Wouldn't it be nice to have lived in a time when you didn't have to worry about global warming, bullying, airport searches, gas prices, acid rain, PCBs, the obesity epidemic or high cholesterol? In fact, if you lived from the end of the 1800s to the early 1900s, such concerns would have been furthest from your mind. You'd have far greater concerns because the "good old days" of the so-called Gilded Age and the Gay Nineties, were good for the privileged class but meant severe hardships for most.
Wouldn't it be nice to have lived in a time when you didn't have to worry about global warming, bullying, airport searches, gas prices, acid rain, PCBs, the obesity epidemic or high cholesterol?
In fact, if you lived from the end of the 1800s to the early 1900s, such concerns would have been furthest from your mind. You'd have far greater concerns because the "good old days" of the so-called Gilded Age and the Gay Nineties, were good for the privileged class but meant severe hardships for most.
Those faraway times are chronicled in a magnificent book titled "The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!" by Otto L. Bettmann.
Bettmann began collecting prints and photos as a boy in Germany and earned a doctorate at Leipzig University. He was curator of rare books in the Prussian State Art Library in Berlin when Hitler came to power in 1933.
Dismissed for being Jewish in 1935, when Jews could still emigrate but take little of value with them, he managed to get past Nazi customs with two trunks bulging with 25,000 images, many of them on film negatives he had made. He eventually founded the renowned Bettmann Archive, a commercial treasure house of pictorial material that became a major resource of American culture for scholars, newspapers, magazines, books and television.
"It was a wonderfully auspicious time to arrive in America," Bettmann once recalled. "Lifeand Lookmagazines were on the scene and the era of photojournalism was in its heyday. Budget-conscious editors were clamoring for illustrations. Everybody wanted pictures, and I had two trunks full."
Bill Gates, Microsoft Corporation chairman, bought the archive in 1995 through his Corbis Corporation as a step toward building a huge library of digitally-stored images to be sampled and sold on computer disks or over computer networks.
Of the many looks into the past that are described in the book, with rare illustrations, here are a few of note:
Classroom battleground: Back then in The Little Red Schoolhouse, it was the teacher who was frequently harassed and bullied. Many kids were hostile and out of control, especially on the frontier. Mary Ellen Chase, describing her first day at a New England District School recalls, "I stormed up and down with this pathetic pretense of courage, aided by the mad flourishing of my razor strap that brought forth the respectful fear on the faces of the young giants."
Poor Ms. Barstow, who taught in a public school in Canton, Mass., was not so lucky. On Oct. 8, 1870, she punished four boys for bad conduct by keeping them in the building after class. When she released them, their response was immediate - they stoned her to death.
Drink it up: Forget Alcoholics Anonymous. There were no social agencies to the help the alcoholic. The only place for solace was the local saloon. It was not uncommon for children to become alcoholics after too many trips to a bar to have a pitcher filled with "beer for father."
Horace Greeley, a prominent newspaper publisher and a nondrinker, claimed that in New Hampshire, a family of six to eight consumed a barrel of cider a week. "The transition from cider to more potent stimulants was ready and natural so that whole families eventually died drunkards and vagabond paupers ..."
Drinking milk had its own pitfalls. It was common knowledge that it was diluted. "A water shortage would put the milkman out of business," was a common joke. To improve its color since it came from diseased cattle, it was common to add molasses, chalk or plaster of Paris. Believe it or not, some cows were so enfeebled from tuberculosis that they were milked while raised on a hoist to remain "milk-able." Some cows were fed mash and whiskey slops, which made babies tipsy and often sick.
Sweatshops: How many times have you heard someone describe where they work as a "sweatshop?" Compared with the real sweatshops of the past, it is a misnomer. The term goes back to the Gilded Age, years before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, when an owner/manager - called a "sweater" - lorded over factory-size halls where men and women slaved under oppressive supervision.
Cosmopolitan magazine called sewing in a sweatshop "the most grinding oppression that can be practiced on a woman." A even worse fate for a woman was to work in soap packing plants. The caustic soda they were exposed to turned their nails yellow and ate away at their fingers. Flower-making factories used arsenic to provide bright colors which caused sores, swelling of the limbs, and, sometimes, complete debility.
The use of child labor was widespread because they were a bargain at $1.50 to $2.50 a week. The Puritan Work Ethic warned against the "sloth of children, their idleness by which they are corrupted." Poor parents were seduced by the small increase in family income.
One photo shows a "spindle boy" in a Georgia cotton mill standing on a box to reach the dangerous whirling spool machine. If you complained, the answer was: "Get out!" In 1842, Massachusetts passed a law restricting children under age 12 from working more than 10 hours a day. Finally, in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was formed and began to curtail child labor.
Job loss: Losing a job could mean ruin. In the depression of 1893-98, one out of five workers were unemployed. Many families had to sleep in police stations. If you worked in a company town, you were paid in script, redeemable at the company store at inflated prices. If you complained, you were not only fired but also kicked out of the company-owned home where you lived.
"Apartment" living: Apartments were, as today, greatly in demand, especially lower-rent apartment buildings for the middle class - but they were little more than "glorified tenements." Families were housed in layers, sharing a floor that was divided into several apartments with no insulation from the sounds and cooking smells of neighbors. A fire would turn the apartments into deathtraps. Between 1870 and 1906, four American cities - Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco - burned to the ground. Boston's yearly fire damage was between $1 and $1.5 million - 10 times greater than that of a European city of the same size.
Drug culture: In 1909, the Narcotics Drug Act was passed, reflecting the government's concern over the high use of drugs by the population. Per capita, opium use was 18 times higher than Germany. (I have a magazine from that era with an ad for an opium den on Boston's Washington St.)
Writers and artists were heavy users. Drugstores sold opium openly as a pill or laudanum "by the bucket." Thousands of former Civil War soldiers had acquired the habit as casualties and were given laudanum to relieve their misery. Hard to imagine, but many mothers in the 1880s relied on Winslow's Baby Syrup or Kopp's Baby Friend, spiked with morphine, to put the child to sleep.
Horse-car hell: Forget the subway. The horse-drawn streetcar was real hell. They were iceboxes in the winter, relying on a frequently malfunctioning stove. "Rush hour" found as many as 80 passengers crammed into a car designed for 25, with some people hanging out the windows and door openings. It was fertile ground for pickpockets. One traveler commented, "Before boarding a car, prudent persons leave their purses and watches in a safe deposit box and carry bowie knives and derringers."
Each horse produced 20-30 pounds of manure a day, dumped on the street, attracting flies and creating a stench. In New York City, drivers earned $12 a week for a 16-hour day. When they demanded a 12-hour day, State Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt called it "communistic."
Bettmann died in 1998 at age 94. In 1974, in his introduction to this remarkable book, he wrote:
"Even if we cast but a cursory glance at the not-so-good old days and bring them into alignment with our own, we will find much to be grateful for. We are going forward, but slowly. This fact should move us to view the future in less cataclysmic terms - the future that will see man, in Faulkner's words, 'not only endure but prevail.'"
Look at the truly amazing progress we have made in little over a century, compared to some other nations that are still coping with the same adversities.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was approached by en elderly woman who asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?"
"A Republic, madam, if you can keep it," Franklin replied.
We have kept it for more than 200 years, in good times and bad.
Arnold Koch is a regular columnist for the Melrose Free Press. Koch said his copy of "The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible!" by Otto L. Bettmann, is "Thirty years old and worn out." The book is still available, however, at Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, according to Koch, who said, "It's a must for any history lover and for someone who is unaware of those 'bad old days' and what we overcame as a nation."