It’s hard to imagine just how far we have come in North America, from the way things were just over a century ago, This is a picture of a fairly typical frontier home: rough hewn lumber, with mud for mortar to seal some of the drafts, housing a family so big that it would feel overcrowded in today’s large suburban homes.
This family has 9 kids, two parents and a dog. Imagine trying to use the outhouse, or to get some sleep in such a noisy crowded environment. This kind of lifestyle would be unthinkable to most North Americans, but our ancestors not only lived like this, but they were proud to meet the challenges of the frontier.
One of the hallmarks of pre-industrial societies, before the advent of mass production and modern distribution networks, is that people could specialize in and make a living from selling a very narrow product line. There were no Wal-Marts, not even general stores. So if you wanted shoes, you went to a shoe salesman. If you wanted a nail, you went to the man that sold nails. People were known by what they sold; they often did not have store, just a booth or perhaps they were traveling salesmen selling their wares to passersby. Here is an extreme example of specialization: this man doesn’t sell fruits, in the plural, he just sells lemons. That’s it.
His entire stock and trade is on his back as he walks down the sun scorched streets of Athens in the early 1900s, selling lemons. Just lemons. And if you wanted lemons, I suppose you would have to track him down whatever street he happened to be on that day. It is hard for us to even imagine a world where shopping is conducted this way.
This is a pictorial journey back in time to 1906 Brittany. Brittany, a small corner of France on the English channel had for centuries retained its semi independence, its own customs and culture. It was a semi-independent Celtic duchy until it was annexed by France in 1532, but even then the rugged country side allowed the local people to lead a lifestyle insulated from the main cultural currents and changes that swept greater France. Even now local dialects known as Breton and Gallo persevere in the face of the dominant French culture.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, before television and radio had begun their work of shaping mass culture, the south of Brittany retained an even more unique aspect than it does today.
Our tour of old Brittany begins in the town of Quimperlé where an open air pottery market has drawn several women dressed in traditional Brittany costumes.
Arriving on a night of bright moonlight, one finds a peaceful, quiet town, which looks fantastic, with empty streets and winding alleys, facades, which overhangs and receding down houses. The bell tower of Saint-Michel rises above the houses of the upper town. The blue moonlight shines on the stone colossus.
All sleep the sleep of small towns that sleep; sleep really is the death of mankind. No step on the pavement of the streets, no noise of a carriage, not even the whistle of a train. All is silent, not like the nights of the great Paris, whose hollow ground rings with the noise from the the tubes and pipes of various services, the sound of all that is in motion.
Here two women from Brittany wait outside a mourning chamber, where the body of a deceased lies. Their expressions and creepy hoods would scare the crap out of me!
Below a trio of young women from Pont Avon in Brittany chat next to a doorway. They are wearing their peculiar traditional dresses that features wing like shoulder adornments. The girls of Brittany liked to make themselves look pretty and had a well -deserved reputation for flirting and coquetry.
Brittany has always depended on the sea, and many men and women worked in the fisheries. Here woman are setting sardines out to dry.
So now it is time to say goodbye to the grizzled old fishermen, and the pretty country girls of Brittany.
In 1902 the northern coast of Africa was the battleground of competing European empires picking the bones of the dying Ottoman Empire. Italy had designs on Libya and Tunisia, but France snatched Tunisia from it and also held modern day Algeria and Morocco. This photo gallery gives a glimpse of what North Africa was like as it transitioned from the centuries of decay and neglect under the corrupt Ottoman Empire to an uncertain future as a colony of European powers.
Note some of the details: all the people in the photograph are wearing traditional dress, indicating a lack of western cultural influence at that point in time. There are few women on the street, most of the pedestrians are men. There are no horses or carriages, let alone motorized vehicles. There is no indication of electricity or telegraph wires. But what is also interesting is that no one seems to be paying the least attention to the photographer, indicating perhaps a familiarity with the concept or complete indifference.
Until the post World War 2 period when Arab nationalism and demagogues such as Egypt’s Nasser made the Jews into a convenient bogey man in order to radicalize and manipulate their populations, most Arab countries had sizable Jewish populations living relatively peacefully besides the Muslim majority. This is not to say that the life of Jews in an moslem country such as Tunis would have been easy or that they enjoyed equality. From the time of the Arab conquest, Jews and other non-muslims had been required to pay a special poll tax, they had been required to wear special clothes identifying them as non-believers, they were prohibited from holding certain offices, and were often segregated into their own quarters of the city.
I have been to the large bazaar in Istanbul, built during the late Middle Ages. It is a huge complex containing thousands of tiny shops. The shops specialize in varioues things, some sell tea, others sell leather goods, while others sell jewelry. The shops are grouped by what they sell, so that in any one area there may be a hundred shops selling basically the same thing. As you walk by the shop keepers attempt to entice you. They may invite you in for tea while they show you their wares, or if they see you looking at an item they will immediately approach you and name a price. The opening price is never the real price and it is expected that you will haggle. I found that the best way to lower the price was to reject their offer and simply walk away without making a counter offer. As I walked away the shopkkeeper would start yelling out lower and lower prices until they would usually reach 50 percent off of their original price by the time you were almost out of ear shot. If I liked the price I would turn around at that time and complete the bargain. It was a fascinating shopping experience but also very tiring. I could not imagine having to engage in heated bargaining to buy even the most basic of items.
The Tuaregs are nomadic inhabitants of North Africa. They lead a primitive existence in a very hostile climate, and controlled the trade routes between North Africa to Timbuktu and sub saharan Africa.
This brings us to the end of our tour of Algiers and Tunis of 1902. We hope that you enjoyed your trip back in time with us.
The following is a gallery of photographs showing what life was like in Belgium in 1902. They show a relatively prosperous, happy country which was still largely rural. Women shopped for fresh fish and produce at the market, children played, and people still clung to centuries old traditions. Just 12 years later this innocent country would be ravaged by the invading German armies who passed through Belgium on their way to attack France in WWI. The photographs you see here are all that is left of a way of life that was destroyed forever.
In this remarkable photograph a woman is delivering milk using a cart drawn by dogs. The cart is full of milk jugs and she seems to be dispensing the milk directly into containers provided by her customers. This picture in itself captures just how much the world has changed since then: if anyone tried to deliver milk using a team of dogs people would be horrified by the lack of hygiene. Back then this was normal.
Belgium in 1902 was described as a nation of bells; the church bells would sing joyously several times a day. Above is a photo of a woman who was the custodian for one of the bell towers. During World War I, the invading Germans took most of the bells from the countries they conquered and melted them to make weapons. I wonder what became of this woman and her bell?
Brussels in 1902 was a spacious and orderly city, known as a Little Paris because of its magnificent architecture and wide boulevards. It was the cultural and financial center of Belgium.
And so ends our little tour of a by-gone Belgium.