How long could you survive in the 18th century?

Elizabeth Whittingham·19 June 2018·7 min read
How long could you survive in the 18th century?

Could you survive it?

Whether it’s a zombie apocalypse, worldwide famine, killer robots or unstoppable diseases, people like to bet and consider how long they would last in an unknown world, ripped straight from a movie. 

Today, however, we are going to be looking at something a little more believable. Not in terms of actually re-living the period in question, time travel, although incredible in all its forms, does not exist as an actual concept yet. Still, it is possible to consider how long the average ‘millennial’ would survive in the dangerous and rather unpredictable world of 18th century Britain.

Inequality

Class inequality was abundant in the 18 century. If, like the vast majority of the population, you were to be dropped into the period as a working class person, then survival would be very hard indeed.

There was no form of welfare system during the period, if you got sick or you could not work, you would starve to death. There were definitely no student loans nor the perceived luxury of studying whilst being supported by the government!

If you were to be dropped into the working classes of the 18th century then you would probably find yourself placed in a city slum, as thousands flocked to the cities during the period to find work.

You’ll probably experience dirty water, lack of sanitation and be crammed into one room with several other families. Drinking water would be contaminated by raw sewage and you would have no form of a flushing toilet, using a chamber pot with dozens of people before throwing it out of the window.

Mortality and infectious diseases

Chances of survival for a 21st-century person in the 18th century will, of course, come down to luck!

Infectious diseases, such as smallpox, cholera and yellow fever in the 18th century were incredibly rife!

With the few jabs that you’ve had in the 21st century, you might be able to skip around a few diseases such as smallpox and typhoid, yet dysentery and food poisoning would definitely be an issue as no one was aware of microbes in the period, meaning that food was usually heavily contaminated with no hands being washed before preparation.

You would probably have to live on wine and ale, any drinking water that you would be able to find usually have been sitting around in rotting waste or raw sewage so it’s probably not a good idea to go anywhere near that.

Childbirth

If you’re female, then you can bet your chances that your life expectancy is almost half that of men during the period.

Although childbirth in the 21st century is a fairly routine occurrence, during the 18th century, it was incredibly dangerous!

The most common cause of death in the 18th century for women was childbirth whilst avoiding childbirth in the first place was particularly hard as there were hardly any forms of effective contraception.

You were also the property of your husband, so if we wanted sex, you were required to deliver, meaning that marital rape was rather rife.

If you were to be placed into the 18th century as an upper-class woman then chances are you will spend the majority of your time pregnant. Due to eugenic and classist beliefs, the upper echelons of society were encouraged to breed non- stop.

Likewise, if you’re a working-class woman then I’m afraid you would have to work right up to labour and start working again hours after birth.

Abortion was unacceptable too, so no ‘pro-choice’ activism.

Basically, if you were to be dropped into the 18th century now as a pregnant woman, your chances of survival would be pretty low indeed!

Medecine

Poor medicine in the 18th century meant that you were more likely to die from a medically assisted disease than from simply suffering from a disease in the first place.

Medically assisted childbirth mortality rates increased during the period, meaning that if you were to call a doctor during childbirth then you would have a higher chance of dying!

Top tip: if you find yourself ill during your time in the 18th century, do not call a doctor!

Suffering from any kind of illness during the period would usually result in a little bit of bloodletting, which many doctors believed would help to cure the patient whilst even a small headache could result in a good dose of trepanning. You will have a hole drilled into your head to relieve any excess pressure, good luck surviving that!

Bloodletting, of course, causes low blood pressure, blood loss and even death. You would probably get a nasty infection from the dirty tools used too as clearly no one used any kind of sterilisation process. Good luck with that…

Sexism

If you’re a woman, you can kiss goodbye to any kind of formal education. Women were simply not permitted to attend forms of universities. Therefore, unlike the 21st century where women are welcomed into all education sites in the Western World, as a woman in the 18th century, I’m afraid you would have had a rather poor upbringing.

Girls could be sent to school, but it was expensive and not compulsory so many families did not bother.

As a 21 st century woman in the 1700s, it will be quite a shock to be told to stay put at home, birth as many children as you can before death and submit to your husband in all forms.

If you’re a man, the table will be turned in your favour, somewhat. You can probably expect to have a few more voting rights and many more social freedoms.

The only issue is that you may end up in a war or working grueling manual hours so you probably won’t survive long either.

Age

If you were to be dropped into the 18th century right now, to live out your life, then your life expectancy would not be looking as promising at the average 21st century age.

500 of 1000 children were dead before the age of 2. Women were dying of childbirth in their early twenties whilst even the common cold could put an 18th-century person ‘to bed’ and hence to their death.

Buckle up for an eventual and rather quick ride, as the average life expectancy of the 18th century was 35 years!

So, what do you reckon? Do you think you could survive in the 18th century?

Your modern vaccinations would definitely keep you going, yet the lack of contraception, the dangers of childbirth, the extremely poor medical knowledge, the overcrowding, the poor sanitation and the huge lack of women’s rights is surely a put-off, right?