Updated 15 April 2014

10 fabulous things we take for granted

Just how different would your life have been if you had to live without these 10 things? A century ago everyone had to.


You take a headache tablet, phone a friend, have a dental cavity filled, and hop into your car.

There's a lot we take for granted. We stress about pollution and global warming, crashing markets and sub-woofers. But we don't have to cook over an open fire and have a baby every year. Amongst the things for which we should be eternally grateful are:

Proper soap. Imagine trying to keep yourself, your house and your clothes clean with no proper soap or household detergents. In effect, all you would be doing is shuffling the dirt about. Without grease-cutting detergents, soap was mostly ineffective. People washed clothes in rivers (admittedly, rivers may have been cleaner in the days before industrial pollution) and slammed them against the stones in an effort to get rid of dirt and stains.

Read more: 10 yucky hygiene facts

Medication. Anaesthetics, vitamin tablets, painkillers, antibiotics, vaccines and antiseptics. Infections, unbearable pain, operations without anaesthetics and fatal childhood diseases were common when granny was conceived. There were no headache tablets and your chances of dying from infection after an operation were very high. People died because of a burst appendix, kidney stones, small infections. In short, they died of all sorts of things, which today, would be treated with a short course of antibiotics.

Read more: Meds and You section

Medical staff. Imagine being really ill, or having excruciating toothache and not being able to go to your dentist or GP. At least today in most countries, one can go to a state hospital or clinic of some sorts – OK, sometimes the travelling kind only comes around once a week, but at least it comes. You might have to wait hours in a queue, but relief or at least a correct diagnosis should follow once you get to the front.

Read more: How to choose the right GP

Contraceptives. It was the fate of women for many generations to have a baby every year. Either that or celibacy. Many modern women, if given the choice between having 16 children or joining a convent, would opt for the latter. Today, planning a family is easy and costs nothing, if you get contraceptives from state family planning clinics. Imagine what 16 pregnancies would do to your body.

Read more: The A - Z of contraception

Clean water. Cholera used to come in epidemics and no one knew for hundreds of years what it was caused by. The biggest modern miracle is probably that of clean water, and modern sanitation. We can drink the water from our taps. It is clean and hygienic and we are not going to get some grim water-borne disease by doing so. Most of our streets aren't filled with sewerage, because we have toilets and water-born sewerage. Pit latrines were cold, draughty and very unhealthy.

Motorised transport. The rush-hour crawl is frustrating, but motorised transport is what makes life possible. No transport, and we'd all have to live within a few kilometres of work. We'd not go on holiday. Too horrible to think about.

Air-conditioning/heating. Log fires look romantic, but are messy, not terribly efficient, and smelly. As recently as 30 years ago, air-conditioning was a rarity. All workers slaved away in hellish temperatures in the summer. Cars baked, shops were unbearable. Likewise, in winter, things were also uncomfortable. Before the advent of electricity, there were not many effective ways of heating up a freezing home.

Read more: Can aircon make you sick?

Electrical household appliances. Think what it would be like to wash all your clothes by hand, having to sweep all the carpets, not having any way to refrigerate food, and having to light a fire when you felt like a cup of coffee. No more reheating of yesterday's leftovers, especially since you could not refrigerate them. Your life would be an endless series of household chores and never-ending drudgery. And the house still wouldn't really be clean.

Tampons. Tampons are unobtrusive, easy to use and a lot better than those pads with the loops. Remember them, or are you too young? Tampons are also infinitely preferable to what women used 150 years ago – an absorbent cloth, that was washed and re-used. Sounds like a lot of trouble. And pretty grim too.

Read more: Menstruation

Telephones, computers and e-mail. The joy of communication. Now you can phone your mother-in-law and tell her you're going to be late. You can keep in daily contact with your brother in Ontario (and see him on Skype) and find out online what you need to know about hotels in Hoedspruit. In Granny's time, letters took months between continents. And no sending SMSs or calling a friend just to chat. From a health perspective, importantly, there was no Health24 - no direct line to immediate, comprehensive, expert-reviewed health information.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated April, 2014)


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