Technology has made my life an open book. Even if I don't post on social media my friends probably will. What ever happened to the quaint notion of privacy?
-MAX IN LOS ANGELES, CA
I hear you, Max. (FYI: That paisley shirt you wore last night was hideous. Get it together, man.) But if it makes you feel better, here’s some perspective. In the past, privacy was often nonexistent. And life had no “unfriend” or “block” features.
Let’s start with the bedroom. For much of history, even the most intimate act was afforded little privacy. As recently as the 1800s, most non-aristocratic families in Europe slept in the same room, so you got to enjoy the sights and sounds of your parents creating your brothers and sisters. If you were wealthy enough to have servants, they slept at the foot of your bed. And if you were a royal couple, your wedding night was considered the best show in town: Witnesses and servants were escorted to the bedroom the day after and the woman and mattress would be examined for evidence of consummation.
If you were having problems in your marriage, things got worse. Consider the notorious impotence trials in England of the 16th through 18th centuries. If a woman wanted to divorce her husband because of his inability to perform, she took him to court, where he had to prove his virility by having sex with her in front of select jurors, including surgeons and priests. No pressure there.
And then there’s the medieval ritual of charivari. If men couldn't control their obstreperous wives, they were publicly humiliated. As Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage, a History, “A henpecked man might be strapped to a cart or ridden around backward on a mule, to be booed and ridiculed for his inversion of the accepted marital hierarchy.”
Now, the bathroom.
Voiding was not the solitary act we know today. It was a communal activity. Hampton Court in England had the Great House of Easement, a toilet for 28, and ancient Romans often built 20-seaters. When you weren’t performing bodily functions, life was even more in the open. Puritans were particularly fond of sticking their blue noses in your business. Men were forbidden to live alone. And many towns set up a system of local snitches called tithing men, who were in charge of keeping tabs on 10 neighbors.
If you’re worried about the National Security Agency, you should remember that mail and phone lines have rarely been confidential. The French systematized their mail-reading techniques in a secret chamber called the cabinet noir, the black room. In 1950, a majority of Americans used party lines, meaning you shared lines with eavesdropping neighbors. Even politicians weren’t immune from the nuisance. During the 1960 presidential race, candidate Hubert Humphrey hosted a TV call-in show in West Virginia—only to be interrupted by an impatient neighbor demanding Humphrey hang up and free the line. The ever-polite Humphrey obeyed.