I know this makes me sound like an old lady, but lately I’ve been realizing how many things have fundamentally changed over my 50-odd years on this earth. Although I truly think my interest is not nostalgia but history.
Case in point. I went to the dentist last week. I sat in that chair as the hygienist cleaned my teeth, spraying water in my mouth then vacuuming it out again. And I remembered so many other times—including when I got my wisdom teeth taken out!—when I had to rouse myself to swish the water and spit in the cup. It was much of what made me hate going to the dentist. But no more. Now I can lie back, watch TV or just live in my head, and let the work get done without my participation.
Which makes me wonder: fifty years from now will some historical novelist have a scene set in a dentist office in the 1970s or 1980s and wonder what it was like back then? And will they be able to find that information?
Part of what has me thinking about all this is a book I picked up after we toured a historical home here in Dallas a few months ago. The small book, Willie, a Girl from a Town Called Dallas, is the memoir of a young woman who grew up in Dallas near the turn of the century and lived out most of her life there. She was the young bride for whom the home we toured was built. She wrote the book when she was in her nineties, back in the 1980s. And she gave details of life I’d not only never thought of but never would have imagined correctly if I had.
For example, did you know that in the early 1900s when you purchased fine china or silverware that you bought them at a jewelry store? That little tidbit thrilled me to no end. Why? Because I had never thought about where those things were purchased before there were true department stores. I’m so very glad she included that detail so that 2023 me would know.
It makes me wonder—are we chronicling such mundane things, the minutia of life, for the future historians and historical novelists? I have no idea. Perhaps no one will remember the spit bowls at the dentist office or getting on airplanes without going through security or being tethered in one place in order to use a telephone. All those things have changed in my lifetime, things my children have no memory of on their own but only know because I’ve told them.
I guess that’s why memoirs and letters and diaries of other eras are so important to those of us who want a record of the lives of the past. Those documents often insert a casual detail that future generations would not have known otherwise. It’s why I love combing through the papers of the past to find little bits of forgotten history to bring to life again through fiction.
Have you run across an unusual piece of life in the past? Tell us about it!