The Good Old Days

Ryan Avent at the Economist gets my nostalgia award for the day with this romanticized dreck:

But turn again to those living 100 or 500 years ago. How would they have viewed civilisation today? Think of all the animals, languages, and societies that have since gone extinct. Modern lives might seem like a vision of hell. The coastal, urban corridor along which I live now is horribly changed from its condition a century ago. Those of us who live along it spend the vast majority of our time indoors and only rarely glimpse anything that could honestly be called nature. The food we eat is highly processed and often unidentifiable as one plant or animal versus another. Many of us rarely see many of our close friends and family, and communicate with them only through the tinny interfaces of our electronic devices. “Some life!”, a resident of the past might conclude. Yet how many of us would switch places with those who lived centuries ago? A century from now, much more of the world will likely have been despoiled. Humans might live in underground bunkers eating lab-grown meat. But who’s to say they won’t prefer their lot to ours?

A reader at the Economist thread tells Avent this is “possibly the dumbest thing you have ever written” and asks:

Have you never read an account of life back in the 1500s? Your teeth would be rotten. Probably would go your entire life without eating a banana. Raw sewage sloshing around in the streets, constantly added to by the emptying of chamber pots and horses crap. Reading by candlelight, if one was even literate and had access to books. Indoor pollution would be horrible, with heat provided by a poorly ventilated fireplace. Bed bugs and other creatures would be the norm. The food would be absolutely disgusting and monotonous. Would own probably, what, 2 pairs of clothes, made of burlap? One would probably never travel more than a 50 mile radius in one’s entire lifetime, and travel, when it did occur, would be via stagecoach over horribly bumpy and potholed roads. I could go on.

Modern day life is quite literally heaven compared to the life of centures past, which was — as Hobbes famously put it — nasty, brutish and short. I’d be surprised if even a single person outside of royalty wouldn’t trade places with your average American.


48 Responses to “The Good Old Days”

  1. Sashka says:

    A pile of dreck.

  2. Mary says:

    *This* is exactly why people want the doom to hit the fan. They have this romanticized view of the simplicity of the past, and think they might get it back. Food scarcity, food-borne illness, infectious disease–er…no thanks
    It’s a veneer of sepia-toned cluelessness. Incredibly naive. And not a bit of grasp of the actual historical context. I blame the foodies for this (in part).

  3. Anteros says:

    I have no idea whether that is the dumbest thing Avent has written, but if it isn’t I’d pay money to read something dumber. I think the riposte from the Economist reader is spot on.
    Two things leapt out at me – firstly the ignorance about food. To always have food is something of a modern luxury and to say “The food we eat is highly processed and often unidentifiable as one plant or animal versus another.” is obscene. Why don’t you go out and buy a dozen different fresh vegetables every day? Fresh fruit 365 days a year? When Louis 16th was the richest man in the world, he had the choice of 43 different meals each day. In my country we can easily beat that on the minimum wage. To get an idea of the ‘cuisine’ of 500 years ago take a quick visit to sub-Saharan Africa today. For many a million, a bowl of Ugali – mashed grain – is a full meal. In our past here in England the one thing that would accompany you through each winter was boiled cabbage, which was lucky for those with no teeth and bleeding gums.
    The other thing is that if the population of 5 centuries ago had a glimpse at our lives today they might, with time, get a grasp of the fact that paradise could exist – that all their dreams could come true. What they would never believe is that human beings could be living in paradise and yet still be whining about the ‘struggling biomes’ and the poor polar bears. It just wouldn’t make any sense.

  4. Matt B says:

    Most of his article is nonsense, but not all:

    I’ve become far less confident about our ability to accurately describe possible outcomes more than a decade out. Correspondingly, I’ve become increasingly sceptical of the value of analyses of decisions now that attempt to assess the costs and benefits of action over horizons any longer than a decade…..

    Welcome to the party, pal!

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Mary (2)

    There used to be a school of (anti-technology) enviros that pined for those idyllic times. You’re saying foodies have picked up the baton?

  6. The Economist Intelligent Life recently asked: “If you could travel back in time, what would be your destination?”
    They realized the silliness of the question:

    For us, the question needs a little more thought. Anyone who dislikes pain, prefers their operations under anaesthetic, and has no wish to die of smallpox, might well choose to live now. We can balance that by awarding ourselves perpetual good health, but it’s harder to level the playing field when it comes to gender. Not many modern women, however frustrated with their lot, would choose to go back to long skirts, tight corsets and a general assumption that they are stupid. The same may apply to any European who isn’t white, and to anyone in the less affluent three-quarters of society. My children once went on a school trip to Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington’s home. I thought they were going to learn about lords; instead they were taught what it was like being a servant. Transport most of us to ancient Rome and we’ll find ourselves in a poorhouse or slave barracks. To give our question a chance, we have to assume that we can do our time travel, if not first-class, then in premium economy, switching genders if we feel like it, to land somewhere moderately comfortable.”

  7. Mary says:

    @Keith: oh yes. But it’s part of a Venn diagram, where foodies (including slow foodies) overlap highly with enviros anyway. There’s also overlap with the alt-med crowd. And the doomers.
    But this whole Pollan-esque don’t eat what your grandmother wouldn’t recognized as food meme makes my head asplode. Well–half of my grandmothers siblings were dead. What did they eat? Is that really what we want to aim for? I think we can do better. 
    Perhaps I was too deeply affected by that degree in microbiology. I don’t think the natural world is all gentle and kumbayah. I am pretty sure it would kill you if it could.

  8. Keith Kloor says:

    Thank for sharing, Roger. All that stuff about small pox and equal rights is on point, but for me, it all comes down to modern dentistry. 🙂

    Maybe the next time Avent has a toothache, he can wax nostalgic about how it might have been treated a century ago, much less 500 years ago. 

  9. Jarmo says:

    This drivel made me shudder. How ignorant can people be?

    Just think about child mortality. Half of your children dead by the age of 20. Parasites, like tapeworm, everywhere. Any common disease could kill you just like that. Women must really miss those times when one step off the righteous path could mean marriage or lifelong humiliation.

    I guess seeing big trees, wolves and bears, getting milk straight from the udders of a cow, making your own cheese and eating all the stuff fresh (or not so fresh because there were no fridges) made it better 🙂

  10. Stu says:

    Did anyone watch the Madmen series? Some of the stuff in that show made me cringe and that was only 50 years ago. 

  11. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Epic fantasy readers that are familiar with Steven Erikson might find his reaction to Derrick Jensen’s Endgame of interest.  Does a pretty good job of demolishing the idea of the returning to better pre-industrial times.

  12. Alexander Harvey says:

    I would go happily into the past providing I could pick a place where they were not prone to hang or burn people for their ideas.
    I would go back with the advantage of knowledge. A new Leonardo, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Galileo, a Pasteur, a Semmelweis, Edison or Watt.
    A chance or even a half chance to be a benefactor on that scale would be, well to die for. People of that class typically fared reasonably well and I would forego a decade or two to have the chance to attempt to advance the lot of so many.
    Perhaps the relevent question is, when would one wish to have been born. Well I, like many, would wish to be young again so perhaps recently enough to be young now. I should like to mature with this century and see it largely through.

  13. Anteros says:

    Alex –
    Until you added your interesting POV, we had a pretty much unanimous thread! I agree with you about liking the idea of seeing how the century pans out, but I suspect that is just a function of being a particular age. If I was my age 50 years ago I’d have been really keen to see the unfolding of the space age…

  14. hunter says:

    Since I am in recovery from surgery to remove an infected gall bladder, perhaps I am more sensitive than usual about the sort of misanthropic lying bs represented in Avent’s idiocratic essay. Without modern tech, I would dead by now, having died an agonizing extended bit of suffering from septicemia, which would have progressively killed my organs. thank all thatis god for modern medicine, which is only available because of the industrial age and modern pharmaceuticals, chemical engineering and communications.
     The level of historical illiteracy it takes to wax fondly about pre-industrial days is truly astounding. Chrichton profiled this sort of idiot rather well in his wonderful “Climate of Fear”. Especially when the hollywood star posing as an environmentalist learns more about S. Sea Island menus and eating habits than he could have possibly imagined.  

  15. Louise says:

    Hi hunter – I never thought I would say this but I agree with you 100%.

    Hope you have a speedy recovery and are home in time for Xmas.

  16. Jarmo says:


    A New Shakespeare?? Hope you know somebody’s writing by heart.

    For Christmas reading, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court might be a good idea! 

  17. EdG says:

    On top of all the other absurdities pointed out by previous commenters there is this beauty, which applies most obviously to this writer’s 100 year view:

    “turn again to those living 100… years ago…. Think of all the animals… that have since gone extinct”

    OK. I’m thinking. And in the area which I am most familiar with, that is a very, very short list.

    In North America 100-125 years ago there was a real extinction crisis with many well known species at all time historic lows. The list is endless. Even white-tailed deer were extremely rare and local. Now, thanks to the conservation movement which was born back then (not to be confused with the modern environmental movement which emerged in the Age of Aquarius), there is more wildlife than the people 100 years ago could ever dream of.

    I could go on at great length on specifics here but time is short so I’ll just leave one classic example which illustrates this history and how and why things turned around: the black bears of New Jersey. 

    Yes, this piece sure doesn’t help the credibility of the once rather credible Economist.

  18. harrywr2 says:

    My wife looks after a woman born in 1911.
    Her description of ‘life as a child’ is always the same.
    It was really bad then.

  19. hunter says:

    @15 Louise,
     I am equally surprised at our agreement, and happily so. Thank you for your kind wishes. I have gotten home and now am working on getting my stamina back. Thanks to the evil age we live in, I was able to go from ER admission to surgery to home in a bit over 48 hours. Finding out what they do to one’s body during laproscopic surgery is certainly humbling, lol.

  20. harrywr2 says:

    If I was my age 50 years ago I’d have been really keen to see the unfolding of the space age”¦
    And you would have been treated with such educational wonders as ‘duck and cover’ and ‘what to do in case of a nuclear attack’.
    Putting astronauts atop rockets was just a ‘palatable’ way to spend a lot of money on R&D for building ICBM’s with multi-megaton warheads.
    My earliest memory of a ‘father-son’ project was in October 1962. My father worked at a defense plant and came home early from work with an ashen look on his face. We rushed to the local ‘building supply’ store and bought all the concrete cinder blocks that would fit in the car. We them preceded to build a cinder block ‘fort’ in our basement and filled it with all of our canned food and everything that would hold water. My father was a patient man by nature. That was the only time he ever told me to ‘just shut up and do as your told’.
    Growing up with the space program was indeed an excellent adventure. Growing up with a nuclear arms race was not.

  21. Arthur Smith says:

    Keith, I thought you had reformed, but here you go completely misrepresenting (or perhaps just misunderstanding) once again.
    How many people reading your post here could square the statement you quoted (out of context) with Avent’s follow-up statement: ” Preserving the earth as it is isn’t a worthy goal; preserving growth in living standards is.”??
    Avent’s point is actually a very interesting one – what he was trying to point out was there have been losses that people of past centuries might miss, but there have also been tremendous gains that they could not possibly have anticipated. From their perspective, presented only with the loss, they’d prefer to stay where they are. Is it the same for us, presented with the prospect of losses from climate change, without being aware of the tremendous gains that (might? or might not?) go along with it? The whole article is about our inability to predict the future very far ahead.
    At least you linked to Avent’s piece, I thought it was actually quite good (coming from an Economist economist at least)…

  22. Keith Kloor says:


    It’s always a curious thing to be lectured to by you. Also, I link to every piece I quote from or reference, unlike some bloggers who are more interesting in propagandizing. I do that so people can actually read the full post themselves.

    Glad you did that, and glad to see you’re still reading me. I thought you stopped a long time ago. 🙂

  23. Alexander Harvey says:

    Jarmo #16:
    There is a real difference between “a” Shakespeare and Shakespeare.
    Knowledge of four more centuries of drama thrown back to before they were, would give advantage to a humble wit.

  24. Alexander Harvey says:


  25. Alexander Harvey says:

    From Hobbes Leviathan:
    “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every
    man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
    Hobbes’ consideration of the consequences of a particularly failed state of society. I presume it is in contrast to the consequences of the ordered state. If this were the commonplace why mention it. Anyway I think it is worth reading in context.
    From my presumption I move quickly to anecdote.
    We have looked into a family genealogy that dates back to Hobbes time. Such effort has to be treated cautiously as it is the history of survival. Even so with care patterns can be found.
    In terms of the life expectancy at birth, the “short” is well born out. High infant mortality, particularly neo-natal, pretty well sees to that. Female adult deaths from childbirth and disease (in the marshlands) lowers their life expectancy relative to males, who actually do quite well in the rural areas, as in 50-80 yet the longest survivors tending to be women.
    The marsh men, all shepherds, born and bred in the ague infested coastal pasture, tended to find wives elsewhere, bring them home where they promptly died. The local ague is thought likely to have been malarial. To have had as many wives as living offspring seems to have been par for the course and that could mean half a dozen.
    With fairly momotonous regularity women bore children every year after marriage (or a little earlier) and after a child that died within a few months, after a successful weaning the next child was two years from the last. This if survived could last from her teens until her 40s or early 50s much as now, yes that really is a lot of pregnancies.
    Interestingly, besides the ague which only refered to the marshes, few rural adults died of epidemic disease or any noted disease, old age sometimes a little premature seems to have been popular.
    The townsfolk did not fair so well. They appear latter in the record and had shorter lives and their deaths did tend to the nasty (cholera) and brutal (accidental, industrial, criminal).
    I found it interesting that a few but significant advances or simply better understanding could have made such a difference, namely the care of the very young, care in childbirth, sanitation, and staying away from the infected areas. These are not minor matters but are not rocket science in the same way that much of modern medicine is.
    The genealogy was pretty thorough and quite large (a few thousand births and matched deaths and few loose ends) mostly the labouring and frequently itinerant poor with few land owners. But it needs to be emphasised that ancestors are more likely to be found to come from families that fared well.
    Sadly it was commonly the case of women and children first. If that had not been so then life expectancies would not have been that much different to fifty years ago. A little could have gone a long way to improve their lot. Modern medicine has moved us on and added perhaps a decade to the end of life and the life expectancy at birth is perhaps twice what it was in Hobbes day, but the vast improvement seems to have come from the single factor of reducing child mortality from nearly 1 out of 2.
    I think that the issues for the women were rather more significant than long dresses and corsets.
    The 19th Century, with the migration to the towns was a bit of a black spot seeing as it did an increase in the death of adult males before their time and families being hit by lethal epidemics. Perhaps the nadir of the “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” Hobbes described.
    This saga seems similar to the hope and sometime success in the third world where so much can be achieved cheaply and sometimes from large benefits that are quite low-tech, e.g. rehydration sachets and bed nets.
    So what have I said, in Hobbes day through to 1900, a county in country with a large rural population had significant issues but I think not the issues that seemed to have leapt so vivdly into some minds. I can see no logical reason nor evidence that the rural poor habitually wallowed in their own filth nor the expected across the spectrum deaths from epidemics that occured with the move to the cities. The rural poor still exist at similar or lower levels of development and they understand the need to defecate according to customs that do not pollute their lives.
    But there does seem to be one bugbear and that is poverty which also entered the record in the 19th Century. Prior to that, although mostly rural labourers they do not seem to have been poor. No paupers graves. Church services for baptisms, marriages, and funerals are recorded and they were not free unless noted. The rise of the workhouse and the institional poor came later.
    I am not painting a rural idyll just saying that “around these parts it weren’t no Dickensian hell-hole neither”.

  26. DeNihilist says:

    Richard Rose “there are only three truths in life, Love, Hate and Nostalgia”

  27. Jarmo says:


    In addition to knowing the storylines, you need to have the “word magic”. For instance, I remember Macbeth’s soliloquay (Act 4) by heart because of the language (Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets upon his hour on the stage, and then is heard no more). The basic idea that life is meaningless shit and then you die, beautifully expressed.

    Then the context: Writing a book like “Les Miserables” in the 16th century would have probably gotten you in prison because of the ideas expressed.   



  28. Menth says:

    @11 Marlowe

    Great link, thanks for sharing.

    I can’t remember how I stumbled across Derrick Jensen in the first place but I find him a fascinating case study of modern alienation and ultimately I feel sympathy for him. I recall reading somewhere that he was abused as a child, I can’t help but think his misanthropic views are a product of this in some degree.

    “Our quarrel with the world is an echo of the endless quarrel proceeding within us.”

  29. Menth says:

    @25 Alex

    Interesting post. As you are evidently very knowledgeable about this i think it’s likely you could give a good answer to this: was there ever forced migration to the cities? Assuming that there largely wasn’t and given your description of rural life being no worse than the Dickensian cities, why did people migrate there? If it was voluntary, then what would impel someone to go? Not enough land? Genuinely curious.

    I suppose the modern parallel would be China; people leaving the rice paddy to put iPhones together for s*it pay and smoggy air.

  30. Tom C says:

    Mary –

    Congrats on a nice line:

    “It’s a veneer of sepia-toned cluelessness”

    I can imagine some justification for wanting to live in a past epoch, but it would have to revolve around something like the religious outlook or pace of life or some such atmospheric.  To think that one would want to go back in time to enjoy some missing species is weird in the extreme.  Zoos were likely few and far between.

  31. Alexander Harvey says:

    Very knowledgable about an anecdote. 🙂
    Yours is a good question.
    I do not have a regional population data, but for the country (England) the population in very round numbers increased by 50%  1750-1800 and then doubled 1800-1850 and doubled again 1850-1900.
    Looks awfully like the period of the Industrial Revolution.
    I doubt that people were driven from the land (e.g. clearances), the classic agriculture is fruit, vegetables and sheep and they were still labour intensive in my time but seasonal. There is evidence of intinerant working, siblings baptised in many different parishes. Improvements in transportation, coupled to the growing urban population, and the birth of the railways encouraged seasonal fruit pickers to invade the rural area, but perhaps the bigger numbers were the travelers, notably from Ireland but also from continental Europe.
    Somehow amongst all this the national population took off as did urbanisation, interestingly Malthus, right time, and general vicinity, wrote about the tendency of population growth to impoverish and be self-limiting. A big distortion in this case would be the proximity to London.  The huge rate of the population increase must suggest improvements in infant survival per woman, it cannot have been people living longer. Why such an improvement? I don’t know. Someone may have worked out if was a rural population push or a urban pull. I have looked through a couple of papers. It seems that rural infant mortality ~1800 was lower than in market towns, urban cities, and amongst the aristocracy, and nobody is sure why the poor out performed the rich.
    Here commences one paper’s conclusion for developed countries:
    “Over the last three or four centuries, child mortality has fallen
    dramatically. In developed countries, this transition from high to low mortality is essentially complete; whereas prior to the decline, a child had only about a 60 percent chance of surviving to age five, today a newborn has better than a 99 percent chance of reaching age five. The decline occurred through reduced exposure to pathogens, largely as a result initially of public health measures,
    and later as a result of living in a healthier population, through improved nutrition and reduced crowding, and through specific medical preventive and therapeutic interventions. As the decline has progressed, the medical effects have become increasingly important.”
    This seems little more than listing all conceivable causes. In the text it ponders why the very rural (presumed poor and less well nourished) should have fared better than the urban and aristocratic (rich). Other things mentioned were knowledge (well there’s a thought) and climatic change. Whatever it seems to have started before it ought, it does not lack behind progress nor modern medicine.
    I have half been expecting someone to pick up the ague (thought to be malaria), why would that have disappeared from these chilly but warming shores? It seems that we just got smart and drained the marshes.

  32. harrywr2 says:

    #13 Alexander Harvey
    It seems that rural infant mortality ~1800 was lower than in market towns, urban cities, and amongst the aristocracy, and nobody is sure why the poor out performed the rich.
    The idea that doctors etc should sterilize their hands between patient examinations didn’t exist until 1847. Hospitals and health care clinics were great ideas allowing trained healthcare providers to treat more patients in the same amount of time.
    As with many ‘new  ideas’ the ‘unintended consequences’ didn’t get recognized for quite some time.

  33. Anteros says:

    Menth & Alex –
    It’s a while since I studied it, but my recollection of early Industrial Revolution migration is that it was primarily an economic choice. We have a vision of long hours for low pay in dangerous conditions in factories – with unhygienic and cramped living conditions at home. The common explanation of the time was ‘It sure beats the hell out of farm life’.
    There may have been greater mortality for a number of reasons – some mentioned above – but my guess is that our romantic delusions about the past are most extreme when we think about the rural idyll. It was perhaps often a toss up between rotting to death and starving to death.
    For all our supposed intelligence, even up until the 19th century, it was an incredible struggle to keep the level of death below the level of birth. Think of the end of the Greenland colony. A couple of degrees change in temperature [cooling!] the absence of some trading ships and they all starved to death one by one. I think for many people, factory life was a taste of paradise.

  34. Menth says:

    @33 Agreed.

  35. BBD says:

    Anteros @ 33
    A rare point of agreement. 
    I gather that rural India is heading for the cities as fast as it can, for exactly the same reasons. Stewart Brand and others have pointed out that what we see as a ‘slum’ or ‘shanty town’ is perceived by many of it’s inhabitants as a half-way house between the prospectless prison of rural existence and the opportunities for change, emancipation (women) and opportunity offered by the city.

  36. EdG says:

    I too agree with the above comments and the variety of factors discussed show that this process was more complicated than some might imagine – as usual.

    One other factor that plays a role today, and presumably then also, was psychological. Cities are interesting and stimulating while, for most people, the rural life, while ‘blissful’ in some ways, is boring. 

    I am not one of those people who finds (modern) rural life boring but most of the people I know who did choose to live in a city did so as much for the buzz of city life as for the economic reasons. This modern North American perspective lacks the harsh contrast to the intense drudgery in the historic or Third World countryside but I suspect that it also played a role throughout history. People are people. 


  37. Louise says:

    EdG – I’ve been researching my family tree. In 1850s, two of my great, great (etc) uncles worked down a coal mine (says the 1851 census). One was a pony driver (aged 14) and one was a door-trapper (age 12). I looked up what a ‘door-trapper’ was – a young boy who sat in the dark for 12 hours at a time opening and closing doors when the ponies and drivers needed to be let through (the door was an attempt to prevent blasts, etc). Hardly exciting city life.

    I have read that increased mechanisation led to fewer people needed to work the land, hence the move to cities, rather than lifestyle choice.

  38. David JP says:

    “The coastal, urban corridor along which I live now is horribly changed from its condition a century ago.”
    Really?  Horribly changed he says?  Sorry, I don’t believe it.  Some changes are horrible, but not every change is.
    I live in a newer home (<15 years old) in an older section of the suburbs near Denver Colorado, not far from where my wife was born.  Around here I can see throughout the year:
    coyotes, racoons, foxes, snakes, small rodents not yet identified due to their speed, skunks, squirrels, lots of birds including bald eagles, praying mantis, dragonflies, parasitic wasps, and strange looking leaf bugs.
    Perhaps all it takes is the proper perspective to see what this/your world has to offer?  I’d recommend reading this essay:
    As someone who has had life long health problems that would have resulted in death anywhere else, or at any time in our past; I’m very happy to be living right now.
    Keith, I hope the above link gets published

  39. DeNihilist says:

    Alex @ 31,

    I believe I can answer your query as to why rural births had a better prospect of survival. Sanitation! The rural homes had dig-outs, or outhouses, within which to deposit their crap (literally!). It wasn’t until the invention of modern plumbing, with waste pipes buried under ground that the urbanites were spared the tragedy of horrid dis-ease.

  40. Eli Rabett says:

    Sex before AIDS was less of a crap shoot, airtravel before 9-11 less of a hassle.  Win some, lose some, no going back

  41. Alexander Harvey says:

    Hi all,
    Whilst not replying here, for which I apologise, I have been spending tht time to find some of the bits of this puzzle. It has been interesting.
    Some clues can be found in the English/Welsh Poor Laws and associated material. I have come across some stuff I wasn’t taught in school and had very little idea of. I came a across a wonderous metric for the diagnosis of poverty, a definition of the bread-line.
    It was developed by a meeting of JP (Magistrates) at the Pelcan Inn, Public House in the village of Speen, Berkshire at the end of the 18th Century. It set up the essential level of subsistance required to ensure stability and prevent riots (revolution was a known threat in those times). It was part of a social model and set not just a minimum wage but a family allowance to cater for wives and children. It was but one of many changes in the relationship between citizens that commenced many centuries before. It is called the Speenhamland System and defined necessity not in terms of income but of sustenance, in particular half peck loaves of second bread.
    Half Peck = 1 Gallon
    (requiring 7lbs of ground wheat)
    Second Bread = made from second flour
    (millers produced different grades of flour)
    The requirement was for three such loaves per week for an adult male. The system looked at current prices of bread and converted this into the equivalent wage.
    This system has historical merit in that it has been used to compare the lot of people from much earlier periods and until the end of the 19th Century. I believe by that time the linkage between the price of bread and subjective prosperity breaks down (see below). I will use (SA) for the single male’s Speenhamland allowance.
    There is data to show that the average English labourer in the middle of the 15th Century earned ~6SA, so not prosperous but not in poverty and compares quite well with a handloom weaver ~1800 when such weavers were in demand (~7SA). Then something interesting happens, mill workers (automated weaving) who got jobs in the new mills were a little better off (~8SA), those that remained independent weavers dropped to (~1.2SA) which is close to the breadline or worse if they had dependents, that takes us upto ~1850. Then something more dramatic seems to happen, by ~1865 wages across a band from semi-skilled, skilled craftsman/artisan dropped to around 1/6 their mid 15th Century levels (~1SA for a labourer/ ~1.6SA for an crafteman).  This decline happens to coincide with Dicken’s literary output.
    1 SA was sufficient to allow a labourer to toil and not lose weight (that was the consideration made at the time). It seems that at some stage industrialisation resulted in the aveage lot being reduced to desperate levels. I have seen figures that ~30% of London was in poverty. I think this means absolute poverty, the Victorians set the poverty level rather low one proposed level (Rowntree) was latter shown to only represent ~1/3 of what was essential to maintain the poor in poverty.
    This seems to make sense (of some things) yet make little sense. It seems we have an area during which the wealth of the nation grew enormously (the Industrial Revolution and Empire) coupled with levels of poverty that seem severe compared to the situation at the end of the mediaeval period. We also seem to have this wealth initially feeding though to urban factory workers but then a collapse in well-being of a signifiacnt proportion of the inhabitants of England’s largest city (the figures I have found indicate no more than that) about half way through the period.
    It seems that this state of affiars was deliberately turned around and quite quickly (~40 years), and general levels of sustenance were returned to late mediaelval levels by the time of WWI. That is not to say the people had the limitted livestyle of those 450 years earlier, this was modest living but with cheap factory made shirts and socks etc.
    I will dig a little more but it seems that urban life was a bright idea during the time of the first half of the revolution but that life at the level of the semi-skilled and craftsman declined generally and severely after that and may have given rise to the Dickensian hell-hole I pondered on above. I also mentioned that this new poverty has not limited to the citiy but affected the rural population as well.
    Now this is all too neat for it to really explain how Londoners (commonly Eastender’s) ended up in the state they did, but it could show that they moved in when it seemed sensible, and were overtaken by events.
    Time for “A Christmas Carol”.

  42. Lewis Deane says:

    Yes, but if you were very rich…? How much we have externalised poverty! Internationalised it. Made it other. And foreign! It is naive and somewhat sickening that people might believe that teeth aren’t still rotting.

    If I had my choice I’d rather suffer the real stench of the fifteen hundreds than the unreal stench of now!

    But then I’d need nerves and soul. 

  43. harrywr2 says:

    How much we have externalised poverty
    Please describe how one would ‘externalize’ poverty?


  44. John Brookes says:

    Alexander Harvey, nicely said!

    You’ve made me wonder how poverty sprang up from plenty, and what were the necessary changes in social organisation and thinking which allowed it to happen.  Do you know any good books on these changes? 

  45. Eli Rabett says:

    “Please describe how one would “˜externalize’ poverty?”

    Impoverish others
    Works for the 1%

  46. Alexander Harvey says:

    John #44:
    Sorry I do not know. It is an aspect of history that has bugged me for a long time in fact since school. I am sure that there will be an alternative view to the history that I learnt but that might slant towards left-wing propaganda. I think that the mechanism should be found in John Smith if one knew all the forces that came into play.
    My suspicion, and the next place I will look, is that the growing importance of Empire, and specifically India, is an important detail.
    I think that theory suggests that the industrialisation should not of itself have causes an issue. It generated a prosperity that should have propagated and new increasingly valuable jobs should have been generated. My suspicion is that it was not that a large group were no longer required as a labour force but that they were no longer required as consumers or tax payers. They had become surplus to requirements. The Empire was a new and vast marketplace of both consumers and for raw materials and an important tax base. Britain could effectively impose its goods on the Empire and did. So far this is my speculation but I will look into it.
    That is not all of it. There was legislation that hampered the ability for workers to organise. In the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs the application law was notably draconian.
    A bit of the puzzle that doesn’t fit relates specifically to London. The capitol was notably hostile to industrialisation and had a penchant for burning down factories (Albion Mills which produced flour and a large saw mill). Protectionism was a strong force which lasted till the death of Fleet Street with the demise of the printer’s chapel system. This may fit in with another change, the new railways which invigorated the internal market a sort of globalisation of their day.
    I am dealing at the level of anecdote and I will add a bit of fiction. I did read “A Christmas Carol” and Bob Cratchit, a clerk on 15/- a week with one working daughter and a son with a prospect for an additional 5/6, living in a four room house would seem to fit in as a member of the struggling lower middle class not what I would call the working poor.

  47. Alexander Harvey says:

    Oops Freudian slip,
    I should have been thinking of Adam Smith and not the brewer.

  48. Menth says:

    @Alexander Harvey
    If I may recommend an interesting book on economic history:
    The author also has a very interesting book about the history of trade.

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