Thursday, May 14, 2009

PBS: "The 1900 House": What a difference the last century made (especially in London)


In June 2000, PBS broadcast its series “The 1900 House”, which offered a “time travel” look back to a typical London family in 1900 to show how much the standard of living had changed in the 20th Century. Netflix offers the DVD, which runs 220 minutes (four episodes). The explanatory link for the series is here.

The Bowler Family lived in a flat at 50 Elliscombe Road, without central heat or electricity, in “The 1900 House”.

The most remarkable observation in the series was the labor intensive nature of housekeeping, all the way from hauling coal and water, to manual washing of clothes. The coal burning range was the only heat source in the house in the damp, chilly London climate. Merchants came to the door to sell individual food commodities, especially milk and meat (this was the age of the “meat pies” in “Sweeney Todd”). Families counted their pennies; the average manufacturing wage then was $435.

The bathroom did not yet have toilets, and shampoo had yet to be invented, and neither had safety razors. Women did not shave often, and complained that they got “hairier and hairier.”

Families were larger and few children had their own rooms. Children often shared beds, and there was little or no sense of privacy as the modern middle class expects it, an observation made by law professor Daniel Solove in his book “Understanding Privacy” (see Nov. 5, 2008 on my Books Blog).

Watching the show certainly helps impart a sense of social values. One understands how personal autonomy or individual sovereignty is tied to standard of living. As the Amish know, preoccupation with adaptive needs tends to keep biological families more cohesive; too much efficiency is not viewed as a good thing everywhere.

When I was a boy, the family spent the month of July in the northern Ohio town of Kipton (near Oberlin), and it did not have city water then; we pumped water from a well for drinking, and the faucets ran with cistern water.

Attribution link for Wikimedia Commons picture of Piccadilly Circus in London; I visited London in 1982 and 2001.

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