In this time of a world pandemic, social distancing, wearing masks and political turmoil, it’s natural to think about better times. We tend to look back to the “good old days” of America. Things were simpler then, or better, it’s often said. People went to church and they cooperated; their schools were better, kept by teachers that demanded discipline.
But in “The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!” archivist Otto Bettmann writes that after Miss Barstow, a public school teacher in Canton, Mass., punished four boys for unruly behavior on Oct. 8, 1870, “They stoned her to death.”
An eight-page spread in this month’s issue of “American History” tells the story of New York City’s “Gotham Garbage” in the latter half of the 19th century. Photos and sketches show a city dotted by slaughterhouses, its streets layered with horse and pig manure.
English novelist Charles Dickens visited the city’s lower Manhattan in the 1840s and wrote that sections of the city “reeked everywhere with dirt and filth,” its slum area drenched in “poverty, wretchedness and vice.” Not until after the Civil War were serious sanitation laws put in place and organized garbage collection begun. Similar stories can be told of Chicago and Philadelphia.
To be sure, a more balanced view of the good old days reveals they could be fun: ice cream socials, Fourth of July celebrations, county fairs and bobsledding. Families went visiting and held large reunions. Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” might come to the nearest city with elephants, clowns, tigers, acrobats and bearded ladies.
But nostalgia tends to underrate crises. In part because of the Civil War’s impact on families, as many as 50,000 children were loose in New York. Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy were not figments of Horatio Alger’s imagination. We learn in Stephen O’Connor’s study of “Orphan Trains” that between the 1850s and 1920s, 250,000 orphaned or abandoned children were relocated from East Coast slums to the country and auctioned off to foster parents willing to help them begin a new life. (And in some cases to exploit or abuse them sexually or emotionally.)
An unwanted child named Charley Miller rode an orphan train to a Minnesota farm and murdered two transients. He met his hanging tree before turning 20. On the other hand, John Brady, a young street tough, eventually became governor of Alaska.
Before World War I, epidemics appeared regularly. Food commonly took 50 percent of a working class family’s income, and Bayer sold heroin as cough medicine. In the years before autos and telephones, doctors made house visits; records show that appendectomies and other surgeries were sometimes performed in the home. (Wipe off the kitchen table, boil some water, and pass the knife — all without antibiotics.)
In the “good old days” several hundred thousand children worked in mills, mines and factories — without benefit of unions and workplace protections. Most barbarous from the Gay Nineties right up through the mid-1920s were the lynchings of African Americans — sometimes between 150 and 200 a year — frequently with thousands looking on.
For more than half of Americans, the foregoing reflects life as they knew it. It doesn’t comport well with “good old days” nostalgia. Reforms would come slowly, generation by generation. The story of civil rights icon John Lewis, who was memorialized last week, testifies to that.
This isn’t to say that all nostalgia is negative. Most of us hold some precious memories. They enable us to cope with anxiety and soften a sense of isolation. Whether conjured up by thinking of past epiphanies or pleasant relationships, or in hearing music that once moved us or in seeing photos that remind us of better days, nostalgia can produce moments of happiness. Reminiscing with others can even inspire a measure of optimism in the hope that what lies ahead will dim the darker sides of memory lying deep within. Life gains something in meaning.
The danger is in allowing nostalgia to become an addiction, a deeply ingrained habit of avoiding present-day difficulties. In the living world of deep-rooted issues, where real decisions must be made, we do best when giving full weight to our conscious reflections on the past and present in such a manner that our opinions coincide with facts, and our beliefs have integrity. That is the road best taken.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.