Whose stuff is better?
January 14, 2016 7:33 PM   Subscribe

How would today's cheap, ubiquitous goods (i.e. clothes, shoes, furniture, housewares, miscellaneous equipment, housing, possibly food products) compare to the finest goods available to pre-modern ruling classes?

I've seen a lot of museums at this point. One thing I have found striking is how much more durable, comfortable, and functional my own ordinary apparel seems compared to what I see displayed under glass: products made for royalty before more advanced technologies, materials, production techniques, and forms of industrial organization revolutionized all our stuff.

Could it be that Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. now offer all of us a level of material affluence on par with / surpassing what only kings and emperors of yesteryear could enjoy?
posted by eagle-bear to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
For clothing, it seems unfair to characterize "durable, comfortable, and functional" as "better" in a time-period when those might not have been the goals of those super-upper-class people. I just saw some amazing museum clothing embroidered in silk in such fine detail and stunning shading that I thought it was a painting. Durable? Surely not -- I mean, yes, it's lasted hundreds of years, but would have been worn for maybe a few hours a year while engaging in nothing resembling work or even lounging. Comfortable? It looked hopeless heavy to me. Like you'd be carrying around an extra 10-15 pounds on your shoulders if you wore it. Functional? Well, the primary function was to impress, so I guess so. But not functional in any "This lets me get tasks done and live my life" sort of sense.

For other things, maybe. I read a book about servants in twentieth century england (so not even that long ago) and what stood out to me was the insane amount of maintenance that everything needed. Still, I don't know to what extent this has changed because things don't require maintenance as much vs. because maintenance is now easier.

There's a line in Downton Abby when one of the daughters is courting a non-noble (with an actual job) and he talks about buying furniture. She says "It's so strange. People like my family don't buy furniture." and he says "Where do you get it?" and she responds "We inherit it." I don't see my ikea bookshelves being passed down through the generations, though. So maybe this speaks to durable.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:42 PM on January 14, 2016 [14 favorites]

Could it be that Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. now offer all of us a level of material affluence on par with / surpassing what only kings and emperors of yesteryear could enjoy?

We're all living far above the "level of material affluence" of "kings and emperors of yesteryear." More than 200 years ago, they didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing. Can you imagine? If you were to travel in time a few centuries ago and magically be made king or queen, you'd instantly realize you're living in such horrendous destitution that you'd quickly hop back into your time machine and return to the present. I'm not qualified to answer the question about comparing the quality of a specific present-day good to a specific yesteryear good, but don't miss the forest for the trees: regardless of which way that comparison goes, even people we consider "poor" today are living in what would be considered unfathomable luxury to those in the past who we think of as "privileged." It's all radically relative.
posted by John Cohen at 7:47 PM on January 14, 2016 [12 favorites]

For cycling products I've heard you can have "lightweight, durable, or inexpensive- pick 2".
"durable, comfortable, and functional" feels like that. But are we comparing those qualities of real goods past & present, or how we impart some sense of 'material affluence' through them?
posted by TDIpod at 7:50 PM on January 14, 2016

I once came across the amount a king had paid for his spectacles back when such things were eccentric novelties and, converted, it turned out to be almost precisely what my last pair had cost. My vote is that our current standard of living is marvelous.
posted by teremala at 7:59 PM on January 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

For food, at least, the variety available to we moderns due to the colonisation of the New World would be astonishing to a pre-modern monarch (on either end of that exchange). The quality we have, due to refrigeration, would likewise put us ahead.
posted by pompomtom at 8:02 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Well, would you want a Groom of the Stool? "A male servant in the household of an English monarch who was responsible for assisting the King in the performance of the bodily functions of excretion and ablution..." A professional bum-wiper and poo-disposer. A flush toilet seems like a much better deal.
posted by kmennie at 8:15 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

The one that always gets me is beds. Two weeks wages at even a graduate student stipend buys a hell of a mattress compared to the cramped, short, uncomfortable beds I've seen in even the nicest historical houses.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:47 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Modern fabric is, by and large, considerably better than pre-industrial equivalents. The spun thread is even, the woven fabric is tight and VERY even, various processes can make traditional fibers sturdier (Mercerization, f'ex) before we even get in to synthetic fibers and fabrics. And it is spun and woven by the MILE, not by a yard-wide panel at a time over the course of several weeks after months spinning the thread! And the needles! For a buck you can go buy a packet of 50 in many sizes and shapes, fine needles that don't rust and stay sharp. Back then you had to get them from a smith, with uneven quality and not usually so fine, and so expensive you kept your two or three on you person on a needle case because they were costly and hard to replace. A DOLLAR! And you can have the bounty of needles your ancestress saved for her entire life.

Some fabric hand spun and hand woven for a king or queen would be of madly spectacular quality, but the bulk of fabric was loosely spun by our standards, with loose and uneven weaves that weren't very sturdy, produced in very small quantities.

Their minds would be pretty boggled by the durability of jeans and a simple T-shirt; I think they'd flip the hell out for a Chanel suit.

Also the dyes in your clothes easily achieve colors so rare they were restricted to royalty, or could be sold on the black market. ("A Marian blue handkerchief? Someone will pay top dollar for that blue ...)

Their durable consumer gooda, like furniture, are often "better" than ours, but our flatpack furniture has furniture in the hands of pretty much everyone. And there are still 1%ers with fancy antique clocks
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:04 PM on January 14, 2016 [12 favorites]

There's no comparison between what foods are available to even poor first-worlders and what would have been available even to kings back in the day. Just look around a supermarket and consider what percentage would be available without modern transportation, refrigeration, farming technology and food chemistry.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:10 PM on January 14, 2016

I don't disagree with the comments so far, but here's one possible counterexample, which depends a bit on where you draw the line for 'modern': printed books.

The cheap paperback or the e-reader probably win on convenience and portability and versatility, and modern processes make possible a much wider range of published works, but books from the early 1700s are pretty bloody well made, were often reasonably priced for their (more limited) readership, and as long as you store them in a non-idiotic way, they're as readable today as they were when brand new. That's letterpress and lead type and laid rag paper and stitched signatures and leather binding: all techniques that survive and attract a premium today.
posted by holgate at 9:10 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've been told on tours of old homes that beds were shorter because people slept sitting up.

Helen Gurley Brown wrote in Sex and the Single Girl that "Queen Elizabeth I would have killed for what you can get at Walgreens".
posted by brujita at 9:13 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think only very, very high end furniture would be comparable to the finest pieces in pre-modern royal courts. You can probably get the same quality today, but you will pay very dearly for it. The declining quality of wood since the advent of industrial logging is also a factor (there is very little old growth left), but I'm sure you can find some very nice wood if you are willing to pay a lot.

This quality of furniture is definitely not available to the middle class today. On the other hand, a lot of what makes it better is decorative, not functional. I would certainly say that furniture that is available to the middle class is much less durable than high-quality pre-modern furniture.

You could probably make a similar argument about the durability of housewares. Pre-modern kitchen equipment (cooking vessels and the like) is probably more durable than modern pots and pans, but less functional. Likewise housing: less functional, but certainly a stone castle is more durable than a modern stick-framed house.
posted by ssg at 10:11 PM on January 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nau jackets feel like the future to me, and 300 years ago a common Canada Goose parka could save an entire army.

Today's 'luxury goods' are also interesting considered in the past:

"High-profile luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Cartier were founded in the 18th or 19th centuries by artisans dedicated to creating beautiful, finely made wares for the royal court in France and later, with the fall of the monarchy, for European aristocrats and prominent American families. Luxury remained, writes Ms. Thomas, “a domain of the wealthy and the famous” until “the Youthquake of the 1960s” pulled down social barriers and overthrew elitism. It would remain out of style “until a new and financially powerful demographic — the unmarried female executive — emerged in the 1980s.”

"As both disposable income and credit-card debt soared in industrialized nations, the middle class became the target of luxury vendors, who poured money into provocative advertising campaigns and courted movie stars and celebrities as style icons. In order to maximize profits, many corporations looked for ways to cut corners: they began to use cheaper materials, outsource production to developing nations (while falsely claiming that their goods were made in Western Europe) and replace hand craftsmanship with assembly-line production. Classic goods meant to last for years gave way, increasingly, to trendy items with a short shelf life; cheaper lines (featuring lower-priced items like T-shirts and cosmetic cases) were introduced as well."

- Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas
posted by four panels at 10:13 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree on things like furniture and housewares, and to a certain degree (some) clothing as well.

Hand-made hardwood furniture, leather goods, bespoke clothing and other hallmarks of modern luxury are pretty much exactly the same as they were in pre-industrial days, because for many luxury items, pre-industrial is exactly what the best quality items still are.
posted by rokusan at 10:22 PM on January 14, 2016 [8 favorites]

We don't have much of the everyday clothing of the past, even in museums, because it was handed on through several users before it was worn out, and then usually reprocessed into paper or lint or something. We wouldn't usually think it was comfortable, because in temperate climes it tended to be heavy, but that's because those several wearers were doing much heavier work than most modern Americans do. That's where I think our unbelievable wealth is - water and heat and food without sweat, every day.
posted by clew at 11:26 PM on January 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't see my ikea bookshelves being passed down through the generations, though.

On the other hand, I'm not sure someone like Lady Mary would think of bookshelves in the category of furniture, at all. A bookshelf would be something for "downstairs" sorts of people. And those types of items absolutely would not have been built to end up in a museum centuries hence; they'd be much more comparable to your IKEA stuff.

To answer the question a bit more clearly, the types of things you see in museums now that were made for the very wealthy before modern times are the types of things that were made to be passed down for generations or carefully preserved as quasi art objects. So, no, they may not have been comfortable, durable, or practical. But then, they weren't designed to be. The things that were designed to be got used up and/or turned into other comfortable, durable, or practical things until they were too withered to be used anymore. Compare, for example, the dress Kate Middleton wore to marry Prince William, vs. the separates I wore to a job interview today (which are by no means even the most comfortable or useful clothes I own). My separates will chug along until the top loses its shape and the skirt becomes too frumpy to be considered fashion-forward workwear. They might then end up in the weird limbo of "gym tops" or "potential Halloween costume", until I donate them to a thrift store in a fit of decluttering. Eventually they will be in a landfill. Kate's wedding dress has most likely already been preserved for archival purposes and will spend the next umpteen centuries in a museum.

For every wealthy noble in an embroidered gown in 1750, imagine an ordinary person in a much more practical version of the same thing, which did not end up in a museum.

I also remember reading in one of Bill Bryson's books that the idea of "comfort" didn't exist until the modern era, anyway. Certainly things like palaces, thrones, ceremonial clothing, etc. were not made to be "comfortable" in any modern sense of the word.

Clothing in general was more "durable" across the board in pre-modern times, as it was often made to be the only garments the wearer owned, and to be fashionable basically forever. My job interview skirt will go to Goodwill as soon as I see pleated midi skirts in a list of this year's fashion "don'ts". A 16th century gown would have been made to be worn day in, day out, until it turned into rags.
posted by Sara C. at 12:52 AM on January 15, 2016

The Bill Bryson book is At Home: A Short History of Private Life. It was fascinating. You might also like some of the PBS/BBC reality history shows where modern people live in the past and are trying a lot of this different out and commenting on it - on my phone, MeMail me for specific recommendations.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:03 AM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

One big difference between old-style and modern shoes and clothing is the fit. There's a default assumption nowadays that everyone can suit themselves from the standard range of clothing shapes and sizes but huge numbers of people complain that standard sizes don't suit their body shape. Old-style tailors and dressmakers would have made clothes that fit the customers, rather than expecting the customers to fit into off-the-rack clothes.

I know someone with particularly long narrow feet who swore that when they spent part of a legacy on hand-made shoes it was the first really comfortable pair they ever had. Likewise for busty women, going to a specialist corsetiere can be a life-changing experience. So, an exact and comfortable fit for non-standard body shapes is something that would once have been taken for granted and is now quite rare.
posted by Azara at 3:46 AM on January 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have to agree with If only I had a penguin... upthread -- the point of luxurious clothes was not to be durable and long-lasting. Clothes were probably extremely intricate, took a lot of work to both make and maintain. In a way, that's how you showed that you are of the upper class - you are able to make the investments in money and servants to buy and maintain this exquisite clothing.

On a much smaller scale, I see this even today when I compare clothes in my native India to clothes I buy here in the US. Quality there doesn't really mean durable - it means that the fabrics are natural (only silk, cotton, linen, wool etc.) -- upper and upper-middle-class people turn up their noses at polyester/rayon/nylon and other man-made fabrics. The amount of embellishment and handwork that is done on a piece is also an indicator of how expensive it is. And fit is everything - for a very long time, every single thing I wore, with the exception of some play clothes and exercise pants/t-shirts, was sewn for me and fit exactly to my body. It means that clothes can follow the lines of your body much more exactly, without the use of spandex or other elastic materials. Honestly, some of these clothes are just gorgeous in a way that only extremely high-end clothes in the US are - fit impeccably, beautiful unusual colors and weaving, embellished to within an inch of their life. I'm sure fifty years from now, these kinds of clothes are going to be extremely rare and I'm going to feel quite nostalgic about them.
posted by peacheater at 5:17 AM on January 15, 2016 [6 favorites]

Old clothing styles are designed to fit multiple body sizes without tailoring though. You can pass them around multiple people easily by lacing bodices tighter, pinning up or letting down hems, tacking on or adding a petticoat to give some length, and for a lot of traditional clothing designs, wrapping and folding is part of the design to adjust them to the wearer. Knitted hose stretched.

So you wouldn't necessarily need individual sets of clothing, so much as a shared household of clothing shared between the women or men or children in the household. The clothes would be adaptable in size and designed for easy embellishment for fashion - you'd redye them, add embroidered patches and ribbons at some parts, take in sleeves without cutting fabric so that two years later you could let the sleeves out and so on.

There's a nice bit in Lindsey Davis' Falco series about him saving up for a good quality set of pottery dishes and a beautiful set of copper serving spoons for his new household, as a sign of middle-class stability, carefully wrapping and carrying them all the way back across Europe to Rome. I quite badly wanted a similar pair of spoons after reading that and looked up the relative cost of hand-forged serving spoons, and they were a day's middle-class wage at most now, even artisan-made. A very nice mass-produced set was about half the price, and anything higher was simply paying for a brand logo.

Then again, we have automated mines and machines and factories, not Roman slaves digging copper from hills. The supply of resources - clay, metals, cotton, dyes, etc - is logistically so vastly superior and efficient compared that even if the final stage is still done by hand, the cost of production is far lower.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:23 AM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Don't forget, there's a selection effect here- you can only see the premodern stuff that has survived, obviously. That's not all the stuff they had. If you're looking in a museum, there's an even bigger selection effect- museum curators know that museum guests want to see attractive stuff in good condition, so that's what they put on display. It may not be a representative sample of stuff from any given time period.

Modern medicine is also a huge contributor to better quality of life. Queen Anne was an 18th century queen of Great Britain. She was pregnant at least 17 times, had three children survive infancy, but none of them lived to adulthood. The chances of that happening to any woman outside the Third World today are probably less than your chances of winning the Powerball jackpot.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:43 AM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pyramids. You can't get decent pyramids today. I blame the unions.

Practical artifacts that survive tend to be simple in construction, built from sturdy materials, and not stressed by use. I have a walnut table passed down from great grandparents. I was told there once were matching chairs, but they fell apart.
posted by gregoreo at 6:55 AM on January 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

Clothes: In the middle ages there was a type of cloth called shoddy. It was inexpensive and not very durable. As a result the word shoddy has now become an adjective to describe anything so badly made as to not be worth buying.

However linen cloth made in the medieval and Georgian periods was so durable that it would last for several generations, despite scouring, boiling and bleaching. Linen is very strong; the older it is and the more often it is washed the softer it gets. Linen fabric that was a twenty years old was still as durable as two year old linen cloth, but it was more valuable because of the softness. If the fabric was dyed it would fade with time, but that was expected and it could be bleached and re-dyed to a completely new colour.

Contrast this with modern fabric that you buy at Target or Walmart, which is a cotton synthetic blend with lots of stretch but which is so fragile it is only intended to last one season of light use. The colours are absolutely permanent; someone who knows and cares about fashion can date the season the garment came out at a glance and would not dream of wearing last Spring's blue this year. This type of fabric is the equivalent of shoddy.

A great many modern fabrics require very specialized care to keep them intact. Rayon, for example can shrink by a sizable percentage if it is exposed to water. Someone who wears rayon is showing their status by wearing something impractical. You can only wear rayon if you can afford dry cleaning.

Suppose you were to examine the way a garment was made during the Georgian era (I am referring to the extant dresses of Loyalist women in New Brunswick c about 1780 to 1800) The fit of the dress would be dependent on her personal skills as a dressmaker. She might not be very good at it. However the way she constructed the body and attached the sleeves was done in such a way as to make it possible to change the fit either if the garment was passed on to someone else or to easily allow for the changes of her body, such as pregnancy and nursing. Fashion also reflected this. The front of a dress at that period was a stomacher, which was removed and replaced, or simply re-positioned. Bust, belly and waist could all change size and shape without making the garment cease to fit.

But at the same time for most people their entire wardrobe could be hung on a single row of pegs on the wall. At that stage an average person had quality over quantity where as now an average person has quantity over quality. Your king could have afforded both, depending on his personal desires.

During the heyday of the pyramid builders in Ancient Egypt the majority of the female population spent their time indoors creating textiles. One important marker of one's status derived from the number of lengths of cloth one had to put into one's tomb. It was a conspicuous consumption cult. Millions of yards of fabric were created and never used. As well as quantity they focused on quality. Women spent a lifetime refining their techniques to make finer, more even thread, stronger thread, striving for the highest possible attainment. The fabric that resulted was incredibly sheer. I do not know of anything comparable that is made today.

In the early Victorian period they had dresses - custom made, of course, created for wealthy women made out of lace. Handmade lace was a luxury good compared to machine made lace. One dress could contain thirty years worth of working hours. Although it would have been made by several women instead of one, that dress would essential contain the equivalent to one woman's entire lifetime of work.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:04 AM on January 15, 2016 [18 favorites]

Nobody before 1900 had shoes that fit as well as shoes fit today. Often, it was one size fits all.

Some thing are hugely cheaper AND better than the best used to be. $100 watches and stainless steel flatware are functionaly way better than the best watches and sterling flatware of 100 years ago, so !much do that the old-style products are still available as emblems of extravagance.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:52 AM on January 15, 2016

I don't see my ikea bookshelves being passed down through the generations, though.

When I sold off everything I owned in England to move to Chicago I got a better return on IKEA furniture than I did on actual 200 year old antiques. The 10+ year old IKEA furniture sold for 70-80% of its orignal value while the antique dry sink i had sold for 20 quid.

I certainly didn't expect this. What you think other people will value is often wrong.
posted by srboisvert at 1:26 PM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

An advantage/disadvantage I think gets less attention than it should is the design loss between things being generic-purpose now compared to single-purpose (how they were).
Eg, with furniture, as already noted, it is very difficult to get furniture of the quality you could find on display at eg the Hermitage Museum. You would have to commission it and pay a kingly sum, same as in the past. Not much of that market exists any more, so the artisans are fewer and farther between, because mass-production is so much cheaper and faster.

However, a thing that mass production doesn't do is single-purpose design. You can buy a corner table, but you can't buy a corner table that only exists and was explicitly designed for one specific corner of the specific building in which that corner table is to go. To do that, you have to go back to the old ways.

Back when the old ways were the primary ways, everything was designed for its specific use. Now everything is designed for generic use. To me, that's a significant difference. (Though not, of course, significant enough for me to want to pass up the savings and spend a king's ransom on every piece :) )

Interestingly, as automated fabrication becomes more sophisted, I think we are just starting to see the re-emergence of widespread custom-design, as it becomes increasingly more supportable by more affordable (ie rapid) manufacturing systems.
posted by anonymisc at 2:31 PM on January 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nobody before 1900 had shoes that fit as well as shoes fit today. Often, it was one size fits all.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, old-fashioned hand-lasted shoes give a wonderful fit. That was the standard for the European upper classes in the 19th century, and there are still a few firms in London dating back to the 1840s and 1850s which make shoes in this way, for example Foster and Son (making a last).

It's the absolute opposite of one-size-fits-all: they carve a wooden model of your foot which is used to make shoes that fit you and only you.
posted by Azara at 4:28 PM on January 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think about this with food all the time, especially spices. European kings murdered half the world to get salt and pepper. Today you go into the trashiest diner in town and they'll give you packets of the stuff for free with your meal.
posted by deathpanels at 7:06 AM on January 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

> old-fashioned hand-lasted shoes give a wonderful fit

Shoes made now using certain old-fashioned methods are very good shoes, but, old shoes were likely not very comfortable shoes. If only because:

"As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe. Breaking in a new pair of shoes was not easy. There were but two widths to a size; a basic last was used to produce what was known as a "slim" shoe." via

Google says the idea of shoes for right and left feet was not thought of until 1818.
posted by kmennie at 11:53 AM on January 16, 2016

I think about this with food all the time, especially spices. European kings murdered half the world to get salt and pepper. Today you go into the trashiest diner in town and they'll give you packets of the stuff for free with your meal.

Being "Worth one's salt" was pretty important in the past.
posted by srboisvert at 2:15 PM on January 16, 2016

I have access to pretty good, pretty affordable wine, coffee, tea, meat, produce and other food. (there are real concerns about the quality and safety, but it's still pretty good.) I'm amazed at how affordable decent quality vintage and antique furniture is. Not in style right now, so, cheap. By shopping carefully, I have purchased handmade and/or high quality rugs. I have a house and can afford to heat it, electric lights, a car, etc. So, yes, I live well, even though not by typical US standards, my house being small, my car old.

Look at what is thrown away in the US - an astonishing quantity of clothing and household goods, often in perfect condition, just not in this years' style.

What many of us lack - strong supportive communities that will take care of us if we become ill.

The status of health care is that many illnesses are treatable or survivable, but extensive medical is unavailable to many because of cost.
posted by theora55 at 10:21 AM on February 4, 2016

There's one material that might be unavailable now: really fine linen, either in thread or cloth. Someone at Lacis in Berkeley told me that, as far as they knew, no-one is now spinning linen thread as fine as the finest Renaissance lace threads; and there are reports - but no large examples - of linen cloth woven to that fineness in antiquity, e.g. in Egypt. I discount this some based on its romantic appeal, but Lacis is in the business, and Barber's point in Women's Work that fine cloth was the best way to turn labor into trade value is also relevant.

Anyway, just from inheriting some okay 19th c middle class table linen and having seen or felt some of the good linen (table or lace), and gone cloth-shopping in Britex and B&J, the quality of linen really has dropped. There might still be good linen in Italy or Estonia.
posted by clew at 7:57 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

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