Top 10 Ways The Past Was Way More Awful and Awkward Than You Think


Some people have the nerve to think that society has lost something important that it had in the past. Their nostalgia makes them think that they’d actually like to live in or at least visit years gone by. Any historian who really digs into the nit and grit of the past will tell you that the past was so much worse than the present, pretty much across the board. Not just in the obvious, prominent ways, but in matters that you’d take for granted.

10. Food Variation


You don’t consider it anything like a blessing that you have a wide array of foodstuffs of fruits, vegetables, and meats available to you. Even the charitable food shelves in most countries can offer that. But food options around the world really did expand enormously when bottled food was invented by Nicolas Appert in 1809 and canned food in 1810 by Philippe De Girard. Otherwise even with processes like drying or soaking food in brine, food could not be shipped fast enough to be edible in remote portions of the world to arrive in an edible state. If that sounds unimportant, consider how excessive reliance on a single vulnerable crop led to the 1845-49 Irish Potato Famine. Or consider how countries where the homegrown food like Brazil have goiter outbreaks because their food doesn’t have enough iodine in it, and how diets which weren’t balanced properly killed one half of British sailors in the Seven Years War during the 1750s. Or most of all, imagine how sick you’d get of having the same narrow range of foods over and over.

9. Furniture was Horrible


Pretty much all of TopTenz’s readership spends a considerable amount of each working day in a padded office chair, and or have access to one when they need a break. Until around 1600, this would have been considered the height of luxury. Back then even owning a stool with a cushion and back support was considered an upper class creature comfort. It wasn’t for almost another century that it became common practice to upholster seats. It’s worth noting that standing for long periods of time has been found to lead to health problems, so it would have been in everyone’s best interest to have comfortable seats available. Indeed, even in the 1920s, House & Garden magazine was publishing articles telling people not to get nostalgic for the furniture of the Edwardian and Jacobean eras because it would be unbearably austere and uncomfortable. So unless you like having back and leg problems, you should be thankful you didn’t live back then.

8. Night Soil Problems


This might be disgusting to some of our readers, but it really drives home how much worse living in the past was at a gut level. Before universal plumbing, the collection of feces required people to come by every once in awhile (but still way too often) and haul it out. A 1907 government investigation found that in the UK city of Hull, the procedure was for the crew men to walk through the house, put the “stuff muck” into a tub, then carry it out through the house, usually while the family was at breakfast. Since this was a naturally expensive service, many homeowners and businesses would hesitate to pay for it until it was too late, and areas below houses would sometimes would fill up with so much of the stuff that it tainted surrounding water supplies and contributed to health epidemics. For the night soil men, one of the names for the sanitation workers who did this job, it was dangerous as well as disgusting work for fear of being incinerated by ignited methane. Even when plumbing came in, it was initially a huge disaster because the plumbing services it incorporated were meant for draining rainwater and dishwater instead of solid waste, and rivers like London’s Thames filled up with the stuff and became unbearable.

7. Just Being a Woman was Basically a Medical Problem


Sexism is obviously still with us, but not so much in a way that is fully endorsed by national medical communities. But since women traditionally were viewed first and foremost as babymakers, it was assumed that organs involved with reproduction had a disproportionate effect on their mental states, and this is not an attempt at cuteness. The New York Times reported a common story of how a woman in 1841 who swore and moved in suggestive ways was treated by having acid applied to her genitals and cold water pumped into her birth canal. Other cases involved such extremes as applying leeches to uteruses and applying bags of ice to crotches because the patient enjoyed fantasy novels and had attended parties in their teen years. There even was a Victorian-era medical report that a nymphomaniacal woman’s autopsy supposedly revealed that she had no cerebellum, though the supposed cause and effect relationship was unknown as the report was quite vague. Even the most misogynist reader today probably wouldn’t think mutilating genitals or the uterus is a scientifically sound treatment for the “malady” of having a strong sex drive!

6. Horse Manure


As if the human night soil wasn’t bad enough, those who have a soft spot for horses without ever directly interacting with them should learn just how horrible they were for cities. Put bluntly, in 1880, the one hundred and fifty thousand horses in New York City were generating as much as forty-five thousand tons of manure a month. It was so bad that in terms of spreading typhoid and other diseases spread by the flies that spawned from it, horse droppings were blamed for twenty thousand deaths a year. That’s as many as 880 major environmental disasters, including but not limited to hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes combined killed worldwide in 2013, and that’s just one city. That urine smell that’s so often associated with New York City these days doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

5. Inconvenient Architecture


This one is pretty mild compared to all the suffering and death associated with the other entries, but it’s still an illustrative and fundamental difference that wouldn’t even occur to us unless we visited old preserved buildings. See, it is commonly believed that people in the past were much shorter than we are today, one of the more cited reasons being that doors to houses used to be so much shorter than ours are now. But recent research as published in Bill Bryson’s At Home suggests that doors weren’t shorter because people were, but because it was cheaper to install a shorter door. It was similar to how windows in homes used to be much narrower and less frequent because windows were expensive investments. Even a deeply impoverished person living in a trailer park today probably will not think of a door tall enough that they don’t have to duck their head to walk into their home as luxury spending.

Now, back to the horrific entries.

4. Lack of Reliable Anesthetics


Since 1999, research has indicated that people derive more agony from anticipating pain than they do from actually being injured. So imagine how horrible it was for people to know weeks in advance that a major operation was going to be performed on them. Simply put, in ancient history, no hard evidence has surfaced of an equivalent to anesthesia being used, from tooth extractions to brain surgery. The natural fear of the surgery meant that it was much less used, so much so that over the course of twenty years, the Massachusetts General Hospital performed barely one surgery a month, until anesthetics came in during the mid 1840s. Those who did without, such as Lucy Thurston, who had a mastectomy in 1855 and was not anesthetized, wrote an account almost too painful to read (such details as her tissue being so tough that it tired the doctor’s hand to cut through it really stand out). Thankfully these days we don’t have to worry nearly so much about the procedure of being operated on, so much as the cost.

3. Entire Families Shared a Bed


In October 2015, it became national news that an entire Texas family slept together in an immense bed. It was felt that such parents must be either unhealthily smothering their children or that something indecent would be going on there. In the past, however, that sort of arrangement would have been considered pretty normal. It was common practice during the medieval era for the entire family to just put down some straw in the hall with a blanket over it, then all sleep together, which is an uncomfortable notion in every sense. Even into the 1800s, plenty of tenant homes had families of as many as eleven sleeping in the same room just because of the dearth of affordable living space.

2. Constant Crisis Level Pollution


People in Western countries have been appalled at how badly polluted cities in China have become, but in Victorian London that was just the order of the day. The amount of soot was so bad that the upper class who could afford it had to wash their hands extra times each day. In Regents Park, even people that did no hard labor could expect to see clothes go from white to black in mere days. London was hardly unique in that. In coal mining regions of Germany, pollution was so bad that in the 1930s, a regional school was closed for eighteen months until it cleared up. Hopefully this historical precedent indicates that change for the better is coming for China, though it likely will be a long and difficult process.

1. Regular Famines


Imagine living life where the deaths of millions of people in the most powerful countries is practically routine, that you knew within five to ten years, it was almost guaranteed that people in your neighborhood would starve to death. That was the fate facing peasants in Tsarist Russia prior to the 20th Century. In the British empire during the 19th century, there was a seventy-year stretch where every six years there was another major famine. Just one of those, the 1899 famine, killed five million people in India. Europe was for centuries hit by one every ten years.

Further bear in mind that often the cause of famine didn’t need to be a shortage of food brought about by failing crops (as it often isn’t now). Wars were very big contributors to famines since they took away many able bodied people from the farms, shipping routes, and all other aspects of putting food on people’s tables, and battles frequently destroyed farming countrysides, like during the Thirty Years War. How much worse would the famines that occur in Africa be if all the countries that might provide them aid were experiencing famines too.

See more of how much Dustin Koski would have hated living in the past by following him on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. While all these things show just how bad life was in the olden days, one of the things most missed were antibiotics. You could die from a small cut or broken blister that got infected. President Coolidge’s son died from an infected broken blister.