Thanksgiving is perhaps the one time of the year when Canadians take a break from the constant drive for more possessions, more comfort and more wealth to appreciate instead what we already have. Then we go right back into the two months, leading up to Christmas, of wild spending on things that are supposed to make us, our kids, family and friends, happy.
You can make an argument that it’s our desire for more, more, more, that drives improvement in our way of life. There seems to be something about humans that says life is never so good that it can’t be better.
But because of reading and researching I’ve been doing for the last year or two for a writing project, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to realize just what an easy, effortless life I lead today compared to the people who built this country.
For instance, during my entire life all I’ve had to do is flick a switch on the wall and turn night into day in any room in the house. We simply take that for granted – at least until we suffer the odd power blackout. We can’t comprehend what a miracle it must have seemed to people more than a century ago when electric lighting was turned on and they suddenly had a light only slightly dimmer than sunlight.
When I think about light in pre-electricity days, I think of the coal-oil lamps and lanterns which were still kept around in my youth in case of electricity interruptions. They were smelly and dirty, the glass chimneys requiring regular cleaning so the maximum amount of the paltry light they produced could shine out.
What I didn’t realize, until I started my research, was that coal-oil was a relatively “modern” convenience. It wasn’t until the 1860s that oil-fueled lamps and lanterns replaced candles as a light source. And the candles early pioneers used were made of tallow, not wax as we think of today. The tallow was melted down by pioneer women from beef or mutton fat harvested from animals home-butchered by the family, then the wicks laboriously dipped by hand.
What strikes me, too, is that I don’t even need to think about many tasks that were always on my father’s mind. While some our readers still heat with wood, most of us simply adjust the thermostat and constant heat keeps our home comfortable. The water pump kicks in every time someone flushes the toilet, always maintaining a ready water supply without having to go to the well with a bucket, like the pioneers. And of course the toilet means there’s no need either for a trip to the outhouse or the messy necessity of a chamber pot under the bed.
The water heater insures there’s always a supply of hot water. Pioneers had to heat their water when they needed it, turning a hot summer day into a torment when water needed to be boiled on the stove or fireplace to do the weekly laundry.
And then there’s travel. For most of the first settlers a horse was an unaffordable luxury. If they needed to go somewhere, they walked. There’s a family legend that my great-grandfather once walked a dozen miles or more with a sack of wheat on his back to get the grain milled into flour.
Even when they became affluent, people still had to harness the horses and hitch them to a buggy or sleigh, requiring extra time and planning. Winter trips were long and slow with hot bricks or stones providing the only heat.
Today, if I buy the right model of car, I can start the engine without leaving the house. Once in my toasty car, I may have heated steering wheel or seats to add even more comfort.
And all this is just the modern convenience around the house. Improvements in farm machinery could fill several columns more. So while life can always get better, we’ve got it pretty good now!◊