We all know that time travel would have its difficulties: After the excitement of going into the past faded, it wouldn't be fun living without an internet connection (or possibly your freedom, antibiotics, electricity, et cetera ad infinitum).
But while we can anticipate some of the truly horrible things about the past, it's easy to overlook the little things that would make time travel incredibly obnoxious.
(Note: I didn't have the chance to talk to a time traveler for this article. If you are a time traveler, please contact me a few days ago.)
1) The coffee was usually terrible
Yes, coffee snobs would be in trouble in America almost any time before the '60s — generally, the Dutch-born Alfred Peet (of Peet's Coffee) is credited with bringing more drinkable coffee to the US after moving from Indonesia to San Francisco in 1955. But if you went further back, to Revolutionary or Civil War times, you'd be even harder-pressed to find a good cup.
Old coffee was bad for a few different interconnected reasons. It's not that people didn't care about coffee — in Europe and America, large coffeehouses flourished. But they lacked the technology to make that coffee very good for the majority of people, especially at an affordable price.
William Ukers describes the difficult process in his book All About Coffee: First, coffee was often incredibly expensive. For example, in 1682 in Philadelphia, a cup of coffee cost about 17 cents, while an entire meal cost around 12 cents. In 1783-'84, Congress even proposed taxing coffee because it was part of "seven classes of goods consumed by the rich."
And the things that made coffee pricey hindered its quality. Without cars or railroads, roasted coffee couldn't move quickly, so it was transported green and then roasted by a local roaster or, more likely, the consumer. Quality varied as a result.
And then preparation came in. As Ukers describes, before the 1900s, making coffee required setting "a pan over the fire to roast a handful of green coffee beans, and then took two or three more minutes to pound or grind the crudely roasted product into coarse granules for boiling."
Yes, it might be fun to make coffee once in a blue moon. Now imagine roasting beans over a fire, manually grinding it, and then boiling it every single time you want to be awake.
2) No couches, which sounds very uncomfortable
There's a reason you don't read a lot of historical accounts where knights or dukes were just chillin' on the couch. It's because history was profoundly uncomfortable.
Joan DeJean wrote about things like the couch in The Age of Comfort, and as she told the Penn Current, life in the 1660s was couchless: "People sat on beds, which were moved into the main room to be near the fire. People sat on the bed and a couple of stiff, wooden chairs."
So, to be clear, if you wanted to hang out somewhere, you had to drag a bed into the living room and huddle near the fire, before you dragged it back to the bedroom again (assuming you had one).
Until the sofa was invented in the 1680s, life was almost certainly not cozy.
3) People blew their noses onto the floor
You may have guessed that the toilet paper situation in the past was subpar. As noted by The Straight Dope, until the 20th century a lot of people were likely to use corncobs or the pages of the Sears catalog after going to the bathroom. But what about nose blowing?
Sometimes people used handkerchiefs, but often they didn't. In The History of Manners, Norbert Elias described how people really blew their noses. Before the 1300s, the etiquette was simple: Don't let anything fall on the table. People usually just plugged one nostril and blew, then switched and cleared the other nostril. By the 15th century, people were being advised not to blow their noses into the tablecloth, but rather onto the floor.
In the 1600s, no less an authority than the philosopher Erasmus recommended a handkerchief. But he also said that if you happened to blow your nose onto the floor, you should just try to step over it until it disappeared.
Once handkerchiefs were normal, for centuries they were still largely relegated to the wealthy, as noted in Accessories of Dress, meaning that lots of people were still blowing their noses into their arms or onto the ground. Of course, when handkerchiefs did trickle down to the less wealthy, they were still pieces of mucus-filled cloth.
It took until the 1920s for mass-produced tissue paper like Kleenex to become common and relatively affordable, though it took even longer to become the default choice during allergy season.
4) Break a bone? See a large, grease-covered blacksmith.
Today if you break a bone or dislocate something, you're supposed to go to a doctor, not somebody who makes swords for a living. But through the 1880s, if you broke a bone, there was a chance you'd see a blacksmith who would crack your bones back into place.
The British Homeopathic Review published a skeptical overview of bone setting in 1878, which provided an idea of how it worked. A blacksmith bone setter would pick a spot, almost at random, and then employ "pulling, turning, bending, stretching, or wrenching; these are usually followed by a snap." Likely, a very, very painful snap.
Bone setting probably had some talented practitioners, and they practiced differently for dislocations and broken bones. Still, when you injure yourself back in time, you might not want to go to someone who spends all day at the forge. If you have to seek other medical care, you probably won't have much better luck: For centuries, it was typically provided by barbers.
5) No nail clippers
Trimming your nails in the past was surprisingly difficult.
As Suzanne Shapiro describes in Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure, while there were manicures in ancient Egypt and Rome, they were reserved for the upper classes. And even if you were rich, you lacked certain conveniences: The emery board wasn't invented until 1883, and nail clippers like this recognizable one invented by William Edge came around the same time.
That means you might have to go to the barber just to get your nails cut. Otherwise, you bit them, improvised with a sharp implement, or waited until they fell off from manual labor. You might be able to improvise with a beastly set of scissors, but it certainly wasn't as convenient as the clippers we use today.
6) Basically, the entire world was just a basin for raw sewage
Okay, so you know that indoor plumbing is relatively modern. But you might not realize how pervasive the stench and sight of sewage used to be. Rich or poor, you were constantly surrounded by waste.
To pick a few horrifying examples:
- How bad were major metropolises? So bad that Stephen Halliday wrote an entire book about The Great Stink of London. In 1858, due to a particularly hot summer, the Thames dried up and smelled so bad that members of Parliament were forced to walk around with handkerchiefs over their noses.
- As Tony Spawforth writes in his book about Versailles, even royalty weren't safe. The French palace was famous for having an early-17th-century indoor plumbing system, but, more commonly, people used chamber pots and threw sewage out the window. (Such flying sewage may have once landed on Marie Antoinette).
- Shanghai in the 1920s sounds glamorous. But as Hanchao Lu writes in Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, the city was one of the last to develop an actual sewage system. That meant there was a large job market for "nightsoil men," who collected chamber pots, went outside the city, and sold the human waste as fertilizer to farmers. Then they cleaned out the pots in the same places where people got their drinking water.
All that's to say that time travel isn't all it's cracked up to be. You may want to travel back in time and warn yourself never to go in the first place.