All Commentary
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Nightmare of Living in the Past

Life Has Never Been Better — Especially for Women

Swedish doctor Hans Rosling loads a washing machine with laundry on stage at the beginning of his TED talk. When his talk is over, he returns to the washer and pulls out … books.

His presentation, “The Magic Washing Machine,” is about how this one example of consumer technology is far more than a convenience. By mechanizing the arduous process of doing the household laundry, the washing machine gave women back all of the many hours they spent washing, agitating, and wringing out clothes by hand.

With a machine to do the wash, Rosling’s mother had time to read to him and to learn English. That’s what the books he pulled out represented: the age-old opportunity cost of doing laundry the old-fashioned way.

Telling Stories

Over the last few years, I’ve written a lot about how much better life is today than at any time in the past. It’s pretty easy to make that case with a variety of economic data, but data never seem to pack the punch that I wish they could. What’s more effective are presentations like Rosling’s. He provides an incredibly powerful visual image to demonstrate what economic development has done for women both historically and across the globe.

But it’s just one example of how stories can convey, so much better than raw data can, the human effects of the increased living standards that market-driven innovation has provided us.

Life in 1900

A more extended version of Rosling’s point can be found in the BBC and PBS series 1900 House. Produced in 1999, the series refit a suburban London house to how it would have been in 1900, complete with outdoor toilet and no central heating or other modern appliances. Families auditioned for the show, which would require them to live in the house for 90 days as if it were 1900 London.

The series allows us to do something that economic data do not: more directly experience what it was actually like to live in the past. We get to watch as the mom and older girls strap themselves into corsets everyday. We see them struggle with getting their range to heat up to provide them with hot water. We hear their frustration as they try to cook and clean both the house and themselves with 1900 technology. And we watch them deal with the conflicts between their late-20th-century views of gender, family, and class with the reality of a society that saw all of those things much differently. Seeing people actually live day to day in the world of a century ago provides a much more powerful portrayal of the gains of the 20th century, particularly for the working and middle classes, than any dataset can.

Keeping Your Family Clean and Fed

For example, we learn that it took multiple days to complete the laundry for a family of six. This task took up not only mom’s time, it also required that the girls give up a day of school on a regular basis to help with the wash. The mom wonders whether schoolrooms on Mondays didn’t have a noticeable lack of girls. In the last episode of the series, we see the mom back in 1999, running a load of laundry through the machine and being as grateful for that modern miracle as was Hans Rosling’s mom.

It’s fine for rich folks like us to play at being poor like the Victorians, but we do have our limits.

The mom also discovers that keeping her family fed is a full-time job. She has to get up early to make sure the range is warm enough to make breakfast, and by the time she is done cooking, serving, and cleaning up with 1900 technology, it’s time to start lunch. Dinner requires even more time. Like the washing machine and dryer, the time created by modern kitchen appliances has freed women from drudgery and created opportunities for education and leisure that were unheard of in human history.

We also take for granted the technology of personal hygiene. The children are grossed out when they find chamber pots by their beds, and no one is happy about the toilet being outside. Their battles to get hot water limit their ability to bathe regularly. The father has to shave with a straight razor, which poses its own set of challenges. And when they decide to go for a family swim at a nearby pool, mom and the oldest daughter are not allowed in the water because they are both having their periods. The subsequent discussion of 1900 menstrual technology provides a way to appreciate modern living standards that cannot be captured as powerfully by anything other than this sort of historical reenactment.

Playing with Fire

But what’s most telling about 1900 House are the ways both the family and the producers cheated. Mom and the girls try to make their own shampoo 1900-style at home, but the results are ineffective and they are all tired of having what they consider to be dirty, greasy hair. They eventually cheat and buy some modern shampoo at the store. After dad castigates them a bit for cheating (over mom’s insistence that her “hair is not going to have a 1900 experience!”), they dump it out and struggle with 1900 cosmetics. Mom observes that the Victorians must have been a dirty, smelly bunch, and that when she’s out in the town, everyone else smells overwhelmingly perfumed. Again, these are details that economic data cannot convey.

The producers cheated, too, as the house was built with some modern safety technology given the concerns about running a coal-fired range and using gas lighting. The family also had access to an emergency phone in case something went wrong. If they got sick, they were expected to try to cure the problem using 1900 medicine first, but if that did not work, they had access to 1999 doctors and dentists.

Real Victorians, of course, would have suffered and possibly died. The way that market-driven growth has raised our expectations of what is an acceptable health risk is yet another sign of how much better life is today compared to a century ago. It’s fine for rich folks like us to play at being poor like the Victorians, but we do have our limits.

Underneath All That Beauty

The lesson of 1900 House is best summarized in a scene where mom reflects on the visits of their modern friends. The friends ooh and aah over the beautiful Victoriana — much as the mom had done before living it. Mom observes that while she still finds it all beautiful, she now realizes how we have romanticized the past because we never had to live it.

Underneath all that beauty is a difficult, dirty, and unpleasant reality, especially for women. That Victorian-era bed may look beautiful, but taking it apart to scrub every inch until your hands are raw in order to avoid vermin gives you a very different perspective.

Living the Dream

Our sense that the past was somehow better is often the result of fictional treatments that romanticize bygone eras. We imagine the fictional bucolic farm life of the 18th century or the gauzy novelization of home life in the 19th century, and we compare that to the imperfect reality of our own lives. But the combination of economic data and good storytelling that lets us live as our ancestors did quickly deromanticizes that past.

Life has never been better and easier for humanity. Market-driven innovation has allowed machines to do our work for us and has brought us new and better products to make us cleaner and healthier, enabling humans — and particularly women — to have the time and health to do the things we love and that make us smarter and happier. Critics of capitalism too easily take that for granted. Those of us who understand this history need to continue to tell the stories that bring home the message that, thanks to the power of the market, we live in a world that our ancestors could only dream of.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.