For all of us who are fascinated by the past (and that’s probably just about everyone reading this blog), history can offer all sorts of surprises. Research can turn up a crucial fact for a plot, or provide the details that bring a character to life, or even inspire an entire book. But sometimes, as a true-born-history-nerd, the best part is stumbling upon Cool Stuff I Didn’t Know.
If a cartoonist were to draw me researching, I’d have a pile of book
s around me, pages bristling with multi-colored Post-Its, a couple of cats, and a big, fat exclamation point of delighted amazement floating over my head. There’s one school of thought that describes history as simply rediscovering everything that’s been forgotten. I like that idea. For me, one of the fun-est parts of the rediscovery process is learning that some thing/experience/invention that I’d always believed to be modern is, in fact, old. Over and over, it seems that our ancestors have already “been there, done that, wrote about it in my diary.”
The ancient Romans can claim first inventing aqueducts, water running through pipes, paved roads, and
scores of other engineering accomplishments. Much is made of Thomas Jefferson introducing pasta to 18th century Americans, but it had already been a favorite food in China many centuries before Marco Polo “discovered” it and brought it back to medieval Italy. A large quadrangle building centered by a courtyard, sheltering coffee-shops, taverns, and over a hundred shops selling luxury goods: the description sounds like a modern shopping mall, but it’s actually the Royal Exchange, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571.
Of course I’m ready to offer examples. *g* Except for the style of the writing and the places mentioned, the excerpt that follows could be a description of modern New Yorkers with summer places on the Jersey shore. Instead it’s from a letter by Daniel Defoe written after visiting Epsom, Surrey, in 1705. He sounds more than a little envious of these “men of business," too:
“The greatest part of the men may be supposed to be men of business, who are at London … all the day, and thronging to their lodgings at night….They take their horses every morning to London, to the Exchange, to the Alley, or to the Warehouse, and be at Epsome again at night; and I know one citizen that practised it for several years together, and scarce ever lay anight in London during the whole season…There is a great deal of society, mirth, and good manners, and good company among these, too….but in the winter this is no place for pleasure…good houses shut up, and windows fastened, the furniture taken down, the families removed, the leaves off the trees, and all the people out of the town.”
In fact, it’s often when our ancestors grouse that they tend to sound much more like us. The niceties of Whigs vs. Tories are hard to fathom today, but Sarah Churchill’s early 18th century complaint about how little her children learn from travel will sound familiar to modern parents whose offspring spend entire “educational” vacations playing video games.
“Wherever the children are, they will be very idle, and notwithstanding all the pains I have taken, they will never know anything that is of any more consequence than a curious toupee, a laced coat, or a puppet show.”
Modern editorial writers who devote waaaaaayyy too much ink to the unsuitability of teenagers’ dress would find a kindred spirit in the Reverend Joseph Doddridge, who found much lacking (like the breeches) in the attire of the local boys in 1770s Pennsylvania:
“Since the latter years of the Indian war, our young men have become enamored of the Indian dress.,.Their drawers have been laid aside, and the Indian breech clout adopted…With this, when the belt was passed over the hunting shirt (now worn in place of a coat), the upper part of the thighs and part of the hips were naked. The young warrior, instead of being abashed by his nudity, was proud of his Indian-like dress. In some instances I have seen them go into places of public worship in this dress, where their appearance did not add much to the devotions of the young ladies.”
Oh, I just best those young ladies had trouble concentrating on their devotions….
But what about you? Have you ever been similarly struck by something from the past that seemed unusually modern? An expression of speech that “felt” like modern slang, but turned out to be 300 years old, or a 19th century Shaker chair that could be in the new Ikea catalogue?