Real Interviews with People Who Lived in the 1800s

The nine­teenth cen­tu­ry is well and tru­ly gone. That may sound like a triv­ial claim, giv­en that we’re now liv­ing in the 2020s, but only in recent years did we lose the last per­son born in that time. With Taji­ma Nabi, a Japan­ese woman who died in 2018 at the age of 117 years, went our last liv­ing con­nec­tion to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (1900, the year of Taji­ma’s birth, tech­ni­cal­ly being that cen­tu­ry’s last year.) Luck­i­ly that same cen­tu­ry saw the inven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy, sound record­ing, and even motion pic­tures, which offered cer­tain of its inhab­i­tants a means of pre­serv­ing not just their mem­o­ries but their man­ner. You can view a col­lec­tion of just such footage, restored and col­orized, at the Youtube chan­nel Life in the 1800s.

In the chan­nel’s playlist of inter­view clips you’ll find first-hand mem­o­ries of, if not the par­tic­u­lar decade of the eigh­teen-hun­dreds, then at least of the eigh­teen-fifties through the eigh­teen-nineties. Take the inven­tor Eli­hu Thom­son, inter­view sub­ject in the video at the top of the post. Born in Eng­land in 1853, Thom­son emi­grat­ed with his fam­i­ly to the Unit­ed States in 1857.

They set­tled in Philadel­phia, where Thom­son found him­self “forced out of school at eleven” because he was­n’t yet old enough to enter high school. Some advi­sors said, “Keep him away from books and let him devel­op phys­i­cal­ly.” To which the young Thomp­son respond­ed, “If you do that, you might as well kill me now, because I’ve got to have my books.”

One of those books was full of “chem­istry exper­i­ments and elec­tri­cal exper­i­ments,” and car­ry­ing them out him­self gave Thom­son his “first knowl­edge of elec­tric­i­ty” — a phe­nom­e­non of great impor­tance to the devel­op­ment that would hap­pen through­out the rest of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and into the twen­ti­eth. Albert L. Salt also got in on the ground floor, hav­ing start­ed work­ing for West­ern Elec­tric at age four­teen in 1881 and even­tu­al­ly become the pres­i­dent of West­ern Elec­tric’s appli­ance sub­sidiary Gray­bar. But of course, not every­one had such a pro­fes­sion­al lad­der avail­able: take the elder­ly inter­vie­wees in the footage just above, who were born into slav­ery the eigh­teen-for­ties and eigh­teen-fifties.

The more dis­tant a time grows, the more it tends to flat­ten in our per­cep­tion. In the absence of delib­er­ate his­tor­i­cal research, we lack a sense of the var­i­ous tex­ture of eras out of liv­ing mem­o­ry. In the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca alone, the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry encom­passed both great tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion and the days of the Wild West. The lat­ter was the realm known to Civ­il War vet­er­an and pho­tog­ra­ph­er William Hen­ry Jack­son, who in the inter­view above remem­bers the Amer­i­can west “before the cow­boys came in” — not the time of the cow­boys, but before. Could Flo­rence Pan­nell, whose mem­o­ries of Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, have imag­ined his world? Could he have imag­ined hers? See more inter­views here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A 108-Year-Old Woman Recalls What It Was Like to Be a Woman in Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land

The Ear­li­est Known Motion Pic­ture, 1888’s Round­hay Gar­den Scene, Restored with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

What the First Movies Real­ly Looked Like: Dis­cov­er the IMAX Films of the 1890s

A Rare Smile Cap­tured in a 19th Cen­tu­ry Pho­to­graph

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Hear the Voic­es of Amer­i­cans Born in Slav­ery: The Library of Con­gress Fea­tures 23 Audio Inter­views with For­mer­ly Enslaved Peo­ple (1932–75)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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