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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?