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The Bad Old Days

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

 

I've spent a fair portion of the past year or so wallowing in the past — the truly nasty, disgusting, frightening, shocking, reprehensible parts of the past. This was not because I'm a masochist. I had been approached by the folks at Family Tree Magazine (which I founded a bit over a decade ago) to pen a title for their expanded book line. Their parent company, F&W Media, had enjoyed considerable success with a book titled 1,001 Facts that Will Scare the S#*t Out of You, and envisioned a similar, history-themed tome with the title (I kid you not) Good Old Days, My Ass.

book

How could I resist? Soon I embarked on a research quest for what, after some mathematical back and forth and re-subtitling, became "665 Funny History Facts & Terrifying Truths about Yesteryear."

And, indeed, I found that yesteryear left a lot to be desired — despite our rose-colored-glasses view of the "good old days." Few of us would really want to go back to the "good old days" of polio and typhoid fever, child labor and adulterated food, much less a world without air conditioning, color television, computers and the Internet. But it's easy to forget or gloss over just how rough our ancestors had it in those often-terrifying days of yesteryear.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the book focuses mostly on more recent times, especially in America, and emphasizes the day-to-day horrors and inconveniences of ordinary life. That's not to diminish the awfulness of wars and other atrocities, but rather to remind readers that even when our forebears weren't killing or enslaving each other, life was no picnic. Just getting by from breakfast to bedtime was a challenge through most of human history. The "good old days" for most people were a filthy, dangerous, exhausting slog simply to survive.

As I researched, I like to think I gained a little perspective. The next time I feel like griping about doffing my shoes in airport security, I'll try to remember that people haven't always had airplanes — and that the railroads whose era we romanticize were a rolling death trap that claimed more lives than some wars. If frustrated by a long wait in the doctor's office, I can now pass the time by listing all the diseases I no longer have to worry about being diagnosed with. Even when it comes to entertainment, as I channel-surf for something diverting, I'll keep in mind that for every Elvis or Stravinsky they enjoyed back when, there were also flea circuses and theater fires. Our ancestors would have been thrilled at the chance to choose from 500 channels, even with "nothing" on.

 

I kept thinking about Meet Me in St. Louis, the old Judy Garland movie about the 1904 World's Fair, which perfectly captures the idealized picture most of us have about the past. Back in those dreamy days gone by, our ancestors apparently had little more to worry about than which song to warble next while gathered in familial warmth around the piano. In the movie's world of the Smith family, the greatest crises arise over whether one daughter's boyfriend will finally get around to proposing and if Mr. Smith will move the family to New York, where he's gotten a better job. That would mean missing the fair! Even Katie the maid seems content, though she makes a mere $12 a month.

The turn-of-the-century truth, I discovered, was a bit harsher. Those trolleys of the film's "clang, clang, clang" song crawled along, despite the clanging of their bells, because good old-fashioned horse transportation wouldn't get out of their way. The horses left behind smelly reminders of their passage — more than 3 million pounds a day in early-1900s New York City, where Mr. Smith wanted to relocate. The gas lamps that give the world of Meet Me in St. Louis its warm glow were fountains of soot that left a grimy residue everywhere, blackened ceilings, corroded metal and killed houseplants. They also had a nasty tendency to explode. Before the advent of meat inspection, there's no telling what was actually in the corned beef and cabbage that Katie the maid cooked up for the Smith family. Many of little daughter "Tootie" Smith's peers were working in cramped and dangerous mills and factories instead of enjoying an idyllic childhood; if child laborers got maimed for life, their parents might be paid $1 in compensation.

Not to mention the prospect of spending summer in sultry St. Louis without air conditioning!

 

Then there were the somewhat later "good old days" that Archie Bunker rhapsodized about in the theme from Norman Lear's TV sitcom, "All in the Family":

"Boy, the way Glen Miller played. Songs that made the hit parade.

Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.

Didn't need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.

Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

And you know who you were then, girls were girls and men were men."

Of course, songwriters Lee Adams and Charles Strouse puncture Archie Bunker's gauzy reminiscence with the next line: "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again." You mean the Herbert Hoover under whose presidency the Great Depression began? Well, maybe there were a few things wrong with those good old days, too.

Indeed, when Archie was growing up in those "Hooverville" days, families like his were probably in bread lines. Even when the economy turned around, that old LaSalle had no airbags or seatbelts, much less GPS navigation, and got less than 10 miles a gallon; automotive fatality rates per mile were at least five times what they are today. "Girls were girls," but women had little opportunity to do anything besides be a housewife in a "man's world."

The song goes on, "People seemed to be content. Fifty dollars paid the rent" — but back in 1944, when the US' average rent was in fact $50, the average annual wage was just $2,400 a year. And even people's "contentment" was no doubt tempered by the constant fear of contracting polio, which peaked at 58,000 cases in the United States in 1952 — before the Salk polio vaccine was introduced in 1955.

 

The past, it turns out, seems alternately hideous and ridiculous from our contemporary perspective. Among many other things, in researching the book I learned:

  • In the 18th century, sugar was so popular despite its high price that people whose teeth had not yet decayed artificially blackened their teeth to show they were wealthy enough to splurge on sugar.
  • In 1875, a swarm of locusts 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide took five days to pass over Plattsmouth, Neb.
  • Early jailers charged fees for everything from food and clothing to locking or unlocking cell doors and leg irons, and many jailers also operated bars.
  • So many ruined financiers committed suicide in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash that clerks at one Wall Street hotel asked guests as they checked in whether they needed the room for sleeping or for jumping.
  • At some factories, child workers were fed slops for which they had to battle the pigs.
  • Some elaborate 18th century hairdos incorporated birdcages — complete with feathered occupants — into the towering coiffures.
  • Brass beds became popular in the 19th century not because they were nice and shiny but because bedbugs couldn't infest brass the way they could wood.
  • Ladies seeking a fashionably pale complexion bled themselves, ate chalk or drank iodine.
  • Cherry vendors were said to roll the fruit around in their mouths to make it glisten before being displayed.
  • At the time of the invention of the toothbrush, the popular method of cleaning one's teeth involved rubbing with a rag dipped in salt and soot.
  • The first ice-hockey puck was a piece of frozen beaver bladder.

And so on and on. So sit back in your house with central heat and air conditioning, flick on a light bulb without fear of fire or electrocution, perhaps sip a cool beverage untainted by toxic chemicals or human waste, and ponder the real "good old days" as I have. I promise, the terrifying truths about yesteryear will leave you breathing a sigh of relief that you live in the 21st century.

 

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure. His new book,
Good Old Days, My Ass: 665 Funny History Facts & Terrifying Truths about Yesteryear
(F&W Media, $12.99), is available at bookstores and online retailers.

 

 

 



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