We in the present often romanticize the past, and imagine that people in previous centuries led “simpler” lives. We make assumptions about how interesting/dull–or easy/difficult–their existences were, based mainly on our own feelings about modern technology. I think a common supposition is that before the widespread installation of electricity into twentieth-century homes, all work was done during daylight hours and as soon as the sun set, the collective populace climbed into bed. That isn’t actually the case.
I have written before about the bustling downtown area of Wellington in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, with its board sidewalks and canvas awnings, summer street sprinkler, and kerosene lamps. The local businesses were open from early in the morning until very late at night, accommodating public expectations of access to commerce at all times of day. When William Rininger relocated his operation farther east down Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue), he felt it was worthwhile to point out in an advertisement that his new establishment would be “the best lighted Store Room in Northern Ohio” (The Wellington Enterprise, 8-9-1882, pg. 2).
In 1881, Rininger was one of nineteen local businessmen to sign a pledge agreeing to close at 7PM each evening (except Saturdays!) but only during the presumably slower snow season from November until April. Grocers Joseph Turley and Bowlby & Hall also signed the compact, “for the purpose of giving more time to our clerks and relaxation from business to ourselves” (The Wellington Enterprise, 11-23-1881, pg.3). This shows, of course, that 7PM was earlier than established closing times.
Enterprise publisher John Houghton agreed that earlier closings were a good idea. In 1884, he wrote an editorial urging the town tradesmen to cooperate with one another and make the arrangement permanent. “The eternal grind kept up from 6 or 7 in the morning till nine or ten o’clock in the evening is notoriously exhausting physically and mentally, but effectually puts an end to all recreation and home life” (3-5-1884, pg. 4). Houghton was essentially advocating more “work-life balance.” One might guess that the shopkeepers in the village were following the example of nearby urban environments, but in fact, Houghton argues that local businesses ought to close “at 6 p. m. as in cities” and that Wellington residents would soon get used to the new arrangement and adjust their purchasing habits accordingly.
There is a wonderful book by A. Roger Ekirch called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005). It focuses mainly on the period from 1500 until 1750, much earlier than the era I am examining in this blog. But Ekirch looks at the past and comes to a different conclusion than many people today reach: he believes that pushing back the darkness has not necessarily improved our lives. Early lighting had bad odors and caused extensive pollution; shift labor expanded round-the-clock in factories; privacy decreased, as more people took to the public arena at night and more law enforcement officers observed them. There was a little notice in the Enterprise that I saw a few months back and now cannot find to quote exactly, but it quipped that if certain gentlemen were going to tamper with street lights to conceal their assignations, then they ought to know that they had been observed and their actions, if continued, would be reported to the authorities.
Better or worse, sophisticated or quaint. It’s all a matter of perspective.