Thinking about the past, we usually tend to fall into one of these two traps. We either romanticize it or represent it as an age of darkness and ignorance. The truth is that those are only our projections – the past was neither perfect or terrible, it just was. While the 18th century has a lot of beauty to it (think of the science!), there were also some less-than-beautiful things about it, including misogyny and slavery. Still, the century might surprise us in many ways. Here are 10 good reasons why the 18th century was much more exciting than we'd suspect.
1. Interest in social welfare
During the eighteenth century, the English Parliament revolutionized the social welfare system by passing three different laws allowing for welfare for the unemployed. The Workhouse Test Act allowed people who were poor to receive aid, but only as long as they would find a job. Churches could get federal aid to house and feed the poor as well.
Facing lows in local economies, governments would commission building projects to provide jobs to unskilled laborers who weren't able to find employment. These building are called follies and some of them can still be seen gracing many English cities. All in all, such approach towards managing social ills seems much too modern for its age.
2. Access to alternative education
In the 18th century, education was limited to those who could actually afford it. And let's face it – the vast majority of any European society at that time wasn't able to educate themselves. But there existed an interesting alternative road to education – the so-called 'coffeehouses'.
Coffeehouses were on the rise all over Europe and drew many intellectuals and professors from notable universities like Oxford and Cambridge. For a penny, people could buy a cup of coffee and listen to great minds discuss political and social matters.
It's no wonder that the culture of the coffeehouses lead to a massive increase in literacy which in turn powered the rise of a newspaper industry that would soon be revolutionized with the invention of industrial printing presses.
3. The wonderful absurdity of the Frankist movement
The middle of the century saw a young Polish man named Jacob Frank claiming to be the messiah of both the Jewish and Christian religions. He was never declared insane and managed to accumulate a large group of followers. While the new Frankist movement wasn’t welcomed by everyone and many of its members were actually excommunicated by the Polish church, it did gain a certain fame.
What stood behind Frank's success? Frank believed that the road to God lead through ritualistic orgies – which he actually organized on a regular basis. If you thought 18th century was a boring time, now you see how greatly you were mistaken.
4. Amazing bestsellers
It's safe to say that bestseller books to some extent reflect the period they were written in. If not for public interest and enthusiasm, they'd never become bestsellers in the first place. If you think the bestsellers of the 1700s were Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica or Thomas Paine's Common Sense, you're deeply wrong.
Welcome to 18th century London. Hottest topic of the century? Prostitutes! One of the most popular books of the 1700s was entitled “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies”. In case you didn’t get the cue, it was a guide to picking out the best prostitutes working at the Covent Garden. That's almost like an 18th century version of a Tripadvisor section for brothels.
5. Great animal attractions
There were at least a few circus shows visiting London every year in the 18th century. While some of them offered nothing more than famous classics (think the bearded lady), others would astonish visitors with some truly amazing animals. One of the most famous such sights was the Learned Pig, which debuted sometime in the middle of the century.
The pig had been trained with the use of classical conditioning methodology to do mathematical exercises, tell the time, play cards or even tell people their future. Because of its success, there popped up many fake learned pigs – one of them was even accused of witchcraft in the United States and had to run for its life!
6. People wore sunglasses
While fashion styles change from decade to decade, some things simply stay the same. You cannot expect gentlemen of the 18th century to wear denim and leather jackets, but what they did actually wear were sunglasses. Invented by James Ayscough for corrective purposes, glasses with tinted lenses simply entered the market as sunglasses once he realized that a darker shade of the lenses doesn't bring any health benefits. What's even more fascinating is that they were usually tinted green or blue – so much nicer than today's simple black or gray.
7. People drank soda
That's right. People of the 18th century already enjoyed soda water. It was invented by Joseph Priestly by mixing oxygen and water – he was an academic chemist and a philosopher, so he chose not to file for a patent and let his invention to the world for free.
J.J. Schweppe picked up the idea and produced his famous ginger ale – does the name of Schweppes’ ring a bell? His business literally exploded and ever since the 18th century people have been enjoying fake bubbles in their drinks.
8. There were amusement parks
If you thought amusement parks are the invention of the 20th century, here's a piece of news – they already existed in the 18th century. Of course, you shouldn't expect them to have any attractions like roller coasters or bungee jumping, but parks constructed purely for entertainment purposes were a fact.
They were known as “Pleasure Gardens” and were simply public parks constructed for the very rich stratas of society. Over time, people from every class started to visit them, rendering amusement parks one of those rare places where the rich and poor could mingle without friction.
Pleasure gardens hosted outdoor stages for concerts and plays, as well as gazebos, shops, and zoos. And yes, some pleasure gardens even had constructions akin to actual roller coasters. Others had some of the first carousels. Some pleasure gardens lived up to their names and hosted real harems – isn't that very thoughtful?
9. There were great Christmas traditions
Christmas is these days associated mainly with shopping (and mile-long queues) and one special meal on the 25th of December. But in the 18th century, it was much more than that. People celebrated Christmas all the way – there were numerous parties, feasts, games and other festivities. All happened during the twelve consecutive nights, without a stop. The entire period was considered a holiday, even if businesses could only close on the 25th.
But that's not everything. Once the party was over, people would return to feasting and fun in the middle of January for a holiday of Twelfth Night. According to some sources, this holiday was much more important than Christmas. This day function of the Opposite Day where people could reverse the normal social order – for instance, wealthy merchants could dress like aristocracy if they pleased.
10. People drank beer – and lots of it!
People liked beer in the 18th century – and perhaps a little too much. The English Parliament passed the Beerhouse Act, which allowed anyone to obtain a cheap alcohol license which permitted the sale of beer – as opposed to the heavier, more dangerous spirits. This in turn led to the rise of “beerhouses” which were often ran by people selling beer from their front porches. Not a bad business idea, is it?
These 10 facts show that the 18th century was much more interesting to live in than we usually give it credit for. Living in London, Paris or any other European capital must have been one hell of a ride!
About the author: Carol Williams is part of the team behind Florida Fruit Shippers - Navel Oranges Department. She combines her love for the 18th century with her passion for writing.