The premise of this first reality-TV program is brilliant. Take an ordinary middle class family of the year 2000 and make them live for 6 months like an ordinary middle class family of the year 1900. The London-based producers succeed in this transformation by getting every detail of Victorian domestic life exactly right and complete. The volunteer family is plunked down in a different era as if by time machine, and there is no escape. No shampoo, either. The edited 6-hour result is deep, instructive, and totally riveting, Kids who hate history are mesmerized by it. Because it is so visual and visceral, it changed the discussion of chores and gender roles in our household. Better than 100 essays, this video series reveals the notion of progress. It is now my favorite history “book.”
The success of 1900 House spawned Frontier House, a parallel experiment that transfers the conceit to the edge of Montana in 1893 during homesteading days. It ups the challenge by requiring the participants to build their homesteads and raise all their own food while sticking to period tools and the lifestyle of pioneers. The three families who settle in a beautiful valley need to stockpile enough food, shelter and firewood to last a Montanan winter. Instead of cooperating, they compete against each other, making this remarkable 6 hours series into what Survivor should have been – an authentic test of surviving. There is probably no greater persuader of women’s inequality than this pair of films. The guys loved being pioneers, while the women and girls were imprisoned by it.
Both series come with books you can forget. The documentaries on the other hand are memorable and entertaining works that would be fantastic in any classroom, and ones that I would require every child in 21st century America to view. If I had to choose only one to see, I’d go with Frontier House. There’s more going on, more intra-personal weirdness, more learning and more failures. Best would be witnessing both, as the London Victorian house closer reflects what the majority back then experienced. These are the nearest things yet to a time machine.
Mark McCrum and Matthew Sturgis
1999, 192 pages
Available from Amazon