Poor, Nasty, Brutish, & Short

by Don Boudreaux on May 8, 2004

in The Economy

My seven-year-old son, Thomas, wakes up early with me on weekends. This morning I found myself explaining “blogging” to him. “Blog on me, Daddy!” he urged with much enthusiasm.
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Thomas’s favorite dinnertime request to his mother and me is “Tell me about the olden days” (which, of course, for him include all times prior to 2001). Learning about the olden days is indeed important, for doing so enables us to better appreciate the enormous wealth each of us today in the west enjoys.

I recently read Liza Picard’s Dr. Johnson’s London – a fun book describing everyday life in mid-18th-century London. Even back then, London was among the wealthiest places on earth. But by our current standards, it was gruesomely poor. Here are just a few, randomly chosen tid-bits from Picard’s book:

- London’s streets were foul: “London street dirt…was a rich, glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw, and human excrement.” A few pages later: “We complain of the pollution caused by petrol-driven engines. Imagine the sheer volume of faeces and urine excreted by the engines of eighteenth-century traffic – that is, horses – let alone the dung of the herds and flocks being driven through the streets to markets and abattoirs.”

- London’s water supply was contaminated with “the effect of rotting elm and lead, not to mention the miscellaneous refuse, dead dogs, and so on that found their way into the supply.”

- “In the country the roads were abominable unless they had been ‘turn-piked’ and were maintained by a private company which charged for its services.”

- “The kind of space we take as normal, at least separating children from parents at night, and having a room for sitting and watching television and doing homework, was a luxury only the prosperous enjoyed.”

- “Butlers were entitled to keep and sell the ends of candles, an expensive commodity in the eighteenth century.”

- “Nearly everyone had carious [decaying] teeth, even small children.”

- Life expectancy, for men and women in England and Wales, in 1751, was 36.6 years.

- “Riding in a chaise or chariot counted as exercise – which shows how even the most improved vehicles bumped you about.”
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I could go on and on. Anyone who doubts the benefits of commerce and industry – of modern technology, global trade, and a deep division of labor – should read history books of this sort.

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