- 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
As rapidly increasing demand brought down the cost of fixtures, the cost of having running water fell too. Bathrooms, originally built one to a household, were soon being built one to a floor and even one to a bedroom in the more prosperous houses. The American love affair with plumbing was on in earnest. As early as August 1846 the New York Daily Tribune was reporting that “the demand for water is so great in the present hot weather that it is found impossible to keep up the supply in the distributing basins as fast as it is taken out.” New Yorkers were soon proud that they used as much water as London, then a city four times the size.
Within a few years new houses could not be sold unless they had water closets and bathrooms, and cities undertook crash programs of sewer and water-main construction. The drop in demand for well water often caused the local water table to rise alarmingly. This forced cities to construct storm and drainage sewers to overcome epidemics of flooded basements. Happily this also meant that the streets, once frequent quagmires of mud, now drained far more quickly after rainstorms.
By 1860 all major American cities had clean running water available in the areas inhabited by the middle and upper classes. As the amount of water used per person per day sky-rocketed, the standards of personal hygiene and clean clothing soared as well. The stench of human existence that had been so pervasive as to go unnoticed now became socially unacceptable. (Servants, however, seldom rated a bathroom of their own and were certainly not allowed to use the family ones, at least when the family was in residence, so they were forced to continue to rely on the chamber pot and the kitchen hip bath. It was a common complaint for years in affluent households that other people’s servants were a bit on the whiffy side.)
Far more important than the social niceties, however, the increasing availability of clean and abundant water in the 1840s and '50s dramatically reduced the number of deaths from waterborne diseases. It remains one of the greatest triumphs of public health in human history and an element in the increase in the average American life expectancy at birth, which was 39.4 in 1850 and rose to 48.8 by 1900.
The Industrial Revolution generated wealth wherever it reached, and this new wealth, together with the new technology, now gave the middle class a standard of living that even the very rich had not known two generations earlier. The newly affluent were the most rapidly growing segment of the population. In 1828, when New York’s population was 185,000, there were only 59 New Yorkers with property assessed at more than one hundred thousand dollars, a large fortune in those days. By 1845, when the city’s population had more than doubled to 371,000, the number of citizens with property worth more than one hundred thousand dollars had quintupled and the word millionaire had been coined to describe the very, very rich. The number of those who were, in the Victorian phrase, merely “comfortably fixed” far more than kept pace.
The relative ease with which new wealth could be created, not just in agriculture and commerce as before but now also in manufacturing, transportation, and finance, had profound consequences for human society. As early as 1828 the English social critic John Sterling wrote: “Wealth! wealth! wealth! Praise be to the god of the nineteenth century! The golden idol! the mighty Mammon! such are the accents of the time, such the cry of the nation.... There may be here and there an individual, who does not spend his heart in laboring for riches; but there is nothing approaching to a class of persons actuated by any other desire.” Although Sterling was referring to England, his observations were equally true of the United States. Money—who had it and how much- was a subject of abiding interest to the early Victorians, an interest they made little, if any, effort to conceal. The cost of everything, even churches, was among the details regularly given in guidebooks to American cities.
The rapidly increasing middle class came to dominate society and taste in the 1840s and ’50s, especially in the United States, which had no aristocratic tradition. The newly affluent, able to afford leisure, greatly increased the market for books and magazines while gaslight and oil lamps greatly increased the ease of reading and the time available for it. Publishers began to pour out new and inexpensive works of fiction and travel. (It is ironic that Charles Dickens, who deplored the Industrial Revolution and the capitalists who drove it, probably never realized that changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution had contributed mightily to his own immense income.)
The furnace and efficient stoves made entertaining and socializing much more pleasant in winter. The cookstove made elaborate cooking much easier in the middle-class kitchen and allowed meals to become as elaborate as those once served only in the wealthiest households. At the same time middle-class housewives, delighted to have vast sets of now-inexpensive matching china, flatware, and table linens (luxuries most of their mothers could only have dreamed of), naturally wanted to show them all off, and this further increased the trend toward elaborate meals.