eminiscing about the “good old days” amid a flurry of activities, fast-approaching article deadlines, and a tightly pinched schedule sometimes floats to the top of my favorite pastimes. Lifestyles 150 years ago must have been so much more relaxed, simpler, more enjoyable, I often muse. Maybe I was born too late.
And I find I’m not alone in my occasional obsession with the past.
Based, perhaps, on the theory that less is more, a belief in “how much better things used to be” is rampant. A monthly magazine called Good Old Days describes its mission as “remember[ing] the best of times” via “feature stories and photos of the good old days of 1900 through 1949.”1 The Good Old Days Resort in Montello, Wisconsin, draws guests by advertising slow-paced activities such as “great fishing,” boat rentals, and a sandy beach—though the prices are contemporary. There is even a Good Ol’ Days festival held each year in the town of Fort Scott, Kansas.
George R. Knight, however, in his book Ellen White’s World2 debunks the rosy perceptions some of us may have with days gone by. Bluntly stating that “the good old days weren’t nearly as good as nostalgia would make them,” Knight notes that in 1800 the average life expectancy at birth was 32. Rising to 50 by 1900, and 67 by 1950, it eventually reached the current age of 79. Why the change? Knight’s answers seem mind-boggling:
• Surgeries were performed without anesthesia until the technique came into more common use in the United States in the late 1800s. “In the days without anesthesia speed was of the essence,” writes Knight. “It is said that army surgeons in the Civil War could lop off a leg in 40 seconds.”
• To cure a disease or illness, physicians would “drain a pint or two or more of blood from the patient’s body. Purging the body generally followed. . . . This was done through the administration of powerful drugs . . . which we now know to be extremely poisonous.”
• Extensive study wasn’t required for an individual to become a physician. “A person could go to a diploma mill for four to eight months to imbibe the medical ‘wisdom’ of the day and then set up practice.”
• Most people seldom bathed. “Some authorities claim that average Americans of the 1830s never took a bath during their entire life.” In 1855, Knight says, New York City had only 1,361 bathtubs for its 629,904 residents.
• People’s diets were rich in meat, desserts, and highly spiced foods. Fruits and vegetables were deemed unhealthful.
• “As for garbage, Americans had no system for processing it. Most of it ended up in the street for the free-running hogs to root in. New York City of the 1840s had thousands of unchaperoned hogs to help care for the problem.” He added that “the omnipresent horse droppings oozed in the generally unpaved streets in wet weather and were pulverized to highly flavored dust that blew everywhere in dry.”
Although I’m sure that more idyllic experiences also took place in former centuries, these vivid images have done much to disturb my mental vacations into the past—but not into the future.
God’s Word tells us that we have a new world to look forward to that is beyond anything we can imagine—a place where there will be no more sorrow or pain, no more destruction or hate. We will never again be separated by death from those we love, and best of all, we will be able to spend eternity in peace and safety with our Savior and best Friend, Jesus.
We can’t find perfection in looking to the past history of this old world, but we can by looking to the future God has planned for us. The day will come when our lives will no longer be ruled by schedules and deadlines or even by fear, but by kindness and affection and love.
How more idyllic can it get than that?
2George R. Knight, Ellen White’s World (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Md.), pp. 30-34.
Sandra Blackmer is news editor of Adventist Review