History’s Dirtiest Secret

Okay.  This one is going to get me into trouble.  Every time I bring up this argument someone gets upset and slams me with a “Yeah, but-”.  Yeah, but I’m basing my opinion off of the cold, hard, dirty, smelly facts of History.  The world now is a far cleaner, more environmentally friendly place than it was 150 years ago.

There!  I said it!  Now all the environmentalists who carry the banner for Planet Earth and talk about Global Warming and pollution and the horrible state of things now can get all excited and jump on me.  But the fact of the matter is, the dirtiest, most polluted, environmentally disastrous period in the Earth’s history is not right now or twenty years from now, it was during the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

As I discussed last week, People of the Middle Ages did actually bathe on a regular basis.  They were clean.  The mass of the population, the peasant class, lived in rural settings and worked on the land, bathed in clear streams, and breathed fresh country air.  Even in the cities the nastiest pollution was human and animal waste.  The population was smaller and life was simpler.

And then came technology.

I mentioned a while back that The Black Death was one of those events in the history of the world that most people have heard of because it changed the very fabric of life.  The Industrial Revolution is definitely another of those events.  Unlike The Black Death though, which took place over the course of about 4 or 5 years in the 14th century, The Industrial Revolution was more of an evolution.  It is traditionally said to have happened from 1780 to 1850 and beyond but it had been coming for a long time.

It’s a really cool and fascinating story.  It all started in England.  Why England?  Because unlike the rest of Europe, England was an insular community.  It was an island with a dense population whereas the continent was divided into loosely organized kingdoms whose different regions often didn’t get along with each other.  English government was more organized and since the end of the English Civil War in the 1680s there had been sustained peace throughout the land.  Perfect conditions for development.

Throughout the Middle Ages England was known for its sheep and wool trade.  So naturally the first innovations came in the cloth industry.  Before cloth had been produced by individuals and small groups in their homes using drop-spindles, spinning wheels, and hand looms.  But it’s human nature to look for a better way.  That better way came in the form of Lewis Paul’s donkey-powered Roller Spinning Machine, Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame, and Samuel Compton’s Spinning Mule.  These were all large-scale machines powered by organic elements, so to speak, which worked like many hands operating at once.  And all were invented in the 1740s and all still involved people working the equipment.  But the trend had started.  Mass production was on its way.

Now let’s skip over to steam.  So how do you operate all these nifty gadgets if you don’t live near water or have a lot of donkeys?  Enter phase two, the steam engine.  Frankly, I don’t understand how steam engines work.  But I do know that the first use people put them to was to pump water out of mines so that miners could mine deeper.  This was super important though.  Before this time people had used mostly what they call “organic fuels” to heat homes and such.  In other words, wood.  But as soon as methods for using “fossil fuels” or coal was discovered and refined the demand skyrocketed.  Ironically enough, it took coal to get more coal.  The steam engine was refined to be more reliable and less likely to explode and kill people in the 1770s and 1780s.

Of course somewhere along the line someone got the idea to use this awesome new fuel in the metallurgy field.  And boom, iron and its derivatives and products was suddenly super easy to make.  And what do you make when you have the tools to make iron?  You make more tools, of course.  What tools, you ask?  The tools to give power to the industries you’re already famous for, i.e. cloth-making and coal-mining.

Ta da!  Industrial Revolution.

And so the invention and manufacture of all sorts of cool gadgets to spin things, weave things, smelt things, mine things, dye things, and build things came to be.  And with it one great big mess.

Folks were so excited about all the stuff they could suddenly make and do that they weren’t too fussed about the consequences.  There were two massive, bad consequences right from the start that turned our lovely clean, rural Medieval lifestyle into a crowded, smelly, inhumane slag heap.  They happened simultaneously, but let’s look at them one at a time.

First, people moved.

Factories need two things.  They need people to work in them and they need a quick and easy means of transporting the goods they produce to market.  Thus modern cities were born.  Manchester is a good example.  There were so many cotton mills in Manchester that in the early 1800s it was called “Cottonopolis”.  Laborers left the land and packed into the city to be near to the jobs.  Where do you put all those people?  You put them wherever you can.  On top of each other, in cheap housing, crammed in to whatever space you can find.  When you pack people together like that things tend to get messy.  Especially if you haven’t developed sewage systems.

Oh yeah, Child Labor. I didn't even get into that!

Disease became an even bigger problem than with The Black Death.  Tuberculosis became a huge problem in these new cities.  The kicker was, wages earned by the lowest classes went down in this era.  Many factory workers lived at or below the poverty line.  The difference was that now they lived in a giant, impersonal city without the benefit of a village community to support them.  This was before the era of social welfare, before public works projects, and before social security (although people began to realize that something needed to be done besides throwing folks in debtor’s prison or transporting them to the colonies).

Second and even more alarming, people didn’t quite get industrial pollution.

Well, they did understand pollution.  Even back in the time of Edward I, in 1252, they understood pollution.  Edward tried to ban the burning of “sea-coal” because it dirtied the air.  But now in the early Industrial Revolution, with factories using coal-powered steam engines, dumping slag from mines wherever they could and whipping cotton fibers into the air every which way, pollution had reached an all-time high.  The use of chemicals in manufacturing was also increasing at this time to make dyes, bleaches, soap, glass, paper, you name it.  And what do you do with all that leftover hydrochloric acid?  Eh, dump it in the water and let the river take it away.  It’s all going up in smoke anyhow and smoke floats away, doesn’t it?

The big difference between industrial pollution in the early 19th centuries and the early 21st centuries is that now we bend over backwards to figure out how to keep it away from people and how to safely dispose of it, whereas in the early Industrial Revolution manufacturers were, like, eh, it’ll take care of itself.  It’s no surprise then that in this era there was a sudden interest in cancer research.  And by that I mean that people began to notice this strange thing called cancer that seemed to be killing a lot of folks.  And communicable diseases, and lung diseases and the like.

It wasn’t just the air either.  In London in 1858 there was a time known as The Great Stink.  Pollution from the masses of people packed into the city and industrial waste clogged the Thames.  The good news is that someone noticed and said “Hey, this is bad news, we need to build a sewer system”.  Thus the London sewers were born.  The same sort of thing happened throughout Europe.  Things got so dirty, stinky, and clogged with human and industrial waste that people took a step back and said “Um, maybe we should think of ways to clean this all up”.

By the mid-1800s efforts were being made to cut down on industrial waste, improve sanitation, and clean up messes that had already been made.  Environmentalism was born.  But before that, the time period of the early Industrial Revolution, was perhaps the dirtiest time in Western history.  So before you go using the term “Medieval” to describe poor hygiene habits and before you get too worked up about industrial pollution nowadays, put your historiography hat on and remember it has been worse.  Much worse.  Really stinky.


10 thoughts on “History’s Dirtiest Secret

  1. Nicely twisted factoids to support a premise containing few elements of truth. Any archeologist would either die laughing or just shrug and turn away from the suggestion human beings in primitive settings were ‘clean’. The polluting they did just wasn’t so pervasive and didn’t involve plastics.

  2. Interesting and makes sense to me. I’m confused by the commenter before me though by the fact that he liked the post (literally) yet indicates in his comments that he’s one of those that doesn’t agree with you. I’m forced to conclude that perhaps he was teasing or being sarcastic. In fact, the last part tells me this as someone who is still dirty, but less pervasively so and without plastics still equals cleaner as it is not so pervasive and doesn’t involve plastics in addition to everything else.

    I think the confusion goes to text not carrying notes of humor or something 😛

    I’ve studied (and continue to study) archaeology and anthropology, I can easily see your point Merry. Clean vs. dirty is relative, and yes there has always been some sort of pollution left by humans, but the word “pervasive” applies well to the industrial revolution. Pervasive and unchecked, all on top of each other without proper sewage systems, heaps of photos showing the working class as visibly dirty…yeah, they were dirtier.

    I’m also confused by the idea that living closer to nature automatically renders one dirtier by default in a western mindset. Throughout much of early American history the “uncivilized and savage” natives bathed much more frequently than colonists. In fact, I know at least a few tribes included river bathing as part of their daily routine. Somehow, though, our minds latch on to “wild” as dirty and “civilized” as clean…then again, don’t get me started on the word “civilized.”

    Meh. Anyway, another interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  3. Saronai: Studying archaeology isn’t quite the same as actually visiting the mounds and ruins, the middens and seeing first hand how our ancestors lived, whether they were aboriginals, ancient cultures in the Americas, or of European descent. Clean isn’t a relative enough word to include almost any of them into a sentence containing it. Maybe when you finish school you can get out and visit a few sites that aren’t covered with paths and signs telling you where you can’t walk. But until then you’re stuck with what the books, apologists and theorists tell you, I suppose. Old Jules

  4. Loved this post because I come from a region in England called The Black Country. So called due to the amount of dust, ash, smog etc that filled the air and covered everything like ash from a volcano. Even my grandparents could remember a time in their childhoods when the streets were often covered in a film of dirt from the factories. This included the trees, which were black instead of green.

    And further north, by a fraction, is a town called Telford, which has signs that boast “Welcome to Telford, the birth place of the Industrial Revolution.” Now I’m not sure if that’s 100% accurate but the entire West Midlands was (and still is) one vast industrial area. Though the smoke stacks are pretty much gone, you can still travel for hours and see nothing but factories and industrial estates.

    I’m glad I moved away about 12 years ago and live in the lush peasant land of Cambridge. Much nicer!

  5. Very interesting article, and not something I had thought of before. Although I have to say, just because pollution may have been worse before, doesn’t mean we should not keep looking for ways to continue to reduce our impact on the planet now. Here’s hoping we can without taking us back to the days of the industrial revolution.

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  7. Merry, sorry but your theory is so incredibly far from the truth and if I may say so, a little naive. The industrial revolution was a dirty time for Western Europe, sure, but actually industries that mimic the industrial processes of late 1700 and early 1800’s Europe are still happening in much of the developing world on a much larger global scale. Today, China’s air pollution alone is greater than the estimated emissions from coal-fired industry in the Industrial revolution! But today we have the addition of emissions from hundreds of millions of vehicles, and … one of the biggest industrial pollution processes, the production of concrete – which was not a factor in the discussed period. There are also noxious and carcinogenic factory wastes, actually almost negligible (by modern standards) in the Industrial Revolution.The current environmental mess is all about industrial and consumer release of CO2, release of synthetic toxic chemicals, high concentrations of acids and alkalis, on a Massive GLOBAL scale. Just because in modern Europe we now try to prevent pollution (and actually the law is flouted or disregarded a lot more often than most people would like to believe) please don’t be so naive to think that the 3rd world, or developing countries care, or even have laws regarding pollution.
    In essence, to say that the WORLD is a cleaner place than it was in the Industrial Revolution, is quite bizarre. The pollution then was limited largely to WESTERN EUROPE, pretty much the rest of the world (About 94% of the planet) was relatively pristine at that time.

  8. “The world now is a far cleaner, more environmentally friendly place than it was 150 years ago.” … Manchester is 🙂 … but global pollution is much worse… the statistics are very clear about that … and by the way, have you been in Beijing recently …? So, I have to agree with David, sad, but true.

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