It's hard to believe how much life in America has changed in the past 220 years. I wonder what the people living in 1800 would think if they could have peeked into our world today. Surely they would have been amazed and perhaps terrified of all the unfamiliar technology. For our ancestors, however, the future lived only in their imaginations and in their hopes and dreams.
They say hindsight is 20/20 but most genealogists would disagree. Looking back at our ancestors' daily lives, the view is rarely crystal clear. It's often dense with fog and darkness. Journals and diaries (like the one passed down from Emma Dickinson, my great-grandfather's sister) offer some insight, but so many of the old ways are almost completely forgotten today.
This short 1969 gem of a film shown below, titled "Had You Lived Then...America Around 1800" gives us a fairly in depth look into everyday life in the 17th, 18th and 19th early century. See how they lived without running water, heat, electricity or alarm clocks. Watch how women made their own soap and butter. They also spent their days making bread, candles, and fabric. Children wrote on slate boards in one room schoolhouses. They learned words, morals, manners, history and arithmetic. Rather than being absorbed by video games, boys spent their free time hanging out at the blacksmith shop, an essential business in those days. Girls helped their mothers at home.
My favorite part of films like this is the tiny tidbits that enhance our view of the past. For example, we've all heard of stagecoaches. Surely, most of our ancestors have traveled on one at least once in their lives. It was the only method of public land transportation before the railroad was built. A trip from New York to Boston took 46 hours by stagecoach, stopping two nights for rest. In this film, the narrator describes the experience:
"Traveling was not easy in those days. The stage coaches were small. Three narrow benches held nine cramped passengers. Long trips were especially uncomfortable. Also, most coaches started early in the morning - very early, sometimes at 5 or even at 3 or 2 o'clock and you didn't dare be late because if you were, the coach left without you."
Unsurprisingly, the film appears to have been recorded in "Upstate" New York, where the winds of change have been blowing at a slower pace than other regions. In fact, today many of the old rural towns look much like they did 200 years ago. In some places, horses and buggies can still be seen trotting along the roads as if straight out of the past.