We have a tendency to romanticize the past and are not nearly thankful enough for the present. This is especially true of technology. If you see those Currier and Ives prints that are so popular around Christmas we can be nostalgic, but we can be thankful that we live in the modern day. A market maven I read frequently make the point in a most compelling way.
But the biggest inconvenience was the lack of running water. Every drop of water for laundry, cooking, and indoor chamber pots had to be hauled in by the housewife, and waste-water hauled out. The average North Carolina housewife in 1885 had to walk 148 miles per year while carrying 35 tonnes of water. Coal or wood for open-hearth fires had to be carried in and ashes had to be collected and carried out. There was no more important event that liberated women than the invention of running water and indoor plumbing, which happened in urban America between 1890 and 1930.
And we all know that the automobile produces smog and may contribute to global warming. We should all yearn for those idyllic days before the internal combustion engine – or maybe not. While the railroad connected the cities, there were horses on every urban street. Within the cities, steam power was not practical, so everything was hauled by horses. The average horse produced 20 to 50 pounds of manure and a gallon of urine daily, applied without restraint to stables and streets. The daily amount of manure worked out to between 5 and 10 tonnes per urban square mile, all requiring disgusting human labor to remove. The low standard of living reflected not just the small amount that people could purchase but also the amount of effort at the workplace and at home where they had to expend to perform ordinary tasks.
So unless you belonged to the upper class who had servants to carry water and wood and clean the byproducts of horses from the streets, be thankful for running water, central heating and air conditioning and the automobile. Life in earlier times was often, in Hobbes words: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”