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“Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be”

A few weeks back I was hunched over breakfast of french toast and eggs at the counter of a genuine Fifties-era diner in my hometown in rural northern California when a fellow sitting a couple of stools away started to wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” To him that meant the late Fifties, the supposed “golden age” when Lim’s Cafe, the restaurant where we were sitting, had opened in Redding on a commercial strip of state highway known as the “Miracle Mile.”

“I’d go back there in a minute,” he said.

Really? I thought. I was a carefree five-year-old in 1957 (the fellow at the other stool looked to be a bit younger than I) but even then I think I knew that Fifties America wasn’t some sort of utopia.

I didn’t have to resort to the smart phone in my pocket to come up with a bunch reasons why my dining companion was mistaken.

The Cold War and the Red Scare. Segregation. The “vast wasteland” of “lowest common denominator” network television that gave us the “Beverly Hillbillies,” America’s No. 1 show for many years running. Life before the Pill and safe, legal abortions. Polio. The world before angiograms and heart bypass surgery. Back when women were pigeon-holed into teaching and nursing careers and when being gay condemned one to a life of fear and shame.

But I knew where my counter mate was coming from. A few minutes earlier he’d been discussing with the waitress and another patron the local crime problem (mostly petty theft by drug addicts) and remembering “the good old days” when people hereabouts could leave their cars and homes unlocked.

Still, I couldn’t imagine giving up the world we have today—with all its options, personal freedoms, mobility, and miracles of medicine and technology—for a “simpler” bygone time, just for a false sense of security.

The conversation in the diner that morning reminded me of one of my favorite books, the 1974 classic by Otto Bettmann: The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible!

If you don’t know it, buy it, read it and pass it on.

Born in Leipzig, Germany, to Jewish parents, Bettmann fled Nazism in the mid-Thirties, and arrived in New York with two trunk-loads of photographs, engravings, line drawings and other material that became the core of the lucrative Bettman Archive, a go-to resource for publishers for decades.

In The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! Bettmann, known as the “Picture Man,” used some of his vast archival material to debunk the nostalgia for life in America between the end of the Civil War and the early 1900s.

In the brief introduction he wrote: “I have always felt that our times have overrated and unduly overplayed the fun aspect of the past. What we have forgotten are the hunger of the unemployed, crime, corruption, the despair of the aged, the insane and the crippled.”

The past we nostalgically pine for, he argued, wasn’t “spared the problems we consider horrendously our own, such as pollution, addiction, urban blight or educational turmoil.”

The 207-page volume is organized into 11 chapters—from “Air,” “Traffic” and “Housing” to “Work,” “Crime,” “Food and Drink,” “Health” and “Travel.”

Before the advent of the automobile, horses—three million by one estimate at the start of the 20th century—befouled our streets, “attracting swarms of flies and radiating a powerful stench.”

Manure and garbage dumped on the sidewalks of our fast-growing cities rotted to a slimy mess that smelled “like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.”

Industrial pollution in places like Pittsburgh killed trees, grass and flowers.

Poorly constructed housing and commercial buildings became firetraps for residents and workers.

In city slums children “slept under doorways…gravitated to prostitution and crime.”

Life wasn’t much better in rural America, Bettmann writes. Women faced endless drudgery. The “young country wife…soon acquired the calloused hands, stooped back and careworn features that marked her station.”

Workplace accidents were tragically common and child laborers toiled for “$1.50 to $2.50 a week.”

Poorly-lit streets favored the criminal element. In Chicago, “muggings were commonplace, even in daylight.”

Corruption and graft, from policemen to politicians, were widespread. Citizens sometimes took matters into their own hands. The “lynching epidemic” of the late 19th century was “perhaps the darkest stain on the history of the United States,” Bettmann writes.

Before improved transportation and refrigeration, fresh produce, fruit and meat were at a premium, even for the well-off. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly “complained that in markets throughout New York there were cartloads of decayed fruit such as bruised oranges and rotten bananas ‘to partake of which was almost certain death.’”

Milk and butter and other foods, including candy, were routinely adulterated.

Doctors, Bettmann writes, “were mocked as ‘inveterate prescribers’ feeding medicines of which they knew little into bodies of which they knew less.”

(In my hometown, circa 1900, toxic vapors from copper smelters to the north and west denuded hills and killed fruit orchards dozens of miles away— and led to a pioneering class-action lawsuit and injunction. A lynch mob strung up two brothers charged in a stage hold-up and left their bodies hanging for passengers on the Central Pacific Railroad to see.)

By surveying the “not so good old days” Bettmann concludes: “we will find much to be grateful for. We are moving forward, if but slowly.”

In the years since Bettmann wrote The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! the pace of progress has picked up dramatically. At the risk of sounding Panglossian I don’t think there’s been a better time to be alive than the present.

If I run into the fellow from the diner again I’ll give him a copy of Bettman’s book and gently admonish him that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

In the meantime I gave a copy to my daughter, a sophomore at UCLA. Just in case she starts feeling nostalgic about the Nineties, her good old days.

Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among this former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C.

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