ticket)? Go back two centuries and you’d probably find that a majority of Danes never left the country during their entire lives, perhaps but for a trip or two to North Germany or Sweden.
v. Modern medicine. Likelihood of not dying in child-labour. Probability of surviving to the age of 60. Cancer was a death sentence, but so were lots of common bacterial infections, like those causing tuberculosis or pneumonia, because they were equally untreatable. Also, remember that living even a decade after you’ve retired is a new thing almost unheard of before the 20th century. I’ve previously posted this:
In, say, 1820 people didn’t work to the age of 50 and then retired until they died at the age of 60. Most of them probably died within weeks or days of no longer being abled to work (…if they were lucky?). Being a nobleman was a bit different, yeah, but most people weren’t noblemen. And health is not just about not dying – imagine how much fun it was to go to the dentist in the year 1850. Eyeglasses and that kind of stuff has also come a long way (both in quality and price). Over-the-counter pain medications. Hearing aids.
vi. Mobile phones. Or maybe just phones. Internet. Tv. Cars. Central heating. Also, remember how easy and cheap it was to move tropical fruits like bananas thousands of kilometres back in 1850? Indoor plumbing. Clothes (Hint: There’s a difference between what people actually wore in 1870 and what they wear when you watch a film pretending to be going on in 1870. Also, how do you think a top of the line running shoe looked like in 1845?) Or, if going back to the travel thing, how do you think the roads looked like – like it would be fun to travel hundreds of miles on them in a horse carriage? Credit cards.
viii. If you are a female, your life would have sucked bigtime. Going back just 150 years and in a lot of the places that today really treat females quite well a female would not even have had the ability to own stuff – the property would either belong to your husband or a male guardian, like your father. Arranged marriages are still widespread today in many regions of the world, but they were also pretty much the norm in most developed societies a few hundred years ago, so you can also forget about having much of a say in who you’d marry if you were to go back to 1800 and start a life there. It would also be very difficult for you to divorce the bastard after he’d started beating you or perhaps had taken up drinking (/and)or gambling. Birth control? There’s no such thing. And there’s also no such thing as ‘marital rape’ anywhere in the legal statutes. Add the high likelihood of dying in child labour.
Other people who also would probably have a hard time living a really nice life a couple of centuries ago: Homosexuals, atheists, people who like to make fun of a king and queen wearing ridiculous clothes, modern females who’d like to go topless at the beach, people who’d prefer not to go to church every sunday, people with black skin (and why do so many of these people assume they’d end up as a westerners? Maybe the idea of living in Egypt in the year 1820 isn’t all that compelling, but millions of people did),…
The past isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Because of historians, it isn’t even what it used to be.
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