One thing is clear: The world is getting unambiguously, inarguably better with every year that passes — lifespans have soared, poverty's sunk, and wars have become rarer. But what about the little things?
There are a few small pleasures — going as far back as the 1700s — that beat what we have today. This isn't just nostalgia for a "simpler" time, like how great it would be to live without cellphones (it would, until you needed to find directions). These six concrete, tiny things are what made the good old days good.
1) Hay fever was a freak disease before the 1880s
If Claritin and inhalers are a part of your life, you might have modernity to blame.
Hay fever is a relatively modern phenomenon. Allergies were largely unknown before the 1870s, Gregg Mitman, a professor of history of science at the University of Wisconsin, shows in Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes. His convincing argument is that increased urbanization sped up movement of people and plants, and caused time spent indoors to increase. Those environmental changes combined to create hay fever, which until the late 19th century hadn't really existed.
Early on, in fact, hay fever was so associated with "indoor life" that it was considered a disease for the refined upper classes. Doctors thought it was as much a product of neurotic sophistication as allergic reaction. Mitman cites doctors who, over and over again, called hay fever an "aristocratic disease" because of its ties to indoor life. These aristocrats fled to the country to escape the modern disease that's familiar to people of all classes today. City dwellers continue to be more allergy-prone today, as well.
These days, of course, urban, indoor life is normal, cross-country travel is common, and estimates say that about 50 million Americans experience hay fever symptoms.
Worse, we have to turn to antihistamines for our treatments, instead of more exciting ones, like this handy 1890 ad for cocaine tablets:
2) Stars used to be prettier — even well into the 20th century
As with every item on this list, it's important to follow each shot of nostalgia with a chaser of realism — light pollution is a byproduct of fun stuff like cities, lights at night, and other wonders of the electric age. It almost goes without saying that before the industrial age, it was easier to see stars. But it was also easier in the 1960s.
Pierantonio Cinzano studies and maps light pollution around the world, and his papers show a startlingly recent increase. For example, in Italy alone, light pollution has grown exponentially since the 1970s, with worldwide growth rates of 5 to 10 percent a year.
That means it used to be dramatically easier to see the night sky, even fairly recently. Light pollution has debatable merit, and it may well be worth the sacrifice, but for stargazers it's a clear argument for the past.
3) Chocolate bars were considered healthy
Today you may feel a twinge of guilt for eating chocolate. But in the past, it was marketed as a sustaining caloric boost. Chocolate bars were the energy bars of their day, but without all that healthy stuff ruining the taste.
To be clear, the health qualities of chocolate weren't dramatically different in the past, except the guilt content would have been far lower. Instead of being judged, you'd enjoy the approval of fellow consumers inundated with chocolate-friendly slogans, including these ones stamped on the wrapper (provided by Hershey Archive):
- "A nutritious confection" (1900–1903)
- "More sustaining than meat" (1903–1906)
- "A nourishing food" (1912–1926)
In the 1900s, the wrapper even boasted that Hershey bars were recommended for "Cyclists, Athletes, Ladies and Children," because it "is most sustaining."
The absence of calorie-shaming wasn't an anomaly, either. Take one 1921 ad for a new product called margarine: The selling point was that it still had enough calories to make it an "energy-producing food."
4) Getting groceries was like having a personal shopper
Yes, modern supermarkets are infinitely more convenient than the grocery stores of the past (you probably would have had to make a lot of separate trips to get all your food). But one thing was nicer: You didn't have to do much of the shopping yourself.
That's because until 1916, groceries were almost always stored behind the counter, and clerks would retrieve whatever you asked for. You'd hand them a list or tell them your request, and then, like your personal servant, they'd get it.
It's especially important to emphasize the negatives here: If you wanted to grab something quickly, this system wouldn't work for you. The additional labor probably raised prices, too. But there's something refreshing, in an age of even self-checkouts, to imagine a clerk getting all your stuff.
So why was 1916 the breaking point? That year, Piggly Wiggly changed human civilization forever (this is the first and last time that sentence will ever appear):
That's a picture of the first self-service grocery store, a Tennessee Piggly Wiggly that opened in 1916. It looks like a supermax prison compared with today's supermarkets, but it was the future.
The innovation quickly spread around the country and to other types of stores. Today, the grocery clerk is largely just a memory.
5) There was so much beer that Harvard had three breweries
For better or for worse, people used to be half-drunk all the time. Historical estimates claim that Colonial alcohol consumption was about three times greater than consumption in the 2000s. Though part of it was about avoiding water that was often unsafe to drink, alcohol was also a genuine luxury and a form of relaxation. In Colonial times, there were more taverns per capita than any other business in America.
That meant beer and liquor were so common that alcohol manufacturing showed up in unusual places, including at Harvard. The Harvard Crimson put together a timeline of beer at the school, and it shows that in the 1600s, one college president was fired for failing to brew enough beer. In 1686, college rules were amended to include a specific beer recipe (to ensure the right hops ratio). And by 1703, the school had three breweries on campus. Though a fire stopped the brewing in 1814, Harvard's brew-happy culture was typical of beer's ubiquity in early America.
That points to a broader argument that the past was great for beer geeks or, at the very least, people who liked to drink a lot of beer. The Economic History Association compiled a timeline of brewing in America, and the story of consolidation over time is familiar to any beer aficionado who favors small batches. In 1873, they'd have been in luck: There were 4,181 breweries, compared to a little over 3,000 today (serving a much larger population).
6) More squirrels as pets
Are we really making the most of our squirrel resources? Today, we have lots of wild squirrels but very few pet squirrels — in the past, the opposite was the case.
What could be more magical than trained squirrels? They've been common throughout our history. The 1940s had a world-famous cross-dressing squirrel, 1900s nature guides had tips for your pet squirrel (walk yours on a leash), Civil War soldiers kept pet squirrels (and raccoons), there were pet squirrels in the antebellum South, and even Ben Franklin kept one (they were called skuggs in his day).
There were even pet squirrels at the White House in the 1920s — this is Navy Secretary Edwin Denby feeding Pete:
Moreover, these fantastic pet squirrels were the norm until city planners and park rangers intentionally boosted the squirrel population.
In New York, for example, squirrels were intentionally released outside to produce a "country" feel. New York magazine covered the city's squirrel history, from the 1877 release of about 30 pairs of squirrels into Central Park through the 1883 tally of 1,500 squirrels to the present era of squirrel ubiquity. The fad was by no means exclusive to New York — as Gizmodo writes, a squirrel campaign swept the nation.
But with the squirrel takeover came a disappointing drop in pet squirrels. Which is better for our happiness — squirrels roaming trees, or squirrels dressed up, taking food from our hands?
That's the thing about the past: The big things are a lot better today. It's the little things that need work.