When discussing history, we often focus on what was different. People dressed in funny clothes. Travel took a really long time. They thought XYZ was good for you— isn’t that disgusting? And yet often I’ll read a diary or letter from hundreds of years ago and spot a passage that eerily echoes something I thought or said just yesterday.
People from the past really weren’t that different at heart. Yes, they lived in another environment and therefore made choices that we find strange today. But when it comes to the things that really matter in life – love, loss, and how to deal with really obnoxious people – we can look across the gulf of time and think, “Yes, I completely understand.”
For example… do you relate to any of the following?
Kids these days! What is this world coming to?
“The prevailing evil of the present day is extravagance. I know very well that the old are too prone to preach about modern degeneracy, whether they have cause or not; but, laugh as we may at the sage advice of our fathers, it is too plain that our present expensive habits are productive of much domestic unhappiness, and injurious to public prosperity.” (1833)
Lazy coworkers are the worst
“The scribe Pa-baky speaks to his father the draughtsman Ma’a-nakhte-ef. To the effect that: I heeded what you said to me, ‘Let Ib work together with you!’ Now look, he spends the day bringing the jar of water. There is no other chore for him every single day. He does not listen to your counsel which says to him, ‘what have you done today?’ Look, the sun has set and he is far away with the jar of water.” (1539-1075 B.C.)
Loss of a loved one
“My darling Grandmamma has passed away from this earth. O I can’t believe it! I know it is true. But it seems like a dream – O I wish I could wake! To see her only once more. How lonely it is to feel you haven’t a Grandma any more… They tell me we must not wish her back but this is the first person I loved that has been ever taken from me, & it will seem so hard.” (1853)
Hi Dad, school is great! Please send cash.
“This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun.” (1220)
Katie Cannon, Curator of Education, DAR Museum, Washington, D.C.
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This article first appeared as:
Katie Cannon, “Love, Loss, and Annoying Coworkers” in Tom Reitz, ed., Proceedings of the 2019 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 1-2.
 Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co., 1833), p. 89.
 A.G. McDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 29.
 Growing Up in the 1850s: The Journal of Agnes Lee (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
Press, 1984), pp. 12-13.
 Charles H. Haskins, The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by their Letters (The American Historical Review, 1898), p. 210. The editor notes that the original letter was written in “uncommonly bad Latin.”