When the past isn't even a foreign country
September 10, 2007 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Which aspects of everyday life for Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Franklin have now essentially vanished from the world?

Inspired by this RadioLab segment on an artist who consciously adopted a lifestyle as close to that of the early 1900s as he can manage, I started thinking about everyday life in Europe or colonial America during the last decades of the pre-industrial age: in particular, which elements of that lifestyle are obsolete even in the developing world? There are places where the horse is still the main mode of transport; where farming is done by hand; where light and heat come from open flames.

Legal chattel slavery (as opposed to the underground trade) is the one thing I can think of. Anything else come to mind?
posted by holgate to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ubiquity of servants, for one. Johnson and Franklin wouldn't have done their own cooking or laundry.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:46 AM on September 10, 2007


Ubiquity of servants, for one.

Have you been to India?

holgate: Are you thinking of stuff like use of whale oil or...at what level of detail?
posted by vacapinta at 9:51 AM on September 10, 2007


Letter-writing comes to mind.
posted by jquinby at 9:57 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


PBS did a couple of series like this called 1900 House and Frontier House. I think the 1800 House may have originally been a BBC production.
The total lack of livestock. There are whole classes of jobs that don't exist anymore dedicated to the care of horses. City streets used to be full of excrement. In New York, dead horses would be left lying in the streets for days at a time.
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:02 AM on September 10, 2007


vacapinta beat me to it: domestic workers are still ubiquitous in other parts of the world. I'm thinking on a global scale.

Whale oil's a good one, because it's a commodity with an entire industry attached to it (commercial whaling) that touched everyday lives. It's also interesting because, like slavery, it's a prohibited practice rather than one which has fallen by the wayside.
posted by holgate at 10:03 AM on September 10, 2007


I know you say that horses are still used as primary transport in some parts of the world, but the prevalence of horses and their ubiquity far exceeded what you see today probably anywhere on earth. I know it's obvious, but there were no internal combustion engines. Horses, mules, oxen, etc were everywhere, and that included cities. I don't think horses are anywhere near that prevalent in any urban environment, which is, after all, where Franklin and Johnson both lived.
posted by OmieWise at 10:08 AM on September 10, 2007


And I don't want to play thread-police, but can I emphasise the global thing here. If it's common in rural Kazakhstan or Burkina Faso or Patagonia, it's common enough not to count. I'm thinking about things that Johnson or Franklin would have done, used or encountered in their everyday lives that aren't done, used or encountered anywhere today.
posted by holgate at 10:10 AM on September 10, 2007


North Korea has legal slavery. I think you'll find that the slavery issue isnt as cut and dried as "Well, governments say they dont have it, thus its not real." Ben Franklin would recognize slaves in NKorea or Saudi Arabia, or Africa as easily as he could recognize a horse drawn carriage.

Ben would see that's there really no smallpox anymore and that modern people do not have pox scars.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:15 AM on September 10, 2007


OmieWise: I completely take your point, but I'm not looking for exact urban-to-urban correspondences. Rural communities generally lag urban ones, and the lag is part of what interests me here.
posted by holgate at 10:18 AM on September 10, 2007


Oh, and fashions. No one anywhere dresses in the styles of the early-mid 18th century. There's no third world country where it makes sense to wear a lacy cravat, three cornered hat, and knee length leather boots, with a waistcoat.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:22 AM on September 10, 2007


The ideas of phrenology and ether as scientific ideas are dead all over the world. Ben would also be surprised that people commonly accept that big holes in the ground come from rocks falling from space and not from ancient geological shifts.

These are not everyday ideas to most, but they are to Ben.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:24 AM on September 10, 2007


dda, Ben Franklin was actually a big proponent of the Smallpox vaccine.
posted by caddis at 10:30 AM on September 10, 2007


Eating Passenger Pigeon.
posted by Leon at 10:30 AM on September 10, 2007


Wearing swords around and demanding duels with swords. I dont think this happens anywhere. Pistols are cheap, effective, and plentiful.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:32 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


How about cavalry? I don't know of any state on the planet which wages war on the backs of beasts.

Or that uses mechanically-launched weapons, for that matter.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:35 AM on September 10, 2007


Speed of communication has changed for everyone. Even if you don't have access to electronic communications, the world in knitted together enough that information can get to you in days instead of months.
posted by Leon at 10:37 AM on September 10, 2007


Also, how about the American customary system of weights and measures? I'm pretty sure noone in the world uses those any more.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:43 AM on September 10, 2007


Eddie, we loved those shows in our house, although other than Frontier/Pioneer House (the canuck version) they were way too focused on the social aspects of life but were unable to really get the participants to fully immerse that part of themselves. We're waiting for Bronze Age House, or maybe Caveman House.
posted by monkeymadness at 10:45 AM on September 10, 2007


How about the Whig party?
posted by A189Nut at 10:45 AM on September 10, 2007


The near-total elimination of gold and silver money.

As someone who was intimately involved in the international financial markets, such as they were, at the time, I believe Franklin would find the current system quite strikingly different.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:47 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


The usage of the currency they are familiar with. You cant buy a Dell laptop with a Louis d'Or. All of those currencies are dead as currency. Melting them down for their metals or selling them as collectables is of course another story.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:48 AM on September 10, 2007


Public executions. OK, these still happen, but they're really rare (and heading towards non-existent).
posted by anaelith at 10:53 AM on September 10, 2007


Wax seals.

A sense of western frontier and possible expansion.
posted by klangklangston at 10:54 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ben Franklin kept very detailed diaries so there are a lot of books out there. I know you're looking for a general retrospective view, but reading about it in his own words can add a whole extra dimension to your understanding.

Also, it might be a little bit earlier than the period you're looking at, but during the mid- to late-1800s, Henry Mayhew conducted interviews with people on the streets of London, and they give a really fascinating insight into life for normal people during a time of major social change:

http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MayLond.html
posted by lhall at 10:56 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


fear of syphillis. now it's three penicillin shots and you're good to go.

(fear of AIDS nowadays is not the same thing).
posted by matteo at 11:01 AM on September 10, 2007


Kadin's is a great post, and it's even bigger than that -- not just the monetary system but capital formation and deployment generally.

Rights of women and local minorities are also very important. In Franklin's time most people in the world couldn't conceive of them, and for the rest they they were no more than ideal towards which only the most rudimentary of legal and economic concessions had been made.

Now there is nowhere in the world where the (near) equality of women and local ethnic and religious minorities isn't hugely present, either as the thing they practice or as the thing that the local majority-culture males works to resist, both through oppression and through co-opting/placating moves.
posted by MattD at 11:02 AM on September 10, 2007


@TheNewWazoo: Just on the off chance that you're not joking, every one of those measurements (except maybe the 'quarter', which I'd never heard of) is still used; see US Customary system. Some, like the grain, dram and hundredweight, are only used in small trade niches, though.

(E.g., the grain is used to measure gunpowder when preparing cartridges, the dram is used to express the weight of shot in a shotshell, and the hundredweight is used as the denominator in many agricultural commodities: "The August slaughter steer price in Quebec was $85.61 per hundredweight...")

The avoirdupois ounce, pound, and ton are still in common usage. They are endangered only in the sense that they have been legally re-defined as having metric equivalents, and nobody keeps 'official standards' around anymore for them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:05 AM on September 10, 2007


The lack of freedom of movement was probably a very large factor in determining the shape of the society. Horses, ships, and feet can only get you so far, so travel outside of one's own locale was far less commonplace than it is today. I'm not sure what would be "disappearing", though, other than the extremely fixed and tangible sense of community that comes with living and working in a single block of land for one's entire life.
posted by tehloki at 11:07 AM on September 10, 2007


No one travels across the Atlantic anymore on the kind of ship Franklin went on, do they?
posted by The World Famous at 11:10 AM on September 10, 2007


I originally read the question as "Samuel L. Jackson" instead of "Samuel Johnson" and had NO idea what you were talking about....
posted by Space Kitty at 11:25 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ben also would be wondering where all the american long-horn bison have gone to or why there arent any Dodos in the zoo.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:34 AM on September 10, 2007


He'd miss the Enlightenment. (So do I.)
posted by LarryC at 11:36 AM on September 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


One thing the two of them would miss would be the incredible (to modern folks) level of autonomy enjoyed by agents or operators of any large concern.

In Franklin's and Johnson's day; Ambassadors, Sea-Captains, salesmen, business-agents and other men (almost always men) assigned to pursue the agendas of their superiors in remote locales were forced by the absence of timely communication to levels of responsibility that would be shocking to their modern counterparts. Getting a message from most European capitols to America's east coast was a six-month round-trip at best; and most parts of the world were more remote than that, so almost all important decisions had to be made independent of supervision or consultation.

Nowadays, even the most trivial of initiatives are closely controlled by the central authorities.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 11:50 AM on September 10, 2007 [4 favorites]


The lack of Deists would be very odd to Ben.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:58 AM on September 10, 2007


So many great answers here, and the ones I'll highlight now shouldn't be taken as disparaging others. I'm just going to mark a few stand-outs (for the moment) that touch on wider social changes, and hope for more to come. Thank you.
posted by holgate at 12:08 PM on September 10, 2007


No one uses quill pens anymore. Same for snuff and spittoons. Whale-bone isn't used for clothing. Actually this is a very hard question. I keep coming up with examples that probably are still used by someone, somewhere.
posted by Eddie Mars at 12:08 PM on September 10, 2007


Telegrams as a non-novelty communication.

They would also be shocked by how infrequently and slowly the postal service delivers. It used to be common for mail to be delivered several times throughout the day in major cities, notably London. If you were writing to someone in the same city, you could receive a letter in the morning, send a reply by return of post, and receive a second reply that evening.

Stage coaches (especially carrying valuables), rapid mail delivery via horse (Pony Express).

Phonographs playing cylinders, phonographs or record players which use a "horn" for amplification.
posted by anaelith at 12:40 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


The free use of Latin and classical allusions by educated people.

The risk of smallpox.

The sword as a legitimate personal weapon for people of appropriate rank, and primary weapon of self defense.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:52 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Eddie Mars, miners (and their families, and people wanting to be all retro) still take snuff; you can't smoke down a coal mine in case it blows up, and it's not like you can get out for a quick one on your break, either. (My experience of people taking snuff is, however, more to do with the people wanting to be all retro).
posted by Lebannen at 12:55 PM on September 10, 2007


Whales as a natural resource.

Even though they are still hunted in some countries, there is no population that is NOT aware of their scarcity and the fact that they're no longer the best available (though still possibly the best local) source for oil, bones and ambergris for colognes. Anyone with the level of technology that enables them to go on a whale hunt knows these things, I'm fairly certain.
posted by jessamyn at 1:09 PM on September 10, 2007


Johnson died in 1784 and Franklin in 1790. Telegrams would have been novelties to them indeed, and Mayhew's interviews came several industry-and-invention-full decades later, not a "little bit earlier."

What about wigs as part of the default male wardrobe? Wigs still have certain uses in the modern world (alopecia, law courts, costuming, religious head covering, drag . . .), but the convention of men shaving their heads and wearing wigs routinely is not the norm anywhere that I can think of.
posted by Orinda at 1:49 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Spittoons are still used all over the world.
posted by mds35 at 2:02 PM on September 10, 2007


How about cavalry? I don't know of any state on the planet which wages war on the backs of beasts.

Gone eh? I know it's not a state army, but the Janjaweed are an insurgent cavalry.

Public executions. OK, these still happen, but they're really rare (and heading towards non-existent).

Again, not so much. I think they may have actually stopped broadcasting executions on Saudi TV, but that doesn't make them private affairs.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:17 PM on September 10, 2007


A free press.
posted by The World Famous at 2:44 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Phonographs playing cylinders, phonographs or record players which use a "horn" for amplification.

Uh, what? Those weren't around when Franklin or Johnson were alive.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:47 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Smallpox.

Yellow fever. Scarlet fever. Things treatable with antibiotics.

Diseases like yellow fever do still occur in the world, but there is a vaccine for it, and treatments for many diseases untreatable in the 1700s. The understanding of germ theory and development of antibiotics has had a profound impact on childhood mortality and understanding of health in general. The old theories and science about diseases and outbreaks have vanished from the world, and some of the diseases have, too. People get yellow fever now because they did not have access to a vaccine, not because there is no way to avoid it, or because known ways of preventing it were ineffective. People understand that it is spread by mosquito, for example, which was not known before the 1880s.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:38 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Telegrams as a non-novelty communication.

They would also be shocked by how infrequently and slowly the postal service delivers. It used to be common for mail to be delivered several times throughout the day in major cities, notably London. If you were writing to someone in the same city, you could receive a letter in the morning, send a reply by return of post, and receive a second reply that evening.

Stage coaches (especially carrying valuables), rapid mail delivery via horse (Pony Express).

Phonographs playing cylinders, phonographs or record players which use a "horn" for amplification.
posted by anaelith at 3:40 PM on September 10



Whaa! Telegrams, Pony Express, stage coaches, phonographs????? None of these were part of everyday life for Samuel Johnson or Ben Franklin. They took on this role many decades later.

This is a great question by the way. It is easy to see what they did not have and we do, but the other direction is more interesting, especially if you look at it on a global basis. All of the best answers so far are still to some extent found, whales, slavery, cavalry, executions, etc. Honor duels, as far as I know, are not really common anywhere anymore, but that may just be my ignorance of foreign culture. Is this really true, has dueling, honor dueling, really disappeared?
posted by caddis at 3:42 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think that the loss of the West, as I mentioned above, is a dramatic shift. There's really nowhere on earth that has the feel of "unboundedness" (I'm sure there's a fantastic word in German for this) that characterized much of the writing of the time. While there are unexplored regions and lawless areas, the simple sense of unlimited possible expansion was a constant in writings of that time—it's, in fact, one of the defining assumptions of Lockian natural rights, as property relates to society, and one that we butt up against whenever there's a discussion about, say, mining in national parks.

As far as things that don't exist in the West anymore, the democracy of Franklin's era was fundamentally singular (as opposed to our current pluralism) in a way that's hard to concieve (just like how the Greeks had no real concept of individual rights). Part of that has been touched on above, in mentioning the way that women and minorities were treated—there was simply no idea that anyone could be other than they are now.

Unfortunately, I think that a lot of this discussion will be repeated in reference to the '50s through mid-'60s by some future webforum, as that was the peak of Modernism (as Franklin's day was to the peak of the Enlightenment).

Oh, I think we've also lost any access to truly "untouched" civilizations—there are some that have had only minimal contact with the modern world, but it's doubtful that any isolated civilizations still exist.
posted by klangklangston at 4:04 PM on September 10, 2007


Stage coaches started being used in England around 1640 (search in this book for "1640"). There was a whole network of coaching inns to accommodate travelers.

Benjamin Franklin would miss Native American nations that were close to peers with the colonies, whose systems of government could be used as a model for founding the United States. He had a complex view of Native Americans, but I think he'd be shocked at what happened to them.

Benjamin Franklin owned slaves as a young man, but was an abolitionist near the end of his life and became President of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society in 1787.

They would also be shocked by how infrequently and slowly the postal service delivers.

Especially Franklin, who was an innovator he became Postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, Joint Postmaster General of the colonies for the Crown in 1753, and Postmaster for the United Colonies in 1775.

How about cavalry? I don't know of any state on the planet which wages war on the backs of beasts.

The Northern Alliance used Cavalry in Afghanistan in 2001.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:06 PM on September 10, 2007


We actually know little about the normal life of ordinary people before, say, 1850, because nobody wrote about what everybody knew. Here are a few hints that I have accumulated, mostly British:

Sleeping sitting up.

Waking in the middle of the night and spending a few hours of quiet time (in bed, still sitting up, in the single bedroom) with the members of one's family. Then sleeping till morning.

Expensive clothes. For the poor (most everyone), one's clothes were the most expensive item owned. While elaborate gowns and outfits survive from the 18th century and earlier, everyday clothes from then are virtually non-existant. They were all worn and repatched until they disappeared.

Stench. The chamber pot. The lack of a chamber pot.

Work was much different. Hours were shorter, I think, but muscles counted for more, and people were tinier and weaker. Also, your boss would beat you for 'infractions', and not just slaves, any employess--everyone knows that.

Girls generally did not menstruate until they were nearly twenty.

Nature as horrid. Mountain vistas were scary. Likewise endless forests. Nice rectangular gardens were nature tamed--untamed nature was a major threat.

And before the Great War, hotels would cheerfully dump you into a bed with two or three same-sex stranger bedmates, with whom you were expected to get along with as well as could be expected.
posted by hexatron at 5:03 PM on September 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


Well, yeah— I remember hearing one of those Willard Scott interviews where a 100-year-old woman was asked what the biggest change in her lifetime was, and she said "Screen doors." It was either stifling or buggy most of the time.

We also lack the great (though somewhat later) tradition of flagrant drunkeness. The "elevenses" were for a nip of whiskey— people drank like smoke or coffee breaks are taken now.
posted by klangklangston at 5:29 PM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


Potable water was in short supply; hard cider beer, etc., seem to have been acceptable day-round substitutes.
posted by mimi at 4:50 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


How about cavalry? I don't know of any state on the planet which wages war on the backs of beasts.

Not only did the Northern Alliance have a cavalry, complete with swords next to their firearms, but US special forces participated in cavalry charges (with them) as recently as 5 years ago.

(and some of it was a pretty amazing combination of medieval and 21st century:
At Bai Beche the crucial breakthrough occurred by accident. A Green Beret told one of Dostum's lieutenants to get his horses ready for action while they got aircraft into position. This was misinterpreted as a signal to charge. The men of ODA 595 watched in disbelief as 250 horsemen galloped straight at a Taliban position a mile away that was about to be bombed. They were convinced that a "friendly fire" catastrophe was about to occur. No one would ever have intentionally ordered a cavalry charge in such close proximity with an air strike. But it worked out better than anyone could have expected. One of the Green Berets recalled: "Three or four bombs hit right in the middle of the enemy position. Almost immediately after the bombs exploded, the horses swept across the objective — the enemy was so shell-shocked. I could see the horses blasting out the other side. It was the finest sight I ever saw. The men were thrilled; they were so happy. It wasn't done perfectly, but it will never be forgotten."

posted by CunningLinguist at 6:25 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


How about fear of attack by hostile American Indians. We don't really have much fear of that in the US anymore. Then again, maybe the coexistance witr Native Americans in general is something that is not really part of modern life for most Americans, particularly on the East Coast.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:25 PM on September 11, 2007


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