In an article first published as Ode to Our Filthy Founding Fathers on Blogcritics, The Pink Flamingo has highlighted some of the research I am doing for my next book.
The current Tea Party mode of thinking has turned the era of our Founders into something it was not. Half of the babies born during that time did not live to become adults. Women died, in large numbers, in child-birth. Our Founders lived in the last time frame before cleanliness became a way of life – for the upper classes.
They would have been a very dirty, smelly bunch of men, full of lice, with dirty hair, body odor, and mouths so full of disease their breath would have stopped Godzilla dead in his tracks. The food they ate was most likely rancid. Their water was diseased. The streets were full of filth.
And – they were the enlightened ones.
It was not until after the Civil War that Americans began taking cleanliness seriously. There were more casualties from disease and filth than actual fighting during the war. Scientists and town planners took the lessons of the filthy military camps seriously, and began re-designing cities, putting in water systems, sewers, and taking great steps to clean up the filth surrounding them.
With cleanliness and enlightenment came rules, regulations and laws to prevent needless death. I guess that was not libertarian, was it? Then again, by 1880, the United States became the cleanest nation since the Roman Empire. The combatants at the OK Corral would have been bathed, shaved, perfumed, deodorized, and their teeth would be clean. Even the Cowboys would not have had lice. It was a far cry from our Filthy Founders.
“Absolute worship of our Founding Fathers is quite the fad in some tea party circles. The brave men (and a scant handful of women) who founded this nation should be treated with honor and respect. They literally put their lives on the line to accomplish what they did. They overcame themselves to triumph. Once they had succeeded in their quest, they went back to squabbling amongst themselves, back-stabbing, and being normal men.
Much is also being made about the time in which these men lived, with the less informed waxing poetic about the era as a kinder, more gentler age where men were God-fearing and women did what they were told. Many of our Founders were church-goers, because that is what people did in those days. Even Benjamin Franklin, who believed only in himself, pretended to support a church. It was good for business.
If a tea party “patriot” were to be transported back in time (probably by doing the old Star Trek slingshot around the sun thing) to Philadelphia in 1776 they might not like it. They might discover that the world of the Founders was just plain nasty, smelly, deadly, and very unappetizing.
On the way to meeting with our Founders, a person unaccustomed to treading the streets of a town of that era was a prime target – to have the “slops” emptied on them. There were no toilets, no plumbing, and no running water. If a person was fortunate, they had access to an outhouse. At night, though, they used the chamber pot. During the day, a servant would simply toss the contents of the chamber pot – the slops – into the street. Anyone not familiar with the process was in danger of being doused with urine, vomit, and feces….”
Donald J. Boudreaux as a fascinating piece for the Tribune, based on the books by Liza Picard. If one reads his article about life in London in the 1740, one is able to extrapolate much about life in the US during the War for Independence.
Dr. Boudreaux wrote:
“…When we romanticize the past, we overlook its faults. The past takes on a kind of Disney World cast. America on the verge of revolution is envisioned by 21st-century Americans as the Colonial Williamsburg that thousands of tourists visit each year — an America of quaint costumes, cozy Colonial-style restaurants, and fun displays and re-enactments.
In fact, though, daily life in the 18th century bore little resemblance to the “life” we see at Colonial Williamsburg. Being preindustrial, everyone but royalty and the upper-crust nobility of that era was oppressively poor by our standards.
The wealthiest place in the world in the 18th century was London. Yet if you think you’d be content living then and there, you might want to read Liza Picard’s book “Dr. Johnson’s London” — which is a lively account of everyday life in mid-18th-century London. I’ll bet this book will change your mind.
Consider these reports from Ms. Picard’s wonderfully evocative book:
• “London street dirt … was a rich, glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw, and human excrement. … We complain of the pollution caused by petrol-driven engines. Imagine the sheer volume of faeces and urine excreted by the engines of eighteenth-century traffic — that is, horses — let alone the dung of the herds and flocks being driven through the streets to markets and abattoirs.”
• London’s water supply was contaminated with “the effect of rotting elm and lead, not to mention the miscellaneous refuse, dead dogs, and so on that found their way into the supply.”
• “The kind of space we take as normal, at least separating children from parents at night, and having a room for sitting and watching television and doing homework, was a luxury only the prosperous enjoyed.”
• “Nearly everyone had carious (decaying) teeth, even small children.”
• “Riding in a chaise or chariot counted as exercise — which shows how even the most improved vehicles bumped you about.”
• “Butlers were entitled to keep and sell the ends of candles, an expensive commodity in the eighteenth century.”
• “In the country the roads were abominable unless they had been ‘turn-piked’ and were maintained by a private company which charged for its services.”
• “For 1751 the (life-expectancy) figure for both men and women in England and Wales has been estimated at 36.6 years. … (B)etween 50 and 60 percent of London-born children died before their tenth birthday.”
• “Pyorrhoea and scurvy were rampant. Both would loosen teeth. … The leading French dentist Fauchard recommended one’s own urine for cleaning one’s teeth: always handy.”
• “Soap was a major item in a family budget.”
• “The life of a skilled or unskilled man or woman in the middle of the eighteenth century was unenviable. Hours were long, from five in the morning till seven at night from mid-March to mid-September, otherwise dawn to twilight, with one and a half hours off for meals, for a six-day week. Christmas, Easter and Whitsun were the only official holidays.”
• “Working life began young. … Master chimney sweeps took as many as four children at a time to do the dirty work, since none of them lasted very long, soot being carcinogenic. In 1785 Jonas Hanway estimated that there were about 550 climbing children in London. They were sometimes sent up even when the chimney was on fire. Extinguishing burning chimneys was the most profitable part of their master’s business. They worked in soot and slept on soot, and had no way of cleaning themselves.”
The above descriptions of life in the 18th century’s wealthiest place warn us against romanticizing the past — even a past as inspiring as revolutionary America. As important as the American Revolution was for preserving Americans’ political freedoms, the Industrial Revolution was just as important for creating the high standard of living that we today take for granted….”