Yearning For the “Good Old Days” That Really Weren’t Always Good.

Fond recollections of the past often seem to overlook that much of those by-gone eras were not as pleasant as some imagine

I get a kick out of reading comments from what I can only consider to be “good but simple-minded” people who reflect back on earlier times as the “good old days”.  A time when “men were men and women were glad of it” (I want to attribute that quote to Groucho Marx but I’m thinking it was Moe Howard of 3 Stooges fame).

The refrain from such people also tend to muse about how it was a time when life was simple and each person carried his own weight, lifting himself up by his bootstraps and knew who his neighbors were.  I think to myself when I hear this, “did such a world exist in my lifetime”?  To be honest I’m pretty sure it didn’t.  Perhaps it may seem like it to some now when there is more demand for our time in a more technically advanced culture; where the news cycle changes in seconds rather than days and weeks back when.

And if you thought I was being chauvinistic for using the male gender to describe this bygone era, its only because males were the dominant character in a time that must surely be when these “good but simple-minded” people reflect back on.  Constant references to what our founding fathers intended comes from people who seem oblivious of the fact that these great men were essentially white aristocrats that maintained traditions where only the landed gentry could vote (women were not granted this right for better than another century) and blacks were only counted as three-fifths of person as a compromise for Southern plantation owners who for the most part didn’t recognize their slaves as human at all.

If such an idealized time truly did exist it was long before I or my parents’ parents time here on earth.  For such a condition to exist would had to have been in a time when this country was first being settled.  People in those “good old days” pulled themselves up  by their bootstraps or went to the aid of their neighbors, not because they were god-fearing humanitarians as much as it were that they were isolated out in frontier regions where other human contact was minimal at best and failure to address your needs or help a neighbor was out of necessity.

There is this romantic notion out there by many conservative-oriented people who bemoan the fact that things have changed for the worst over the last half century.  Much of this can be heard in the conversations, or shouting, from the right-leaning Tea Party crowd who are always wondering aloud where their America has gone to.

Most of these folks are no older than I am and some are considerably younger, so I’m confused as to what America they are referring to.  Now, granted it seems like kids are more disrespectful to their elders today than when I was a kid but you wouldn’t have gotten that impression from my Mom back when I was a teen.  Not that I was disrespectful towards her (at least I didn’t think so) but none-the-less, that was the expressed sentiment I heard from her frequently AND from my grand-mother.

It’s true too that the pace was a bit slower then but I can also recall hearing complaints about how it took forever to do this and forever to do that.  Standing in line longer may have been accepted back then or waiting for an order to arrive but it was never found to be something we would look back fondly on.  Yes, the years of our youth do seem happier and carefree but that may have had something to with the fact that we were youths, not responsible adults who had to worry about getting a pay check and providing for our families.

There is also the notion by this sentimental crowd that your neighbors were always there to help you when you needed it instead of looking for assistance from the government as many are accused of doing today.  There is an element of truth to that in more rural communities and small towns but that would depend on the extent of the help needed.

There is only so much others can do to help their neighbors, friends and family when there is a crisis.  Not everyone had the resources and time to disrupt their own life and put things back in order for individuals who just happened to occupy an area in close proximity to them.  These needs usually went unmet and either people somehow managed to suffer through their ill-fate, occasionally coming back into their own, or where many perished or simply disappeared from sight after languishing so long.

One writer to the “Letters to the Editor” column in my local paper recently ruminated over how weak we have become as a people who rely too heavily on the government to “address and solve” our problems today.  In 1920” the writer opined, “if it came a heavy rain and washed out a culvert, folks would get together and fix it. Today, in the same situation, the media, political leaders and individuals begin hollering immediately to FEMA and begging publically(sic) to the governor, the president, and every politician between here and there to ‘declare this a federal disaster’.”  (You can read his letter here)


 

I’ve never known any federal agency to get involved fixing someone’s culvert, especially if it only affected their property.  Somehow this “good but simpleminded” person equates the damage a “heavy rain” does to a small culvert to that of the massive damage a force four Hurricane does to an entire city or region.  Little did it seem to dawn on this writer that back in the 1920’s there were no federal or even state agencies to help citizens address the damage done by natural disasters.

People then were forced to help each other just as they are today in the immediate aftermath of destructive forces that overcome us.  But long-term help either came from government assistance that was created to meet that special one time circumstance or it didn’t come at all, especially for many families whose income was inadequate to rebuild.  Flood and natural disaster insurance wasn’t available to most people then just as it isn’t now in the private sector.

FEMA seal (old)

Image via Wikipedia

The National Flood Insurance Act passed in 1968 was a reaction by our government to cover this deficiency.  Those independent types that “good but simple-minded” people today harken back to were not always bright enough to realize they had built in a flood plain and there were no local regulations to prevent them from doing so if city fathers were even aware of this condition.  So, the belief that neighbors were always there to help rebuild a man’s culvert was probably less likely to happen if the fool who built it lived in a flood zone and didn’t have the common sense to use structurally sound materials.

Information of this sort became part of what is now just a fraction of the services our government provides to its citizens.  Those taxes we all think are being taken from us may be a form of socialism but not all so-called “socialist” practices are undesirable.

From someone who hasn’t a clue what it was like to live in the world of the 1920’s, that “good but simple-minded”  writer to the Letters column never considered I’m sure that those bucolic types he yearned for were likely to have beseeched their government during these extreme conditions for some assistance.  The fact that such agencies with assistance programs exist today to use our tax dollars to help such victims get back on their feet is likely the result of much wishful thinking back in the good old days.  Many of those in that by-gone era who are romanticized today would most likely have taken advantage of this opportunity had such beneficial programs been in place at the time.

So, next time you hear that tired old yarn about the good old days, take note to who is saying it and what time period they are referring to.  If they are white and male they probably do miss a time that they primarily benefitted from.  I’m sure most women, blacks and other minorities don’t have equally fond recollections.

And if the time is closer to colonial periods then we can probably say with some certainty that if they were to find themselves in that time when health care was still, to a large degree, medieval in practice and toilet paper was unheard of, the future would be what many of them would be yearning for, not “the good old days”.

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24 responses to “Yearning For the “Good Old Days” That Really Weren’t Always Good.

  1. An amazing read that sheds light on “the good old days”. I think if people took the time to examine the good old days, they will find that they were mired in problems.

  2. Very interesting point of view! I remember how hard my Mom worked just washing clothes, cleaning and cooking for us kids. Washing cloth diapers was the pits!

    The world seemed much smaller then, ie our neighborhood, our town WAS the world for a while. We really didn’t know or understand much about other cultures, either in the US or in other countries. Russia was “The Enemy.” Our world expanded in the 60’s with television and the civil rights movement and Vietnam.

    I remember seeing my sister-in-law crying at our kitchen table when she found out she was pregnant in April after having a baby in January. No birth control then!

    What do I miss about the “old days?” Two things, mainly: playing outside until dark with the entire neighborhood “gang”, both boys and girls of all ages, and knowing that my Dad could support all of us on one salary, that of a construction superintendent.

  3. lbwoodgate,

    I have to respectfully disagree, and not solely because of my political leanings, but because of my profession. I’m actually a genealogist; not knowing what to do with my B.A. in History from the University of Michigan, I sorta got into genealogy and never really got out (yet).

    I think an argument that society has actually gotten worse could be made. For instance, there was far less crime, neighbors were closer to one another, and people just seemed happier, for the most part. And I people were happier because they weren’t materialistic like we are today. There were obviously some terrible realities of the day[s], but one could argue the terrible realities of today are far worse. Science and technology have advanced, obviously, but have people? It’s as if we’ve lost sight of the important things.

    If we could take the best of today and mix it with the best of yesterday, what a wonderful world that would be.

    • Terrance, What do you base your understanding on of a belief that there was less crime then? Crime rates are relative to social conditions of an era and I don’t think anyone today can say that murders and robberies as a percentage was less then than now. What’s the data base and criteria assessment you use to determine this?

      The presumption that neighbors were closer doesn’t necessitate they were better off or happier. I addressed this in in my comments. Close proximity didn’t necessarily make their lives better and again, how do you know they were happier? If time is a factor of happiness then wouldn’t those that preceded the colonists be happier still?

      And I don’t think you can justify that they were not as materialistic as us just because they didn’t have all the consumer junk we possess today. To them, their world was the height of material ownership as it existed up till then, not knowing yet what they could spend and waste their money on and lust over.

      Would it be that we could eliminate the dross of human avarice and intolerance we would indeed all be the better for it.

  4. lbwoodgate,

    There was less crime then. Not only is that common sense, it’s established fact. You can make the argument that it was underreported, but you’d have no evidence for such a contention. First, though, we have to figure out what era we’re talking about. “Back then” could mean anything. I’m talking early 1900s to maybe 1950. What are you talking about?

    I said people “seemed” happier, just based on the information I have obtained as a genealogist. This information includes personal accounts, diaries, photographs, et cetera… It’s not established fact, it’s my opinion which I can support with facts. And I do in fact think neighbors were closer back then. They actually knew each other’s names. I don’t know my neighbors names – honestly, I don’t.

    They managed to get by with less and, I believe, had fewer wants. For them, it was about what they needed. If they had that, they were happy. Again, neither my opinion or yours can be proven, and we’d of course have to pinpoint an era.

    My research tells me that when Christianity was so taboo, when sexual suggestiveness was discouraged in the public arena, and when it wasn’t legal for women to murder their children, ti was a better, happier time. That’s my contention.

    • Gotta disagree, Terrance. Let’s look at early 1900s – 1950. Women couldn’t vote (until 1920), prohibition, and Jim Crow laws were firmly in place. Mmm hmm. Good times. 😉

    • I should have elaborated on that. Basically, it would have sucked for someone like me. Let’s say it was 1915. I would have been sitting at the back of the bus lamenting (without alchol) the fact that I can’t vote. 😉

    • Oh man, here we go again.

      Terrance: “There was less crime then. Not only is that common sense, it’s established fact. You can make the argument that it was underreported, but you’d have no evidence for such a contention

      You know, many people thought it only “common sense” that the sun would revolve around the earth and that the earth would be flat until Copernicus, Galileo and Columbus stepped outside the narrow frame of reference of their contemporaries to prove them wrong. Common sense is only applicable when it doesn’t extend itself beyond its base of knowledge. But if that doesn’t appeal to you please tell me why common sense says that the rates of murder and robbery were less then on a percentage scale than they are today. How does common sense tell you this?

      And I may not have evidence to support such a contention but then neither do you or you would have offered it here to support your contention. Do you have such evidence?

      I said people “seemed” happier, just based on the information I have obtained as a genealogist. This information includes personal accounts, diaries, photographs, et cetera… It’s not established fact, it’s my opinion which I can support with facts.

      I never contended that all people were not happy Terrance and I’m sure most people were relatively happy most of the time back whenever. My point was that when some people today reflect back to the older times, somehow they think their happiness is less than their ancestors was. How does anyone measure “happiness” in population samples where cultures were so much different? I was trying to illustrate too that when some people feel that their life would be so much better had they lived in earlier times they are assuming that there were not issues that our ancestors had to cope with that gave them reason to be concerned and worried about the future.

      And I do in fact think neighbors were closer back then. They actually knew each other’s names. I don’t know my neighbors names – honestly, I don’t.

      No doubt those that lived in more urban areas did live closer to each other, just as they do today. But being able to know your neighbor during these times was more a factor of low populations, not as a direct result of the period. Prior to the Revolutionary War the total colonial population was less than 2 million; perhaps just a little more than what the current population of Philadelphia is today. In 1760, Philadelphia was the largest populated city with 25,000. Size made a difference then as it does today. Find me a community of 25,000 today and I’ll show you a town where most people know most everyone else.

      They managed to get by with less and, I believe, had fewer wants.

      That’s because their economy was not as diverse as ours and so actual wants were less then than they are now. As far as people getting by on less, they had no options. I explained this in my comments above Terrance:
      There is also the notion by this sentimental crowd that your neighbors were always there to help you when you needed it instead of looking for assistance from the government as many are accused of doing today. There is an element of truth to that in more rural communities and small towns but that would depend on the extent of the help needed.

      There is only so much others can do to help their neighbors, friends and family when there is a crisis. Not everyone had the resources and time to disrupt their own life and put things back in order for individuals who just happened to occupy an area in close proximity to them. These needs usually went unmet and either people somehow managed to suffer through their ill-fate, occasionally coming back into their own, or where many perished or simply disappeared from sight after languishing so long.

      Again, neither my opinion or yours can be proven, and we’d of course have to pinpoint an era.

      My article was presented as opinion Terrance. You may not like what I had to say but I never it meant it to be the gospel truth. It is a reasonable assessment based on known variables about people and how they cope with their circumstances. Some things about us haven’t changed in all of these years.

      My research tells me that when Christianity was so taboo, when sexual suggestiveness was discouraged in the public arena, and when it wasn’t legal for women to murder their children, ti was a better, happier time. That’s my contention.

      And it’s a legitimate contention. But with population explosions and multiple cultures coming to the new land, a simple homogenous way of life you are referring to could not be sustained. Remember too that all deviant behavior back then was seen as a moral lapse with Satan influencing many of these bad behaviors. Today we know better and a lot of it is attributable to childhood abuse and psychological defects caused by poor nutrition and other environmental factors that we are better able to control today.

  5. Lbwoodgate,

    There is quite the difference between something which has been documented and recorded (e.g., crime statistics) and mere conjecture which could not, at the time, be confirmed or disproved (e.g., the sun revolves around the Earth).

    If you would give me an era to work with, I’ll go about providing some evidence for my contention. But per 100,000 inhabitants, the murder rate for 1950 was 4.6; in the year 2007, it was 5.9. In 1994, it was 9.0, and in 1991, it was 9.8. For the remainder of the 50s, it remained under 5.0. Only in certain years of the 1960s was the crime rate lower than it was in the 50s, and only by a few points.

    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0873729.html

    That doesn’t necessary prove there was less crime overall, but it gives us a pretty good indication.

    I don’t know that their happiness is less than their ancestors, but I know many people feel a bit more incomplete, or are otherwise disillusioned with the way society operates. I don’t like seeing sexual suggestiveness every time I turn on the television; I don’t like that Christianity has become so offensive it’s now “disrespectful” to say “Merry Christmas.”

    It seems as though you’re saying that because minority and women’s rights were virtually nonexistent, society was just totally terrible and we’re better off today. That’s only if you agree with minority and women’s rights as they have been implemented. I certainly don’t believe minority rights should include affirmative action, and I don’t believe women’s rights should include abortion. I think we’ve taken things too far.

    As I said, if we could take the best of today and mix it with the best of yesterday, that would be the world I would want to be in.

    You have a decent reason for why people don’t know their neighbors as well today, but I’m not totally buying it. My area, for instance, doesn’t have a population beyond what it was 40-years-ago, yet I still don’t know my neighbors. Perhaps it’s just me.

    And I’m not sure you can say that people had less wants because the economy was not as diverse; I’m not totally sure what you mean by “diverse.” There were still new and cool inventions aimed at making people’s lives better; just peruse a few aged newspapers and see all the advertising. In fact, I might have to head to the library today or tomorrow for some research, and if so, I’ll scan a few microfilm newspapers and let you see all the advertising which existed on just a few pages of a local, small-town newspaper.

    And I’m not sure I understand your argument in your last paragraph. What does population have to do with abortion rights, and saying “Merry Christmas,” if you don’t mind my asking?

    • Terrance,

      I fear we have reached that point again where we are beating a dead horse and are going to have to agree to disagree.

      I would like to leave you with this one thought though. I know polls and stats are not always reflective of many details but they are a pretty good snap shop of the social conscience at a given time. Here’s a Pew poll conveying that 84% of respondents in 2006 said they were pretty happy or very happy.

      That’s quite a number that I doubt could be beaten with any significance of people who lived during colonial times, especially slaves, indentured servants and pioneers settlers who lived closer to Indian attacks than domestic crime from their class.

      Think what you will but believing as you do that life was better for most people then than it is today in a broad social context is mere wishful thinking. I’m sure however as I stated in my article that as a white male, happiness would be more a reality for you than other socio-economic classes and genders.

    • Christianity hasn’t become so “offensive” that saying “Merry Christmas” is disrespectful. Saying “Happy Holidays” is about being more inclusive of different faiths whose special days fall around the same time of year – Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa. I don’t usually say “Happy Holidays.” I say “Merry Christmas” or “Have a good holiday.”

      That said, I doubt anyone will think ill of you if you say “Merry Christmas.” It’s well-wishing and celebratory. Good things. 🙂

      • This country is largely Christian, Spinny, and the majority of us celebrate Christmas. Other faiths can practice as they wish, but their little existence doesn’t negate the aforementioned fact. If someone were to wish me a Happy Hanukkah, it certainly doesn’t offend me, as I’ve been known to go to Temple with my best friend and celebrate with him and his family, even though I’m a Catholic! And he can be found at Mass with me when the time comes.

        So, believe me, we’re inclusive. And we both believe “Merry Christmas” shouldn’t be considered “offensive,” because it isn’t – only to far-left liberals who reside out near Pluto.

        Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about the school districts who don’t allow Christmas plays or Christmas arts and crafts, et cetera…. It’s not the myth liberals pretend it is. The War on Christmas is very real.

      • It really might be the defensive thing today, but “little existence.” That doesn’t sound nice even though you have a Jewish friend.

        I’ve heard about the plays, not the arts and crafts stuff. I didn’t know that. Probably because I never engaged myself in The War on Christmas.

      • Leave it to a liberal to make a mountain out of a mole hill. “Little existence” means small in numbers; meaning the existence of “other faiths” is little, small, and insignificant compared to the number of Christians.

        And you should “engage yourself” in the war. It’s the hip, ACLU-ish thing to do these days – if you’re a liberal.

      • What you see as the “War in Christmas” others see as maintaing the concept of separation of church and state. Those schools that “don’t allow Christmas plays or Christmas arts and crafts, et cetera….” also don’t allow other religious activities.

        But now that the communists are no longer a threat to Christians they have to have another bogey man and the war on Xmas seems to fit this need.

        Extremists on both the left and right would wither away if there weren’t straw men of their making to attack.

        I too was raised as a Catholic and I have no qualms at all with saying Merry Christmas today. I never have and have often thought it silly to make this a politically correct issue. I guess not all liberals think like you want them to T.

      • Maintaining the concept of something that does not appear in the Constitution, you say, which was derived from a letter one Founder wrote. Interesting. Why not maintain the concept of some of President John Adams’ beliefs, too? He put them into letters, speeches and all sorts of readily available records, you know. Why should Thomas Jefferson’s explanation of the First Amendment be the only explanation we consider, and why should the liberal interpretation of Jefferson’s explanation carry more weight than my explanation, or conservative explanations?

        The War on Christmas is real, and people like lbwoodgate deny it’s exisistence by appealing to a letter written over 200-years-ago, which can be taken to mean almost anything.

  6. lbwoodgate,

    It’s interesting that a liberal would offer up a poll which claims the majority of Americans were happy when a Republican was in the oval office. Aside from that tidbit of irony, my contention is that people would be better off if the best realities of yesteryear were mixed with the realities of today.

      • Pretty sure you fail here, Mr. Beck. The poll was done in February. People may not have liked President Bush, but they were still happy, weren’t they?

        I guess Bush didn’t induce the end of the world…….

  7. Not sure what you were looking at but go back and skip down to the next poll which is the USA Today/Gallup pull and then scroll down to the three dates in ’06 to see the ratings I am referring to.

    And yes people were happy but it’s interesting that you have scraped this silly little piece of reasoning out how it’s related to Bush.

    It’s always a matter of one up-manship with you isn’t it? It isn’t about being objective. I’ve never seen you concede that you may be wrong and someone who doesn’t always agree with you may might be right. With you it’s always about winning. I’m not a psychiatrist but I see this a lot in people who have low self-esteem. But I could be wrong.

  8. I’m not sure what you’re talking about, lgwoodgate. People were just as happy before the Republicans were walloped in November. And if you are trying to make the claim that the Republican defeat of 2006 is to be credited for the poll numbers you cited, then you’ve failed to support your original argument; the very reason you offered me the poll in the first place.

    And why must you constantly comb through a persons’ psychology to explain why they disagree with you? It couldn’t possibly be that you’re wrong, or that they think you are wrong, and will therefore argue their point. There must be something behind it, right? Like a desire to be the best, or to one-up everyone. It couldn’t possibly be that I’m a conservative and I think what you’re saying, while informative to liberals, is a bunch of huey to people like me? I must have some psychology problem, right?

    Ridiculous. Perhaps your inability to recognize that suggests the problem is with you, not me.

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