You’re fooling yourself if you pine for the good old days without putting those memories in context


Stephanie Koontz, one of my favorite social historians, WARNS HERE about the potential pitfalls of nostalgia:

In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.

In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.


There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good things in our past. But memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to cross-examine them, recognizing and accepting the inconsistencies and gaps in those that make us proud and happy as well as those that cause us pain.

In my work as a historian and in my relationships as a friend, teacher, wife and mother, I have come to think that the most useful way to understand the past, and make it work for you, is to look at the trade-offs and contradictions that, however deeply buried, can be uncovered in every memory, good or bad.


Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.

But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.

Some sons and daughters realized that their idyllic summers at the beach happened only because their mother had given up something else she had very much wanted to do.

Some husbands — and those were among the most touching interviews I did — came to understand that the homes they regarded as personal oases seemed more like prisons to their wives. They were then able to support a wife or daughter who chose a course that took a man out of his comfort zone.

These people didn’t repudiate, regret or feel guilty about their good memories. But because they also dug for the exceptions and sacrifices that lurked behind their one-dimensional view of the past, they were able to adapt to change. Both as individuals and as a society, we must learn to view the past in three dimensions before we can move into the fourth dimension of the future.



  1. Anyone who grew up in the 40’s and 50’s like I did, knows those were not the good old days. Cars had 6 volt batteries and never started when it was below zero. None had power steering, power brakes, power windows, or air conditioning. We drove on nylon tires which were worthless in snow. We had to put on snow tires every winter, and take them off in the spring. We like to look at the old cars now, and believe they were something special, but they were a real pain.

    Dentistry was still in the dark ages compared to today. Going to the dentist today is a far cry from the care we received back then.

    The same with health care. Granted it is much more expensive. I still have the receipt for having my tonsils out. The hospital bill was $6. But I remember seeing people there in iron lungs. Swimming pools would sometimes close for fear of polio. Rockford had a TB sanitarium. Heart surgery wasn’t even heard of. Most procedures required days of stay in the hospital. There wasn’t much outpatient surgery. After cataract surgery, you could barely see, even with coke bottle type glasses.

    The advances in electronics is astounding. I remember our first phone, with 4 numbers, and you had to wait for the correct ring as neighbors were on the same line. My grandparents still had a wall crank phone. If we wanted to make a long distance call, we had to call the operator, and she would call us back when a line opened up. There was a whole office building of operators at switchboards in Rockford, behind the Times theater. We didn’t have a TV until I was 12 years old. That was black and white and most of the time it looked like it was snowing. There were only 2 channels for Rockford. If you put up a very high antenna you might get Chicago, on a good day.

    There was talk of a new super highway called the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It wasn’t until the mid fifties other super highways were being built. Jet travel didn’t come along until the late 50’s. Even then, most people who did fly, did so on prop planes. Those maxed out way under 200 MPH. Compare that to close to 600 MPH now.

    I could go on, and I’m sure others here could add more. But what it boils down to, is that we are living evolution. Man has always built on the knowledge and developments of those who were before us. We stand on their shoulders, and progress farther.

  2. expdoc

    Nice post Tex.

  3. Tex: As one who is now in his 71st year, I have memories much like yours. My consciousness eventually was raised regarding the social and economic boundaries women and minorities faced in the ’40 and ’50s (and, of course, before then). This awareness gradually made the so-called good old days seem somewhat less idyllic to me.

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