What is perhaps the biggest challenge for social historians is to wrap our heads around the continuum of time: around the past and the present. We study the past even as we live in the present and we struggle to imagine what it was like when our ancestors walked the earth.

What is the present for us was the future for our ancestors and what is the past for us was the present for our ancestors. Our present will be the past for the generations who come after us.

Think about that for a moment.

You wake up in the morning and greet the day. Everything around you just ‘is’. The world is not the same as it was yesterday or last week or last year but everything around you is the present, the reality of your existence, for better or worse. Yesterday has lost the crispness of the present and while you were sleeping, your past has been edited by the vagaries of your memory. You can still remember the events of yesterday but they will be forever changed, altered by the dimension of time.

How, then, do we even try to imagine ourselves in a past that belongs to our great-great-grandfather or grandmother whose present took place in such a different time than ours? A past time for which we have no memory, however clouded by the passage of days? What connects us?

To be sure, we share the experiences of birth, life and death.

We have a place we call home. So did they. We have family. So did they. We have friends. So did they. We sleep and we wake. So did they. We drink to ease our thirst and we eat to ease our hunger. So did they.

But even beyond that, we have hopes and dreams and we sometimes have fears and anxieties about what life will bring our way.

So. Did. They.

If we immerse ourselves in sources contemporary to our ancestor’s time and place such as newspapers, we even find that the issues of their time were not so different than those in our time. Economy, jobs, women’s issues, cheap imports. You might think that these are all today’s issues and might be surprised to find out that they were also hot topics of conversation in our ancestor’s lives as we can see in the following ‘Now and Then’ examples.

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The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Economy

We all worry about the ebb and flow of the economy across the generations. Parents are richer than children. Children are richer than parents.

Now: Millennials Earnings Fall Behind their Parents

In 2016, CNN Money referenced a report by the British think tank Resolution Foundation that showed that millennials in the UK will be the first generation ever to have lower incomes than their parents at a similar age. In January 2017, an Advocacy group called the Young Invincibles examined the income, assets and net wealth of millennials and compared them to those of the boomer generation and found that they were earning about 20% less than their parents did at the same age.

A new report by the British think tank Resolution Foundation found that millennials in the U.K. are on track to be the first ever generation to record lower lifetime earnings than their parents. CNN Money 18 July 2016 by Alanna Petroff

Then: The WAY to be RICH and RESPECTABLE

In contrast, the newspapers in early 1791 discussed how the lower classes had begun to pull themselves out of poverty. Where once only the upper-classes were in possession of the luxuries of life, suddenly the common working man’s standard of living was improving with the increased trade brought about in these earliest days of the industrial revolution. Whereas most of our early ancestors were poor farmers and labourers, many of the subsequent generations migrated to the industrial cities, improving their standard of living and a new middle-class emerged in the nineteenth century.

THE great degree of luxury to which this country has arrived, within a few years, is not only astonishing but almost dreadful think of. Time was, when those articles indulgence, which now every mechanic aims at the possession of, were enjoyed only by the Lord or Baron of a district. Men were then happy to be the vassals or dependants of that Lord, and prided themselves in little but their submission and allegiance. This was the state of things during feudal government: but as, on the increase of trade, riches increased; men began to feel new wants, they became gradually less hardy and robust, grew effeminate as their property accumulated, and sighed for indulgencies they never dreamed of before. Chester Chronicle - Friday 18 February 1791

Industrialization and Automation

Just like our ancestors, we are concerned that new technology will take away jobs.

Now: Millions of UK workers at risk of being replaced by robots, study says

As breakthroughs in artificial intelligence gather momentum, the fears that people will lose their jobs to automation continue to grow.

More than 10 million UK workers are at high risk of being replaced by robots within 15 years as the automation of routine tasks gathers pace in a new machine age. A report by the consultancy firm PwC found that 30% of jobs in Britain were potentially under threat from breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI). In some sectors half the jobs could go. The report predicted that automation would boost productivity and create fresh job opportunities, but it said action was needed to prevent the widening of inequality that would result from robots increasingly being used for low-skill tasks.The Guardian, 24 March 2017 by Larry Elliot

Then: Luddites Protest During the Industrial Revolution

Back in our ancestor’s time, they were worried that the industrial revolution, which introduced machinery that could replace manual labour would put many out of work, but instead, mechanization only introduced new occupations.

At the Dublin Commission, June 29, six men were indicted under Lord Ellenborough’s act for assaulting Mr. James Butterworth on the I7th of April last, and wilfully cutting and maiming him with intent to murder. From Mr. Butterworth’s evidence it appeared that he has been established as a woollen cloth manufacturer in Dublin for seven years, and that the above assault was committed because he had, short time before, introduced into his manufactory two shearing machines for finishing the cloth. Four of the prisoners were journeymen shearmen, but the whole party who attacked Mr. Butterworth amounted to fifteen. Six or seven of them seeing him walking his own field Sunday morning, the 17th of April, entered it armed with swords, clubs, and cudgels, and when they came up to him, to use his own words, “began to beat him on the head with their unmerciful weapons; after one or two blows he lost his senses;” when lie recovered, he found himself stretched in his own parlour with his wife and several persons about him; he was beaten on the head, legs, thighs, arms, and shoulders. Four of the prisoners were found guilty. Carlisle Patriot - Saturday 09 July 1825

Cheap Imports

Now: Imports are Surpassing Home Manufacturing

We scour our retail shops, looking for garments that were made locally and complain about the imports taking over the marketplace.

Is ANYTHING you’re wearing made in Britain? Cheap imports have swamped the High Street? The Mail checked scores of outfits in 20 High Street shops – and found just one dress made in the UK. Here we reveal the full, shocking truth about the destruction of Britain’s clothes industry. Labels swim before my eyes — Warehouse, All Saints, H&M, John Rocha, Ben Sherman, Jasper Conran, Fred Perry, Calvin Klein, Nicole Farhi, Burton, Monki, Miss Selfridge. In all, during a two-hour period, I examine 63 items of clothing at random — and only then, at BHS, do I find what I’m looking for: one single item, a dress, which has been made in the UK. It is no secret that cheap imports have swamped the High Street in the past 20 years, but the extent to which they have destroyed home-grown manufacturing will shock you. It certainly stunned me. Since 2000, 52 per cent of jobs in the textile industry have been lost, and last year, we imported £12.5 billion more clothing than we exported. Daily Mail, 21 March 2012

Then: Imports are Surpassing Home Manufacturing

Things were no different for our ancestors who struggled to compete with the trade goods coming from the East Indies.

AT general Meeting of Muslin and Cotton Manufacturers, and Cotton Spinners, convened by public advertisement, and held at the Bulls Head, in Manchester, on Thursday, the 20th day of January 1791. Mr. SIMPSON, in the Chair, resolved unanimously, that the Cotton and Muslin Manufacturers are of the greatest Consequence to this Kingdom, giving Employment to near Half a Million of his Majesty’s subjects. That by means of the mills and other machinery, which have been lately invented and erected, at very great expense, these manufactures are now brought to great perfection; and those concerned in them are enabled to supply the whole consumption Great Britain, on very reasonable terms. That the British manufacturers having, at an enormous expense, and unremitting assiduity, attained this state of perfection, are exposed to continual danger and immense losses, by the importation of Muslins and Cotton Goods from the East Indies, manufactured by persons—the price of whose labour does not exceed even the amount of taxes paid to Government, by individual labourers in Great Britain. Manchester Mercury - Tuesday 22 February 1791

Women in the Workforce

Now: Women are Being Left Out of Top Jobs

Despite the advances we think we’ve made in the equality of the sexes, there are still inequalities in employment.

Women are still being left out of the top jobs and make up a tiny minority of Britain’s best paid people. In fact, of the 53,000 best-paid people in the UK, just 9 per cent were women in 2013. There might now be gaps in the glass ceiling that women can ascend through. But it still exists. Alessandra Casarico, a co-author of the report, points out that women become progressively rarer the higher you climb. Independent Tuesday 27 September 2016 by James Moore

Then: Female Employment

Our great-great-grandmothers also struggled to find equitable jobs.

To mind truly susceptible of tender feelings there arises a degree of uneasiness by observing the weaker sex exposed to all the hardships of civil life, from their being put to those laborious exercises which nature has more particularly designed for the man, whilst a great number of healthy robust fellows occupy those light and gentle employments which are evidently better calculated for women. The delicate nature of a woman renders her unfit for following the masculine labours of the field, and leads her rather to exercise her strength and ingenuity in the management of household affairs, leaving the other to the man’s more hardy constitution. But, besides this general distinction of field and household labour, there is another more particular. In arts, trade, and manufactures, which are carried chiefly within doors, there is necessity for men to occupy their departments, and conduct many of their operations; yet even here there is a natural distinction between the male and female offices. Whilst the man, by his superior strength and activity, performs those parts and executes those branches of trade which are too heavy, and by his mechanical powers accomplishes those schemes which are too intricate for the women, let her, on the other hand, perform such parts as are neither too abstruse for her mind, nor too laborious for her body, but which are suitable to her skill and delicacy of nature. As the Weaving of Muslin is now become such a fashionable pursuit in this place, and produces such abundance of employment, nothing can better calculated to engage the attention and industry of females than this light and easy branch. Numbers have already been employed in this way for some time, and, they find it altogether suitable to their capacity and agreeable to their inclination, and have at the same produced good work, and raised to themselves from 10s. 6d. to £1 1s. per week, it is proved to be a proper and advantageous employment for females, and well worthy of the consideration of the sex in general. But there arises another consideration: weaving shops are chiefly filled with men, or at least are superintended by instructors of the male sex, the other sex in consequence are necessarily subjected to an intercourse of persons and conversation incompatible with their modesty. This presents another idea, viz. that, have already adopted the plan of having female teachers well as well as female apprentices, it would be highly decorous pursue it, as in that way many shops might be well filled with work people, and every inconvenience and impropriety attended the present general practice of associating together males and females would be obviated, whilst the female part of the community would enjoy the comfortable recompense of a useful and profitable employment.Carlisle Journal - Saturday 26 February 1803

4 thoughts on “The Past and the Present

  1. What a great perspective you provided! The examples showed comparisons that brought your point to life. Thanks so much! I have ordered your book since I am attempting to write a family history.

  2. I am so pleased that, after adding your book to my Wish List on Amazon, I followed up the Author link and found your website. Will I be able to read all the articles before Christmas? I doubt it because each one causes me to rethink what I have put in my website articles. Thanks for the inspiration and all the hard work that I now have before me.

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