Category Archives: Civility & Law

Not City, Not Sticks

I happen to be under the spell of Charles Dickens for the moment because I am trying to understand exactly how people survived roughly 150 years ago in London. Nobody would have thought to suggest that London of the 1860s was uncivilized. In fact, I’m sure most folks given the choice of being in London in 1865 as contrasted to somewhere like Virginia in the middle of our Civil War, would have picked London for their time machine. And yet did London have radio? Flush toilets? 40 hour work weeks?  Well, here’s the news of 1848.

INSTEAD of there being the slightest chance that wonders will ever cease, we have strong reasons for thinking that wonders have only just begun. The last new marvel is a Company for lighting our streets, our shops, our houses, and even our bed-candlesticks with electric fluid, so that we may sit, and read or write by flashes of lightning, and go to sleep with a column of electric fluid doing duty for a rushlight in our room. The new lights that have sprung up within the last few years have been extinguishing and snuffing each other out in rapid succession. The first breath of science blew out the dips, which fell prostrate und the wan of discovery, and then came the metallic wicks, offering “metal more attractive” than the cotton, of whose existence ingenuity has at last cut the thread. Chemistry then took the candles in hand and superseded with the composite fashion the once popular “mould of form,” until the public, having noted the presence of arsenic, stopped its nostrils and its patronage. The electric light now threatens to supersede all, and considering the universal use now made of electricity, we should not be surprised at the formation of a Company to fix a lightning conductor instead of the ordinary conductor to every omnibus.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1848


Brand new for the wealthiest are electric lights in the nicer part of town. But surely the middle class was tolerable. Particularly, I’m interested to know how well a middle class American might be the proper Connecticut Yankee in Victorian London. What would we know that might advance our station? That is one of the questions we ask here at the Downside. 

I don’t believe that, as the conventional wisdom holds, that American cities would immediately become unlivable if the electricity went out. I think we would have a whole lot less nightlife and we would make our days more productive. Furthermore, I am fairly certain that no doomstead could hold off an intelligent siege. In other words, the power of numbers will still be the superior force no matter how much barbed wire and bullets you might possess in your hidey hole. 

There is some combination that would make a new city lifestyle work. And that’s one of the things to investigate.