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Book Review: The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!

good old days they were terrible

Written by: Otto Bettmann
Published by: Random House

Last year, there was a PBS miniseries called The 1900 House. A modern family in England went to live in a house where everything they did and everything they used was from the year 1900. You got to see them operate a coal burning stove, cleaning with a manual vacuum cleaner, and of course wearing a corset. The 1900 House effectively fractures the myth of the “good old days”.

If The 1900 House fractures the myth, The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible disintegrates it.

The book briefly touches on the ills of the late 1800s, many that are still with us today: industrial pollution, the working poor, and inadequate public education, etc. Fortunately, many problems in the book are no longer with us or at least lessened in severity: child labor, adulteration of food, and the treatment of the mentally ill, to name a few. Each dilemma is only given about a page or two because the book relies on pictures to tell the story. Otto Bettmann founded the Bettmann Archives (now unfortunately owned by Bill Gates). It encompasses over three million prints and photographs of everything from important historical events to pictures of medical tools and sunglasses. It is used by magazines, newspapers, advertising, and textbooks. Many consider it the visual record of the 20th century.

[ad#longpost]From the vast collection, Bettmann found political cartoons, graphic prints, and photographs that illustrate the problems he writes about. Seeing the pictures of trash-clogged streets, a victim of lynching, a child who has lost his fingers at the mill makes a lot of words unnecessary. But his purpose was not to dishearten the reader. Bettmann wrote in the introduction that this book was “a modest personal attempt to redeem our times from the aspersions cast upon them by nostalgic comparisons.” He wanted to show, through words and pictures, that while many think the world is going to hell in a hand basket, times can and do get better. And he succeeded. If you have an interest in how things really were, pick up The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible.

I end with this quote from Mr. Bettmann, just because it’s funny. “Mr. Gates will make it [Bettmann Archives] even more accessible to the world. I’m glad he has a tendency toward aesthetics and art and is not just a computer madman.”

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