On your way to work, you grab breakfast from one of the dozen coffee shops you pass. Most of the goods you buy get delivered right to your door. If you live in a large city and have a car, you barely use it, preferring Uber or ride-sharing services. You feel modern. Your parents didn’t do any of this. Most of their meals were consumed at home, and they took their cars everywhere, in particular to purchase all the stuff they needed.
You think of your life as being so different from theirs. It is. You think of this as progress. It isn’t.
We tend to consider social development as occurring in a straight line: we progressed from A to B to C, with each step being more advanced and, we assume, better than the one before. This perception isn’t always accurate, though. Part of learning from the past is appreciating that we humans have tried many different ways to organize ourselves, with lots of repetitions. If we want success now, we need to understand our past efforts in order to see what changes might be needed this time around.
Would you be surprised to learn that in Victorian London (the nineteenth century), the vast majority of people ate their food on the run? That ride sharing was common? Or that you could purchase everything you needed without ever leaving your house?
To be fair, these situations didn’t exist in the exact instantiations that they do today. Obviously, there was no amazon.com back then. But while the parallels are not exact, they are worth exploring, if only to remind us that no matter the array of pressures we face as a society, there are only so many ways we can organize ourselves.
To start with, street food was the norm. All classes except the very wealthy (thus, essentially, anyone who worked) ate on the run. At outdoor stalls or indoor counters. Food purchased from street vendors or chophouses (the Victorian equivalent of fast-food outlets). Food was purchased and consumed outside of the home, on the commute to or from work.
Why? Why would everyone from the middle classes to the working poor eat out?
Unlike today, eating out was cheaper then. As Judith Flanders explains in The Victorian City:
Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. … Several factors — the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities — meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.
Even food delivery isn’t new.
Every eating place expected to deliver meals, complete with cutlery, dishes and even condiments, which were brought by waiters who then stayed on, if wanted, to serve. Endless processions of meals passed through the streets daily. … Large sums of money were not necessary for this service.
People need to eat. It’s fundamental. No matter what living conditions we find ourselves in, the drive away from starvation means that we are willing to experiment in how we organize to get our food.
Public transportation took hold in Victorian London and is another interesting point of comparison. Then, its use was not due to a sense of civic responsibility or concerns about the environment. Public transportation succeeded because it was faster. Most cities had grown organically, and streets were not designed for the volume they had to carry in the nineteenth century. There was no flow, and there were no traffic rules. The population was swelling and road surfaces would be devastating to today’s SUVs. It was simply painful to get anywhere.
Thus the options exploded. Buses and cabs to get about the city. Stagecoaches and the railroad for longer excursions (and commutes!). And the Underground. Buses “increased the average speed of travel to nearly six miles an hour; with the railway this figure rose to over twelve, sometimes double that.” Public transportation allowed people to move faster, and “therefore, areas that had traditionally been on the edges of London now housed commuters.”
As a direct consequence of the comparable efficiency of the public transportation system, “most people could not imagine ever owning a private carriage. It was not just the cost of the carriage itself, of the horse and its accoutrements — harnesses and so on — but the running costs: the feed and care of the horse, the stabling, as well as the taxes that were imposed on carriages throughout the century.” As well as the staff. A driver, footmen, their salaries and uniforms.
A form of ride-sharing was also common then. For travel outside of the city, one could hire a post-chaise. “A post-chaise was always hired privately, to the passenger’s own schedule, but the chaise, horses, driver and postboys all belonged to the coaching inn or a local proprietor.”
Aside from the cost of owning your own transportation, neither the work day nor the city infrastructure was designed for reliance on individual transport. London in the nineteenth century (and to a large extent today) functioned better with an extensive public transport system.
There was no social safety net. You worked or you died.
Finally, living in London in the nineteenth century was very much about survival. There was no social safety net. You worked or you died. And given the concentration of wealth in the top tier of society, there was a lot of competition among the working poor for a slight edge that would mean the difference between living another day and starvation.
This situation is likely part of the reason that sellers went to buyers, rather than the other way around. Unlike today, when so many bookstores are owned by the same company or when a conglomerate makes multiple brands of “unique” luxury goods, a watercress girl owned and sold only the watercress she could carry. And this watercress was no different from the bundles the girl one street over had. The competition to sell was fierce.
And so, as Flanders describes, in the first half of the nineteenth century, street vendors in all neighborhoods sold an astonishing array of goods and services. First chimney sweeps, then milkmaids; “the next sellers were the watercress girls, followed by the costermongers, then the fishmongers’, the butchers’ and the bakers’ boys to take the daily orders.” Next came the guy selling horsemeat.
Other goods regularly available from itinerant sellers in the suburbs included: footstools; embroidery frames; clothes horses, clothes-pegs and clothes line; sponges, chamois leathers, brushes and brooms; kitchen skewers, toasting-forks and other tinware; razors and penknives; trays, keyrings, and small items of jewellery; candlesticks, tools, trivets, pots and pans; bandboxes and hatboxes; blackleading for kitchen ranges and grates, matches and glue; china ornaments and crockery; sheets, shirts, laces, thread, ribbons, artificial flowers, buttons, studs, handkerchiefs; pipes, tobacco, snuff, cigars; spectacles, hats, combs and hairbrushes; firewood and sawdust.
You didn’t have to leave your house to purchase items for meeting your daily needs.
This is not to say that Victorian London had everything figured out or that progress is always a loop. For example, there is no time in history in which it was better to be a woman than it is now, and modern medicine and the scientific method are significant steps up over what has come before. But reading these accounts of how London functioned almost two hundred years ago hints that a lot of what we consider modern innovations have been tried before.
Maybe ways of organizing come and go depending on time and place. When things are useful, they appear; as needs change, those things disappear. There really is no new way of doing business.
But we can look at the impact of social progress, how it shapes communities, and what contributes to its ebb and flow. Flanders notes that in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift to going out to shop in stores. What changes did this give rise to? And how did those changes contribute to the loop we are experiencing and to our current desire to have everything brought to us?