There is nothing strange, then, in the fact that though our national wealth increased tremendously from 1890 to 1900, the average wages went down from $445 to $438 per year, while the value of the products increased thirty-one dollars per worker. Labor is more efficient, more plentiful, and cheaper, yet the condition of the efficient is improved every decade, while only the defective suffer.
The following quotation is very much to the point: "The home of the laborer in the nineteenth century contains furniture and utensils which in the fourteenth century would have represented the highest grade of luxury. Employment for the laborer must have been precarious and the pay disgracefully small. Food was scarce and of the kind which contains almost no nourishment. Tools of labor, even of the most advanced trades, were clumsy, inefficient and few in number, as well as hard to get. If the whole stock of a carpenter's tools comprised two broadaxes, an adze, a square and a spoke-shave, how limited must have been the scope of his operations. Agriculture was a farce, for the yield of wheat to the acre was considered good if it reached six bushels. In the fourteenth century people lived in mud huts, with a rough door and no chimney. It was not till a century later that the erection of a chimney was considered more than an indulgence in luxury, a fire commonly being built against the mud-plastered wall of the hut and the smoke escaping through the roof. All furniture was of wood. Most persons slept on straw pallets with a log of wood for a pillow. Even the nobility had no glass in the windows during this time. Cleanliness was not a characteristic of the people, and Thomas a Becket was considered more than necessarily nice because he had the floor of his house strewn with fresh straw each day".
The rich in Middle Ages concealed a want of cleanliness in their homes and persons under a profusion of costly scents, and to swarm with vermin was no disgrace. When Erasmus visited England in the reign of Henry VIII he complained bitterly of the nastiness of the people and attributed the frequent plagues to this cause. He said: "The floors are commonly of clay, strewed with rushes, under which lie unmolested, a collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle and excrement of cats and dogs, and of everything which is nauseous." The densest ignorance prevailed among the masses. Investigation has led to the conclusion that the average duration of human life at that period was not half what it is at the present day. Bad food and want of cleanliness swept away the people of the Middle Ages by ravages upon their health that the limited skill of the time could not resist. A historian of that time states that there were no less than 20,000 leper hospitals in Europe. It is well to remember when we feel inclined to complain of the hard times in our day, that our present state would have been unheard of opulence 400 years ago.
John Burns was probably correct in his statement in England, early in 1906, that conditions were gradually improving all the time. He denied Joseph Chamberlain's statement that 1,000,000 ablebodied men were out of employment, and stated that there were only a few thousands. Even the unemployable paupers (800,000, or twenty-five per 1,000 of population), were less than in 1849, when there were over 1,000,000, or sixty-two per 1,000 of population. Civilization improves matters all the time, but the overpopulation still continues, and there are a million in distress, and even if they are not counted to be paupers, they receive some assistance.
There is no difference between ancient and modern Egypt as to overcrowding and poverty except possibly as to degree. It has been estimated that in the high civilization thrust upon the natives by Northern types, irrigation was carried to such an extreme as to create an artificial lake (Maeris), and so much food was produced that the population mounted to 20,000,000 about 2000 B.C., and, though, as previously explained, we may suspect exaggeration in this estimate, there is no doubt that the land was densely crowded or it would have been impossible to build the pyramids and temples. Riches flowed to Egypt because it sold food abroad, particularly in time of famine, as told in the story of Joseph. Nevertheless the native starved. Mas-pew describes the poverty of the masses in his work on "Ancient Egypt" (p. 35), and also the frequent "strikes" among the hungry workmen, who are depicted as saying, "By Amen, by the sovereign whose rage destroys, we will not go back to work," and to Pharaoh's scribe they said, "We come, pursued by hunger, pursued by thirst; we have no more clothes, no more oil, no more fish or vegetables. Tell this to Pharaoh, our master - tell this to Pharaoh, our sovereign - that we may receive the means of living." It almost seems as though Egyptian rulers conceived the vast pyramids and temples to give work to the surplus population not needed on the farms, but idle by reason of the lack of varied industries. The pyramids, then, may really be public works for the unemployed, no different in principle from modern systems of using them on roads and other public improvements.
The overcrowding to-day is exactly the same. The English nation found that the anarchy following French domination was liable to destroy the Suez Canal and check the trade to India. In self-defense the English took control of affairs and the high civilization built up has repeated the old, old story of increasing the food supply and multiplying the population, yet poverty and want abound in spite of the enormously increased wealth. The most pitiful sights on earth are the beggars of Cairo - indeed, it seems to be a city of starvlings. George Foucart, writing in the Nouvelle Revue, recently said that the conditions are even worse in the rural districts. Nevertheless ancient times saw infinitely more suffering.