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1916: it gets better…

There is just 36 hours left in my 1916 experiment, and while I am to the point where I’m not just counting the days, but the hours, and while I have done more than a little whinging, I have to admit…it gets better.

The longer I do it, the easier it gets.  The more the corset fits my body, the easier it is to live in the clothes, the more I really learn to move and work and rest with them, and the more familiar I am with every task that I do.

Odds and ends of silk ribbon and lace were used to make this dainty little apron. Observer, 11 March 1916

Odds and ends of silk ribbon and lace were used to make this dainty little apron. Observer, 11 March 1916

It was really hard for the first week, and then not so hard.

I did more than twice as much laundry the second time around, but took the same amount of time.  I can get a three course dinner on the table with under 45 minutes of actual work for most meals (cooking time is a totally different story!  No pressure cookers!).  I’ve even gotten better at ironing, and washing dishes with a stupid bristle brush and a washrag.

 

I think if I lived in 1916 as I have been for two full months, I’d be quite handy, and by six months, transitioning back to the modern world would be as discomforting and hard as transitioning to 1916 was (we’ll find out if there are any transition hiccups in just a wee while!).

And there are things about 1916 that are better than 2016, things I will try to carry into my modern life.

At the same time, I’m still very, very grateful that I live in 2016 – partly for some of the modern technologies (I’m going to kiss my pressure cooker, and it’s not even that modern!), but mostly because I am grateful for the freedom that we have to have our own opinions, and to do our own thing.

A woman in 1916 NZ was much luckier than her counterparts in most of the world: she could vote, own property, run a business, and even divorce her husband (while still having a chance of keeping the kids) under a much wider range of circumstances than those available in most of the rest of the West.   She could choose her own faith, go out to eat (but not drink), and travel on her own.

But for men and women, particularly during the war, there were massive social constraints.  The government controlled the news, and nothing which could impact the war effort or moral (i.e. no dissenting opinions) could be published.  Voicing anything seen as unpatriotic or anti-war could get you fired and ostracised within your community.   NZ took one of the harshest lines on conscientious objectors of any Allied country, imprisoning and torturing them during the war, and denying them voting rights for a decade after.

WWI, in particular, was a very hard time to be a foreigner (i.e. not of British extraction) in New Zealand.  Men of German background (including those who had specifically left Germany because they disproved of the German government) were imprisoned in detention centres on islands in Wellington & Auckland.  People with foreign names found themselves socially ostracised, and their businesses were boycotted, or even destroyed (drunken riots targeting ‘foreign’ businesses happened in nearly every major town and city in the country during the war).

While I love reading the newspapers of 1916, it quickly became apparent how shallow and repetitive they are: how little of the reporting encourages independent thinking or further investigation.  It also becomes apparent how divided the classes were.  NZ has always been more egalitarian than Great Britain, but there were still strong divides between the social classes, and not much opportunity for movement.  Even more obvious is the divide between Pakeha (white) and Maori society of the time: and how much racism their was.

The work of 1916 hasn’t been too bad, and the clothing becomes easier, but I am eminently, fervently, grateful not to live in the period.

It would have been such a narrow, constrained, repressed life in so many ways.  There were so few opportunities for women, so little room for dissent.  The biggest blessings of the modern world are not the time and labour savers (though those are nice), but our ability to have our own beliefs; to access so much information, so that our beliefs can actually be informed; to have friends with a whole range of opinions, from a range of backgrounds.  These I will never cease to be grateful for.  It’s not a perfect time: there is still so much more to work for, and so many threats, but things have gotten better, so much of the work has already been done, and it’s still a better time to live in than any other.

30 Comments

  1. Lyndle says

    I couldn’t agree more. Very well expressed. When people get all nostalgic for the past I remember that I would have most likely been poor, working hard as a maid or on a farm and with almost no rights as an individual. Not much enviable about that.

  2. Lyndle says

    I couldn’t agree more. Very well expressed. When people get all nostalgic for the past I remember that had I been born 100 years earlier I would have most likely been poor and with almost no rights over my own life. I would have fared slightly better in New Zealand, I think, than in the UK, but there isn’t much to envy. (I would perhaps though insert ‘medical advances’ between labour-saving devices and freedom of expression, on your list).

    • Oh yes, medical advances! SO important! No matter how cold & chapped & chilblained my hands get washing laundry, no matter how uncomfortable my corset, I’ll never have to worry that that cough that wouldn’t go away is tuberculosis (and, in the extremely unlikely event that it was, my chances of being cured are 99.9% higher than they were in 1916), and a fever is an inconvenience, not cause for major alarm.

      • Lyndle says

        Yes. It really is a miracle, although one we might live to wish we’d managed better. And your children, should you have any, would be unlikely to die of scarlet fever or typhoid or diphtheria or be left blind, deaf or otherwise disabled by measles. Or for that matter die of bubonic plague, which would have been quite possible in Australia in 1916.

  3. I’ve always thought living in the actual past would be more prone to have us be products of our time — like, would I have missed the ability to vote, if I had been raised with the knowledge that I couldn’t? I am very very glad I live now. I have a friend who says she wants to live 100 years in the past as long as she could have (a couple of modern conveniences, I forget which ones). I didn’t try to convince her otherwise. I know she wouldn’t actually like it, for many of the reasons outlined here.

    Also, i didn’t comment on the megrims post, but I recognized the “this sucks and everything is terrible!!” from a very different yearly event in my own life. I write novels in November, and the short time-frame has a very well-documented “this sucks and everything is terrible!!” phase, followed by a “just keep swimming!” and “maybe this isn’t so terrible” to “wow, I did it!” and then “…now what am I supposed to do with myself?” Really looking forward to your conclusions at the end of this experiment 🙂

    • Johanne says

      I’m not sure where to insert this quote from Alice Munro, 84, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. I feel it lends itself, if tangentially, to the discussion of whether women would miss what they hadn’t known. I feel very strongly that they would and did and that attitudes controlled women as well as circumstances.
      ““It wasn’t the housework or the children that dragged me down. I’d done housework all my life. It was the sort of open rule that women who tried to do anything so weird as writing were unseemly and possibly neglectful.”

      • That’s it absolutely. I don’t mind the things I’m doing, it’s the things I wouldn’t have been allowed to do that would hurt!

    • We are all products of our time, but within that, I think there are huge spectrums of how much that shapes us, and how much we attempt to break out of the mould and hope for something more.

      Obviously there were women who wanted the vote, when they’d never had it, because so many fought SO hard for us to get it! And some of those women dreamed of so much more, more even than we have. But there were others who must have been totally content with their lot, or some whose life was so hard they never had the time to imagine even a tiny bit more. Those I feel for the most.

  4. Lori Watk says

    I haven’t been on for a while and what a big surprise I got! WOW! I’m in total awe of you. You have taken yourself and Mr. D into the past and wrote about it so we got to experience it with you (while not putting ourselves in the past, literally). I’m impressed to say the least and although your using a computer (we understand that writing it out and posting it later would not be as exciting as this is) you have cooked like the past, ate in the past, wore the clothes of the past, did laundry, etc… OH MY! AWE! TOTAL AWE! I’m going to add one little tiny detail that has not been expressed. You’ve said how medical advances has improved over the past 100 years. Yes, you’re totally right, however not only has medical advances improved over the past 100 years, so has the advances in animal medicine. Your cat would live longer, have better care and even advance like a rabies shot would and could save your cat from death. Cats, dogs, and other animals have survived rabies by a simple shot that doesn’t allow their little bodies to get that disease. I seen the post with the corset and the picture and imagine how healthier your cat actually is compared to 100 years ago. I’m not exactly sure when a rabies shot was available and if some people could actually afford it. Looked it up, a rabies vaccine was available in 1979 so no your cat if exposed to rabies would indeed have been put down. Not to sound harsh about it, of course. My cats are terribly adorable. Not to mention kitty litter, so your cat would have been outside most of the time, exposing it to even harsher things such as weather. Indoor animals were not really indoor animals 100 years ago. Wow, I sound like an idiot. I hope people understand what I’m saying. Okay, lets just put this simply not only did modern medicine save humans it saved animals as well. I’m glad you have your sweet cat now compared to 100 years ago.

    • Elise says

      I agree with you completely. The fates of animals and poor children are why I shun the idea of living in the past. Sometimes, I even feel guilty for enjoying historical things at all because then I think of how the animals and the poor children suffered. Imagine not being able to afford food for your child who is crying! Or watching a horse being beat with nothing you can do. In too many places in the world, children and animals continue to suffer. It’s depressing.

      And so then I realise that it’s a better choice to DO something. The International Rescue Committee and Humane Society International are great charities that help poor children and animals, respectfully. Volunteering costs nothing. Reporting suspected abuse that you witness in your own country takes only a couple of minutes. Even supporting our intrepid blogger does its bit to make the world a better place.

      Whew! Rant over. And yes, animals DO matter!

      • Lori Watk says

        We just took in an abused kitten. He can’t handle being picked up yet, was taken from his mother far too early so he suckles still (or tries to on a fluffy blanket, I give him goat’s milk to help sub his diet a bit) and can’t handle quick movements or sound. My other cats have taken him in, which makes me glad and our dog guards over him when he sleeps. He can’t sleep unless someone is there to cuddle against and he has to do that blanket suckle thing first. So yes I agree, abuse of animals has improved now as well. I report abuse and I’m not scared of reprisal for doing so. Also, as soon as he reaches two pounds I’ll have him fixed. Also, when I have him fixed it will be free because of a charity. Almost every place I have been or lived has some sort of charity that does this free of charge in most cases. I give to the charity in my area – food, blankets, sleeping mats for dogs and cats (which I make myself) heating pads for small babies (people don’t think of this but its very important for kittens and puppies to have something warm to lay against like its their mother), etc… However, I’m extremely grateful for living now rather then 100 years ago. But I believe in reincarnation so I’m sure I lived 100 years ago and I’m sure I did all right with it but I’m grateful to be living now.

        • Elise says

          You wonderful person for all that you do! With a little abused kitten in your care, wonder you feel so strongly!

          I do hope for a day of racial equality, compassion for animals, and many other things. And it sounds like you are doing so much work for that. Since you believe in reincarnation, maybe you also did some of the work that laid the foundation for the charities that exist, now.

          • Elise says

            I also just realized that maybe my original comment appeared to mean that I was criticizing you for caring and not acting. Sometimes, when I feel strongly, I have difficulty communicating effectively. So I am sorry for probably speaking poorly.

            What I wanted to express is how neat it is to “meet” someone who cares! That made me think of how I feel about living in the past, and how I cope with those feelings now so that I don’t expire from guilt and to carry on the good progress of my forebears that made this world better than the previous one. I never thought of animal medicine, but I do think often about animals (and children, and the poor, and ethnic minorities, and childbirth, and sexism), and took it to an adjacent topic.

    • Lori Watk says

      And as I look at my animals I’m extremely glad that animal medicine has advance along with human medicine. Maybe not as quickly but it has improved a lot. Germany has not had a reported (that’s important part) case of rabies in two years, maybe longer (as of 2008). So they drop rabies vaccines from helicopters and vaccinate the wild life and rabies doesn’t spread, that’s quite an advance.

    • Thank you!

      I entirely agree with your sentiment about animal health, but at least in my case, it isn’t entirely technically accurate. Neither NZ nor Hawaii (the only places I have had animals) have rabies, or predators, so those would not be issues for animal lifespans. I’ve known cats in Hawaii to live to 18 without ever seeing a vet in their life (not out of neglect, but because there have been years when there is no vet on Molokai).

      In addition, most cats and dogs in 1916 probably ate a diet that was much healthier for them (i.e. mainly meat) than most of the cheap modern cat foods. These days my vet tells me that the biggest health problem for cats and dogs is obesity, and it’s caused by the commercial foods. We’ve gone past the benefits and come back around to killing them with kindness 🙁

      When they really need it, vets are a modern convenience I am indeed eminently grateful for – just not, in my case, for the reasons you mentions!

  5. I’m sure you would have done fine in 1916. After all, you would have grown up with the idea of wearing a corset, and the food and washing and cooking technologies would already have been familiar.

    “And there are things about 1916 that are better than 2016, things I will try to carry into my modern life.”

    Which things are those? Perhaps you will discuss them in another blog post, later?

  6. Lori Watk says

    When I think about growing up with the idea of wearing a corset, cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc… I have to agree with Catherine. Growing up knowing those are the things you would have to do is completely different then putting yourself in the past. Like the show “Outlander” her traveling through time into Scotland 200 years ago. She did fairly well with it, even though its just a show, I can see how growing up knowing all those things and being taught them at an early age would indeed make a difference.
    I too would like to know the better parts of it.

  7. Lori Watk says

    Did not know that about Hawaii or New Zealand, so that is a good thing as far as animals go. Here in the states (mainland) it is and was a major concern.

    • Corinne says

      No rabies here in Australia either which is why the Australian government made such a big thing of Johnny Depp smuggling in his dogs a couple of months ago. It doesn`t take much for our biosecurity to be compromised especially when people like Depp think they are above the law. Feeding pets at that time would not have been as convenient as it is now. I was reading “Nella Last`s War” recently (a WW2 diary) and she mentions going to the fishmongers to try and get some fish heads for her cat- that wouldn`t satisfy my cats very much!

  8. Kate says

    I’ve just been catching up on your 1916 posts and I’ve found them fascinating because I had a great-grandmother living in Wellington in 1916, so thank you for this insight into what life would have been like for my family.

  9. If I’d lived my life 100 years ago I wouldn’t be alive. I would have died when I had my first son due to uterine rupture which was only avoided due to my emergency C-section, assuming I hadn’t at 10 years old when my appendix did its thing.
    No, life isn’t perfect now, but it is at least life and that’s not something to be sneezed at. I’m not even going to go into last year’s health issues except to say that once again I’m glad for modern medicine.
    I’m also glad I don’t have to vote how my husband does if I don’t want to, that me enjoying woodworking and plumbing type activities is not a problem nowadays.

    • Rachelle: I probably wouldn’t be alive if I had been born 100 years earlier, either. My mother was 43 at my birth, which had to be by C-section. Moreover, I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic, and insulin wasn’t even produced for injection until 1921!

    • Rachelle: I probably wouldn’t be alive if I had been born 100 years earlier, either. My mother was 43 at my birth, which had to be by C-section. Moreover, I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic, and insulin wasn’t even produced for injection until 1921!

      • Elise says

        Whew! Thank goodness for the two of you! Glad that the good things are what is being explored in this blog!

  10. Johanne says

    Love your experiment, Leimomi. Congratulations on all you’ve learned and all we’ve learned through you.

    I’m not sure where to insert this quote from Alice Munro, 84, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. I feel it lends itself, if tangentially, to the discussion of whether women would miss what they hadn’t known. I feel very strongly that they would and did and that attitudes controlled women as well as circumstances.
    ““It wasn’t the housework or the children that dragged me down. I’d done housework all my life. It was the sort of open rule that women who tried to do anything so weird as writing were unseemly and possibly neglectful.”

  11. Grace Darling says

    I feel like I’ve just had a good old chin-wag with my grannies.
    Thank you.

  12. Anonyplgrim says

    Thank you for highlighting this. Too often it seems that re-enactors and hobbyists ignore the ugly bits.

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