What Do You Miss About the 1800s?

 

Especially when my mom comes to town, I enjoy a rich diet of period films. In a week in July, my mom and I consumed the BBC miniseries Little Dorrit. Our Mutual Friend was next for me, after which I feasted on Oliver Twist. A long tale from ’90s television called The Aristocrats was sumptuous, visually speaking. These on-screen confections and others, including any Jane Austen fare, get me thinking: despite horrible, bizarre realities of the past, life before the 1900s wasn’t all bad.

Yes, for the longest time it was probably better to stay home and suffer rather than consult a doctor. And suffer you did. Electricity, hot showers, well-insulated homes, widespread literacy, and other comforts of the body and mind were all luxuries of the future. Travel was slow and exhausting. Big cities were centers for disease, misery, and terrible odors. Improvement of your station was elusive. Job hours were long, rich folk snobby.

Yet as blessed as I am to have been born in 1974, I can’t help feeling as if I’ve missed out on a few attractive features of life from the early 1800s and before.

1.) Fireplaces and easy chairs. Wouldn’t that be lovely, of an evening, to sit in front of a warm fire (hopefully chimneys have been invented) and chat with friends or family from the depths of a cushioned chair (if you were wealthy enough to afford one, in pre-manufacturing days)? Or even read a book with the aid of firelight and candles?

2.) Passing time with family and friends. Connected to #1, it would have been delightful to spend more of life sitting together after dinner–with no interference from TV or radio–reading aloud, playing music, talking or singing.

3.) Cups of hot tea. These steaming drinks being brought out in pretty serving sets look inviting. They would be comforting aids to friendly conversation. Pair it with items 1 and 2 for an ideal experience.

4.) Dances. The dancing looks wonderful. I wish contra and other dancing were more popular activities today. I keep threatening to take a dance class, but sadly, my husband doesn’t want to go.

5.) Lovely gowns. The gowns would be great fun to wear for a few hours at a time, for special occasions. Probably without the whalebone and other confining accessories. These days, fewer and fewer events call for dressing up. We could produce these elaborate pieces relatively inexpensively in our time.

6.) Beautiful countryside. Most period films give the impression that people in the old days enjoyed swathes of unspoiled green countryside, which is why I eat them up. Courting couples would get acquainted with pastoral scenes as backdrops. Peaceful mornings dawned with lilting bird song. Walking in the country or in one’s garden was a pastime. Even seeing it on screen brightens the mood.

7.) Letters and Journals. I love typing, and I think the Internet will be a tremendous resource to our progeny and to historians–if we back it up properly, not assuming that it will be around forever. However, when I see a movie character sit at a picturesque desk, get out a fresh sheet of paper, and start scratching away with an ink pen, I’m reminded that in the last twenty years, we have lost the practice of exchanging long, meaty letters and of saving our correspondence. This practice sharpened our thinking, our writing, and our connections to faraway people that we loved. Also, the majority of us, if we’re not typing up our daily adventures on a public online forum, are rotten at keeping journals. We don’t even know what to record. True, a lot of these personal journals were transformed into best-selling books of the time, so there was ulterior motivation for taking daily notes. Yet it seems like disciplined journal-keeping was common practice in those days.

8.) Sense of Wonder. Speaking of adventure journals, the world was young leading up to the 1900’s because there was so much to be discovered. English audiences of the late 1700’s were startled to read of experiences with isolated ethnic groups–the world map still had blank spots in it, and there were limited means of reaching faraway places. With pleasure they read of the hazardous explorations of Africa by Mungo Park and David Livingstone. News of India would be captivating. And the scientific and technological discoveries kept building. After hot air balloons, who knew what to expect next? There were always exciting books to read and discussions to be had.

9.) Servants. This one is a bonus, because I just thought of it. Back then, if you were the right station in life, you could get away with having–no, you were expected to have–a few servants around. They would cook the meals, do laundry, take care of the yard, and clean the house. And even though I’m content at the balance of work and play in the 21st century, wouldn’t it be pleasant, occasionally, to have a small staff that took over repetitious tasks and saw to your neglected house projects while you took some air in the garden?

Is there anything you miss about the 1800s?

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  1. Nanda Golightly Member
    Nanda Golightly
    @

    I’ll ratify your compilation, sawatdeeka. :-)

    • #1
  2. Weeping Member
    Weeping
    @Weeping

    Sounds lovely – assuming you were born to the class that was able to have and enjoy those things. That probably wouldn’t be my luck, though. I’d probably wind up being the scullery maid. I think I’ll pass. :)

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    It is possible to enjoy most of the things you have listed today. Certainly 1-7. I dare say there is more beautiful countryside today than there was in the 1800s. (Not that there was less countryside back then – but a lot was not beautiful.) We just choose not to. 

    I have read books by candlelight. It may look fun, but it will give you eyestrain. That is the way a lot of the 19th century is.

    When I was in my teens I sometimes wished I had been born 125 years earlier so I could have been a naval officer like Horatio Hornblower or Nicholas Ramage (Jack Aubrey had not yet entered my consciousness). Right on up to five months before my 18th birthday. Then I got stabbed and had a punctured lung. As a 17-year-old Royal Navy midshipman with that type of injury I would have inevitably died. Probably painfully over the course of a week or two as infection set in. As it was, in the middle of the twentieth century it landed me in the hospital for a week, so they could re-inflate my lung. I thought about that after a friend brought me one of those novels while I was convalescing. After that I was grateful I had not had that particular wish granted.

     

    • #3
  4. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Then I got stabbed and had a punctured lung.

    There’s a story here, I’m sure of it.

    • #4
  5. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    It is possible to enjoy most of the things you have listed today. Certainly 1-7. I dare say there is more beautiful countryside today than there was in the 1800s. (Not that there was less countryside back then – but a lot was not beautiful.) We just choose not to. 

    Sometimes, we’re too lazy and unmotivated to do some of the things we really want to do. Speaking of myself, of course.

    • #5
  6. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    When I was in my teens I sometimes wished I had been born 125 years earlier so I could have been a naval officer like Horatio Hornblower or Nicholas Ramage (Jack Aubrey had not yet entered my consciousness).

    Probably almost the roughest life imaginable, right?  I read a book about young man in the British navy who ended up in Nova Scotia. The exposure to cold and the elements was so hard on him that he developed an illness or condition that led to blindness.

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Then I got stabbed and had a punctured lung.

    There’s a story here, I’m sure of it.

    Yup. My David Hogg Moment

    • #7
  8. Nanda Golightly Member
    Nanda Golightly
    @

    I have to say, the weak lungs that were guaranteed by my premature arrival would have carried me off shortly thereafter.

    • #8
  9. cirby Inactive
    cirby
    @cirby

    I know a lot of people who would put “be able to shoot carpetbaggers” on the list…

     

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Yeah, Hollywood and Jane Austen may not be the best sources for a real impression of the Nineteenth Century. Dickens would be better. The Ton had many of those amenities you discuss, but most of the commoners had long work weeks in factories with heavy pollution of both smoke and soot (mixed with London fog) and inadequate sewage systems and capacity which caused Parliament to close down because the stench was too bad. The rural population was dealing with land enclosures, meaning rich folks were enclosing what had been common lands where the poor used to graze their herds and in other ways make a living, so their recourse was…to go to a city and get a factory job. The cities were what inspired J.R.R. Tolkien for his descriptions of Mordor and Saruman’s operations.

    I mentioned sanitation before. Not only was it terrible, but epidemiology was not up to snuff, and people died of all sorts of things that people don’t or seldom die of today.

    If I had to pick a period before now, I would probably go with the early Eighteenth Century, but as a wealthy, landowning nobleman.

    Also, a form of typewriter was first patented in 1714 by Henry Mill.

    • #10
  11. Chris O. Coolidge
    Chris O.
    @ChrisO

    Well…there was no Federal income tax.

    • #11
  12. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Boy sawatdeeka – Nice post; but, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I’m currently reading about daily life in 19th century England (Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders) and our daily life is almost indescribably better than life just 150 years ago. Just one example, the work involved to do the weekly laundry (done by someone like the scullery maid mentioned by Weeping) for a household was more work than any of us today do in a week of housework.

    Laundry day was typically Monday, but the work started on Saturday or Sunday in sorting and checking each item and logging it into a washing book so that at the end of the process everything could be checked (this is for a typical middle class family in London). The dirtiest items would be left to soak the night before after an initial boiling. Wash day consisted of constantly heating water (using at least 50 gallons in the process), the various items going thru various stages of wash (rinse, boil, wash, rinse, etc), constantly rubbing or beating or swirling the laundry, running everything thru the wringer, and on and on. It was a full days work, and if the weather was bad or the house was close to a factory the wash had be hung to dry in the kitchen. After drying (a day or so later), items that needed starching had to be dealt with and most of the everything else ironed after they were put through the mangle (by hand). I got worn out just reading about it (whew).

    • #12
  13. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Arahant (View Comment):
    epidemiology was not up to snuff, and people died of all sorts of things that people don’t or seldom die of today.

    You mean when sewage was collected and deliberately dumped into the Thames, leading city officials to try to solve the riddle of the cholera outbreak? 

    • #13
  14. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    tigerlily (View Comment):
    Laundry day was typically Monday, but the work started on Saturday or Sunday in sorting and checking each item and logging it into a washing book so that at the end of the process everything could be checked (this is for a typical middle class family in London). The dirtiest items would be left to soak the night before after an initial boiling. Wash day consisted of constantly heating water (using at least 50 gallons in the process), the various items going thru various stages of wash (rinse, boil, wash, rinse, etc), constantly rubbing or beating or swirling the laundry, running everything thru the wringer, and on and on. It was a full days work, and if the weather was bad or the house was close to a factory the wash had be hung to dry in the kitchen. After drying (a day or so later), items that needed starching had to be dealt with and most of the everything else ironed after they were put through the mangle (by hand). I got worn our just reading about it (whew).

    Eww. That sounds awful. 

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    Eww. That sounds awful. 

    And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    That sitting by the fireplace? Didn’t happen much or the way you think. Women would have always been busy with crafts projects, such as knitting, sewing, quilting, etc. You might have plenty of time to talk, but it more than likely would not have been while working, not in more enjoyable pursuits.

    Cooking probably also took all day. Like the laundry, it was a big deal to keep the family fed. This youtube channel has many fascinating videos on the subject.

    • #15
  16. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Arahant (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    Eww. That sounds awful.

    And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    That sitting by the fireplace? Didn’t happen much or the way you think. Women would have always been busy with crafts projects, such as knitting, sewing, quilting, etc. You might have plenty of time to talk, but it more than likely would not have been while working, not in more enjoyable pursuits.

    Cooking probably also took all day. Like the laundry, it was a big deal to keep the family fed. This youtube channel has many fascinating videos on the subject.

    This is all making me feel very lazy. I mean, I generally knew everything was a lot of work in those days, but getting into the details makes me want to re-think sitting in front of the computer all Friday evening.  

    • #16
  17. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Arahant (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    Eww. That sounds awful.

    And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    That sitting by the fireplace? Didn’t happen much or the way you think. Women would have always been busy with crafts projects, such as knitting, sewing, quilting, etc. You might have plenty of time to talk, but it more than likely would not have been while working, not in more enjoyable pursuits.

    Cooking probably also took all day. Like the laundry, it was a big deal to keep the family fed. This youtube channel has many fascinating videos on the subject.

    According to the book I’m reading, people generally only had one hot meal on wash day as the stove (and the rest of the kitchen) was in continual use for the various wash activities, even in houses that had a copper for heating water and washing clothes.

    • #17
  18. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    We had servants when we lived in India. I was 5 years-old when we arrived, and 7 when we left. My mom oversaw the boiling of all the drinking water, and water to be used for cooking. We were one of the few American families that didn’t have a single case of hepatitis during our two year tour. The only meal we ate with mom and dad was on Sunday, the servants were used to British military types. The other six days of the week we were fed and sent off to bed early by our Ayah (Nanny). My mom discovered that if we didn’t like a meal the cook would prepare us a different meal. She put a stop to that by informing the cook that when we returned to States she wouldn’t have a cook, and she was only going to prepare one dinner. It was good while it lasted. We always looked forward to afternoon tea-time, cookies and small cakes at 4 PM every day.

    • #18
  19. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    sawatdeeka: 4.) Dances. The dancing looks wonderful. I wish contra and other dancing were more popular activities today. I keep threatening to take a dance class, but sadly, my husband doesn’t want to go. 

    Persuade him to.  My wife and I took several dance classes.  I was reluctant at first, but enthusiastic later.

    • #19
  20. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    When people talk about how nice it was in prior times, I just think about penicillin.

    • #20
  21. AltarGirl Member
    AltarGirl
    @CM

    sawatdeeka:

    4.) Dances. The dancing looks wonderful. I wish contra and other dancing were more popular activities today. I keep threatening to take a dance class, but sadly, my husband doesn’t want to go. 

    5.) Lovely gowns. The gowns would be great fun to wear for a few hours at a time, for special occasions. Probably without the whalebone and other confining accessories. These days, fewer and fewer events call for dressing up. We could produce these elaborate pieces relatively inexpensively in our time.

    I like these two.

    What I don’t get about the ones saying “medicine” is why did we have to get rid of these things just because of advances in technology?

    Dances – who hosts a dance? Who buys a house with a ballroom?

    Do they even dance at the fancy pants parties?

    No… dances are reserved for high school. Maybe a military ball still has them.

    If I take into account that I’m the commoner, now is definitely better, but I would have liked the dresses. I still prefer long skirts.

    Dancing class doesn’t provide the same atmosphere.

    The hey-day of archaeology and exploration is also the other one. Even with the dangers and illnesses, to explore the virgin land of the Amazon, Lake Victoria, or the ruins of India… to discover something new that no one knew existed that isn’t a strain of bacteria or amoeba.

    • #21
  22. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Architecture, 1890s-ish in particular:

    The Santa Fe station in L.A., La Grande Station, built 1893:

    • #22
  23. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Belmont Hotel, LA, burned down 1887:

    • #23
  24. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Chamber pots.  (Still in use in older homes and among my older relations when I was a child in the UK).

     

    • #24
  25. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Mm first birthday.

    • #25
  26. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Based on a conversation around these parts several months back I just finished reading My Antonia.  Not sure I miss much about the 1800s…but I do now really miss being a kid growing up in rural Nebraska.

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    AltarGirl (View Comment):
    What I don’t get about the ones saying “medicine” is why did we have to get rid of these things just because of advances in technology?

    There is nothing stopping you from doing dances and gowns. I’ve been known to wear capes.

    • #27
  28. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Also, I used to be part of an early music consort. We would occasionally play at Renaissance parties that included formal dancing. Y’all just aren’t trying hard enough.

    • #28
  29. Morley Stevenson Member
    Morley Stevenson
    @MorleyStevenson

    In 1878, in London, my great-grandmother fell down the stairs and broke her leg.  She died a week later after much suffering, I’m sure.  My grandmother and great-uncle were left orphans at the ages of 3 and 5, their father having died some time before.  It was a good time to be alive for only a very select few. 

    • #29
  30. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    philo (View Comment):

    Based on a conversation around these parts several months back I just finished reading My Antonia. Not sure I miss much about the 1800s…but I do now really miss being a kid growing up in rural Nebraska.

    My wife has letters from her relatives that arrived from Norway to settle and farm in Nebraska in the 1800’s. They lived in a sod cabin, and life was rough. Once a year they would go to town and their children received new shoes. They describe farming, the weather, and what we consider mundane today, the living wasn’t easy.

    At one family reunion the letters were being discussed, and I asked why after making it to the States wouldn’t you settle in San Diego, rather than Nebraska. 

     

    • #30

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