Monday, January 24, 2011

The "Quaint" 1800s

I have acquired a few pet peeves while working at museums, and none has bothered me more (so far) than the number of visitors who comment on how living in the 1800s, or in the past in general, seems so "quaint", or even "fun". Often this is followed by some Thoreau-like statement about how they would love to leave everything behind and live like the pioneers and settlers did. And I can't really blame the visitors for thinking this way: candle-making/butter churning/farming/etc. may look somewhat fun for the five minutes or so that they watch us do it, and for most of us interpreters there are definitely worse jobs to have than portraying historic chores and tasks. I for one certainly used to think pioneer-living seemed like a lot of fun, and I still catch myself every now and then pondering what it would be like. However, historians really should cringe at such statements, and every time I hear comments like "I would love grinding corn every week for breakfast" (people have literally said this) I feel a little more crestfallen that I have not really gotten through to yet another person. The time period may be interesting to study or learn about (it certainly is for me), and it may actually be kind of fun to try it out for a weekend. But what I'm generally trying to portray in my interpretation is that life back then was incredibly difficult and dangerous (i.e. not fun). I don't know about any of you, but when I show or describe how people used to make candles I'm trying to stress how easy we have it today, not vice versa. I've gathered a few points that I think fly under the radar a lot but really help to illustrate that it was not fun and games.

For a lot of people, I am immediately able to crush their dreams (mwahaha) when I point out the use of outhouses and chamber pots. Let's all be thankful us living historians don't have to interpret that fun cleaning chore at museums. Nothing makes us appreciate the comforts of the present day faster than the thought of needing a restroom and having to use a jar with virtually no privacy. And while this may seem comical to some of the visitors, it was a rough , everyday reality in the 1800s. True, it wouldn't kill us to use chamber pots today. But given a choice I'll take indoor plumbing.

The list of discomforts does not end with restrooms, either. The psychological issues could be intense in the 1800s, especially if we put modern-day people in their shoes. One woman traveling out to Ohio in 1810 wrote in her journal that her party had just crossed a river where a wagoner had fallen and drowned just a few days prior. For a single woman who had left most of her friends and family hundreds of miles away and was traveling into an completely unknown area with no guarantee of success, this sudden realization of the dangers involved undoubtedly would have left quite an impression. And if they did succeed in getting their new home established, the well-documented boredom that accompanied 19th century rural life, particularly during the winter months, would take additional tolls on one's psyche. I feel ridiculous when I have to say this to the occasional stubborn visitor, but boredom is the opposite of fun. And it doesn't strike me as too "quaint" either.

Another unpleasant reality of the 19th century and wilderness living in general is the lack of sanitation, as well as other health issues. Open up a journal or chronicle from the 18th and 19th centuries and count how many time "ague" or the "bloody flux" comes up. Again, not too pleasant to deal with at all, let alone several times a year. The incidence of rotten food is one condition that always hits home with me personally. Granted, 19th century stomachs were probably hardier than ours today, but eating rotten food is not pleasant regardless of whether it makes you physically ill in the end. And considering the amount of work put into raising/growing it, when the food did reach the point where even 19th century stomachs couldn't handle it it would have been yet another psychological blow when they had to toss it out. Makes the disappointment I feel when my store-bought lettuce wilts seem pretty trivial.

In addition to the discomforts and hardships of 19th century living, the dangers that people faced in the previous centuries should also make most visitors feel grateful. At this point I'm starting to run out of steam, so I'm just going to list a few of the things that have stuck out to me while reading over the years. To start, let's not forget the wagoner who drowned and the danger of the settlers' journey itself. And once the farm was established, there were plenty of other dangers to look forward to. James Buchanan, traditionally considered one of the "log cabin presidents", was the second of eleven children; three of his siblings died in infancy, and only one of the ten brothers and sisters survived with Buchanan past 1840. Keeping in mind that Buchanan was born in 1791 and that he was the second oldest, it seems likely that most of them died before they were 40. On that note, my brief search through google for the average life expectancy in the 1800s didn't turn up much (again, I'm really running out of steam here), but my intuition says that it probably wasn't much higher than that - if anyone knows feel free to share. James A. Garfield, the last log cabin president, had two of his seven children die in infancy, and that was nearly 80 years later and under better living conditions than a frontier cabin. They died of diphtheria and whooping cough, two very treatable diseases today. Wild animals were another problem for families, especially on the frontier, whether it was bears breaking into your barn and killing your livestock and thus threatening your food security or cougars trying to rip through the roofing of your house.

As I said earlier I really can't hold it against people who admire the lifestyle, and I think I know what they're trying to say: there's something about living simply and making it on your own that is appealing to a lot of people. But while it may be enjoyable and interesting to learn or portray, it's important not to romanticize the time period - to me, doing so is tantamount to rewriting history. It was serious and often dangerous work for those who experienced it, and they can plainly tell us that through the journals and stories they've left behind.


  1. An interesting post. I do agree on what you wrote. However, there is/was a good side to 19th century living as well.
    We must remember that we cannot compare our time here in the 21st century to the time of 150 years ago. There was a different mindset, I'm sure you'll agree, and it can be difficult to realize and accept that sometimes.
    As for the "average lifespan. The following is what I wrote in a blog a while back:
    "OK, let's get rid of this misnomer that 'the average lifespan of humans in 1863 was 39 years old,' or ' 1900 was 43 years old,' or whatever other fallacy the emails or statisticians say. I mean, it sounds like if you were 39 in the 1860's you had one foot in the grave, for Pete's sake!
    Well, let's clear this mess up once and for all:
    In general, folks in the 18th and 19th centuries lived nearly as long as we do today. Yes, it's true. If one would take the time to read journals of the period, or census records of long ago they would find a good majority of adults living to a ripe old age.
    So why is this false information being passed around as fact? Because, technically, it is true - the average life span in 1862 may have been 39 years of age. The AVERAGE lifespan. Now, take into account that, up until the mid 20th century, the infant mortality rate was pretty high. Er...I mean, very high. In some areas nearly one out of every two infants died before their first birthday. And then, from one year old to five years that percentage dropped. From five to 10 it dropped again. And so on and so forth. In other words, the older you got, the chances are you would probably see life into your 60's or 70's or even your 80's, just like today. Of course, death for women during childbirth was quite high, but we, in our modern day U.S., have been able to prevent that situation from happening almost completely.
    Yes, people did die of heart attacks, consumption (TB), cancer, influenza, pneumonia, and measles. People today die of cancer, heart attacks, and pneumonia as well. But, where 100 years ago they had consumption, we have aids. We also have a higher murder rate per capita here in the 21st century in comparison."
    I hope this helps.
    I enjoy your blogs, by the way!

  2. I apologize for the delayed response. For some reason the blog was automatically logging me out every time I attempted to reply.

    Anyway, thank you for the comment and the info. Perhaps I should have clarified my thoughts more in the original post. I didn't mean to imply that the 1800s were devoid of merit or that the century was something akin to living the Middle Ages. There were plenty of positives to living in the 1800s, even by today's standard of living. As an aside, supposedly TB is growing more and more resistant to treatments. Yikes.

    What I was trying to stress in my original post was that we should be content (and in some cases, thrilled) with how far we've come since the 1800s. I worry that some people look back nostalgically on the 1800s as a time that was somehow markedly better than the times we live in now, all because they didn't have to wait in lines at the post office or do as much paperwork for taxes, etc. While that may be true, there were plenty of very serious negatives that would make some of our annoyances today seem trivial. For instance, what we've talked about with the average life span. I understand it's an average, and I don't want people thinking they would be dead one day after their 39th birthday if this were the 1800s. However, what they should be thinking of (and what I would never actually say to a visitor) are facets of life such as, on average, how many of their children/siblings/friends would be alive at this point in their lives if it was the 19th century.

    Again, I can see the other side of things: in regards to some aspects, it does seem like life was less hectic and simpler back then. And I'm not trying to argue that our times are way better than any time in the past. But I try to impress on people that we shouldn't gloss over the time period and ignore the downsides; that in at least some circumstances, simpler isn't necessarily better.

  3. Excellent response, and I do feel the same.
    I guess that I hear from many others who do not participate in living history, and who listen too much to the mainstream media's version of history. I should have realized you were only presenting the other side for the many of us who present the 'nostalgic' side.

  4. I don't think people realize that people were not 100% self sufficient back then. You could decide to be self sufficient today but it wouldn't replicate their way of life. Many people bought their butter and ground meal from a seller. I always point out that after months of doing these things it feel like the equivalent of taking out the trash or cleaning dishes.

    I personally wish we would be more community oriented as they had to be. Today we just check up on everyone on facebook. Sometimes I wish I could visit friends down the street to borrow a book or just to catch up on the news.