Living in the Past

There’s nothing like researching life in the past to make you appreciate life in the present. I am so glad I’m living in an era (and location) of indoor plumbing, with easily accessible clean water for washing and drinking. And washing machines.

Just reading about laundry day before washing machines makes me want to lie down (on my clean sheets) and take a nap. Hours and hours of fetching water, then boiling it, scrubbing the clothes, rinsing with still more water, and hanging up to dry, then ironing everything. The rich who could hire people to do all that might have been able to stay clean, but for everyone else, it was an ordeal that they didn’t go through too often. They might change the sheets on their beds a few times a year. Some people just wore clothes until they fell apart without ever washing them because they didn’t have access to water or the facilities to do laundry. Yikes!

We won’t even get into the issue of privies, chamber pots, and cess pits. Ew.

As a woman, I’m even more fortunate to be living today because women had so few rights or opportunities a couple of hundred years ago. A “respectable” woman couldn’t do much to earn a living. A woman who did work was paid drastically less than a man (okay, that hasn’t entirely changed). A married woman was considered the property of her husband, as were her children, so even if he was horribly abusive, she really had no recourse. Her only option was to leave her children with him if she left (or, like in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, run away with the kid and hide out, pretending to be a widow).

Transportation was a real issue (something that really comes up in what I’m working on). Before railroads, long-distance travel was slow and uncomfortable. The only options were foot, horseback, or coach, maybe boat, depending on location, but boats didn’t have engines, so even that wasn’t easy. No wonder few people ever went far from where they were born, and you had to be a real adventurer to do much travel at all.

When I’m reading these reference books, I find myself feeling gratitude for so many little things as I go through my day — clean water from a tap, light at the flip of a switch, hot water for tea by turning on an electric kettle, a refrigerator keeping my food fresh, a washing machine and dryer for clean clothes and sheets, a car to allow me to travel easily beyond my neighborhood. We romanticize the past in fiction, but the truth is that life wasn’t easy. I think we enjoy reading about the past or about worlds that resemble our past because it’s so different, but we tend to shy away from the things that were so different because they’re rather disgusting. I’m certainly not going to be delving into how seldom anyone did laundry. On the other hand, things like the transportation and communication issues give us plot opportunities that don’t exist in today’s world. There are so many things that can be solved with a cell phone call but that become real problems if it takes a week to send a letter, and that’s the fastest way to communicate.

And then there are the clothes — so pretty to imagine, but I wouldn’t want to wear them every day. That’s what fiction is for, dipping your toe into another life for a little while.

2 Responses to “Living in the Past”

  1. Debbie Waller

    I remember life before clothes dryers, having to hang out wet laundry on a clothesline & hope the clothespins held tight. Glad for modern driers!

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