Party in the Past


Here’s a thought. It’s a thought I had about seven years ago while paying £500 a month to live in a drafty townhouse loft that would once have housed a maid or a nanny.

It’s a thought I had last year when reading that a stony-broke Patti Smith was able to buy a modest breakfast with a quarter dollar she found in Central Park.

It’s a thought I had at Christmas while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey sells brand new houses for $5,000 in the same year that the average salary was $3,150 (so you could completely pay for a family home in two or three years).

It’s a thought I frequently have when flicking through Emily Post etiquette books, books that give the impression of a roaring 1940s social society in which people had parties often and watched television never.

It’s a thought I had just the other day when looking at the sunken staff entrances to Montreal town houses which have now been divided economically into expensive little apartments and offices. Hardly anyone can afford a house like that now, let alone staff it.

The thought: did the people of the technologically unsophisticated, gap-toothed, commodity-impoverished, disease-ridden past actually have a better quality of life than we do today?

Is that possible? Can that possibly be possible?

They never Tweeted anything to the effect so I guess we’ll never know.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

8 Responses to “Party in the Past”

  1. Bev says:

    Is it possible that we see much more evidence of the wealthy past than the poor? After all, tar paper shacks just don’t stand up the way those lovely brick and stone homes of the owner-class do. And all those novels and movies are about rich people – let’s face it. Grinding poverty is pretty boring.

    I could argue the other side, too, and I do from time to time, but I fear I’m romanticising the past when I do. I remind myself that if I lived in any other time or place, I would almost certainly be a subsistence peasant and not one of the ruling classes (or even an Emily Post-reading socialite), as have been most people who ever lived.

    I’m not sure why I’m commenting on this. I want so much to agree with your premise, but I’m feeling contrary today, I guess.

  2. Hello Bev,

    I’d normally agree with this kind of statement. It’s important that we don’t look to the past with rose-tinted goggles.

    But I must say that the examples here actually don’t make that mistake for once! Patti Smith was desperately poor when she bought that breakfast. The houses George Bailey sold were to the strapped (if admittedly fictional) people of Bedford Falls (the house specifically valued at $5,000 was sold to the Mantini family – a poor, goat-owning immigrant family). The Delia Smith of the ’40s, Emily Post’s books were hugely popular (though admittedly perhaps due to their call to affluence). And while the example of my loft space draws attention to a caste of wealthy home-owners, it really points to the fact that my domestic circumstances as a young professional in 2006 were similar to that of a servant in the mid-19th century.

    You’re right to advise caution though. We wouldn’t want to trade our advances in civil, medical or scientific progress for anything. The present is a far better time to live from those points of view. But I can’t help think we’ve lost something culturally. I’d take parties, inexpensive tailored suits and unthreatened libraries over LOLcats, H&M and tablet computing any day.

  3. A little other thing on the subject of taking ideals from the past:

    Are we then suggesting a return to the living standards of 1974? Not necessarily, for the luxuries acquired since then may, even if they have added nothing to our real well-being, be painful to forego. (This is an instance of the general truth that damaging social changes cannot always be rectified simply by being reversed, any more than a man flattened by a steamroller can be restored to life by being run over backwards.) What we are saying is that the long-term goal of economic policy should henceforth not be growth, but the structuring of collective existence so as to facilitate the good life. — How Much is Enough? Money and the good life

  4. Bev says:

    I definitely agree that our increased expectations and reliance on technology have kind of ruined us for a better quality of life, even if we could somehow attain it. I can’t imagine living without internet anymore, even if I had every other aspect of a perfect life. And I don’t know what that says about me.

  5. Oh, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the Internet either. In fact, I was without it for a few days earlier this year and I could feel my stress level rising with every passing moment. Separation anxiety from the cloud! For this, I still think my relationship with the Web is a healthy one. I use it like turning on a tap/faucet to get water: I just turn it on when I need it, and don’t just sit there watching it run.

  6. Radhika says:

    8 years late to this… However, just something to note. I like reading books about dreadful poverty like Ethan Frome and Of Mice and Men to get over this romanticized notion of the past.

    I even miss 2013 a lot! But I remember spending hours and hours and hours reading on a desktop every day back then, and I’m grateful to be lounging here on my couch writing this comment on my smartphone instead.

  7. Hi! It’s lovely to see people reading the older entries. You’re absolutely right of course; the 19th and 20th centuries were not unreservedly great times to be alive. But the post is really about the bang-for-buck economics. We generally assume, thanks to a progress-oriented view of history, that we’re better off now than our ancestors were, even though we see anecdotal evidence to the contrary all the time.

  8. Briony says:

    Even later comment, but this is what happens when you link old articles in new newsletters…

    In yesteryears the necessities were cheap and luxuries were expensive. Now luxuries are cheap and the basics are cheap and expensive.

    Also consider the photograph above:- a dance party organised by a local volunteer committee in a school hall with everyone bringing some food and the crockery borrowed from George’s mother. My local primary school hall can be hired for 6 hours for £25. And would be free if it was a school event. We choose to outsource our fun and pay for everything with a profit margin for the promoter.

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