Home > History, What-ifs > One-way trip back in time… what to bring?

One-way trip back in time… what to bring?

The past is a scary placeThis is a topic that I’ve shamelessly lifted from a hypothetical discussion on the NeoGAF forums some months ago.  In and of itself, it seems like a silly discussion to have, but thinking about it does help to highlight some interesting things about the relationship between the present and the past.  The fact is that things change, and even places and cultures that seem very familiar to us can seem quite alien when viewed through the eyes of our ancestors.

Of course, before we discuss what you might bring back with you in a time machine, we have to set some limits on what you can bring, where and when you can go as well as making clear what the exercise is about:

First of all, no changing history, either written or personal.  The point of this discussion isn’t for you to daydream about carving out some kingdom or taking over the world nor is it for you to travel to last week and give yourself the winning lottery numbers.  You’re going back in time to live, not as a king, rockstar or prophet, but as a regular person.

Secondly, you can only take what you can carry with you on your back.  Think about the amount of stuff you can reasonably get onto an international flight as a rough guide.  As long as you can carry it yourself and you think you can get away with not getting told off by the flight crew, it’s fair game.

Thirdly, the items you are allowed to bring back cannot include things you wouldn’t be able to obtain in a practical manner.  So, no, you can’t bring back a nuclear warhead, nor underwear belonging to Dr Dre or the crown jewels of Spain.  You can bring back valuables like gold, but only in amounts you can reasonably get your hands on without stealing, taking out a loan or mortgaging your house.  Assume that someone you love is inheriting your assets and debts when you go.

OK, now that we have the rules set out, let’s start discussing the sorts of things you might want to bring back with you.



You need to dress appropriately

Clothes are very important in any civilisation, time and place.  Like it or not, the clothes you wear send a message to the world about who you are, what you have and what’s important to you.  Wear pants into the streets of Republican Rome and you will invite stares and ridicule at best and get beaten up or killed at worst.  Even in England or the US as little as 50 years ago, a man walking around without a hat and a decent suit would be taken for a low-class ruffian or a vagabond.

It gets worse if you happen to be a woman.  Women’s fashion is much more tightly regulated and changes much more quickly than men’s fashion.  In many places, the sight of women wearing pants is considered indecent to this day and it gets worse the further back in time you go.

Honestly, my opinion is that your best bet is to find one outfit as close to appropriate as you can find in the present and buy/barter for appropriate clothes when you get there.

No, what you should consider your comfort.  I’m talking about underwear.  Now, as far as underwear is concerned, modern underwear will be, by far, much more comfortable than what you might be able to get in the past.  Since you’re going to live there permanently, however, you’ll need to consider your options as far as replacements go, because underwear in its current form is mostly a twentieth century thing.  Before that, it’s all pantaloons, corsets, loincloths and ill-fitting bras.

Basically, if you’re going to the middle ages, you might want to consider bringing along a good pair of boxers and a comfortable bra and underwear set…. unless you happen to like wearing nappies made from roughspun cloth or linen and don’t mind having any support up top.  In that case, more power to you.

Personal Hygiene


Don't forget this, or you'll be forced to use sticks or a cloth

Your options for keeping yourself clean when time travelling are, alas, as limited as your options for underwear.  The fact is that if you’re reading this now on some kind of Internet enabled device, you are, historically speaking, pampered and living in an age of luxury.  Luckily for you, the past isn’t nearly as filthy as you might have been led to believe, but you will need to work a little harder than what you’re used to to keep yourself from getting smelly.

First of all, don’t bother bringing more than one bar of soap, because chances are that if you’re close to a civilised centre this side of 3000 BC, you’ll be able to buy some when you get there.  They even had soap in the Middle Ages, even if the locals won’t use it quite as often as you do.

Some things you will appreciate (until you get into the swing of it) will be a toothbrush, toothpaste and maybe some dental floss.  Now, the toothpaste is totally optional.  As with soap, toothpaste has been around for a long time, even during the heyday of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and even survived during the Middle Ages.  You can even even make your own out of powdered chalk or soot and a bit of water.  Gargle with salt water afterward and… well, you won’t be minty fresh, but your teeth will be clean.

The toothbrush, on the other hand, now that will give you trouble.

The first modern toothbrush was invented in England around about 1780.  Toothbrushes were available before this, but they were expensive, handmade luxuries.  Further back, you will need to make do with the local solution, which in most cases consists of a rag cloth or a splintery twig.  The basic principle is the same as now – apply the toothpaste to the cleaning instrument and rub.

If that sounds like a lot of work to you and you think you’ll miss the soft-bristled goodness of an Oral-B or Colgate brush with the shaped bristles, swivel head and tongue-cleaner on the back, I recommend packing an extra, or better yet, two.



There was a time when a handful of these would buy you a house in Spain

As with any trip to a foreign land, you’ll need to think about the local currency.  The problem with going to the past is that genuine examples of old currency will set you back a lot more than the currency is worth, and even then, it’s often not in very good condition.  Plus they’re can be hard to find.

A better idea is to bring back stuff that you can trade or sell for the local currency when you get there.

Gold and jewels are a pretty safe bet and even modest jewelery that you can buy in any jewelery store is going to have prettier stones and a much higher level of workmanship than anything that was made prior to the industrial age.  A diamond engagement ring that costs about the same as a second-hand car today could well fetch you the equivalent of 5 years’ salary in early 19th century Paris.  Do note however that at some points in history, silver or jade were more valuable than gold.

Of course, gold and jewelery are expensive things, even today, and what’s more is that they can get very heavy very quickly.  Better to bring back something that’s cheaper and lighter, but worth a lot of moolah to people living in an pre-globalised, pre-industrialised world.

Luckily, you have a lot of options in this regard.  Prior to the discovery of electrolysis, aluminium was one of the most expensive metals in the world.  The reason for this is because despite the fact that aluminium is one of the most abundant elements on Earth, very little of it is found naturally in its metallic form and there is no way (apart from electrolysis) of smelting it from an ore like you can with tin, copper or iron.

It was so expensive, in fact, that Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have two sets of cutlery on standby at his palace.  His most distinguished guests got to eat with aluminium knives and forks while everyone else had to make do with gold.  So wrapped in mystique was this metal that in order to show how wealthy the country was, the USA put an aluminium tip on the top of the Washington Monument.

Every age had a commodity like this.  Go back 500 years in Europe and the mania is for spices, particularly ones that didn’t grow in Europe, like cloves, nutmeg or saffron (the interesting thing about saffron is that thanks to its ludicrously difficult method of cultivation, it’s still worth more than its weight in gold).  Further back and you’re selling all your worldly possessions for a bolt of silk, an ingot of iron or a single, perfectly round pearl.

So yeah, bring your spice rack back with you and you could be set for life.



You're going to need a crash course in talking to the locals

The other big thing you can’t overlook is language.  Even if you’re travelling a few hundred years in the past in your own country, the language is going to sound very different, if not foreign to you.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a look at a short little passage in English that you all should have at least a passing familiarity with:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.

Don’t recognise it?  No worries!  It’s from the 11th century, after all.  I’ll give you another go at it, but I’ll fast forward a few centuries, to the 14th:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halewid be thi name; thi kyndoom come to; be thi wille don in erthe as in heuene: gyue to us this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce; and forgyue to us oure dettis, as we forgyuen to oure gettouris; and lede us not in to temptacioun, but delyuere us fro yuel.

It’s starting to make a little more sense now, isn’t it?  Some of you may even recognise it for what it is even if you don’t know all the words. For those of you who don’t, here it is around about Shakespeare’s day:

Our Father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdome come. Thy will be done euen in earth, as it is in heauen. Giue vs this day our daily bread. And forgiue vs our debts, as we also forgiue our debters. And lead vs not into tentation, but deliuer vs from euill: for thine is the kingdome, and the power, and the glory for euer. Amen.

It’s pretty obvious to all and sundry that this particular passage is the Lord’s Prayer, a refrain that is indelibly linked with English culture and history.

So yes, you can hobnob with King Alfred the Great, Good King Harold and all their mates.  Just don’t expect to understand a word they say without some practice.

The best thing to do, however, is learn some basic words in the dominant language of where you’re going.  In some time periods and places, that will be a Ancient Greek or Latin, Middle Chinese, French, Nahuatl, Sanskrit, Quechua etc.  Basically, find out how to say basic things like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘maybe’, ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘get your hand off my butt’ and you can figure out the rest when you get there.

Do what you normally should when traveling to a foreign land and learn the courtesies and you’re pretty much set.



The past is pretty much all third world, all the time

You know how that time you went to India, you forgot all the advice people gave you and drank the tap water? Remember how you felt afterward?  Yeah, you get to look forward to that regardless of what time period you end up going to.  Bring medicine.

The fact is that your system is set up and prepared for the bugs in your environment and chances are that your environment hasn’t prepared you for the sorts of things your ancestors were able to brush off with nary a whoopsie daisy.  Even William the Conquerer and his army, as tough a group of Norman-Frenchmen as you will find this side of the Middle Ages got sick from the water during their campaign to conquer England.  Bring medicine.

Finally, if you do happen to get sick, remember that nobody knew about germs until the mid-19th century, that antibiotics weren’t discovered until 1928 and that doctors back then were as likely to kill you as cure you.  Seriously, doctors in the past will prescribe you all sorts of nutty cures to make you better and mightn’t pay attention to basic hygiene.  For the love of all that is good and wholesome, don’t let them do it.  Bring medicine.

Your destination

Decide where and when you’re going to go, what you want to see, what you want to experience and have fun imagining your time travel holiday.  Discuss it among friends – their answers may surprise you.  You might learn a thing or two about your friends’ or your own priorities and perspective is always a good thing.

Personally, I’d travel to Age of Discovery Spain (Castile) or England (London) and maybe pose as the son of a converso Moor raised in a secluded monastery in the Holy Land.  It would give me a reasonable excuse for looking and sounding foreign in either country and explain my command of “provincial” Castillian Spanish and my peculiar dialect of English.  I’d have to find a way of fudging over why I don’t speak Latin, but then again, no alibi is perfect.

In my backpack, I’d bring back books on medicine, history, architecture and engineering.  enough to set me up as a sort of renaissance man – a kind of Doc Brown in the 15th century if you will.  Oh, and enough cloves to make financing my eccentric lifestyle a snap.

I have the perfect plan.  All I need to do now is to convince my wife to come with me (and find a time machine, I suppose).

Categories: History, What-ifs
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