In reading books written a long time ago, I find many details showing how attitudes evolved since. For example, in the 1917 book “Over the Top” written by Arthur Guy Empey, an American volunteer with the British army, is this note about waiting to attack:
I glanced at my wrist-watch. We call wore them and you could hardly call us “sissies” for doing so.
From that, I am guessing wrist-watches were not considered manly accessories by the Americans of the time. A quick look at Wiki confirms that impression.
Jap Malee was as disreputable a little Cockney bantam as ever sold cheap Canary-birds in a cellar. He was extremely poor, and the negro lived with him because the ‘Henglish-man’ was willing to share bed and board, and otherwise admit a perfect equality that few Americans conceded.
But shooting kittens with a .22 rifle in London was all in a day’s work and unremarkable to either the character’s neighbors or to the book’s author:
Jap Malee, seeing the Kittens about the back yard, told the negro to shoot them. This he was doing one morning with a 22-calibre rifle. He had shot one after another and seen them drop from sight into the crannies of the lumber-pile, when the old Cat came running along the wall from the dock, carrying a small Wharf Rat. He had been ready to shoot her, too, but the sight of that Rat changed his plans: a rat-catching Cat was worthy to live. It happened to be the very first one she had ever caught, but it saved her life.
Similarly, a 1950s reader would have been rather confused by today’s description of checking mail or weather, or of taking photographs with a telephone. Perhaps shocked by the casual description of a mixed marriage including a Catholic and a Protestant, outside of dynastic alliances. A 1970’s Soviet would have found it shocking to hear of going to Helsinki for daily shopping, or of problems with getting a visa to Belorus. People whose government prosecuted publishers for advertising of contraceptives would find it curious that condoms are given out in schools, but also be shocked that as little as a “finger gun” would prompt an arrest and an expulsion. In their day, bringing rifles to school was unremarkable.
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes showcased more than one of the dated pastimes:
For much of that day, he sat in an easy chair smoking his pipe, or droning on his violin, or lounging with a handful of Boxer cartridges and his hair-trigger revolver, elaborating with bullet pocks out patriotic VR — for Victoria Regina — on the opposite wall. Life, it seems, was returning to normal.
The narrator felt that target practice should be an outdoor activity — no surprise in the era of black powder and unjacketed lead ammunition — but neither he nor the neighbors were particularly disturbed by it. Sherlock Holmes’ use of opium is noted but in no more detail than a modern person’s preference for particularly strong coffee would have been. O’Henry ‘s stories also feature opium as a routine way to induce sleep.
Some things get better, others get worse, but the culture shock of looking closely at either the past or the future remains.