In my ever increasing fervor for all things British, we started watching a new series called Victorian Slum House, set at the East End of 1860s London. Several families have been brought in to try to live as the Victorian era poor lived. The series just started so I don't have a firm feel of it yet, but it brought me to several conclusions that will impact this blog.
I was shocked at how little people in the slums of London had. Not surprised. Shocked. The whole family pitched in doing piece work, anything from making matchstick boxes to sewing. Some of the participants did well, others barely scraped by. One family, after only one week was already in debt and slipping further down the drain. It happened that fast.
It was hard for me to reconcile why anyone would choose to live in a big city where opportunity was so limited, but this isn't the US. I imagine the England of the 1860s was limited by territory. Poverty chained these souls to where they were born.
While the US had already expanded from one coast to the other during the 1860s, it still hadn't colonized vast wildernesses. It was still possible to homestead on free land IF you could make a go of it via the Homestead Act. The government gave away millions of acres. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to discover the government was giving away land as late as 1973. (We missed it by two years!) Alaska still allowed it until 1986.
Not everyone is suited to farming, or even the trades. From my vantage point, the Victorian poor were poor mostly due to lack of education or skills. They did grunt work, tedious, mind numbing jobs like gluing a thousand matchboxes a day, or selling batches of watercress. The heads of the households (men) had better paying jobs but often at the cost of their health.
I was rather impressed with one family who took old, soiled clothes and re-tailored them into usable apparel. The whole family got involved, often staying up until the wee hours of the morning working. In the end, they not only had their rent money but a little left over.
And I loved the spirit of a different family when the main bread winner became injured. The whole family did whatever it took to make enough to pay their rent and food. One little girl in particular impressed me with her positive attitude. Granddad was down for the count, but she was determined to pick up the slack. This, from a little kid. I couldn't have been more proud had she been my kid.
Another family, a mom and two kids, didn't plan as well. Their jobs were to make fancier boxes, but they obviously weren't cut out for the work and only managed to sell a few. She was already in the red for their meals, and didn't have enough for the rent. Had this been real life, the mother and her children would've been evicted or offered the 'doss' house, lodging so cheap, you slept sitting up, hanging your arms over a clothes line to keep you sitting up. I suppose at least that was shelter from the elements, but that's as grim as you can get in what was then civilized society.
As I watched these re-enactors count their pennies, it reminded me very much about how I grew up. We never lived in the poverty they did, for which I am truly grateful, but every penny counted.
When I was a kid, my dad used to bring home his wages and my mom would put them away in a little cigar box. Every week, we did the cuentas, Spanish for sums (in this particular sentence). My mom would put aside a certain amount for food and rent. Anything extra would go in a special box for emergencies. My job at the end of the month was to deliver the rent money to the landlord, who owned the grocery and butcher shop on the corner. I remember feeling very proud that I was trusted with so much money.
As a child, I had no say in how we lived, but as an adult, you better believe I made active and informed choices. I was well educated and relatively book-smart. My mother wanted me to be a teacher, (in her eyes, a high-status job for a woman) but I knew myself too well. I tolerate children only slightly less than I do adults.
Since I had creative talent, I focused on that, moving forward with each job jump into better pay. Greg's talents lay elsewhere, but he landed at a company that would keep him for 40+ years and paid him well for his loyalty. It wasn't dumb luck. We chose our routes deliberately.
Luckily for us, we live in a society that allowed us to choose, a huge difference from 1860s London or even 1860s New York. Under those circumstances and considering my ethnicity, I might've been a domestic, and Greg a laborer.
Had we lived 150 years ago, life would've been eminently harsher. I'd like to think I'd probably still hook up with Greg and talk him into moving to Texas. Who knows? Maybe this is the second time we've done this! 😉
It's true, we stand on the shoulders of giants. What we have now is the work of millions of nameless people who lived, worked, and died, but left us a legacy from which to build from. I'm not talking about all the famous people we read about in books, but those who scratched a living from the sweat of their brow and bore their children along the way. To me, those are the real heroes.
When you start with nothing, the only place to go is up. Whether your goal is a good job, retirement, or a better start for your kids, I will share the things we did to better our circumstances.
Have you watched Victorian Slum House? What did you think of it? How accurate do you think it was?
For more thoughts on Victorian Slum House check out my updated post.