The several Thanksgiving recollections of early experiences at Plymouth Plantation – for example, Alex Tabarrok’s post at Marginal Revolution, and John Blundell’s op-ed at The Scotsman – remind me of John Demos’s A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (Oxford University Press, 1970).
This beautifully written book is a cornucopia of facts. To read it is to be made truly thankful for America’s current abundance. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
It is commonplace today to decry the erosion of personal privacy under the impact of various trends in modern life – the growth of cities, the mass media, the whole ethos of “organization,” and above all the sheer increase in human population. Yet this picture is badly distorted, for it lacks any true historical perspective. It fails, moreover, to recognize the most intimate of all the basic theaters of human interaction – the home. The fact is that we in our homes of the mid-twentieth century have more privacy, more actual living space per capita, than any previous generation in history. The contrast with the situation that confronted the people of Plymouth, or indeed any seventeenth-century community, can be most instructive. It is not just that their houses were small to begin with. It is not just that even within this limited space a considerable part was used only for sleeping and storage. It is not just that their families were large, much more so than our own. It is not just that their ordinary activities were confined to a small radius in and around the home. It is rather the combination of all these factors that we must try somehow to grasp. Can we picture ourselves in such a setting – as one of a group of five, six, eight, or even a dozen people living and working and playing all together, day after day, in one room of rather modest size? One might ask, in fact, whether privacy would then be a meaningful concept at all [pages 46-47; original emphasis].
Personal space; privacy; intimacy chosen rather than intimacy inescapable: these features of a desirable life seem to the non-economist to have only the scantiest relationship to markets and economic considerations. But for ordinary people these features are made possible and expanded only by the prosperity created by markets – by markets that permit us to travel at low cost, to occupy homes and apartments that would have seemed magnificently palatial (and amazingly clean and sturdy) to America’s settlers, to allow us to dispose with the many bulky appliances that crowded our ancestors’ tiny homes – appliances such as butter churns, salt barrels, cheese presses, and feed troughs for animals. (Actually, cows, goats, pigs, sheep, and chickens were themselves, in their own way, household appliances.)
Oh, and one more thing – markets that permit we modern Americans to spend six full weeks over-eating, over-drinking, and shopping-till-we’re-dropping in this glorious season we call The Holidays.