So what are you thankful for? When that question is posed around the Thanksgiving table each year, everyone seems to give the same answer: “For being here to enjoy this great food with friends and family.”
It’s good to appreciate moments like that. But next Turkey Day, consider saving some thanks for the modern miracles that we take for granted every day – and without which we’d be pretty miserable. Things that people around here didn’t always have. Things that people still don’t have, in some corners of the world.
1 Indoor Plumbing In the early 1800s, you would only expect to find a bathroom when visiting wealthy friends or a luxury hotel. A hundred years later, folks in rural America were finally catching up, upgrading from their smelly old outhouses. They were also tired of hauling, heating, and then having to share the weekly bathwater. Think about it: What would it be like for you to get ready for work without indoor plumbing?
2 Personal Technology Not long ago, if you were suddenly curious about some fact or statistic, you had to drive to the public library and enlist the help of the reference librarian. These days, we just take the magical oracle of universal knowledge out of our pocket, ask the question out loud, and a disembodied voice happily supplies the answer. Think about it: If you had to give up either all your technology, or indoor plumbing, which would you choose?
3 Money In the early days of commerce, you just bartered cows for grain, but what if your babysitter, say, didn’t need either? The first coins were minted around 600 BC in Lydia (now Turkey). These represented an elegant and extremely convenient common denominator of value. Though like today’s electronic transactions, that value was symbolic rather than inherent. Think about it: How many macramé plant hangers would equal a root canal at the dentist?
4 Automobiles If you enjoy the limitless freedom of hopping in the car to go, well, anyplace, be thankful you were born in the past century or so. Sure, you could ride horse carriages before then. But they didn’t have AC, tunes, or cup holders. Oh, and don’t forget to shovel out the horse stables when you get back. Think about it: How long would it take you to get to the mall in an open horse cart, 5 miles an hour over muddy dirt roads – in the rain?
5 Photography Before the mid-1800s, people had no way of seeing what they looked like when they were younger. By the end of the century, families could get their own Brownie Box Camera for a few bucks, and for the first time, have a visual record of the important events in their lives. By the 1920s, they could even hand-crank their own funny cat videos onto 16mm B&W film. Think about it: If your phone didn’t have a camera, would you record special moments with watercolors, oil paints or acrylics?
6 Clothing In early America, people didn’t buy clothes. They made them. What they bought were bolts of wool, patterns, needles, and thread. Most folks had a very limited wardrobe, which they had to adapt for work, church and everything else. In growing cities, inhabitants had more money than time, so store-bought clothing became more popular, and eventually, less itchy. Think about it: How might your sense of style be limited by your sewing skills?
7 Electricity Back when local families cleaned their clothes with a washboard in a freezing river, they probably didn’t worry too much about fabric softening or whiter whites. The first electric washing machines in 1908 were just one of the many ways clever people figured out how to use flowing electrons to reduce their own workload. Think about it: In what ways would having everyone over for Thanksgiving be different if your house lacked electricity?
It’s probably true that the more things we appreciate in life, the more there is to appreciate. Usually, though, absorbed by our daily challenges (‘Why I can’t find the right emoji?’), we forget that the amazing conveniences and capabilities of modern living came too late for those who came before us.
In fact, on a timeline covering 200,000 years of human existence, only the last tiny sliver would represent people enjoying hot showers. So in the scheme of things, maybe we have a whole lot more to be thankful for than a day off each year to overeat with a bunch of chatty people.