I frequently reflect on how different our lives are from the lives of those that lived during the Georgian Period, but occasionally, I am reminded in surprising ways that human nature is rather constant.
As a case in point, let’s consider reality television. Back in 2012, there was a reality show called Extreme Cheapskates. It ran for three seasons, and as the name implies, it documented things that a handful of frugal and eccentric individuals did to save money. The individuals featured in the series do not live in abject poverty. In fact, at least two of the stars are reportedly millionaires. I’ve never seen an episode, but my kids mention scenes they have watched on you-tube. They don’t bring up these scenes to offer me any sort of useful tips for reducing costs, but because some lengths the stars of the show go to are shocking. One example is a mother who drove her children around looking for roadkill, which was then prepared and served for dinner. They canceled the show, in part, because measures were so extreme, many viewers questioned if the episodes were staged.
In December 2019, I sent out a newsletter about John Elwes, so I apologize if this part feels redundant. He was a miser that may have been the inspiration for Dickens’ famous Ebenezer Scrooge. Elwes was born in 1714 and inherited the equivalent of $10 million in today’s dollars at the age of ten. He later inherited the equivalent of an additional $23 million. After he died in 1790, they published accounts of his stingy ways in a daily newspaper called The World, and his penny pinching became the subject of many books. Much like the woman featured on Extreme Cheapskates, one of his money-saving techniques was to eat roadkill—including a bird that a rat pulled from a river. Daniel Dancer is another famous and wealthy cheapskate who became the subject of books and magazine articles after his death in 1794. His 1797 biography proved so popular they reissued it for several years. Here is an excerpt that I found shocking:
“It was during the last illness, which terminated his sister’s life, that he was importuned to afford her some medical assistance; to which he shrewdly replied, it would cost him money; and, besides, continued he, ‘Why should I waste my money in wickedly and wantonly trying to oppose the will of God! If the girl is come to her latter end, nothing can save her; and all I may do, will only tend to make me lose my money; and she may as well die now as at any other time.’”
It’s not unexpected that misers have existed for over 200 years, but it surprised me to see the similarities in terms of modern and Georgian entertainment. Mr. Elwes and Mr. Dancer are not remembered for their accomplishments but for their avarice. Much like viewers of Extreme Cheapskates, their contemporaries took pleasure from learning about their ridiculous methods to horde wealth. While criticisms of reality television led me to assume the practice of looking into the lives of unnoteworthy strangers to marvel at their eccentricities was relatively new, it is not. Although the delivery method and accessibility have changed, this type of thing has been popular for centuries. Modern research has tried to uncover why we find it appealing. Whatever the reason, it appears to span both cultures and generations.