Cicero - "To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child."
Awhile ago, I was having a conversation with my mother on the phone. We were discussing the pros and cons of modern 21st century technologies such as the internet, cell phones & texting, and how our society depends on these technologies so much.
Now I am not anti-modern technology. I may sometimes have daydreams of going to live in a cabin in the woods and live a "pioneer" life for a month away from the modern world, but I don't really want to live that way permanently. My favorite book to pour over as a teenager was Reader Digest's Back to Basics which covers everything you could possibly know about running your own homestead.
I have read with fascination about those who do go back to "simpler times" in their lifestyle and life choices. I admire them for it. One such account that had a big impact on me was Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology about a man and his wife who go to live in an Amish-like community and live without electricity. He writes about his thoughts about our uses of technology and electricity as a society. It is interesting stuff!
However, I do like having so much information available to me at the touch of a button. I enjoy watching movies, and I love how easy it is to do genealogy from the comfort of my own home. I also love how I'm able to do online historical research and that I'm able to blog about my love of history!
I guess my concern is what I see in our current young generation and even with some adults I know. The huge abundance of technology is normal and expected and while Atari is still cool because it's "vintage", the knowledge and use for older things or technologies isn't seen as valid or important. In fact, some think it's best forgotten, because it's old and it's junk and they just don't care. To them the past is irrelevant.
Therefore, I'd like to write in defense of the old-fashioned and why it is so very important.
Drew, Bettina - "The past reminds us of timeless human truths and allows for the perpetuation of cultural traditions that can be nourishing; it contains examples of mistakes to avoid, preserves the memory of alternative ways of doing things, and is the basis for self-understanding..."
For me the biggest allure to antiques and learning about old ways is the connection I feel to those that lived back then. I especially feel this connection by items owned by my ancestors. I have an old pocket watch my great-great-great grandmother Sarah was given by her husband with her name engraved inside. I love knowing that she held the watch. Of course I never met her, but I have that connection with her just the same.
A more recent example is we went out to my husband's grandparents' farm in Montana and his grandmother offered for us to take back some antiques with us. Offering antiques to someone like me who loves antiques was like sending a kid to the candy store and telling them to pick anything they wanted! However, I was very careful in selecting and was happy to be able to bring back items belonging to Erik's great-grandparents like a 1940s electric iron that his great-grandmother bought right after they got electricity at the farm. You bet that was one of the first things she got! I love that her hand held that iron and ironed who knows how many shirts, pants, and dresses with it; the handle gently worn by use. Through these wonderful gifts of the past, for the first time, I feel really connected to my husband's family.
Elton, G.R. - "[W]hat we call history is the mess we call life reduced to some order, pattern, and possibly purpose."
McCullough, David - "History is who we are and why we are the way we are."
I feel I can better see the big picture of the past through the things people used and in turn can see where we got to where we are today. This understanding, I feel, is vital to our societies. We are continually hurtling into the future, but how can we understand the now of where we're at if we don't understand where we came from and how we got to the point that we are?
Besides that, I feel there comes a great understanding that comes through valuing old skills and learning to use older technology. We get a really good sense of our ancestors' lives when we wear their clothes and use their tools, read their books and make their recipes. It is one thing to read about the past, to understand mistakes they made and to learn from them, to analyze how they lived their lives, etc. But to attempt to walk parallel with their lives by experiencing work and ideas, wearing clothing and prepare food as they did is to come to a level of understanding that doesn't come with books. (I'm elluding to experimental history which I've discussed before on here.)
Through that learning and experience, hopefully we find, that we cannot judge our ancestors based on today's standards. Wages may have been $1 a week, but money was not valued the same and inflation was different - you have to do some fancy math to figure out the true value of that dollar compared to today's dollar. Not only that, but moral and societal standards were far different and therefore we shouldn't call our ancestors names or point judgemental fingers because as L.P. Hartley said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Once we come to that level of understanding about our ancestors and our past, we are better able to fully learn from them and apply that meaning to our lives today.
Powell, Jane. - "... A house comes with responsibilities, and a historic house comes with more responsibilities. We are only the caretakers of these houses, which were here before we owned them and which will be here after we are gone. They contain the wood from the old-growth forests, they are monuments to the skill of those who labored to build them, they represent our cultural heritage. To destroy them, or allow them to be destroyed by neglect, to remove their original fabric in the pointless pursuit of "no maintenance" is profoundly disrespectful both to the trees that gave their lives and to the labor and skill of those who built the houses-with hand tools, I might add."
Proverbs 22:28 - "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."
We are built on the foundation of our forefathers. To ignore that, I feel, is disrespectful and self-centered. I understand that not everything from our past is rosy, but our ancestors lived and sweated and toiled, made mistakes, discovered and invented. The future generations inherit these great heritage treasures. To take care of that inheritance is to show respect for those that came before us.
Now, I'm not saying to necessarily treasure those asbestos shingles from your 1950s house or every single rusty nail crafted by a blacksmith's hand. But to understand their lives, to appreciate their knowledge and skills, and to learn from them is important. Museums exist to preserve and help us learn from our past. They are in the best positions to care for historical artifacts. But if you have inherited items from your family, have you ever considered that it might be a responsibility for you to learn about why they have been saved to be handed down, to record that, and to care for those items?
I have these pieces of crocheted lace. My mother gave them to me, but over the years neither of us remember who exactly they came from and why they were saved. So, in a sense I've failed my responsibility. (I suppose that is why antique shops exist, which is a good thing, as those forgotten items can be passed on to others who appreciate them for reasons other than their provenance.)
Going back to when we were at my husband's grandparent's farm, among those items we were able to take home was an old camera. To anyone else it would just be a cool, old camera. But learning that it was my husband's great-grandfather's camera and that he was a local historian and took important, rare pictures of a dam break and flood in the 1960s, the meaning and importance behind that camera grew ten-fold. Writing the history down and caring for the camera is a way to show respect for that man's life and his part of our family's personal heritage, not to mention his community's heritage.
In short, our families, our communities, and our nation all have the same responsibility to preserve, protect, and respect our cultural heritages. We are able to connect with our past, learn from it, and then to show respect for those that went before and laid the foundation for our lives. Devaluing or forgetting our past would be a huge disservice to ourselves and our children.
Because to forget our past is to lose ourselves.
**Quotes from the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers