The Good Old Days

When exactly were The Good Old Days? To hear some tell it, in The Good Old Days everyone always told the truth, paid their debts, used good manners, were punctual and had great penmanship or died trying. However, as children, we were cautioned about how stories change in the telling over time–ask any fisherman.

Those pining for this bygone era seem selective in the parts of The Good Old Days they want to keep. They don’t seem to long for The Good Old Days when, say, the leading cause of death in children was infection because antibiotics hadn’t been invented, or when there was no National Weather Service to predict tornados or hurricanes, no mammography and no Viagra.

I admit that the Founding Fathers had some amazing penmanship, and I like that in a man–and woman. And, yes, while society has lost some (OK, a lot) of its civility, and all those social graces could use a bit (OK, a lot) of polishing, there are a few things about The Good Old Days that somehow just don’t measure up to the tales. So, I gave it some thought. Whale bone corsets and wooden washboards came to mind–along with the horrors they could inflict upon my wardrobe, ribs and knuckles.

Then I came across a charming little tome called, An Edwardian Guide to Life by Cornelia Dobbs, penned around 1908. This delightful quick read gave me quite an education about The Good Old Days–at least the ones around 1908–and I found myself left with a few mixed feelings.

Clearly science and medicine are areas we don’t need to turn back the clock on. Cornelia Dobbs cautions that, “Decomposing animal and vegetable substances yield various noxious gases, which enter the lungs and corrupt the blood.” I’m not exactly sure how a lady of her time and position would’ve been exposed to such research or experience, but I’ll take her word for it.

Some of Dobbs’ suggestions seem more steeped in reason than science. It’s here I believe she makes her case for the salvation of society. “Late hours and anxious pursuits exhaust the nervous system and produce disease and premature death.” I’m sure there is a good old-fashioned Southern Mama-ism in there somewhere.

On the home front, Dobbs dedicates a fair amount of concern for what the color of your wallpaper said about your financial and marital status.

Regarding all matters social, Dobbs does offer some advice with which I could not agree more: “Do not strain after great people.” Seriously, no one likes a suck-up. The notorious Mr. Collins of Jane Austen’s famed Pride and Prejudice comes to mind. Dobbs also cautions against speaking with your mouth full, and I’m good with that.

Toward the end of the book, (worth every pound, pence or farthing), she offers priceless justification we’ve been endlessly searching for and one that those peddling gym memberships have hoped never be discovered. “Exercise should be begun and finished gradually, never abruptly. To continue exercise until a profuse perspiration or a great degree of weariness takes place is far from being wholesome.” Amen.

For all Dobbs’ advice, I have three distinct arguments against the complete virtues of The Good Old Days: 1. Air conditioning, 2. Dentistry, 3. Spanx.