In a column I’m writing for this weekend’s London Free Press, I talk about how people in low-income situations can’t actually afford summer. ?I stumbled across this article from the New York Times, written in 1860, just as the American Civil War was about to commence. ?There are a lot of similarities here and I thought it worth sharing. ?In some ways we’ve made progress, but not in others.
Where the Rich and the Poor Pass the Summer
May 19, 1860
The season is fast approaching when our wealthy and fashionable citizens will, according to their annual custom, leave the City, and seek a more comfortable and healthy retreat in the country. And what, then, of the poor, whom poverty and the necessity of labor hold prisoners in the City through the hot and sickly season, to whom the spacious and airy houses that the rich forsake, on the comparatively clean streets, would be like so many palaces in Eden compared with their own miserable, crowded and stifling homes, on filthy streets and alleys?
It would be a wholesome thought for the rich and the families of the rich, who, when health, pleasure or fashion shall bid, can thus leave the City and escape to the mountains or the sea-side, to consider the condition of those they are leaving behind. Those inhabit the most filthy streets and alleys, from which, of all other places, it would be most desirable and most necessary to escape during the warm and sickly Summer. They dwell in the most crowded and worst ventilated houses; a whole family, and frequently more than one family crowded into one small room, where all must eat, cook and sleep, — often with sick children, and without any possibility of a circulation of air; and where, in addition to the sickening odors arising from the festering filth in the streets, and in addition to the burning heats of Summer, the air within is still further parched by a stove which must be kept hot for washing or cooking.
What a place to live — what a place to be sick — what a place to die in, is this! To these poor creatures what very paradises would be the homes and streets from which the more wealthy and fortunate escape.
Let any person of education or refinement, or one even accustomed to breathe an atmosphere of tolerable purity and healthfulness, leave Broadway and penetrate into the cross and by-streets and alleys; let him visit some of the worst parts of the City, and the most crowded and uncleansed; let him enter the houses, penetrate to the back yards, climb the filthy stairs; — let him do this at any season of the year, but especially on a hot Summer’s day; let him see and feel how the people live there; aye, and if possible, how they die there too; — let him breathe the air, loaded with the reeking stench sent up by the filthy and sweltering pavements and gutters, and the odors of human perspiration in the close and crowded apartments; let him think what it would be for himself, with his wife and his children, to live there, to be sick there, and to die there, “in that beastly degredation of stink;” let him look upon the sick child or the sick mother, tossing with fever and scorched with the fumes of a hot stove, and sickened by the odors of cooking; and then let him come away and say, if the have the heart, either by his words or his actions, by selfish arguments or cold indifference, that these people shall be left in their wretchedness: that they shall still be poisoned with filth and stifled from want of air; that ten thousand innocent and helpless children shall thus be slowly suffocated every year.
And will we leave those children and these people entirely in their helplessness, and go to our pleasant Summer retreats, wasting in fashionable display and luxurious living the means which might save some of them? — for they will not all wait for our return. Before the middle of September there will be four or five thousand more little mounds of earth in the adjoining burying grounds, covering up the victims of our cruel neglect.
Even in the absence of legislation something can be done; and much can be done by private individual or associated efforts. And if we felt upon this subject as we should feel, much would be done. Much has been done in England by private benevolence to improve the houses of the poor; to ventilate them and make them healthy. If we realized that these people are our brethren — if we, not in word merely, but in deed and in truth, loved our neighbors as ourselves, and acted as we would have other act toward us, were we in like circumstances, we could not refrain from doing something, and doing much. But what we do we should do quickly. Humanity cannot afford to wait. Disease will not wait. Death will not wait. The dying cannot wait.
“What they hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” “Work while it is day; for the night cometh when no man can work.” And when that night cometh, surely it will be something to think of — something to cheer the gloom, that we have saved some poor, industrious mother, and given her health and strength still to toil for her dependent t little ones, or preserved alive some helpless children, to be the future consolation and support of their aged parents.