This month, I moved. The distance involved was not far, about 40 kilometres over the county line, but the effort required months of planning and a very large cube van, accompanied by three pickup trucks and my own car. At the other end, we began the process of arranging furniture and artwork, and unpacking more than 50 cardboard boxes. How can two people own so much stuff?

I started thinking of my ancestors. I can’t think of one who lived in the same house their entire adult life, although a few seem never to have moved from the town or village they were born in. But they changed houses, and often with amazing regularity. I’ve moved some 15 times since leaving my parents’ home. That’s a lot of packing tape – but how would I have fared before the advent of Styrofoam peanuts to safeguard my breakables and hydraulic lifts to heft a hundred books onto a truck?

I imagine the reasons for moving to a new house have never changed. A family’s number increases or decreases, or cheaper accommodation can be found a few streets away, or the desire and opportunity to own a house rather than pay rent, or the commute to new employment necessitates a change of address – these were the drivers of mobility a hundred and fifty years ago, just as they are today. Distance was no more a deterrent then than it is now. My ancestor John Fletcher left Cumberland for Kent in the early 1800s, and my ancestor John Gent’s promotion in the 1890s meant his family moved from Newcastle to London. Genealogical records are full of such details. In 1966, my own mother packed six suitcases and herded her young family onto an airplane to fly across the Atlantic and join my father in Canada. She had to divest herself of an entire house full of belongings and start fresh in a new country – new cookware, linens, clothes, furniture – just like thousands of immigrants before her.

Was it easier in the days when most people owned two sets of clothes and a single pair of shoes? Household goods such as kitchen essentials and bedding could probably fit into one chest, which could be loaded onto a small cart, along with a table, a couple of chairs, and perhaps a bed or two. A walk of up to five miles would have been relatively effortless for the working class, so it easy to imagine a family packing up their lives in the morning and settling comfortably into new lodgings later that afternoon.  The middle class, owning more belongings, might have hired a commercial enterprise to do the job – the 1850 London post office directory has half a dozen pages listing the location of carriers of goods and people.

Moving is one of the most stressful events in life, ranked slightly below dealing with death and divorce. Did our ancestors feel that way? I equate it to childbirth, in that a few weeks after the fact, you’re admiring the new view from clean windows and drinking coffee brewed in your new kitchen, and you’ve forgotten the more painful details. Otherwise, why would we ever do it again?