A “Beautiful” Mirage Of A Past

From a “vintage London” page on Instagram, this is a photo of a street in Tooting, south London, in 1900:

[Brudenell Road, 1900. From Instagram. Public Domain.]

You may have encountered the expression seeing something “through rose-tinted glasses.” In terms of history, that can be applied to the far too many who look at the past and determinedly choose to see mostly just what they believe to have been “the good.” For instance, these two commenters on the above:

Cities are “beautiful” without cars. Cars have “ruined” cities. Such opinions are becoming commonplace talk from many more than just those commenters (and their “likers”).

In terms of the human experience, though, how accurate really are such contentions? History is not “flat” in the manner of a photograph and any competent historian knows that. Meaning there is a lot more happening in that 1900 photo than merely the clear absence of motor vehicles, and all of that which we don’t necessarily see is at least as relevant but is naturally too easily overlooked (no pun intended) on, say, Instagram.

There were just “700-800” cars on the road across the ENTIRETY of Great Britain in 1900; those “horseless carriages” were initially only novelties for the well-to-do and adventurous. For those in those houses in that same year, as had been the case for all of human history, unless you walked animal transport was mostly all there still was. (Using a bicycle is just a quicker version of walking; cycling is still, fundamentally, you powering yourself.) The nearest train station – Haydons Road – is about a 20 minute walk. (Tooting Bec – what would initially be called Trinity Road – tube station would not be built until 1926.)

Okay, we might think: “Great, walking is healthy.” Uh, but trains naturally only go to the next station or longer distances, and might not actually terminate all that close to where you actually wanted to be, which would make any even train journey long and difficult. It is also worth bearing in mind that like today not everyone was healthy enough to walk for miles, so if you could not walk, and did not have access to a horse and carriage (which most people would not have had), and presumably could not manage a bicycle, you were basically housebound.

[Bicycle in Victorian Plymouth England, around 1900. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

The point is what we don’t see is often as worth considering as what we do see. To outward appearances, those are modern structures; but appearances, we know, may deceive. While they look like our homes, that is only about their facades; inside, they are not modern homes as we would understand them.

When they were at home (ordinary people worked often 6 day weeks for over 10-12 hours a day in 1900), those residents spent a great deal of time on housework that we do much more efficiently. For example, while we just toss clothes into washing machines, they had to wash clothing by hand – which is an arduous task. They also probably shopped for food almost daily as chances are – at best – those houses had only ice boxes; refrigerators as we understand them (and also take for granted) did not yet exist, so preserving fresh food was not easy. Moreover, after shopping probably on Tooting Bec Road, about four streets away, they likely had to walk home carrying everything they had purchased… every day. (Forgot something? No quick car trips to a Sainsbury’s or Tesco. And certainly no home supermarket deliveries.)

Those houses also likely did not yet have electricity. Indoor plumbing as well was also relatively new and they may therefore have had only rear garden outdoor toilets. (Friends of ours near Torquay, Agatha Christie’s 1890 birthplace, own a 1930s-built house, which was therefore built while she still owned her birthplace nearby. It has all long been “modernized” inside, of course; but it still does have its outdoor toilet in the back garden inside a shed.)

Today, those houses also would have gas central heating, as is common now in London. In 1900, they were heated almost certainly by much more heavily polluting coal bricks, which were stored in a cellar or in the back garden and which the residents had to pile into the boiler/furnace themselves. (The “coal man” pushing his coal-filled cart – or if he was prosperous, the cart was pulled by a horse – would usually roll by regularly selling coal.) If we think cars now pollute, the air outside in that street on a cold day would have been heavy with coal smoke and the smell would not have been exactly pleasant; and the inside of the houses too would have been more or less discolored by coal soot.

Those residents inhaling that coal smoke, among other less than healthy largely unavoidable realities of their lives, also did not have ready access to good quality doctors and health care in the manner of today. If they became ill, they had to fall back on their own resources and perhaps family and friends for assistance. Quite a few people probably died in those houses unattended by any physician.

Why mention all of that? Because we should always remember that a single pic cannot tell us all and may even give us only the most cursory, or even distorted, of views of what life was like in the past. Life was far more basic and much less comfortable in those houses for those 1900 residents compared to those living in them today. Indeed, let’s visit a part of that same street, 123 years later, thanks to our friends at Google:

[A Google Streetview of Brudenell Road, in 2023.]

Yes, there are cars. Keeping a sense of broader life perspective, though, based on also considering the rest of the above, are they really so awful? Those cars (which increasingly may be powered by electricity and not petrol/gasoline) allow the elderly and those less able easily to get from one place to another, which makes life for them far better than it would have been for their counterparts 123 years ago. That is to say nothing of allowing commutes for those who cannot reach a place of employment by train or by tube… or by walking or cycling. The list could go on.

Compared to the 1900 pic, by 2023 it is clear those houses have obviously been renovated at various times. Besides that fact, and the cars, what else jumps out at us if we closely look at the two pics? Note what neither of those commenters mentioned: In 1900 (on that “beautiful,” car-less road), there is not a single tree visible. Yet as we here see just above, there are numerous trees lining that same road in our 2023.

Would that road’s residents in “1900” have preferred that “treeless” and “car-less” world in which they lived, if they could see how those who would follow them would live in their houses some 123 years later? It is impossible to answer that question, of course. However, what I think we can say with some certainty is that those cars and importantly other modernity of 2023 that we cannot see – such as gas central heat and electricity and indoor plumbing – have come about because they were wanted and while we certainly want and need to reduce pollution further, we do still want and need (I will go out on a limb here and suggest) our homes heated and electrified and plumbed… and a car, too, if we want and need one.

[Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com.]

We have to be careful about superficially concluding the past was invariably “better” than our present. On closer inspection, as we see above, it is hard to say it was. Just worth remembering, I think.

Have a good day in our 2023, wherever you are. 🙂