So on Monday I wrote about how there are times when I think that I was totally born on the wrong continent. Or at least that my heart feels like is should be in England. Well, I would like to add a little twist to that. Because after earning two degrees in History and spending a lifetime reading history books for fun, I am going to go out on a limb and say I would not have minded living in the last part of the 19th century at all.
When I say that, I’ll specify that I would have liked to be born in the 1860s so that I would be in the prime of my life in the 1880s – 1910s. There’s just something about that time period—whether you call it the Late Victorian and Edwardian Age or the Gilded Age—that I absolutely love. The fashions were beautiful, the architecture was stunning, and technology was way, way more advanced than you’re thinking right now.
Because here’s the thing… I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 99 out of 100 people in the 21st century have no idea what the late 19th century was like, and in fact, they probably have a very, very warped and flat-out wrong view of how advanced it was. You! You’re wrong! Those 40 years between 1880 and 1920 were NOT dark times of dirty people with no hygiene or technology when women were considered property! You’re wrong, wrong, wrong! (Those days that you’re thinking of are the 1820s – 1860s)
The fact of the matter is, while we think life has changed and technology has developed super fast from the 1980s until now, we ain’t got nuthin’ on the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Within those 40 years I mentioned, civilization saw the development of electricity and plumbing in homes, public sanitation, public transportation (including subways), automobiles, steam ships, refrigeration, movies, and gramophones, not to mention the bicycle craze, women being admitted to universities, holding offices, and voting, the development of germ theory and sterilization for surgeries of all kinds, and the importation of food from all over the world, which drastically improved public health and nutrition. In fact, I had an interesting discussion with a doctor once in which he agreed that people at the end of the 19th century were probably far healthier than people nowadays, because there was more physical activity and less processed food.
But still, a lot of people balk and cringe and continue to operate on the mistaken assumption that just because a few things weren’t as advanced (penicillin hadn’t been invented yet, so yes, people died of infection more…but hey, they die of diabetes and weight-related illnesses in equally as great numbers today, I’ve seen the hard data that proves that) the whole era was a morass of backwardness. That phenomenon has always baffled me. It’s very black and white thinking. Just because the infant mortality rate (among the lower classes, not the middle or upper classes, mind you…I’ve seen the data on that too) was higher 125 years ago MUST mean that the entire era was gross and nasty and horrible. It just isn’t true.
Yes, there have been a lot of advances in the 20th century. There’ve been a lot in the 21st century too. But we’ve also lost things. To me, it’s not so much that life has gotten better as the years go by, it’s just that it’s changed. And I think I would have gotten along just fine 130 years ago. IF! And here’s my big, big, IF… IF I had the same family I do now and/or I had married a nice guy. Because the one thing that I can’t excuse away is that if I had lived 130 years ago, my brother Stewart would have been responsible for me if I’d never married. But Stewart would have been super cool about that, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared if I still wanted to be an author or live independently. Because by that era, women did. And I wouldn’t have been part of the upper classes anyhow, so who cares what the rules—which fewer and fewer people were following in that era—said.
(All images came from Pinterest and are public domain)