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.
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.