Fortunately, a truly powerful book is still available almost forty years after its first printing. In 1974, Otto Bettman, of the famous Bettman Archive of photography, gave us, The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!
Poignant and compelling, and written for the popular audience, this is one you must experience, especially if you have any leanings toward caring about quality of life in the United States. Bettman’s book explodes myths in quick succession about life in the supposedly innocent, carefree, Golden Age of America’s formative years after the Civil War and into the early 20th century. These were, in fact, hellish times.
For starters, food quality was abysmal. Diseased beef cattle arrived in eastern cities near death after being crammed together for cross-country train rides. Poultry hung in open-air markets for days on end. Rotten “bob veal” was sold to unwary customers. Milk was typically watered down or adulterated. Candy got its bright colors from toxic chemicals, including arsenic. “Country cooking” was an abomination. Water from rural wells was often contaminated by animal and human excrement. The sewage system of the time consisted of slinging chamber pot contents into the back yard, or in urban settings, street gutters. The average lifespan of an American man in the year 1900 was forty five.
Prior to the Food and Drug Administration, just about anything could be called medicine. Lydia Pinkham’s Woman’s Friend was the bottle of syrup and alcohol sold by the million as a cure for—you name it. Doctors of the era were generally medical ignoramuses, with degrees cranked out by diploma mills. They were quick to amputate and operated in putrid conditions. It was said that President Garfield might have survived his shooting had the doctors not probed for the bullet with dirty bare fingers. The antiseptic theories of Lister were widely rejected in America in the 1870s, and hospitals were zones of complete filth. “Insane Asylums” were unrelieved hell on earth. The term “nurse” implied no professional skills at all until 1873, when the first school of nursing opened in the US. Prior to that the job was usually held by drunks, and was allowed as an option to serving jail time.
Alcoholism was open-ended in 19th century America. Seemingly everybody was soused. The liquor was often pure alcohol with a little coloring. Child alcoholics were not uncommon. The poverty and hopelessness of life in the big city slums of the era exceeded anything we know of today. In 1880 an estimated one hundred thousand orphan street urchins wandered New York City, some barely old enough to walk. No juvenile courts existed, and kids of any age were treated as adult offenders, arrested for little cause, and imprisoned with hardened adult inmates in utterly barbaric prisons. Gangs proliferated, sometimes going to war in the streets a thousand strong. The police, little more than a ruffian gang themselves, would never venture into the New York Bowery after dark.
Monopolists and plutocrats abused working people to the last possible measure. No feudal barons of the Medieval Age were this heartless. “Company towns” and grotesque sweat shops enslaved their uneducated work force. Wages were absurdly low, and there were no rules for workplace safety, whatsoever. Workers critically maimed in factory and mining accidents got five dollars and the heave-ho. Child labor filled the mills and mines. Environmental considerations of any kind were unknown and undreamt of, as was zoning. Reeking garbage dumps could be found anywhere in any town. Typhus, cholera and fevers killed millions.
Reading this book won’t make you any more receptive of “nanny state” excesses, but you will want to maintain a healthy middle ground between that and “Laissez Faire,” if you have any heart, or any brain, at all.