Friday, July 27, 2012

Then and Now...

I’m writing this blog from Saratoga Springs, New York. The birthplace of racing, the place where the rich from New York City went to get away from the crowding, the summer heat, and the bad city air. If they wanted the beach they went to Newport, Rhode Island, if they wanted racing and the Adirondack Mountains, they went to Saratoga Springs

Porch at Saratoga Arms
The main street of Broadway still boasts many of the buildings that were around in the 1870’s to 1890’s. Our hotel, The Saratoga Arms used to be a men’s boarding house.

The evening was perfect, around 70 degrees, and I sat on a bench to people watch. And then I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself back 120-40 years, as a woman sitting on a similar bench, on this very street. I’ve always marveled in how women are essentially the same now as in the past.

Essentially maybe, but not as much as I thought. The differences assailed me:

1. I was sitting alone, waiting for my husband. In 1880, as a woman of bearing (let’s just assume my 1880’s woman is wealthy) I would never have ventured down the street alone without a male companion as my chaperon.

2. As you see in the photo, I’m relaxed and casual. Comfortable is the key word. In 1880 I would’ve been wearing a corset, and would sport a bustle. No slumping allowed!

3. I’m sitting with my legs crossed. No proper 1880 lady sat in such a manner. And risk exposing her ankle? Never.

4. I’m wearing denim capris. Only workmen wore denim (thank you Levi Strauss—in 1873), no women ever wore pants, much less ones that revealed their bare calf and ankle. Brazen Nancy!

5. I wore a voile blouse. Comfy and cool. An 1880’s woman would have worn a dress or a blouse and skirt, to her ankles, with frilly sleeves and collar, perhaps made out of gabardine or cambric or silk. And underneath she would wear the corset, bustle, a corset cover, pantaloons, and a bevy of petticoats or underskirts. Although it was only 70 degrees on this day in Saratoga Springs, two days earlier, it was an unseasonal 100! How did the people of 1880 deal with that kind of heat? (I don’t know. I can’t imagine!)

6. Getting down to the issue of sweat… I’m pretty sure I didn’t offend anyone by my smell. But in 1880? Before deodorants sanitized our nasal palate? And with clothes that weren’t washable? I can’t imagine the aroma of the past.

7. I wore sandals with rubber bottoms, and expensive arches that keep my back from hurting when I walk a lot. In 1880 the ladies wore button-up shoes with hard soles, and of course stockings to above their knees.

8. I wore sunglasses to deal with the glare—prescription, bi-focal sunglasses so I can see far away and read. In 1880 sunglasses were rare. But I would have had a parasol.

9. I sat there with a bare head. In 1880 I would have worn a hat—and not just a visor.

10. I carried a purse containing a credit card, driver’s license, insurance card, makeup, money, phone… I collect antique purses and the ones that I have from this era are delicate and often made of beads. They could hold a small compact for powder, and perhaps a few coins. The women didn’t carry money. The men paid for everything. Sounds good to me.
11. My skin was pampered with wrinkle cream with SPF to protect my face from the harmful rays of the sun, my hands with lotion, my heels with foot cream, and my lips with Chapstick. In 1880 face cream and lotions were around, often homemade, but they were often greasy, and certainly didn’t make wrinkles go away (though I’m not sure the stuff we use now achieves that either.)

12. I took a shower this morning and dried my hair with a hair-dryer. Special, magical Ions made the frizz go away (sort of.) The woman of 1880 might have had a bath in her hotel—whether full or just a hip bath—but it was a big production that involved servants lugging hot water up many stairs. Many hotels, even the nice ones, only had one bathroom down the hall that needed to be shared. If you needed to go potty in the middle of the night? Pull out the chamber pot. But I have questions: were there public restrooms? What did people do when they needed to go? And how did they manage it wearing the many-layers of clothes?
13. The sounds of passing cars invaded the moment, but in 1880 it wouldn’t have been any quieter. Horses and carriages on cobblestones, whinnying, the sound of whips and drivers yelling at their steeds and other drivers. I read that the width of Broadway was determined by how much space was needed for a horse and carriage to turn-around.

14. Now on to my thoughts… Sitting on the bench I was contemplating an idea for a new business that my husband and I had been discussing. In 1880 most women weren’t interested in business, nor would they be consulted about any such decisions. Not because they weren’t smart enough or able enough, but because it just wasn’t a possibility for most of them. What did they think about? What excited them intellectually? What did a woman do when she had aspirations and ambition? Did she sit and stew about it? Or did she make waves? Or… was the idea of her limited place in society so deeply ingrained that she didn’t let such a thought cross her mind at all?

15. I had a caffeine headache and took an Excedrin—with water from my water bottle. The 1880 woman might have some headache powder, but she would have had to go back to her lodging to take it. And carrying around water 24/7? Forgeddaboutit.

16. Then I started thinking about my cell phone, checking the weather forecast, my email, reading reviews of restaurants and things-to-do… we can’t even venture into that arena, as there was no comparable opportunities for quick information in 1880.

17. Speaking of eating… we’d just gotten back from eating at a Mexican restaurant. Mentioning that cuisine, our 1880 woman might ask, “What kind of restaurant?” Burritos, enchiladas, and margaritas were beyond her realm of knowledge and taste.

Detailing the differences between myself and my fellow female in 1880 made me rather sad. Although I often say I would have loved to wear those luscious clothes and go to balls, and be courted and pampered for my femininity, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty listed above, I don’t think I’d trade places with her. Our lives today are so incredibly at-ease, with choices and ways to give ourselves comfort so we don’t need to suffer heat, pain, thirst, hunger, and lack of opportunity. We are capable and able to get (or at least try for) anything our minds and hearts can imagine.

With this knowledge I vow to appreciate more and complain less.

Oooh, there’s a frozen yogurt shop across the street . . .

If you'd like to read some of my historical novels take a look here.//Nancy


  1. I had never thought about most of these things! Wow! Fascinating post! And I'm with you, savoring and appreciating the modern comforts we enjoy!

  2. Neither had I, Deb ... I loved the way Nancy juxtaposed today and yesterday.