- Historic Sites
When Our Ancestors Became Us
In 1820 their daily existence was practically medieval; thirty years later many of them were living the modern life
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
Then, in 1843, an agent for the Erie Railway had the idea of transporting milk from upstate Orange County to New York City. Lines a block long formed at the Erie terminal to buy all the milk offered for sale. Soon wholesome country milk was widely available for about two-thirds of the cost of swill milk and drove the latter from the market. The improvement in child care, public health, and quality of urban life was considerable.
But however practical railroads were, however great their effect on the quality and possibilities of everyday life and on the economy, it was their potential for speed that captivated the imagination of the people. Human beings had never been able to travel at even ten miles an hour. Now it was possible to travel at two, even three times that speed for hour after hour, a thing inconceivable to anyone who had lived even a quarter of a century earlier. It is little wonder that the rail-road almost immediately acquired a symbolic role for the early Victorians. It seemed to them the epitome of their new-found technological prowess and of the progress that they came to regard, with every good reason, as the hallmark of their new civilization.
Even Philip Hone, only fifteen months after he had been yearning for the return of the good old days, was astounded at how news from Great Britain had been carried by ship to Boston and that “the distance from Boston [to New York], 240 miles, was traveled by railroad and steamboat in the astonishingly short time of seven hours and five minutes. What a change from the times when the mail stage left for Boston once a fortnight, and consumed a week in going to Philadelphia!”
As should be expected, the younger generation had none of Hone’s occasional misgivings. “It’s a great sight to see a large train get underway,” George Templeton Strong wrote in 1839, when he was only nineteen. “I know of nothing that would more strongly impress our great-great grandfathers with an idea of their descendant’s progress in science.... Just imagine such a concern rushing unexpectedly by a stranger to the invention on a dark night, whizzing and rattling and panting, with its fiery furnace gleaming in front, its chimney vomiting fiery smoke above, and its long train of cars rushing along behind like the body and tail of a gigantic dragon—or like the d—1 himself—and all darting forward at the rate of twenty miles an hour. Whew!”
Before the Industrial Revolution the last major improvement in domestic technology had been the chimney, which came into use in middle and upper-class households in the high Middle Ages. In the 1820s houses were still heated by fireplaces and lighted by candles. Water was hauled in by bucket from a well, spring, or cistern. Cooking was done on an open hearth, and storing perishable foods for more than a few hours in summer was usually impossible.
One of the earliest changes of the industrial era to affect people’s daily lives was gaslight and the oil lamp. Before gaslight there were only candles and the light of the hearth to supply illumination after sundown. But candles were as expensive then, in real terms, as they are now. Only the rich could afford interior lighting in abundance; the poor went to bed with the dark.
Then, in the 1790s, a Briton named William Murdock developed a practical method of extracting in quantity a gas from coal that could be burned to produce a bright yellow flame. In 1813 coal gas was used to illuminate Westminster Bridge in London, and gas streetlights began to spread through British cities. Soon American cities were following suit. Gaslight had been demonstrated in Philadelphia in 1796, but it was Baltimore—where Rembrandt Peale maintained a museum lit by gas—that first passed an ordinance encouraging gas street-lights, in 1816.
In New York City the New York Gas Light Company was formed in 1823 and began to lay pipes for street lighting two years later. By the end of the decade Broadway was illuminated from the Battery to Grand Street, and soon all the major streets and avenues of the city, dark and dangerous since Dutch days, were brightly lit. Anne Royalle, an English resident of the city, was exhilarated in 1829 by “the profusion of lights to which I had long been a stranger.”
Much as they appreciated the street lighting, people at first were very wary of letting gas into their homes, fearing explosions and fires, a fear by no means unjustified. By 1840, however, the advantages of gaslight had overcome their trepidation, and gas pipes were installed in more and more houses. By the 1850s its faint hiss and odd, dank smell filled the homes of the middle and upper classes. “Gas is now considered almost indispensable in the city,” a New Yorker wrote in 1851. “So much so, that scarcely a respectable dwelling house is now built without gas fixtures.”