The past is a different country.

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.

Another example, Ernst Thompson Seton‘s Slum Cat, written in 1915. In it, a character noted as unusual because he treats a Negro like an equal:

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.

This entry was posted in book, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The past is a different country.

  1. brian says:

    You may like to read “Two years before the mast.” Published in 1840(!)

  2. Lyle says:

    And yet “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

    Without looking at cause and effect, one could be very confused, but the fact is that the effects we see all have causes. All causes have their roots deep in the past, and their effects tend to be carried, through us in the present, into the future.

  3. HSR47 says:

    THIS is why the left is so keen to abandon classic works of literature in favor of “new classics.” — they don’t want us to know what things were truly like 50-150 years ago. Sure, some things were far worse, but others were far better. In the main, they only like to focus on the negative aspects of history, while ignoring any/all positive aspects.

    It’s almost as if they want us to be so ashamed of the past as to be discouraged from doing any actual research and/or reading on our own.

    • Andy says:

      Debatable. The leftists must necessarily be experts at doublethink else they’d not tolerate the socialist/communist contingents due to how every previous communist regime ended up as politically motivated mass murderers. It is easy to find people who’ve escaped from/lived under some of them in the Bad Old Days. They don’t paint a rosy picture of it.

      I believe the desire to control how history is presented goes hand in hand with the method they use to set up the future and get their way in the present: They attempt to set (and have been largely successful at setting) the narrative and terms of debate to being advantageous to them.

  4. Y. says:

    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..

    Geometric rate being what it is, people who are more .. intimate with the ways of nature hold these attitudes today. Just recently I heard how my father’s colleague, a talented young man of rural origins described how he usually kills superfluous kittens by breaking their spines. More deliciously, he commented on that during dinner, and some of the secretaries looked about ready to faint.

    The socially-oblivious software developer… it’s not just a stereotype. On that note, the accuracy of stereotypes is quite high.. [pdf]

  5. Historian says:

    I recall that one of my grade school phys ed activities was rifle shooting. Once you got to the fourth grade, with parental approval you could participate in riflery. At school. In the gym. Coach, whose office was in the gym, and which office was attached to the armory, and his volunteer assistants, would move the bleachers out of the way, lift up the steel backstop plates, and each student would attach their 50 foot slow fire target to the clothespins. We’d then go back to the firing line, which was painted on the gym floor, load our rifles, and have at it. Woe betide anyone who missed the backstop.

    Oh, by the way, most students took their rifles to school with them on the school bus. This was in 1967 and 1968. Once you got to school, you took your rifle to the armory and Coach gravely took your rifle, put it in the numbered rack with the Springfields and Garands, and gave you a numbered brass tag.

    Yes, the past is a different place.

Comments are closed.