Thursday, May 28, 2009

Yesterday Sucks!!

A very amusing book that was published in 1974 was The Good Old Days – They were Terrible!, by Otto L. Bettmann.1 This book which is lavishly illustrated with period drawings shows in great detail just why in the period 1870 – 1900 life in America thoroughly sucked. For those of you tired of nostalgia for a “simpler time” or those of you bitten by the nostalgia bug this book is definitely a useful tonic and cure.

Let us talk about the days before cars. Ah yes those wonderful times before car fumes stank up the air. Think again. Cites were infested with four foot polluters, such as pigs and horses dumping their excrement all over the place. Each day one of New York’s 150,000 horses dumped 20-25 pounds of crap, which gave off a horrid stench and attracted swarms of flies. Then there were the numerous horse stables through out the cities stinking of horse urine and the before mentioned pigs added a huge quantity of foul smelling crap also. Pedestrians faced a constant battle to avoid stepping in crap. Amazingly the advent of the Car was greeted with the hope cities would be cleaner and the air better!2

A Street in New York
(All the pictures in this post come from the book)

And to speak of crap, in the “Good Old Days” there was little trash pick up so that city sidewalks and roads were clogged with rubbish, that frequently was several feet deep. Pedestrians had a great time tramping through the debris. Citizens routinely dumped trash into the street or under the myriad vehicles parked in city streets.

Cleanup was haphazard and inefficient aside from being riddled with corruption, and inefficiencies. Cities routinely cut back on such “nonessential” services if they existed in any form at all.3

And if you thought it was just city life that swallowed heavily rural life also had its downside. For example cooking was a drudgery that required endlessly feeding wood into a stove that was always very hot and making everything from scratch made cooking seem an endless operation. And since the kitchen had the stove there was the endless drudgery of laundry. Without washers or dryers or modern detergents, washing required heating gallons of water on a stove and beating and rinsing clothes by hand before you hung them up to dry. You could beat the clothes by hand and use various lye soaps that very effectively chemically burned your skin and had such things has hollow logs and wooden paddles to help and of course there was repeatedly heating vast quantities of hot water for washing. After many, many hours of washing you finally finished the wash.4

Doing the Wash

Ah but was not there lots of fresh unpolluted well water. Well maybe, but then the well was usually located near the kitchen and the barn with all of its animal waste was very close. This helped to insure that well water was indeed heavily polluted and a source of disease.5

There was also the insufferable boredom of country life especially during the winter when Farms were generally almost completely isolated from each other. Sometimes people went stark raving mad from the boredom.6

Let us not talk about working conditions in any detail except to note that they were horrible. With things set at a very high pace and help for disabled workers virtually nonexistent.7

The attitude towards strikers is also of interest. In 1894 there was the Pullman strike, in which the employer managed to quite successfully portray the strikers as the bad guys. Despite the fact that in 1893 the Pullman Company had cut workers wages 5 times, the last by almost 30%! In 1892 a strike at Homestead was deliberately incited by the owner in hopes of breaking the union. The strike was violently suppressed by militiamen. In fact during this time period there were the creation of armoured units, police and planning to deal with strikers all over the place. Both media and the state was very much at the service of industry when it came to dealing with worker opposition.8

Dealing with a Strike

Regarding law and order. Well let’s just say crime was a serious problem, in both rural and urban settings. Including even the Mafia in New Orleans.9 The police were corrupt inefficient and engaged in massive protection rackets and payoffs. For example in New York City the position of a Patrolman could be bought for $100, a Captaincy for $1,500.10 An example of a Police protection racket, was the prostitution trade in New York City, were:

Police protection cost the bordello operator an initiation fee pf $300 to $500 and $30 to $50 monthly thereafter, traditionally collected by the precinct captain.11

A Contemporary Cartoon about Police Corruption

In regards to the Legal system. Lawyers were notoriously incompetent and Judges and Juries were frequently easily bought by individuals and corporations. Local City governments were routinely treated as massive treasure chests by greedy politicians and contractors who pillage city coffers regularly. Of course lynching should not be forgotten.12

As for that good healthy food of yore. Well food was actually frequently putrid, especially meat, or heavily adulterated with water, (milk) or alum (flour). Cheese and butter were frequently adulterated with soap fat, lard or unmentionables. Not surprisingly people often got sick from this fare, and if you are poor you just had to put up with it.13.

Regarding health care. Doctors were frequently quacks with Diplomas from Diploma mills aside from that many were filthy. Treatments were frequently not much different from witchcraft. Knowledge of disease was minimal so epidemic diseases frequently ran wild especially in cities. Treatment of the insane or simply mentally ill bordered and frequently crossed the boundary into sadism and inhuman cruelty. Surgery was frequently performed under incredibly unhygienic conditions. Hospitals were frequently unspeakable. Helped by Doctors prescribing opiates galore drug addiction was rampant, along with alcoholism.14

A ward in Bellevue hospital

Regarding Drug addiction these were the days of Coca wine, (made from coca leaves the source of cocaine), and Heroin, (which was sold as a cough medicine!).15
Contemporary Ads for Heroin and Coca wine

Education was hell, with poor teachers, out of control students, brutal discipline, poor funding, crowded classrooms and a bad curriculum. Including such incidents has a teacher being stoned to death by her students. Teacher’s pay was too but it mildly bad.16

To cap it off a trip to the beach was both an ordeal and frequently not worth the trouble with the beach polluted and very overcrowded, to say nothing of the cost.17

A day at the Beach

Our author concludes about this time period.

Pollution overhead, garbage underfoot, streets choked with traffic, bursting slums, crime, labor unrest, dope addiction – problems of the future in the country with a future.


Perhaps, indeed, our nostalgia more rightfully belonged to them as they cast a sad eye on the lowering sky and longed for the good old days.18

1. Bettmann, Otto L., Random House, New York, 1974.

2. IBID, pp. 2-3.

3. IBID, pp. 7-8.

4. IBID, pp. 48-49.

5. IBID, p. 51.

6. IBID, pp. 62-63.

7. IBID, pp. 68-69.

8. IBID, pp. 82-83.

9. IBID, p.103.

10. IBID, pp. 92-99.

11. IBID, p. 98.

12. IBID, pp. 100-105.

13. IBID, pp. 109-121.

14. IBID, pp. 135-153.

15. IBID, p. 153.

16. IBID, pp. 155-169.

17. IBID, p. 196-197.

18. IBID, p. 196.

Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment