Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Good Old Days

This coming weekend I will take my daughter to a mountain man rendezvous, which is held locally around Easter time each year. This will help her fill a school requirement.

I attended my first rendezvous as a teenager and have been to a number of these events over the succeeding years. They are interesting cultural affairs—as much for the subculture of people that enjoy doing that kind of thing as for the historical portrayal.

It seems to me that historical reenactment groups and events have become increasingly popular during my lifetime. The Wikipedia article linked in the previous sentence lists 10 periods that are commonly reenacted, ranging from ancient Rome to the Korean War. (Many reenactment groups and events focus on a war.)

The proliferation of historical reenactment is a testament to the relative affluence of our society. It wasn’t that long ago that people generally didn’t have leisure time to spend doing this kind of thing because they spent most of their time working simply to subsist. The average person didn’t have the time, ability, or access to delve into arcane elements of historical life.

Years ago I became highly aware of the various levels of authenticity thought to be acceptable among reenactors. The linked Wikipedia article divides them into three categories: Farbs aren’t terribly interested in authenticity, Mainstreamers make a reasonable effort at authenticity while also using modern methods, Progressives go to extremes in the name of authenticity. I have often heard this last group called “stitch Nazis” due to their habit of carefully ensuring that clothing is stitched historically correct inside and out according to deep research.

Many people have romantic ideas about the past. We feel overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the stuff and technologies that surround us. And we imagine that the past was somehow more serene than our current chaotic state of affairs. Some of us put actions behind these sentiments by engaging in historical reenactment.

However, few moderns would actually want to live in the past, especially once they realize that they’d have to give up most of their modern conveniences. For starters, living in a time when refrigeration and modern food storage methods were unavailable was not that wonderful.

Have you ever killed, plucked, gutted, and cooked a chicken for a meal? The amount of time and labor required to feed a household 150 years ago is staggering. The supply of food was quite uneven from season to season, or even from day to day.

It was not uncommon for people to go hungry, even for long periods. And then to gorge themselves when food was plentiful because there was no way to store the excess. Undernourishment and even death from starvation were common. Today our most common food problem is overeating.

We often complain about the cost of groceries, but a relatively small percentage of our incomes go to food compared with our ancestors. Cases of food poisoning make news headlines nowadays. It used to be a daily fact of life for our ancestors.

During the Civil War, famed author Walt Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals. He wrote that war is 98% diarrhea. That may sound comical, but it was not meant as humor. More soldiers died from intestinal illnesses that caused diarrhea and severe dehydration than from battle wounds.

Cleanliness used to be connected to religious and spiritual pursuits. It was not tied to health until a little over a century ago when germ theory was developed. The popularity of personal hygiene varied from time to time and culture to culture. Sometimes it was more popular, sometimes less so. In the late 18th Century bathing was considered by many (even in the upper class) to be unhealthy. Some even boasted of having avoided a whole body bathing experience for decades.

People lived for millennia with open latrines. One economist calculated that modern flush toilets and sewer systems have saved more lives than all medical advances combined. Maybe you should be grateful the next time you clean a toilet.

The next time you grouse about traffic and automobile pollution, maybe you should be grateful instead. The streets of most cities used to be dirt or mud, depending on the weather. They were filled with solid and liquid draft animal waste. The smell was more noxious than most can imagine. Flies were prolific.

My kids have so many clothes that they can’t properly care for them, thanks to the advent of modern production methods. But clothing production used to be time consuming and expensive until the development of textile factories. Many people wore the same article of clothing for years. Some rural families would sell most of their clothes at the end of winter and run around in the buff during the summer.

Bedbugs were a fact of daily life. Most people had insect and/or arachnid bites pretty much all of their lives. Open oozing sores were also a fact of daily life, even for royalty.

Until relatively recently it was common for families to lose half of their children before they reached adulthood to disease or injury. In medieval England the typical female died at age 29 in childbirth and the typical male died at age 40 from a respiratory illness.

We have an entire industry that glorifies ancient tribal lifestyles. But few of us can image the harsh brutality of life in these cultures. Tribes were their own police and military force. Intertribal war and bloodshed was constant.

In short, it’s fun to play act historical times, but few of us would want to really go back and live in those days. There are many things wrong with the world today. But in many ways life is better than ever. And improving.

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