The Enlightenment ushered in profound change across Western society. People became increasingly free from authoritarian religious regimes and free to ponder openly what it means to be good, free, and ethical. But the monumental changes of the time were about more than liberty and justice. For many, in myriad ways, day-to-day life was getting vastly easier and safer as the technologies and knowledge at our disposal grew and grew.
London in the mid-1880s was the largest city in the largest empire in the world. It was at the leading edge of cultural “refinement” and technological innovation. It was also disgustingly filthy. The streets were littered with horse feces. The Thames was so replete with human excreta that it led to an event in the summer of 1858 now infamously known as “the Great Stink,” in which the pungent smell of human waste wafted across the entire city for weeks on end. Human feces was constantly tainting drinking water supplies leading to what now would be unthinkably high rates of death and disease.