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The Lousy Living of the Past’s Royals and Rich

Richard Rahn’s latest column is inspired by the Cato Institute project HumanProgress.org (spearheaded by Marian Tupy).  Richard explains some of the ways that ordinary people in modern economies live lives that are astoundingly superior to those of even the mightiest monarchs of just a few hundred years ago.  (One small correction: Louis XIV was born in 1638 rather than in 1643.)  A slice:

Louis XIV lived in constant fear of dying from smallpox and many other diseases that are now cured quickly by antibiotics. His palace at Versailles had 700 rooms but no bathrooms (hence he rarely bathed), and no central heating or air conditioning. One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller was the richest man the world. He did have bathrooms but still no air conditioning. Like Louis, he and his family were still in constant danger of dying from what would now be quickly treatable aliments or accidents. Rockefeller could travel by train or steamship, or very short distances by the newly invented automobile on largely dirt roads – luxuries not available to Louis XIV.

And as for the lives of the not-so-royal-and-rich of the past, a good summary is offered by Stanley Lebergott on page 26 of his 1984 volume, The Americans: An Economic Record:

The daily tasks for virtually all eighteenth-century Europeans make today’s concerns about alienation, unemployment, relative deprivation seem like a happy dream….

In ordinary European houses rushes still covered the floor.  They remained there indefinitely, accumulating the excrement of cats and dogs, the vomit of drunkards.  Rats scurried through at intervals, and vermin were omnipresent.

Okay, back to the luxuries enjoyed back then by the rich (Lebergott, pages 26-27):

The Duke of Wellington, millionaire and first citizen of Europe, described his ingenuity in fitting out his traveling carriage with a light colored silk mattress cover.  In that way he was able to spot, and capture, the lice more readily.


We moderns are so, so much less exposed to, and threatened by, environmental hazards than were our pre-industrial ancestors.