Nothing is certain in this life but death, taxes, and the existence in every generation of fuddy-duddies who carp about things not being what they used to be. This centuries-spanning collection of gripes seems to suggest that the golden era of stability and contentment these geezers long to return to may never have existed in the first place. Still, the sheer similarity of their views ought to console them—some things never change.
1. "So Fatal a Contagion"
From an 1816 issue of the Times of London:
"The indecent foreign dance called the 'Waltz' was introduced ... at the English Court on Friday last ... It is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies ... to see that it is far indeed removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females ... [Now that it is] forced on the respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion."
2. "Self-Admiring, Emaciated Fribbles"
In Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele published a letter sent to Town and Country magazine in November 1771 by a reader who wanted to get something off of his chest:
"Whither are the manly vigor and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Potiers and Agincourt ..."
3. "The total neglect of the art of speaking"
In the preface to the 1780 book A General Dictionary of the English Language, Thomas Sheridan wrote:
"The total neglect of this art [speaking] has been productive of the worst consequences ... in the conduct of all affairs ecclesiastical and civil, in church, in parliament, courts of justice ... the wretched state of elocution is apparent to persons of any discernment and taste … if something is not done to stop this growing evil … English is likely to become a mere jargon, which every one may pronounce as he pleases."
4. "Corrupted the Morals of Many a Promising Youth"
In the 1790 book Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family, Reverend Enos Hitchcock wrote:
"The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison?"
5. "A Lessening Sense for Both Duty and Discipline"
In 1904, psychologist and educator Granville Stanley Hall published The Psychology of Adolescence, in which he warned that it was a dangerous time, particularly for young folk:
"Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day. Increasing urban life with its temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed, early emancipation and a lessening sense for both duty and discipline, the haste to know and do all befitting man's estate before its time, the mad rush for sudden wealth and the reckless fashions set by its gilded youth—all these lack some of the regulatives they still have in older lands with more conservative conditions."
6. "Lax Habits, Low Moral Standards, Hotel Episodes ..."
Besides the devil, nothing was more dangerous to the immortal soul than film—at least, according to "The 'Movies'—The Greatest Religious Menace," published in the November 6, 1926 issue of The Pentecostal Evangel [PDF]:
"[The screen artists'] beauty, their exquisite clothing, their lax habits and low moral standards, are becoming unconsciously appropriated by the plastic minds of American youth. Let them do what they may; divorce scandals, hotel episodes, free love, all are passed over and condoned by the young ... The eye-gate is the widest and most easily accessible of all the avenues of the soul; whatever is portrayed on the screen is imprinted indelibly upon the nation's soul."
7. "A Mere Amusement of a Very Inferior Character"
In its July 1859 issue, Scientific American rallied against a wicked game that made both the mind and body weaker—chess:
"A pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages ... chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while it affords no benefit whatever to the body. Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, but persons engaged in sedentary occupations should never practice this cheerless game; they require out-door exercises—not this sort of mental gladiatorship."
8. "A Mendacious Umbrella"
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the 1894 essay “The Philosophy of Umbrellas,” could tell a lot about a person based on what they held over their heads when it was raining:
"A mendacious umbrella is a sign of great moral degradation. Hypocrisy naturally shelters itself below a silk; while the fast youth goes to visit his religious friends armed with the decent and reputable gingham. May it not be said of the bearers of these inappropriate umbrellas that they go about the streets 'with a lie in their right hand'?"
9. "Lewd Wicked Children"
In 1695, Robert Russel wrote in A Little Book for Children and Youth (subtitled Being Good Counsel and Instructions for Your Children, Earnestly Exhorting Them to Resist the Temptation of the Devil ...):
"I find by sad Experience how the Towns and Streets are filled with lewd wicked Children, and many Children as they have played about the Streets have been heard to curse and swear and call one another Nick-names, and it would grieve ones Heart to hear what bawdy and filthy Communications proceeds from the Mouths of such ..."
10. "Dogs at Their Heels and Other Evidence of Dissolute Habits"
In a speech to the House of Commons on February 28, 1843, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, ranted:
"A fearful multitude of untutored savages ... [boys] with dogs at their heels and other evidence of dissolute habits ... [girls who] drive coal-carts, ride astride upon horses, drink, swear, fight, smoke, whistle, and care for nobody ... the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly."
11. "Full of Self-Conceit and Admiration"
It's probably safe to assume that the writer S.B.S. wasn't invited to any more kids' shindigs after "Children And Children's Parties" was published in The Mothers' Journal and Family Visitant in 1853:
"See the simpering little beau of ten gallanting home the little coquette of eight, each so full of self-conceit and admiration of their own dear self, as to have but little to spare for any one else ... and confess that the sight is both ridiculous and distressing... the sweet simplicity and artlessness of childhood, which renders a true child so interesting, are gone (like the bloom of the peach rudely nipped off) never to return."
12. "The Mad Spirit of the Times"
In “Degeneracy of Stature,” which appeared in the December 18, 1856 issue of The National Era, Thrace Talmon wrote:
"Household luxuries, school-room steam-press systems, and, above all, the mad spirit of the times, have not come to us without a loss more than proportionate ... [a young man] rushes headlong, with an impetuosity which strikes fire from the sharp flints under his tread ... Occasionally, one of this class ... amasses an estate, but at the expense of his peace, and often of his health. The lunatic asylum or the premature grave too frequently winds up his career ... We expect each succeeding generation will grow 'beautifully less.'"
13. "A Progeny Yet More Corrupt"
In Book III of Odes, circa 20 BCE, Horace wrote:
"Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt."
14. "Youth Were Never More Sawcie"
In his 1624 book The Wise-Man's Forecast against the Evill Time, Thomas Barnes, the minister of St. Margaret's Church on New Fish Street in London, complained:
"Youth were never more sawcie, yea never more savagely saucie ... the ancient are scorned, the honourable are contemned, the magistrate is not dreaded."
A version of this last ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2021.