Four things that were better in 1899

Mulberry Street crowd

In 1899, no booty shorts. Even the immigrant poor on New York’s Mulberry Street looked more dignified than today’s average middle-class American.

It’s no accident that the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine opens with host HG Wells welcoming four friends to a dinner party in London on January 5, 1900 to recount events that had occurred since he last met them, on New Year’s Eve, 1899.

What year could be more symbolic of the end of an era, for good or ill, than 1899?

Since Americans worship at the altar of progress, we hardly need to be reminded that plenty of things in the 1890s were certainly much worse than they are today.

Women couldn’t vote. Separate but Equal was the law of the land. Railroads and banks beggared farmers. Police and federal troops helped bosses of factories and coal mines crush labor unions. And all this while robber barons sipped champagne in Newport, RI and packed their daughters off to Europe to collect Rembrandts and aristocrat-husbands, both at bargain-basement prices.

At the same time, as a guy who lives in a small city with lots of historic architecture, I can’t help but be reminded that plenty of other things were great in 1899.

  1. Food. There’s a good reason why food guru Michael Pollan says not to eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food. Back in 1899, most food was whole and it was grown organically by local farmers. Today, it’s hard to avoid processed foods. And nearly all of them contain newfangled ingredients that, if they won’t kill you quickly, will certainly kill you slowly: high fructose corn syrup, MSG, soy. With hybrids and GMOs, even whole foods like corn and wheat are now suspect. It’s a scandal that the Bible’s staff of life and America’s amber waves of grain was degraded in the 1960s and 70s into “dwarf wheat,” a high-yield hybrid that cannot be properly digested by humans. Sadly, this pseudo-wheat is probably what’s in that loaf of peasant bread you just got at Whole Foods. Yuck.
  2. Local Economies. Back in 1899, about the only thing besides opium that came from China was tea and, well, China. Imports from other countries were mostly luxuries like the aforementioned champagne. Today, I don’t know if you can even buy an American-made microwave oven. But in 1899, people in my town could buy a rock solid cast-iron stove forged locally by the WJ Loth Stove Company. Indeed, nearly everything Americans needed everyday was made in the USA, from trousers to tables to tallow candles to horse-drawn carriages. And like the hay to fuel the horse that pulls the carriage — whether barouche, fiacre, hackney or landau — both our food and our energy in 1899 were not just domestic, but they were also overwhelmingly local.
  3. Streets and Buildings. Speaking of transportation, when you have automobiles, you get today’s landscapes built for cars, with monster expressways, six-lane highways running past cul-de-sac subdivisions and cities covered in parking lots. Back in 1899, horse buggies and mule carts and the occasional streetcar didn’t overwhelm streets built at a human scale, so all cities were walkable. And I dare you to compare any building of 1899 against the mid- and late-century concrete boxes found in every city and town today. Italianate and Queen Anne Victorian or Planet of the Apes modernism? It’s no contest.
  4. Clothing. Call me an old fogy, but I have to agree with your grandmother that the flashing basketball sneakers, sweatpants, sweatshirts and baseball caps worn by both sexes on the streets of any big city today — a look that James Howard Kunstler has aptly described as “clownish” — are no improvement on the dignified and gender-specific clothing that people wore in public in the 1890s. Give me a woman in an A-line skirt and leg o’ mutton sleeves and a man wearing a gray coat with covered buttons and matching waistcoat, dark trousers, short turnover shirt collar, and floppy bow tie any day. When our fellow citizens look intelligent and confident and move with grace, we respect them more and our whole society acts with more seriousness.

This exercise in time travel is not just about nostalgia or even mourning what we’ve lost, which is so, so much. It’s about trying to preserve what’s left, as folks have done pretty well in my city and in hundreds of other historic areas nationwide from Savannah, GA to Brooklyn, NY.

Then, it’s about planning for the future. That will mean building an America resilient enough to withstand the shocks of climate change, peak oil and permanent economic downturn.

That America should be a place where citizens of a free society can enjoy enough prosperity and robust good health while living with dignity. And beauty. If we need a time machine to get there, then let’s build one together with our words. Regaining our collective memory may be crucial to envisioning the future we want.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Brian says

    Now, I’m no big fan of the present, and I’m as prone to romanticizing the past as anyone, but you need to read “The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!” by Otto Bettmann (of Bettmann Archive fame). (1) Food, yes, was organically grown, but wasn’t refrigerated and by the time it made it to the table had often passed its safe-use stage. Without food-safety regulations, adulteration was a hideous problem, with bizarre mixtures of chalk and ammonia being sold as “butter,” milk watered by up to 50%, unwrapped meats hung up on awnings and on streets for sale without any hygiene precautions, and thousands of deaths from food poisoning every year. (2) The economy was at the complete mercy of the rich folks, with engineered currency collapses every couple of years and, of course, no worker rights at all and no social safety net. That’s why every local economy that could afford it had its poorhouse. (3) Cars may not have overwhelmed city streets or country lanes, but horses and carriages sure did. Look at photos of cities of 1899 and tell me that isn’t scary. Not to mention garbage filling the streets, including dead animals and horses rotting in the gutters outside food stores. In fact, your photo (of a very crowded street) shows piles of manure under those horse-drawn carts full of food. Cars are dreadful, yes, but horses produce quite a lot of putrescent waste as well. Pedestrian fatalities were high every year in most cities, with New York, Boston, and Chicago topping the list, and railroad travel, contrary to popular opinion, was extremely dangerous in America, with fatalities and injuries topping 100,000 many years. (4) I don’t have any particular comment on this, except to note that I’m really, really glad I don’t have to wear a heavy wool suit 7 days a week, especially climbing eight flights of stairs to my air-shaft boarding house room in summer before air conditioning was invented.

    As I said, I’m no fan of the present, but I think it’s important not to romanticize the less-tech past we’re collapsing back to and to note that some real improvements have been made in living conditions over the past 100 years, that some important wins have been made economically for all of us who aren’t rich, and while society is collapsing (yes, due to some of those advances, like air conditioning and automobiles and refrigeration for food preservation), at least we don’t brave ptomaine every time we sit down to a meal, heat stroke every time we get dressed to go to work, and injury or death every time we cross the street. Let’s not forget perhaps the greatest human invention ever, the window screen! Meaning we can have air ventilating our homes on a hot summer night without being eaten alive by insects – a luxury unknown before the 1880s. I hope that as we tumble toward whatever future awaits us, some of those helpful advances can be held onto, so that we and our children can at least enjoy a few of the safeties and comforts humanity has managed to come up with.

    • Erik Curren says


      Haven’t read Bettman, but I know that his view as you describe it is the standard one today — that the old days were bad and that life was nasty, brutish and short. It’s the conventional wisdom of everybody from big corporations to the media to Washington that we now enjoy Better Living Through Science.

      But as you summarize Bettman’s conclusions, they all appear to take things out of context or place them incorrectly in a mid/late 20th century one. Your descriptions of Bettman’s objections also appear to be biased towards urban living. Yet, most Americans in 1899 still lived in rural areas or on farms, not yet in big cities with their crowding and unsanitary conditions.

      For example, food. Bad milk of 1899 came from nasty dairies feeding cows spent grains from breweries located right outside of big cities. But in rural towns like mine, milk was still pure and clean, as it had been for thousands of years. There was no need for inspections and FDA regulation. Meanwhile, there was little or no need for refrigeration either because food didn’t need to travel far in 1899. Most food then was local. And people had traditional ways to preserve it, such as drying, curing and canning. See Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions for a discussion of why that was actually healthier than refrigeration or industrial processing.

      Same with economy and transportation. Sure, the Gilded Age had powerful rich folks, as I noted. But Carnegie, Rockefeller and JP Morgan were nothing compared to today’s all-encompassing plutocracy expressed through multinational corporations and the governments they’ve captured. Also, as with food, the economy of 1899 was less global and more local, so rich folks had less influence back then relative to today. Farmers and main street merchants had much more economic autonomy in a world without Walmart or Safeway.

      As to horse poop on streets, can you really say it was worse than the many problems with cars: start with the built environment but then go onto pollution from burning gasoline and diesel fuel and car accidents that are the #1 source of death for young people today? Instead, I’d take the horse poop any day. And outside of big cities, in rural areas where most Americans still lived, the poop wasn’t a problem. Quite the opposite — it was a form of fertilizer or even fuel, as it is still in many countries today.

      Clothes may be a matter of taste. In 1899 they had attractive and comfortable light wool and cotton options for the warm weather. What they didn’t have were Brazilian thong bikinis, Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towels and the long shorts preferred by the Jersey Shore guys that James Howard Kunstler calls “baby pants.” If doing without means they were deprived in 1899, then I don’t think they knew it.

  2. George says

    The BBC series, 1900 House on Youtube gives a very good window into life back then in the UK. It is a real treat to see a family re-enacting the era…

    The show “Edwardian Larder” also on Youtube shows how the transition to modern food came about…
    The Edwardian era saw commonplace trains shipping food all around the isles and localization was lost as the connection between farmer and family became between merchant and family.

    • Erik Curren says

      George, the shows you mention sound interesting — I’ll check them out. Thanks! Meantime, your general points make good sense. First trains and then trucking allowed food to be shipped across countries and even internationally, creating an artificial need for such modern innovations as refrigeration and industrial processing. We seem to think these things are necessary for healthy food today. Yet, civilizations did without modern food preservation for about 99% of our history. If we stopped shipping iceberg lettuce 3,000 miles from farm to plate, maybe we wouldn’t need refrigeration, food inspections, food regulations and other responses to the problems of industrial food so much?

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