Acton Institute Powerblog

The Nightmare of Living in the Past

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1900houseStories can convey, so much better than raw data can, the human effects of the increased living standards that market-driven innovation has provided us, says Steven Horwitz. He notes how the BBC and PBS series 1900 House shows what a nightmare it was to live at the turn of the twentieth century. Mothers in particular had it especially rough:

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 tend to romanticize the past, forgetting that without the labor-saving technology we take for granted previous generations—again, mostly women—were in bondage to their daily chores:

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.

Horwitz reminds us that these stories of how free enterprise brought freedom from drudgery need to be retold:

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.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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