So much of the furniture of our lives that was present at the end of this period and is still with us now was not there at the beginning. There were almost no railways, so the fastest land travel was at the speed of a horse. It took days rather than hours to get from Birmingham to London, or Paris to Amsterdam. There were no bicycles either. There were no steamships, so the journey across the Atlantic took weeks rather than days as it did a generation later. There was no telegraph, so messages travelled at the speed of these modes of transport. There was no photography, so all representations of people and events were hand-drawn. And there was no gas light, so our lives were regulated by the rhythms of the days and seasons much more than now.
And yet, there is still a great deal that we would recognise. We could buy tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar from the grocer’s. The grocers themselves were part of a growing group of independent traders based in the towns and cities, whose livelihoods were not directly related to agriculture. The importers, processors and producers were also involved in this chain. As long as there was a degree of political stability (meaning that a person did not live in fear that their livelihood would be taken from them) and individual freedom of action (usually accompanied by property rights), then the opportunities were taken up. If a person could provide a service, such as shoemaking or chimney-sweeping or bookbinding, and find a market for it, then the opportunities were there.
And we could read. Books and newspapers were widely available and avidly read and discussed. The Calcutta Public Library in India was founded in this period. Which means that more people were receiving an education or were in contact with someone who was. From the perspective of now, this widening literate culture seems like the ripples from a stone dropped into a pond. Its effects have been felt through the generations to our current time. It empowers the reader to make their own assessment of what they read about the world beyond their physical horizons regardless of their position in society. Whether they are a furniture-maker, a cook, a noble or a king, each can take a position and have a view on their world.
The opportunities were not evenly spread. For a woman to take them up, she needed the support of an open-minded male family member. A slave or a peasant had severely restricted options to participate in the wider world. However, those self-employed, self-empowered, literate artisans and merchants were beginning to ask for more representation, and the elites which granted it, albeit slowly, were spared the chaos that came in the revolutions of generation 493.