Three and a half hours from New York and an hour and a half from Boston, you can find a window to the 1830s. It’s called Old Sturbridge Village.
Old Sturbridge Village is a gorgeous, painstakingly recreated New England community set in a period 50 years after the American Revolution, 30 years before the Civil War. “Interpreters” walk around in clothing from that era and craftsmen do everything from throwing pots to making nails in a blacksmith shop, from shearing sheep to dying wool. Old Sturbridge Village is a refuge from all that is modern, antisocial and unpleasant. It is an oasis just off I-84 and just south of the Mass Pike.
As idyllic as Old Sturbridge Village might appear, there are certain aspects of living in the 1830s that we would not want to experience today. No dentistry. Shorter life spans. High infant mortality rate. Those unfortunate realities to one side, there are plenty of lessons that we moderns could take from our industrious New England forebears. So here they are.
- Live in community. Human beings have never been so isolated or atomized as they are today, leading to all manner of social ills from depression to mass tragedy. When you live in a small village, you don’t have a lot of privacy, but you do have a lot of contact with your fellow human beings. You aren’t alone, staring into a device, as are so many of us today. Living in community is a healthy move.
- Live small. The first building you see as you enter the “living museum” that is Old Sturbridge Village: a 600 square foot home, typical in size for the 1830s. Who lived in a 600 square foot home back then? Anywhere from two to 11 people, depending on the size of the extended family under its relatively tiny roof. When you live small, it’s not just about you. You have to learn to get along with others. It’s awfully hard to be selfish and self-centered when you don’t have a room of your own where you can lock yourself away. You’ve got to learn to get along with family members. Were families happier then, back when you had two or three to a bed? Hard to say. Did people grow up a little faster? No doubt.
- Be in tune with nature. Ask the tinsmith at Old Sturbridge Village what his working hours are, and without looking up from the portable lantern he’s fashioning he’ll tell you, ”dawn to dusk.” Most Americans in the 1830s were farmers, and they kept farmer’s hours. As a result, they would have been much more in tune with nature than we are. In an era decades before the existence of electric light, they pretty much had to stop working once natural light ceased. So they would have been much more conscious of the passage of the seasons than we are today. Sleep with our iPhones by our pillows, so that we don’t miss a vital text in the middle of the night? They would have thought we were nuts.
- Work hard. There may not be a sign anywhere in Old Sturbridge Village saying “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” but in 1830s America, you didn’t need any warnings like that. Most people were not affluent, and they would do peace work in their homes, making hats or gloves, in order to supplement the family income. Blacksmiths and potters were typically farmers who needed something to occupy themselves and make money, after the crops have been planted and before it was time for the harvest. New Englanders did not need to be told by their religious leaders to work hard. There really was no choice. As a result, they were probably much more satisfied with their lives than we moderns who have so much unstructured time
- See your work through from beginning to end. In today’s world of specialization, most of us take on one part of a larger process, finish our work, and throw it “over the wall,” never to know how things ultimately went. Attorneys can do research on a case and never know its disposition. Radiologists can read MRIs and never learn if the patient lived or died. By contrast, in the 1830s, if you threw a pot on a wheel, that pot was yours and yours alone to craft, from the moment to slapped clay down until you fired it in a kiln. There’s something soul-satisfying about seeing something through from inception to completion. Our ancestors from the 1830s may not have had 600 channels plus Netflix, but they probably had a much higher rate of job satisfaction and therefore happiness.
- Eat healthy. There’s plenty of fudge to be found in the gift shop at Old Sturbridge Village, and they definitely made fudge back in the 1830s as well. But it was undoubtedly must harder to be a junk food junkie back then. People ate copious amounts of pork and beef, with fresh vegetables from their gardens, washed with hard apple cider. That may not be strictly Ketogenic, or even Paleo, but it’s hard to imagine that there was a lot of obesity – not when there were no wide screens to lounge in front of or an Instagram feed to scroll through. Food didn’t have preservatives, additives, human growth hormone, or any other nasty ingredient. Milk was milk. They might not have had air conditioning or heat, but they sure ate well.
It’s easy to look back on folks who lived in tiny houses and seldom left their communities. The one-room schoolhouse where all children were educated at the same time despite differences in age might not offer the benefits of Khan Academy.
Would I want to live in the 1830s? Probably not. I would miss my dentist (and my Netflix). But is it worth visiting the 1830s if only for a day, and pondering the difference between how people lived then and how we live today? Absolutely. Hie thee to Sturbridge Village, and draw your own conclusions.