The Evolution Of Technology: How Things Got Done Before Modern Conveniences

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Humans adapt to new technology fairly quickly.

As such, it’s easy to lose sight of progress. Two decades ago, if you were waiting for a call, you’d have to sit at home next to your phone, which didn’t have a screen, other than perhaps a simple caller ID.

If you wanted to figure out the names of the stars of Love Boat (Gavin MacLeod, Ted Lange, and Lauren Tewes, among others), you’d have to head down to your local library instead of just shouting at your smartphone. If you wanted to see a home video, you’d have to connect your camcorder to a VCR, a process that required approximately 1,200 wires and an incredible amount of patience.

When technology improves our lives, we immediately begin taking it for granted. Go back a few centuries, and life was much, much harder—and weirder.

For instance, we bet you didn’t know that…

Before refrigeration, people kept milk fresh with frogs.

No, that’s not a misprint. In parts of Eastern Europe, people would put living frogs into pails of milk. The practice seemed to preserve warm dairy products, at least for a while—and, oddly enough, it’s supported by science.

A research group from Moscow State University and the University of Eastern Finland found that brown Russian frogs excrete antibacterial peptides that inhibit the growth of several potentially dangerous bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella enterica.

Two glass milk bottles in a refrigerator
Debby Hudson on Unsplash

To put that another way, the frogs create their own antibiotics. Dipping them in milk could conceivably stop the milk from spoiling prematurely. Besides, you haven’t lived if you haven’t tasted frog-flavored milk.

Before running water, plumbing was…interesting.

In rural areas, people would often get their water from wells, which they’d dig by hand. Some households would use pumps to send water directly into the house, which was a bit easier than heading all the way out to the well with a pail every few hours.

To run a hot bath, they’d heat the water up on wood-burning stoves, but that required a lot of work, so most people simply bathed in rivers and ponds (although city dwellers sometimes had access to public bath houses). Showers were rare, although they existed as early as 100 B.C.; in ancient Greece, servants would pour water through a hole in the wall while their masters showered on the other side.

But wait: How did people know where to dig wells in the first place? They’d know that if a body of water was near, a well would likely run into the water table, so they’d simply start digging. People also used dowsing rods, which were forked sticks that seemed to magically identify groundwater. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there’s no scientific evidence that dowsing rods actually worked, but settlers didn’t exactly have access to mountains of peer-reviewed research.

As for wastewater and sewage, well, you’d simply pour it outside—even if you lived in the city. That eventually led to outbreaks of typhoid and cholera during the early industrial age. Primitive plumbing even influenced fashion: Men would wear high heels to avoid stepping in the filth, and pedestrians would wear wide-brimmed hats to avoid a sudden chamber pot shower.

Before fingernail clippers, people would use knives, and it wasn’t an easy process.

Inventors Eugene Heim and Oelestin Matz patented the modern fingernail clipper in 1881, although they noted in their patent application that spring-loaded fingernail clippers were already available at that time.

Prior to the 19th century, most people pared their fingernails instead of clipping them. They’d take a knife and whittle their nails down, which was likely a time-consuming process. In some civilizations, barbers would offer manicure and pedicure services using specialized knives designed for the purpose.

The item on the right side of this photo is apparently a Magdalenenberg nail trimmer from the Iron Age. Ancient Romans also had specialized manicure knives, but manual laborers likely didn’t need to trim, since their work would naturally keep their nails in line.

That might explain why no one bothered to create a nail clipper until relatively modern times.

Before toilet paper, people used…whatever was available.

As we covered in another article on Urbo, toilet paper is a fairly modern invention. Some Chinese people used sheets of paper in the sixth century, but Westerners used whatever was at hand—corn cobs, newspapers, leaves, or old letters. Ancient romans used sponges dipped in vinegar, tied to sticks, which is something they never showed in Gladiator (thankfully).

Toilet paper rolls stacked, one on top wrapped with
Michael Marais on Unsplash

In the United States, the Sears catalog was an especially popular addition to outhouses, since it provided both reading and wiping material. Alas, someone at Sears apparently decided to switch to a glossier paper, which made the publication unsuitable for one of its two purposes.

Eventually, inventor Seth Wheeler patented TP with tearable sheets and a dispensing roll, and the world was forever changed for the better.

Before washing machines, people spent all day washing their clothes.

Nobody likes spending hours at the laundromat, but we have it pretty easy. In Victorian times, people would spend all day on their laundry, and it was an intense, physical process.

An 1883 book called Practical Housekeeping notes that “Monday is the washing day with all good housekeepers,” but washers would begin gathering clothes and supplies on Saturday. On Sunday, they’d soak the items in warm water with lye.

On Monday, they’d gather wood, then light a fire under a 20-40 gallon copper pot. Then, they’d rub each side of each article of clothing with soap before boiling the cottons and linens in soapy water. Finally, they’d rinse the items thoroughly, then hang them to dry.

Ironing was both difficult and dangerous, since irons were heated on the stove; the entire piece of cast iron would become scorching hot, but only for a few seconds. Most households had at least two irons; while one was in use, the other was heating up.

In other words, laundry day was much more difficult than pouring some detergent in some water and pressing a few buttons. By the way, according to laundry blog Dishwasher Required, families would only wash their underclothes—outerwear was too delicate to withstand the cleaning process. We’re guessing that frontiersmen didn’t exactly smell like roses.

Before modern dentistry, dental treatments were absolutely horrifying.

Hate going to the dentist? It’s certainly better than the old-school alternative.

Before the modern toothbrush became commonplace in the 1930s, people would use rough cloth and water to keep their teeth as clean as possible. In some Chinese, Arabic, and African cultures, people chewed on miswak twigs. Those twigs have moderate antibiotic properties, which might explain their apparent effectiveness. In countries like Britain and the United States, those treatments weren’t available.

“Before the modern toothbrush, there was generally not too much dental treatment around, and toothache would ultimately end in extraction,” Rachel Bairsto, head of museum services at the British Dental Association Museum, tells Urbo.

“During the medieval period, people would pray to Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of toothache sufferers, for relief,” she says. “There are quite a few relics and depictions of her in British churches in various parts of the country.”

“In the first book on dentistry in the English language, published by Charles Allen in 1687, [Allen] talks about making a [toothpaste] from magistery of pearls, powder of coral, dragons’ blood, and red rose water.”

As such, tooth decay was common.

At the dawn of modern dentistry, wealthy people had access to false teeth—which were often made, at least partially, with real teeth. George Washington famously had a set of dentures, although they were made from ivory and bone, not wood. Washington did manage to keep one of his original teeth, as his dentist believed that he should “never extract a tooth…when there is a possibility of saving it.”

Washington’s Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

Early dentists had some distasteful practices (pardon the pun). As Bairsto tells us, “Dentists would source their human teeth from wherever they could.”

Grave robbing was common, but corpses didn’t always have great teeth, so dentists would look for other options. In the early 1800s, some dentists made dentures with teeth of fallen soldiers from the battle of Waterloo. Others posted newspaper ads, including this one from 1792:

“Wanted: Several human front teeth. To prevent unnecessary applications, those only are wanted that are sent from the Continent.”

Most people couldn’t afford dentures, so they simply went without the missing teeth. In the United States, that began to change after World War II, when soldiers brought toothbrushing habits home from the European front. Thanks to advances in dentistry and personal hygiene, about 75 percent of Americans aged 60 or older have some of their natural teeth.

Admit it: You feel like brushing and flossing right now, don’t you?

Before electric lights, people lived in the dark—unless they were rich.

Humphry Davy invented the first electric light in 1802, but the technology didn’t catch on until the 1880s, when Thomas Edison refined the design to create a commercially viable lightbulb. That technology quickly replaced gas lamps, which had replaced oil lamps and candles—which had, in turn, replaced wood fires.

But while humans have always looked for ways to keep the lights on at night, for some people, living in the dark seemed more practical. In the 1990s, economist William Nordhaus did the math to show how much lighting would cost through different time periods.

Lots of hanging tungsten light bulbs
Anh Duy on Unsplash

According to Nordhaus, to produce 1,000 lumen-hours of light, you’d need to gather and chop wood for about 60 hours. Basic lamps were much more efficient, but still prohibitively expensive; in the year 1800, Nordhaus estimates that 1,000 lumen-hours of light would cost about 5.5 hours of labor.

To put that in perspective, in 1992, that same 1,000 lumen-hours would cost a mere 0.029 hours of human labor. Today, you could leave a modern incandescent bulb on for 24 hours a day for about $70 per year. Use an LED or a compact fluorescent bulb and you’re paying much less.

Some economists believe that electrical lighting efficiency is a better measure of prosperity than gross domestic product (GDP). In any case, it’s certainly a profound reminder: we’ve come a long way from our days in the dark.

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