Nostalgia can be dangerous

Every day in the summer, sometimes twice a day, a long, lonely whistle winds its way through the ravine behind my house, followed by a low chuffing. The steam train, on its way to or from town, column of steam rising through the trees. It’s such a familiar sound and sight that even the cats don’t react anymore, knowing that it’s not out to get them. The train is a popular tourist attraction in the summer months, as is the diesel engine, despite the fact that it usually stops in the middle of nowhere. The point is the journey, not the destination.

The operators of the train have invested considerable resources in restoring and maintaining the train and its cars. They join a long tradition of doing just that across the country, as there is something compelling and magical about trains, and retaining those of historic value provides a particular social role. It’s the same social role that we see in the maintenance of other things of eras gone by, of skills that people don’t necessarily need, but still enjoy using. People still use letterpresses, knit and spin by hand, perform handicrafts and retain the skills needed to do them well. They are a form of living history, preserving things which would otherwise fall away into books and references.

I appreciate this. It’s important to retain a sense of history and there are important things to learn from seeing how people did things, from being able to directly experience these things for ourselves. Yes, many of these activities are slightly adapted for the modern era, due to a variety of limitations, but they offer a sense of what earlier generations did to manage the needs of life. It’s why I appreciate restored and protected historic structures, people who still train and drive horses, those who engage in the myriad acts of historic preservation, both living and static, that allow us to look into the past.

At the same time, though, a sometimes dangerous lens of nostalgia can accompany such activities, and it makes me nervous. Take, for example, the steam train, where people had to work on board the tender to continuously feed the boiler. Who were those people? Was their work dangerous? What kinds of people conducted that work, and how were they treated socially? It’s notable that slavery drove the roots of the industrial revolution, and that people working in thankless, dangerous jobs — exposed to cold, wind, rain, snow, the risk of boiler explosions — were often slaves, former slaves, other people with social positions that carried a very low social status. They couldn’t afford to be choosy about their work because few options were available. The same held true for the famous and glamourised Pullman porters, the Black men who made steam travel iconic but didn’t really enjoy any of its benefits.

As we preserve these critical components of our history, we must also look to their social cost, and who performed these acts of physical labour in eras when they were more than novelties or acts of historical preservation. People didn’t work on trains or in garment factories for fun, but because the range of employment available to them was limited. Rather than being a luxury for people with a hobby, driving trains was a job — just like it is for modern subway drivers, who don’t experience the glamour that those occupying the cabs of modern steam trains do.

The balance between celebrating our past and glamourising it is important. There are no good old days — there are days in which people did things that were complicated and nuanced. When people were handcrafting the majority of goods, or using a mix of light industry and handcrafts, many of those same people couldn’t vote. They endured harsh living conditions. They struggled to eke out a living in a society with extreme class inequality. People spinning wool today may find it enjoyable, may find it interesting, may be preserving an important part of our past, but they aren’t occupying the social role that spinners did historically, and they’re not part of the nuanced interplay of social systems that dominated when spinning was the primary way that people generated fibers for sewing, weaving, and knitting. The fiber arts are incredibly valuable, but so is a historic awareness of their context.

Seeing a glamourisation of the past worries me, as we live in an era when it is happening more and more. People see the pretty, beautiful, elegant side of things, but not the ugly one. People wore fancy clothes or had elaborate meals, but we don’t see the lives of the people who made these things possible. They rode gorgeous horses and lived in extensive manors, but human beings had to move behind the scenes to enable these activities. They lived in ancient (then new) castles, they fought in epic battles, and all of these things came at a high social and sometimes personal cost. What we see is usually the sanitised part of the picture, the things that make people nostalgic and comfortable, not those designed to provoke discomfort and discussion. Even at sites in the US where people allegedly have a chance to explore the legacies of slavery and abuse, they’re still seeing a tidied version — actors dressed up nicely who play out roles that obscure the realities of 150 years ago.

Nostalgia has its place, but the ‘good old days’ exist only in your imagination.

Image: Baker County Tourism, Flickr