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The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible!

3.70  ·  Rating Details  ·  248 Ratings  ·  40 Reviews
The author asks us to face our past withour nostalgia, while he reports upon humanity's state of being in the era after the civil war. He systematically covers each aspect of life with commentary and uses artwork and engeaving from newspaper from the times. He is the founder of the largest archive of graphics; some 3 million prints and photographs. He was curator of rare b ...more
207 pages
Published January 1st 1974 by Random House
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Mary JL
Jun 14, 2010 Mary JL rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone with any interest in history
Recommended to Mary JL by: Found while browsing in bookstore
This book is a good intorduction to the modern reader of some of the problems that ordinary people faced from the 1820's to the 1890's.

The rich did pretty well, but despite many new inventions--telephone, telegraph, transcontinental railroads---the average person had it very hard.

There was no forty hour workweek--you worked as long as your employer decreed. No OSHA to set safety standards. Admittedly there was no polluction from car exhausts; what they had instead was hundreds of horse, producin
Jun 28, 2010 Jim rated it liked it
I'm being somewhat generous. It should probably be 2 stars, but there was a wealth of pictures & drawings that I've never seen elsewhere. The book did have its good points, too. Unfortunately, it tried too hard to live up to the title.

For example, the section on guns was laughable. There was 1/3 page of text that basically said kids were given toy guns. This is terrible? The other 2/3 of the page was made up of drawings. Whee! This section has no facts in it. I really don't know why it was i
Oct 26, 2009 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In these days of AIDS, the Internet and nuclear weapons, it is very tempting to look back to a simpler age in American history. "The Good Old Days" lasted from approximately 1865 to 1900. This book takes a very clear-eyed look at just how "good" those days really were.

In New York City, garbage (including horse manure) was piled high on city sidewalks. In the rain, those garbage piles turned into slime beds. Western towns were dirty, with horses creating fly-infested cesspools around the hitching
Johnny D
Jul 24, 2012 Johnny D rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Whenever I went to my grandfather's house as a young boy, I would inevitably take out this book. The illustrations that Otto Bettmann collected and used for this work are striking. I remember poring over the pages of this book, fascinated by every illustration of the United States of America's not so charming Gilded Age.

I was absolutely anamoured with the idea that there could be a construction of history that did not accord with reality. This was my first encounter with the concept of history b
Asa Wilder
Jul 06, 2015 Asa Wilder rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Favorite new book title.

A collection of prints/drawing/advertisements from roughly 1890's all focusing on how terrible life was.

excerpt from the intro still ringing pretty true:

"I have always felt that our times have overrated and unduly overplayed the fun aspects of the past. What we have forgotten are the hunger of the unemployed, crime, corruption, the despair of the aged, the insane and the crippled. The world now gone was in no way spared the problems we consider horrendously our own, suc
Dec 11, 2010 Llew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Love the descriptions of 1800s Chicago having a rainbow of sewage floating through it or those of Pittsburgh just swimming in coal dust.
Mar 13, 2015 Kent rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Looking back to the Gilded Age (1870-1900), the author attempts to balance nostalgia for the good old days with a dose of reality, that reality being we are far better off now.

I enjoyed the book for a while, but then it became clear that 1) the book is primarily centered on NYC, and 2) the book is thoroughly pessimistic. NYC isn't my favorite city, even today, and this book's pessimism needs to be balanced to be realistic. I found myself skimming the last few chapters.

Nonetheless, I picked up s
Rene Blansette
Apr 07, 2015 Rene Blansette rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've read this before. When I first read it, it was an antidote to the "good old Days" thinking in the last part of the 20th Century. Now reading this, it makes me think that it's the blueprint for most of the most conservative thinking members of the GOP. The era covered in this book, if you rents an apartment, you as the renter had NO legal rights. Safety was wishful thinking at any factory or coal mine. Children worked in the factories and adults worked twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days ...more
Mar 26, 2012 Terri rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well put together, but terribly depressing...
Mar 29, 2009 Rose rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Nostalgia being a stubborn human sentiment, it's not surprising that once an era has passed beyond living memory, it acquires a rosy hue. Otto Bettmann's "The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible!" is an illustrated wake-up call for those who assume that domestic bliss, moral perfection, and gilded prosperity characterized the years between the Civil War and the dawn of the twentieth century.

Granted, this was a time of great technological advancement. The telephone, motion picture camera, and auto
Jan 27, 2011 Natalie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Natalie by: museum store
From squatters to pollution, medical care, child labor, lynching and juvenile delinquents Otto L. Bettmann takes us on a tour of the past that will keep you turning the pages while amusing you at the same time. Sort of like an illustrated The Harper's Index Book of the times gone by with a little 2 pg chapter on each topic .

The author takes the time period between the end of the civil war and the early 1900s and examines the reality of the times complete with illustrations and the occasional ho
Steve Carroll
Bettmann curated a collection of illustrations and pictures from "the good old days" which in this book is basically the late 19th century. This book includes lots of great pieces from that collection that attempt to break through the nostalgic viewpoint that these were idyllic simpler days. Covers everything from the absolute disgusting mess that was horse drawn travel, the misery of frontier life, terrible medicine, horrible schools, drug abuse, and all the other bad stuff that gets edited out ...more
Jul 06, 2011 Rebecca rated it liked it
The rarely-seen illustrations and photos from Dr. Otto Bettmann's famous archive are what make this book a classic. And they're rarely seen, I suppose, because most are rather gruesome, much like daily life for middle and lower class, urban and rural Americans during the latter half of the 19th century. People don't want to imagine their great-grandmothers swimming with dead dogs and other refuse, let alone eat the food that's been tainted by such horrors.

If you know anyone who seriously compla
Sep 20, 2014 Jessi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-bookcase, 2014
I had to read this for my American Culture class, but I did actually enjoy it. It had interesting facts and the illustrations throughout the book were pretty neat. Bettmann really does explain this book's title to great lengths. Makes me feel fortunate to even have a well ventilated apartment!
Mar 28, 2014 Phil rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ah, I love it when people bemoan the American nostalgia of yester-year "good old days." Everyone has forgotten what it was actually like at the turn of the century and how terrible it was. I'm sure in the future they will be writing books like this about how amazingly stupid we are today.
Jan 13, 2012 Ian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A healthy corrective for those inclined to sentimentalize the past, particularly since we seem to be heading into a replay of the Gilded Age, with our politicians and their enablers seemingly determined to plunge us once again into that era's omnipresent corruption, inequality, and hardship. I'm taking off a star for Bettmann's often overheated tone and tendency to make oversimplified blanket pronouncements about the various subjects under discussion, but for the most part the wealth of photogra ...more
Pierre Sabourin
Jan 25, 2016 Pierre Sabourin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Luddites and technophobes proven wrong, again.
Brett Van Valkenburg
This was an interesting book that I think suffered a little from dry writing. After a few chapters the author's formula became very obvious, i.e. "Food: Most people think that back in the good old days people used to eat ________, but really they ate __________ and it often killed them. Travel: Most people think that back in the gold old days people would romantically travel by ____________, but really it was __________ and it often killed them. Work: etc...."
Jul 10, 2007 Rebecca rated it liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs with a hint of sass
The author asks us to face our past withour nostalgia, while he reports upon humanity's state of being in the era after the civil war. I live in danger of being swept into the past by the romanticism of looking at life as memory; waxing about what it might be like, rather than attending to the miseries that accompany that life. This book is chock-full of rare and hilarious engravings from the time. Because I need to remember that I live HERE, IN THIS MOMENT
Aug 22, 2012 Melanie rated it it was amazing
Although my research was for England and this books deals with New York in the Victorian age, I still found this book to be pertainant to my research. Some really good information in here along with actual illustrations for the time period. This book gives a good overview of the bleakness of the times but with only one page per subject, more indepth research may be needed by some. Over all though, a really interesting book.
Apr 17, 2013 Sandy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My Mom wanted me to read this book. It was very interesting and filled with lots of information on how terribly hard it was to live "in the good old days". I made it through 3/4 of the book and then couldn't finish it. It was incredibly depressing and it was starting to really get to me. I give it 4 stars because it really was a very good and interesting book, but way, way, way too depressing for my taste.
May 17, 2011 Jael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an excellent peek into some of the realities of the Gilded Age: the dirt, the grime, pollution, crime, terrible education systems, blah blah blah. Very insightful and written with a humourous style that keeps it from being totally depressing. I also really enjoyed the period illustrations that he used that were caricatures of what the people were dealing with in those days.
This is a primer. Some of the things that are discussed in this book are familiar, and others are a little credulous, without real discussion of variant versions.

Still, it's a good start, and a useful corrective to nostalgia by people who have no real memory of the historical times chronicled (which, let's face it, is all of us, by now.)
Apr 27, 2009 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The info was very interesting, and pieced in easily digestible chuncks. No information overload, it got right to the facts.

This book was good. However, it only focused on the years 1860-1900. Would have liked to see more Pre-Civil was anecdotes.

If anyone ever talks about the good old days, think twice. They were terrible!
Mark Singer
Feb 09, 2011 Mark Singer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Mark by: no one
This is one of the first books that I ever bought for myself, sometime in the mid 1970's. Even as a mere lad I was something of a skeptic, and Bettmann wrote a fairly good, if somewhat anecdotal, revisionist look at American history between 1865 and 1910, the period often categorized in a nostalgic haze as "The Good Old Days".
I reread this book again. Makes you so grateful for living in these times. I was reminded that things were much worse than I had envisioned in my reflections of the peaceful past.
I didn't care for his writing style but the graphic arts were interesting and told much of the story. It is a fast read.
May 12, 2012 Edward rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An honest look into the past. It seems that the lifestyle of people depicted in "Gangs of New York' was pretty accurate. I highly recommend it for anybody, just to develop an appreciation of our modern life. Things were much worse in the "Good Old Days."
Dec 15, 2012 Moira rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Read this book long ago and rediscovered it. Will dispel any misty illusions you have about life 'then'.

Entertaining. Probably there are better researched books than this one. Full of illustration from the 19th century.
May 02, 2011 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1history, box2
Anyone who tells you they miss the good old days, tell them no they don't! This book discusses albeit briefly many many topics about the old days that bursts that bubble. A good read, funny at times.
Frank Chambers
A chapter book on how bad things were in the "good old days". Rather interesting; somehow uplifting to see how far we have come. Bought in Lowell, MA during our summer visit. Bought at the textile museum.
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