Retroculture: Looking to the Past for Cultural Revival

September 22, 2020 Updated: September 22, 2020

When the internet made it onto the consumer market, William Lind said he wouldn’t use it.

Lind was working for a U.S. senator when the office brought in computers with internet, and these clunky early machines seemed far from efficient. He declined to use one and was even willing to resign over the issue if forced.

It didn’t come to that, and in fact all his coworkers were frustrated that Lind always completed all his work before them. Later, he joked that whoever could invent a computer terminal that would give you hard copies in real time would make a fortune—they all agreed, then realized that was exactly what Lind’s typewriter did.

“So naturally, I never let it into my home,” Lind said. Not only did Lind not adopt the internet at the beginning, to this day he doesn’t use a computer and hasn’t brought the internet into his home.

Following the fallacy that whatever is new is better, most people swapped their typewriters for computers, connected those to the internet, and then adopted smartphones that put the world wide web into their back pockets.

But people are increasingly tired of incessant newness and all it brings—smartphone addiction, the 24-hour news cycle, clutter—and an interesting cultural trend is on the rise. Colonial-style furniture, ’50s-style fashion, retro-themed establishments and lifestyle brands, new homes built with big front porches, and even entire neighborhoods and towns being built in Victorian-style architecture are becoming more common. Advertisers, designers, and developers all seem to have caught on: People want to capture the somehow feelings of the “good old days.”

Lind calls it retroculture, and though he’s lived it all his life and often gone against the grain to do so, now he’s seeing that it’s on the verge of becoming mainstream.

colonial williamsburg
A mother and daughter visit Colonial Williamsburg in colonial garb. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

More Than Nostalgia

These days, one might see a couple who wants to dress and dance like they’re in the 1940s living in a restored Victorian-style home, next to someone who built his own house and dresses in colonial-style clothes and attends historical re-enactment clubs but also drives a car, flies on a plane, and goes to the movies.

Retroculture is not about living in the past, but rather about bringing the good things found in the past into your own life. It’s different from nostalgia, which is a yearning for some imaginary past that can never be recaptured, Lind explains in his book “Retroculture.”

“As everything falls apart around us today, what makes sense is to go back; this is what people have always done when things have gone broadly wrong,” Lind said. The Renaissance was a revival of the beautiful and dignifying parts of the classical world, and the Reformation was an attempt to revive the early church and remedy rampant corruption. These grand movements sought wisdom from the past not to recreate it but to find a way forward.

Retroculture is about recapturing real styles of living, whether that’s the ’20s, the ’40s, or the Victorian era. In every era of the past, fashion was a tyrant, Lind writes, but we don’t have such restrictions today. People can pick and choose what eras and aspects to adopt, and to what degree.

With successful and beautiful towns like Seaside, Florida, designed to have the look and feel of a community from the past, an explosion of vintage-style bars, the return of train travel, and widespread interest in sustainability, “retroculture” is here to stay. People want to buy beautiful things that last, instead of throwing things away constantly to keep up with trends. They want to be able to connect with people and find communities.

post office in seaside
The town of Seaside, Fla., was designed to look and feel like a classic neighborhood, with mixed use development and public spaces that connect neighbors and community. Seen above is the Seaside post office, a pocket park, and a bookstore. (Courtesy of Visit Florida)

Some might adopt retroculture only in fashion or aesthetically at first, but it’s soon apparent that what they are after is not just the props that remind us to heed the manners of yesteryear, but the civility and sound values that came with it.

More than Material

In “Retroculture,” Lind gives plenty of practical advice and items for consideration should you want to live a retroculture lifestyle, move to a retroculture neighborhood, or get your family on board (if you have children, you’re in luck, because retroculture is currently quite trendy, and something they’ll actually see as cool and fun). He captures the lifestyles of various people who have gone all-in, living immersive retroculture lifestyles. He also touches on dating and courtship (retroculture seeks to recapture pre-sexual revolution wisdom and its fruits of enduring, emotionally satisfying relationships, and advises us to start with good family memories by asking grandparents and relatives what their stories are).

The things are not what is truly important, Lind said—values are.

We miss things like “civility, sound values, strong family life, and neighborhoods, towns and cities that are pleasant places to live,” he writes. Retroculture is about lifestyle, but it’s also about the values and standards that guide the behavior governing a lifestyle. If you asked the people from these eras we might seek to emulate what was most important to them, Lind said they would likely tell us it was what they believe, things like charity and craftsmanship and stewardship, and that these values are expressions of deeper beliefs and their faith.

These morals, and standard middle-class values, start with the Ten Commandments, Lind explained. He adds in his book that people of the past didn’t live up to all of them, but it is only in our present throwaway culture that we have people declaring that if we can’t attain this standard we should throw the standard out.

When we look to the past, many see the ugly horrors of it, such as prejudice and hypocrisy, and Lind said no one is advocating we bring that back. Neither are people advocating that we should live without air conditioning and modern medicine. Rather, with the best innovations from the past and present, we can combine them with time-tested values to find a way forward.

Those Stuffy Victorians

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It was during the Victorian era that middle-class values became universal, explains William Lind. Values like hard work, saving, and honesty were prevalent across classes. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lind has always been interested in the past, so in a way his entire life has been research for his book; he has also spoken many times with historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who wrote a number of books on the Victorian era.

“She contrasted very explicitly, which most historians won’t do, the success of the Victorians and their social policies compared to the failures of today,” Lind said. “She wrote that in the Victorian period, the incidence of social problems steadily went down. In our era, starting in the 1960s, they’ve steadily gone up. That tells us something.”

Lind references the Victorians several times in “Retroculture.” People might think of theirs as a strange and stuffy period of culture, but Lind details several ways in which they got things right. They focused greatly on improving life, in contrast to today’s emphasis on economic growth; they fought for business practices that would support rather than strain families; and they believed in the importance of service to the public good.

Lind grew up in the 1950s, a good and prosperous decade that comes up often in retroculture.

“The ’50s didn’t spring fully grown from the head of Jupiter. They are the product of the Victorians,” Lind said. He knew Victorian women growing up, his grandmothers and their friends, and had always been interested in the period. One of the great accomplishments of the Victorians was the spreading of standard middle-class values.

“They originate in 17th-century Holland and 18th-century England,” Lind said. They were values like modesty; honesty in business dealings; delayed gratification and saving, as in the building up of human, physical, and intellectual capital over the generations; and the importance of work—the belief that work is a good thing in and of itself, not just something we need to do to make money.

By the middle of the 18th century, these values were embedded in the English middle class, but it was really the Victorian era that saw these values become widespread. Lest we forget, we had very rough societies before the prim and proper Victorians.

“They make middle-class values essentially universal,” Lind said. Up through the 1950s, even if you were poor, you saw the importance of hard work, saving, and honesty, and conspicuous consumption was frowned upon among the wealthy as well, he said. “That’s not to say it didn’t happen, but it definitely didn’t help you rise on the social ladder.”

The values worked, and perhaps even more interesting, they are unique.

“They create a society that is safe, stable, prosperous, and free at the same time,” Lind said. Many times in history we’ve seen cultures that were orderly, and there have even been a handful that were both orderly and prosperous. But these middle-class values “gave almost a unique combination of order, prosperity, and freedom,” Lind said. “Because middle-class values understand that freedom is not … the right to do whatever you feel like at the moment and suffer no consequences.

“Freedom is the right to substitute self-discipline for imposed discipline. And that’s what the old culture did; it did it by social sanction, overwhelmingly, not by law.”

Remembering Who We Are

When Lind was 8 years old, he would take the train by himself up to his aunt’s house in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania.

“That was my great refuge as a kid,” he said with a laugh. “Nobody thought anything of an 8-year-old traveling by himself then. I’d have a week before my parents got there, and Aunt Lulu would make as many of the rich, wonderful desserts I love as I could eat, and there was no limit until my mother got there.”

Even as a child, Lind was keenly aware that he was “living in a world where the good things were gone or going.”

Not the desserts, but the steam locomotives and the streetcars he loved riding—Meyersdale, in his aunt’s time, was home to two railroads, and on the weekends would be packed so full you could hardly walk down the sidewalk. Today, it’s a somewhat depressed town.

Lind’s love of history and affinity for retroculture is steeped in his family roots. His great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, and Lind still has his diary, his musket, and the letters he wrote. He also has a diary of that Civil War soldier’s mother, Lind’s great-great-grandmother; she began writing it in 1835.

“My mother’s family, the Sturgesses, our motto is ‘If we once had it, we still do,'” Lind said. “My house is filled with family memorabilia going back before the Civil War in some cases; these remind me who we are.”

“And when I was young, one of the main admonishments that young people who were misbehaving got, from their parents and grandparents, was ‘Remember who we are.'”

But somehow between one generation and the next, we forgot. Lind and others often point to the cultural collapse of the ’60s, when youth culture said “don’t trust anyone over 30,” join the sexual revolution, and reject of your parents’ lifestyles.

What we had, Lind said, was a generation of young people reared in prosperity who thought the wealth and stability and freedom they had was just a given, combined with the cultural Marxism that had been making inroads since after World War I.

The influential writers of the time included Herbert Marcuse, who “successfully dumbed down the often very obtuse intellectual works by the other Frankfurt School members in works like ‘Eros and Civilization’ and then injected it into the Baby Boomers, this generation that had grown up in prosperity and with good order and so it assumed all those things were automatic when in fact they were only a generation deep,” Lind said. This was a generation that did not want to fight the Vietnam War and that latched onto an ideology that justified this desire. “Those two things came together and gave us the disaster of the 1960s, and since then that counterculture has become the mainstream, largely through the Baby Boom generation. They absorbed cultural Marxism as students and have since promulgated it to succeeding generations.”

Lind has written plenty about what went wrong and how it went wrong, but “Retroculture” isn’t about that. It focuses not just on solutions, but on the fun and positive ones. This isn’t policy and partisan politics; it’s about asking your grandparents how they lived their lives, demanding beauty in everyday purchases so as to buy less, and maintaining civility and raising that standard around us.

“It does no good to offer another dystopia,” Lind said. In fact, he’s written one, a fictional novel, under the pen name Thomas Hobbes. Lind’s “Victoria” is an update of the philosopher Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” he takes a look 50 years into the future of this country as it falls apart, but the story ends with retroculture and “rebuilding based on what we know worked in the past,” Lind said.

“People need something positive to engage with; you can’t get anywhere just by condemning everything.” And that’s exactly what people who’ve discovered retroculture are engaging in.

“You’ve got to give people something positive to work for.”

What family memorabilia or items from the past do you hold dear in your life? What time-cherished rituals have you kept going? Tell us at tradition@epochtimes.com or The Epoch Times, Life & Tradition, 229 W. 28th St. Floor 7, New York, NY 10001.