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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Life before industry”

My column for the August 11th, 2010, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was inspired by Liza Picard’s fascinating 2000 book, Dr. Johnson’s London. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Life before industry

Revolutionary-era America has always fascinated me. With tri-cornered hats atop the heads of men as wise as they were learned, and with ringing words issuing forth to proclaim the value of liberty, the 18th century looms in my mind as a time of greatness and of giants.

Of course, I’m not alone. Many Americans romanticize the 18th century. That time is taught to schoolchildren in the U.S. as one of triumph — triumph not only for Gen. Washington and his troops but, more grandly, for the ideals of freedom that have been achieved nowhere as successfully as in America.

And it was indeed a great time in many ways. It’s a time in history that I would very much love to visit.

But only for a short while.

When we romanticize the past, we overlook its faults. The past takes on a kind of Disney World cast. America on the verge of revolution is envisioned by 21st-century Americans as the Colonial Williamsburg that thousands of tourists visit each year — an America of quaint costumes, cozy Colonial-style restaurants, and fun displays and re-enactments.

In fact, though, daily life in the 18th century bore little resemblance to the “life” we see at Colonial Williamsburg. Being preindustrial, everyone but royalty and the upper-crust nobility of that era was oppressively poor by our standards.

The wealthiest place in the world in the 18th century was London. Yet if you think you’d be content living then and there, you might want to read Liza Picard’s book “Dr. Johnson’s London” — which is a lively account of everyday life in mid-18th-century London. I’ll bet this book will change your mind.

Consider these reports from Ms. Picard’s wonderfully evocative book:

• “London street dirt … was a rich, glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw, and human excrement…. 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.”

• “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.”

• “Nearly everyone had carious (decaying) teeth, even small children.”

• “Riding in a chaise or chariot counted as exercise — which shows how even the most improved vehicles bumped you about.”

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

• “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.”

• “For 1751 the (life-expectancy) figure for both men and women in England and Wales has been estimated at 36.6 years. … (B)etween 50 and 60 percent of London-born children died before their tenth birthday.”

• “Pyorrhoea and scurvy were rampant. Both would loosen teeth. … The leading French dentist Fauchard recommended one’s own urine for cleaning one’s teeth: always handy.”

• “Soap was a major item in a family budget.”

• “The life of a skilled or unskilled man or woman in the middle of the eighteenth century was unenviable. Hours were long, from five in the morning till seven at night from mid-March to mid-September, otherwise dawn to twilight, with one and a half hours off for meals, for a six-day week. Christmas, Easter and Whitsun were the only official holidays.”

• “Working life began young…. Master chimney sweeps took as many as four children at a time to do the dirty work, since none of them lasted very long, soot being carcinogenic. In 1785 Jonas Hanway estimated that there were about 550 climbing children in London. They were sometimes sent up even when the chimney was on fire. Extinguishing burning chimneys was the most profitable part of their master’s business. They worked in soot and slept on soot, and had no way of cleaning themselves.”

The above descriptions of life in the 18th century’s wealthiest place warn us against romanticizing the past — even a past as inspiring as revolutionary America. As important as the American Revolution was for preserving Americans’ political freedoms, the Industrial Revolution was just as important for creating the high standard of living that we today take for granted.


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