This is a blog for journalists, authors, and those who enjoy reading and learning. Here you will find a variety of posts about all forms of writing--from fiction and non-fiction to the news media and journalism. It is produced by a former foreign correspondent and journalism school dean.
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Thursday, July 24, 2014
So You Want to Travel Back in Time?
When I taught a class in foreign correspondence at the
University of Illinois I was always saddened at how little knowledge of history
my students had.
I didn't blame my students so much as I blamed their K-12 schools
for sending them into the world with little if any appreciation for the past
and how it shaped today's world.
I was amazed at how many students simply assumed that the
world they lived in today was always this way. Most thought the modern
conveniences we take for granted today were always there--just made from
different materials or designed differently.
When I revealed to students how different life was in 1905 (less
than 110 years ago) most were stunned.
Lunchtime on a Kansas Farm 1905
I pointed out that in 1905 average life expectancy in the
U.S. was 47 years; that only 14 percent of the homes in the U.S. had a bathtub;
that only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone; that 95 percent of all births
took place at home; that 20 percent of adults couldn't read or write; that only
6 percent of all Americans graduated
from high school; that marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over
the counter at the local corner drugstores; and that there were only 230
reported murders in the entire U.S. you could hear a pin drop.
Those facts alone spurred some students to learn more about
life in the past.
For me, an author of historical novels, visiting the past is
not an option. It is a requirement. How can you write a novel set in the 19th
or 18th Centuries without understanding what life was like for the characters
you create? The answer: you can't.
One semester, as I was teaching my class, I came across some
fascinating facts about life in England during the 16th Century. I am sure it
mirrored life in 1500's France, Germany, Italy and other European countries.
I don't know who the author is, or when it was written, or
even how accurate it is, but when I shared it with my students eyes widened and
jaws dropped. Here it is, and to the person who wrote this, my everlasting thanks.
THE 1500's IN ENGLAND
The next time you are
washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how
you like it, think about how things used to be...
Here are some facts
about the 1500's, otherwise known as the middle ages:
Most people got
married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled
pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a
bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Baths consisted of a big tub filled
with hot water.
The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water,
then all the sons and men, then the women and finally the children -- last of
all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone
in it--hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."
Houses had thatched
roofs -- thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only
place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals
(mice rats, and bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and
sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof--hence the saying,
"It's raining cats and dogs."
English Town 1500's
There was nothing to
stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the
bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean
bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and sheet hung over the top afforded some
protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.
The floor was dirt.
Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying, "dirt
poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter
when wet, so they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the
winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it
would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the
entryway--hence, a "thresh-hold."
People cooked in the
kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things
to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would
eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and
then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been
there for quite a while--hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas
porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."
Sometimes they could
obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they
would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man
"could bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share
with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."
Those with money had
plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to
leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often
with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered
Most people did not
have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of Wood with the middle scooped
out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread, which was
so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were
never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread.
After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."
Bread was divided
according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got
the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."
Lead cups were used to
drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a
couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and
prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple
of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake
up-hence the custom of holding a "wake."
Market Day English Town 1500's
England is old and
small and they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig
up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the
grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of every 25 coffins were found to
have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people
Somebody came up with the
idea of tying a string around the wrist of the corpse. They then ran the string
through the coffin up through the ground and tied it to a bell. Someone would have
to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to
listen for the bell. Thus, someone freshly buried could be "saved by the
As I mentioned earlier, I have no idea how accurate any of
this is, but it seems to make sense to me. (Though I always thought "saved
by the bell" was a boxing term in which a fighter who had been knocked to
the canvas was not counted "out" if the bell ending the round sounded
But what do I know. I still believe in King Arthur, Sir
Lancelot, Queen Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail--not to mention fire
A confession: I only
believe in fire breathing dragons after too much Kaw River Coffin Varnish,
otherwise known as grandpappy's corn squeezin.