By James Alexander Thom

We modern Americans have so many comforts of all kinds that we can hardly imagine what hardships our ancestors endured just to get through their days. That is an important truth that a good historical writer should strive to reveal in the course of telling a story. Our forebears deserve our admiration.

Think of it:

Until steam and internal combustion and electrical engines, all work had to be done by muscle power: our muscles, and the muscles of slaves or animals. That means that through all the millennia until one or two centuries ago, labor and toil were simply the costs of survival.

Needing water, you had to bring it up and carry it; you couldn’t just turn on a faucet. If you wanted hot water, you had to find and cut wood, by muscular effort, and make a fire to heat the water.

Without electricity and furnaces, you needed candles, lamps and wood or coal fires to give you light and warmth, and you had to make or fetch the fuel.

There was no warm indoor bathroom, no flush toilet. It was like camping your whole life long, in that regard. Add that there were no deodorants, and smells were discomforts of their own sort.

Food had to be grown, harvested, husbanded, herded or hunted, and butchered, transported and prepared by hand, without electric toasters, blenders, microwaves, and preserved in many toilsome ways, including the cutting and carrying of ice.

Clothing had to be spun, woven, sewed by hand, houses built and household utensils crafted.

Just getting from place to place required effort, and there were few roads, and the traveler was subject to the weather. Imagine crossing a county or state or continent without a climate-controlled car, train, bus or plane.

Doctoring was so primitive that pain and death were what you had to expect if you got hurt or sick.

In combat there were no helicopters to lift the wounded off the battlefield, there were no anesthetics or antiseptics. There were lice and fleas everywhere, and no insecticides.

You become aware of all those efforts and discomforts when you heed any story from the past.

And it might occur to you that one of our greatest modern comforts is not a physical one:

Back then, you could not just get in touch with a loved one by dialing up a voice or tapping a keyboard. If someone was away on a voyage, or at war, you just had to wait, weeks or even years, to learn by a letter or word of mouth, whether that dear one was even still alive. In those days, anyone away from home was a missing person.

Reading well-researched history, if nothing else, should make you thank your Creator for the modern comforts.


In Once Upon a Time It Was Now, best-selling author James Alexander Thom (Follow the River, From Sea to Shining Sea, Sign-Talker) gives you the tools you need to research and create stories born from the past that will move and inspire modern readers.

James Alexander Thom is an Indiana-born Marine veteran, and was a newspaperman, magazine freelance writer, and Indiana University Journalism School lecturer before he became a full-time historical novelist, known for his thorough research in archives and in the field. His American frontier and Indian war novels have won national awards and sold more than two million copies. Two were made into television films, by Hallmark and Ted Turner. Thom’s family history drew him to the Civil War era.  His namesake was killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg, and his great grandfather survived the deathly Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp. Several years as Ohio River historical lecturer for the Delta Queen line provided technical knowledge and riverboat lore for this book. The author is also an artist and sculptor. James and his wife Dark Rain live in a 170-year-old log house near Bloomington, Indiana.