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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Good Old Days

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, January 04, 2015

 

As we get older, we have a tendency to view the past in warm tones of remembrance for all the things that are gone today, yet remain in our memory as a positive reflection on the “way things used to be.”

 

“The Good Old Days” is a term often applied to a bygone era when life was simpler and easier and everyone’s grandparents were wonderful people that left an indelible memory to be shared forever.

 

The advantage of working in a library is that you are always “bumping into interesting books” in the course of a regular day-at-the-desk.

 

One such recent book caught my eye as the subject had been a recent topic of discussion --- “The Good Old Days – They were terrible!” by Otto L. Bettmann.  First published in 1974, it has been reissued and updated by various editors several times.

 

The author is the founder of the Bettmann Archive in New York, one of the world’s great picture libraries.  Its resources, exceeding three million prints and photographs, are used worldwide by publishers, educators, and advertising agencies in the media.

 

A rare book curator, Bettmann had the opportunity to see a vast array of literature over his lifetime and became fascinated with our ability to remember the great moments of history while ignoring the terrible events.

 

He says that the term “Good Old Days” was originally assigned to the American time period between the Civil War and the beginning of the 1900s, otherwise called the Gilded Age and the Gay Nineties.

 

He contends that the old days were for the privileged few while the masses experienced unrelenting hardship.  In our nostalgic books, the crises are ignored and the period’s dirty business is swept under-the-rug.  The author divides the subject into 11 chapters of dreary tales.

 

Rural life is remembered as a sun-filled kitchen where Aunt Polly keeps saying “Landsakes!” as she dished out huge portions of food to the happy family.  In reality, the females of the family slaved over a never-ending fire cooking whatever hadn’t “gone bad” from the lack of preservation.

 

Laundry consisted of hours of beating, rinsing, and wringing before it hopefully fluttered dry in all kinds of weather.  My grandmother recounted the excitement of a gasoline-power washing machine that sat on the back porch until it danced it way off the porch and dumped its load into the muddy yard.

 

How about the memory of that delicious water that came from the dug well in the yard?  In reality, more cases of water poisoning came from these wells which were often within sight of the barnyard, chicken coop, pigsty, and cesspool.

 

While we are concerned about today food supply, the meat packing industry went through it greatest review in this same time period as preservation methods were lacking.  The canning industry brought the hope of preservation, but lead seals and acid content did little to provide safe food.

 

Harper’s Magazine did several stories in the 19th century regarding American’s food which included indigestible hot bread, tough beefsteaks, and greasy potatoes.  Charles Dickens described American eating habits as a “reduction in a heap of food laid upon the table as if a famine were to set in tomorrow morning.”

 

Health was another issue.  The Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1878 killed over five thousand people.  Quarantines were common as diseases raced through communities, and the common spraying of carbolic acid only killed more people.

 

Surgical methods were nonexistent and often the procedure did more damage that the problem they were trying to solve.  When I had appendicitis at age 9, my grandmother proclaimed that it was good that I hadn’t live 50 years earlier as I would have died.

 

I will leave the rest of Bettmann’s book to your own reading as you desire, and I will admit that there are good memories of the old days.

 

I do remember my grandfather’s story of going to pick up his father-in-law for Sunday dinner on the farm, and he was excited to drive his new 1919 Model T Ford for the first time, instead of taking the horse and buggy.

 

His father-in-law was apprehensive, and suggested he could ride the horse instead, but got in the motorized vehicle and rattled down the road.  They went in the ditch twice in the 3 mile drive, and he said the smoke from the car was worse than the smell of a horse.

 

Arriving at the house, my grandfather proudly pointed to the brand new garage which housed the car, because “you just can’t put the car in the barn with the critters.”  As he said that, he pulled into the new garage and failing to remember where the brake was, drove right through the back of the garage wall.

 

The old man went into the house and told his daughter, “I’m not hungry anymore; I just want to sit and rest.”