History Nuggets

20 Modern(ish) Things I Couldn’t Live Without

Live without; modern amenities

In the midst of a deep edit of the current Work In Progress, set in 1100s England, my procrastinator’s brain started wondering. Whilst a big fan of historical accuracy and realism, some things are unequivocally better dealt with today than they were in the past. How did people cope without our modern methods and solutions? I know that in most instances people wouldn’t have known any different but it got me thinking (always dangerous)…

Lack of modern amenities made life very different, even as recently as 50 years ago and I’m not just talking cars, supermarkets and how my iPhone (and therefore the internet) is an extension of my hand. When my mother reminds me that they didn’t even have hair conditioner or soft toilet paper when she was a child in the 1950s, it really brings home how fast society has changed in nearly 70 years and how necessary we consider some of these changes to our everyday lives.

Here’s a list of everything I could think of that I wouldn’t want to live without (in no particular order):


  1. Chocolate – most especially Cadburys (founded in 1824). I really don’t think this one needs explaining. Especially when I add this picture:Live Without; Modern Amenities(I would like it noted that during the making of this picture, my mouth inexplicably filled with saliva and I was forced to consume a bag of mini eggs).


  1. Books – (sorry fellow bookaholics but chocolate just pips the post to books! I could write my own books for entertainment but I can’t make chocolate from scratch!). Assuming that an historical self was literate, I might not have been able to afford books and definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford the number of books I currently own (which is somewhere in the thousands). The thought of reducing the number of books I own induces anguish even though I have quite serious storage issues. I most definitely cannot live without books.


  1. Tea – you can keep your coffee, thanks very much (I really hate the stuff) but tea, on the other hand, should be a fundamental human right, after books and chocolate. Am most partial to Sainbury’s Red Label (established in 1903) but PG Tips or Twinings will do in an emergency.


  1. Tampons – here’s a wonderful article on this absolute necessity, including a history, by The Atlantic


  1. Toothpaste & toothbrushes – (particularly my lovely electric toothbrush!). Really don’t fancy cleaning my teeth with an animal bone toothbrush with coarse hair (like horsehair) poked through for bristles…


  1. Toilet roll – much to my amusement, there’s actually a website dedicated to the history of the humble but vital loo roll. In medieval England, when my book is set, people would have used moss, leaves, straw or perhaps old rags from the ragman if they were wealthy. More recently, people used old newspapers. Am definitely preferring Andrex.


  1. Public toilets – the first were only opened in the UK in Crystal Palace in the 19th century (more from the fabulous Victorian Blogspot). Without public loos, you either had to hold it, find a bush or defecate in the street (yuk!)


  1. Indoor loos and bathrooms – Definitely don’t fancy a trip outside for the necessary during a British winter (or even a British summer given our recent weather record) or using a chamberpot and the associated lingering aromas. Don’t mind a spot of camping but otherwise it’s indoor plumbing, flushing loos and power showers all the way for me.


  1. Washing machines – When I was a child in the 1990s, my grandmother still had a twin tub washing machine. They became popular in the 1950s but were relatively short-lived as a consumer fad due to labour intensity. Modern front loading, plumbed in washing machines became increasingly affordable in the 1980s. So I’m slightly horrified that my grandmother was still using hers in the 1990s. They were of the generation that if it wasn’t broke it wasn’t replaced (my parents have inherited this; we had a push button TV until I was a teenager and I was the remote) and I guess even a twin tub was a vast improvement on previous washing methods. Do check out Join Me in the 1900s for a great blog on washing machines (and other stuff too). Historically, unless I was a Very Rich Person, I would’ve had to wash my own clothes and that really doesn’t appeal. There are just too many books to read and tea and chocolate to consume, which is a much better use of my time.


  1. Hair shampoo and conditioner – my mother still tells the story of how, in 1967, she went to the hairdresser’s and was asked if she would like conditioner. Saying yes, it wasn’t until she was charged an extra 2/6 (2 shillings and sixpence – 12 ½ p) that she regretted it, considering it extortion given a standard wash and blow-dry was 5/- (5 shillings – 25p). Normal practice was to rinse your hair in vinegar (for the dark-haired) and lemon juice (for the blonde). Whilst the first ‘modern’ conditioner was invented by Ed Pinaud in 1900, it was initially only for softening men’s beards and moustaches and, as my mother can attest, wasn’t widely available for universal use until the late 1960s. As someone with long, curly and very tangly hair, the thought of being without either would be extremely frustrating and time consuming. The thought of being without my Tangle Teezer also produces a shudder and I’ve only had that a couple of years…


  1. Tweezers – judge me all you like but I do love my tweezers. The Egyptians had tweezers but I doubt they were used for plucking one’s eyebrows or cleaning one’s nails. Amusingly, there’s also a webpage devoted to the history of tweezers.


  1. Clean water – unless a victim of fracking or if you live in Flint, Michigan, in the first world we have almost universal access to clean water in our houses. Unlike electricity or gas, water cannot be disconnected if you fail to pay your bill. Our water still comes from streams and rivers but is fortunately processed so it no longer contains sewage, dead animals, e-coli etc.


  1. Modern medicine – as someone who’d be dead several times over if it weren’t for modern medicine, to say I’m a fan is probably an understatement. And this definitely includes birth control and deodorant. I’m also a fan of modern dentistry and tooth extraction and an even bigger fan of chiropractic, particularly the McTimoney method.


  1. Central heating – I shall just leave this remark here: I’m currently sat indoors at my laptop on a sunny May day, fully dressed, wrapped in a fleecy blanket and wearing fingerless gloves. And yes, the central heating’s been on a while.


  1. Waterproofs – I have a rather bouncy and energetic Labrador who really doesn’t care what the weather outside is doing when it’s time for a walk (which is all time not spent eating or snoozing). Definitely have a new-found appreciation for Mountain Warehouse and neoprene lined wellies.


  1. Digital camera – it may sound silly as it’s not vital like chocolate and books but to say I’m rather partial to taking pictures is probably the understatement of the century. It’s not unusual for me to come back from an everyday dog walk with 100+ pictures (yes, I do have the most photographed pets in Britain). I’ve just scared myself and counted how many pictures I’ve taken (and kept) since acquiring my first digital camera in 2004: 23,208!!!!!!!!! In 12 years. Gulp. And this isn’t even counting the thousands of negatives I have tucked away somewhere. As all visitors to the house know well, I also love displaying photos with numerous collages and printed canvases. Here’s the 10’x6’ noticeboard I have in my bedroom (I live a chalet bungalow, hence the angle):live without; modern amenities
    I would feel very bereft if I couldn’t take and display pictures as keepsakes (though I realise by association this means I also couldn’t live without electricity, computers and printers).


  1. Bras – I don’t much fancy a corset or binding my breasts and sadly going without any kind of support is just not an option. A recent discovery in Austria has raised the possibility of women wearing a type of bra in the later medieval period, whereas historians had previously said that there were no bras until invention in the 20th century. Still, I expect this bra was worn by nobility and not your everyday peasant, which leaves things a little, ahem, loose.


  1. Privacy – I know this isn’t a product as such, but it is certainly a privilege of much of Western society. In medieval times, almost everyone would have shared a room with others, even the wealthy. If the lady of the castle had her own chamber, she would share not just her room but also her bed with other highborn ladies and some of their maids. The bed had curtains, not just for warmth but also for an illusion of privacy if the lord paid a night time visit. The lord’s squires often slept in the doorway of their lord’s chamber. Everyone else, knights and lower class visitors bedded down in the great hall on straw pallets. Also, not every room had a door, even in castles, particularly in the early medieval period; a curtain was used instead. In more recent times, ladies maids often (but not always) sleep in an adjoining chamber to their mistress and valets did the same for their masters.


  1. Travel –there’s something so freeing about being able to travel to the nearest town, to the capital, to another country with minimum of fuss and organisation. Walking or riding was, of course, much healthier than jumping in the car or on a ‘plane but it also meant going any distance was a great undertaking. Being very motion sick, I’m grateful that I don’t have to endure a carriage with no suspension thundering along potholed roads (tarmac was patented in 1901) or a ship at the mercy of sea storms (or even gentle waves tbh).


  1. The vote and equal rights for women (a long one I’m afraid, am rather passionate about this!) – a fascinating look at women’s rights can be found in the brilliant and eminently readable Maureen Waller’s The English Marriage, which will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. A married (or divorced) woman was not allowed custody of her own children (a husband could legally forbid his wife access to them) and this was only partially rectified in The Custody of Infants Act 1839 when women were then entitled to custody of any children under 7 but only if the Lord Chancellor agreed and she was of ‘good character’. History of Women has detailed resources on women’s rights:

“The 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act re-asserted the double standard of fidelity. Simple adultery on the part of the wife was grounds, but adultery on the part of the husband had to be combined with desertion, cruelty, incest, bigamy or practising an ‘unnatural vice’ (sodomy, bestiality, rape of another woman) to be grounds for divorcing him. That adultery was a crime against the male owners of women was enshrined in the law. An unfaithful wife’s husband (known as a ‘cuckold’ – there is no equivalent word for a wife) could sue the third party (the ‘co-respondent’) for monetary damages for having sex with his wife. No wife could sue her husband’s mistress. Such an action had to be tried by a jury.”  Before the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870 (after a long campaign), “a wife was almost as much the property of her husband as the American slave of his master.’ (Female) editor of the Englishwoman’s Review, 1871.” This double standard wasn’t abolished until 1923!

Married women weren’t even considered a separate legal entity in their own right, which was an argument against allowing women the vote as a woman’s husband would vote for her (!). It wasn’t until 1882 that married women were allowed to keep their own property rather than it automatically becoming their husbands’ upon marriage and it took until 1926 for women to be able to hold and dispose of property on the same terms as men. Universal female suffrage didn’t happen in England until 1928. Most horrifyingly, it was only in 1991 that marital rape became a prosecutable offence (1991!!!!!!!!!!!! That’s within my living memory!)  And, even in the enlightened 21st century, women still don’t have pay parity with men – grrrr.

Anything you’d like to add that you couldn’t live without?

© This blog is an original rambling of Eleanor Small

Comments (2)

  • I’m neither a tea or a chocolate addict (you’re a tea or a coffee person, like you’re a dog or cat person!), but I found this most interesting, because sometimes I have those fantasies about waking up in a post apocalyptic world, and thinking what I would actually take with me in my backpack. Happily tampons would no longer be required (one of the joys of being over 50!), and I can do without a washing machine. Back in the dark ages, when I was a teenager, the flats you lived in didn’t often have them. My mother did it by hand when I was a child, too, and wrung it out through a mangle – people just did.

    As for no hair conditioner – arrrgh!!! I have long, thick, curly hair too and it’s essential, or I look like a mad wizard – but, more than that… straighteners!

    • Hi Terry – thanks for your comment, much appreciated. Sorry for the delayed reply, reality intruded and I had to go back to work after my operation (hope you’re all recovered from yours btw). I don’t much fancy menopause but I am looking forward to having no tampon faff in my life 🙂 That’s fascinating that your mum still had a mangle – and that’s comparatively not that long ago! It’s amazing how quickly we’re developing new technologies that we totally rely on. We had a power cut the other day and I couldn’t even have a shower… As for post apocalyptic worlds – don’t we need a fully stocked underground bunker like we see in American movies??! My neighbours have an Anderson shelter in their garden, maybe I could commandeer that?? I think I’d be useless after a week or so of living without modern conveniences. I would be the one raiding shops in Walking Dead looking for canned goods…!


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