A Short History Of Nostalgia

Nostalgia comes from the Greek word nostos, meaning homecoming and algos, meaning pain. 

Extreme Homesickness

Nostalgia has a long and rich history. The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hoffer, a Swiss physician. He attributed the mental and physical disorders of Swiss mercenaries to their longing to go home. Nostalgia was the soldiers’ malady. It was a state of mind that made life in the present an incapacitating process of yearning for that which had been lost: peaceful green pastures, happiness, family.

Swiss Mercenaries depicting the history of nostalgia
Swiss Mercenaries fighting in the French Revolution of 1830
Image of a cow with bell to communicate the history of nostalgia

Are the men possessed?

Hoffer actually thought it to be a ‘neurological disease of essentially demonic cause’.

Physicians reckoned that because it was very prevalent among Swiss mercenaries abroad, it was due to earlier damage done to the eardrums and brain cells by incessant clanging of cowbells in the Alps.

Picture of Italian immigrants which show the history of nostalgia
An Italian family eats supper, New York, 1915

Immigration Psychosis

In the 19th and 20th centuries, nostalgia was referred to as an ‘immigration psychosis,’ a form of ‘melancholia’ and a ‘mentally repressive compulsive disorder’. But as Dr. Sedikides at Southampton University would later discover, this condition wasn’t just prevalent in European immigrants arriving in America. It was common around the world including in children as young as 7.

The subjects are universal – reflecting on friends and family, birthdays, weddings, folk songs, sunsets, rivers and lakes. The stories tend to put the self in the center surrounded by close friends.  

Read more about the history of nostalgia in The Atlantic or Mashable.

Nostalgia Builds Resilience

It appears that nostalgia grounds you. It gives you a base on which to evaluate the present as a temporary state, and in doing so it perhaps builds resilience. Though, obviously, we cannot rule out the alternative –  that resilient people are able to access nostalgia more effectively.

Constantine Sedikides (Professor of Social Psychology)

Image of concentration camp survivors to show the history of nostalgia

Keeping Spirits Up

Survivors in Auschwitz, January 1945. Women in the camps fought starvation by 'waxing nostalgic about shared meals with families'.

We used our memories to temporarily alter our perception of the state we were in. It was not a solution, but the temporary change in perception allowed you to persevere just a bit longer. And that could be crucial.

– Concentration Camp Survivor

Nostalgia In The Arts

Odysseus Reminisces

Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, is considered to be the first great nostalgist. After the Trojan War, it takes him an epic ten years to get back to his home town of Ithica, Greece. His memories of home and family motivate and inspire him to endure incredible hardships and never give in to his seemingly doomed fate. 

His efforts are rewarded as he eventually makes it home. He is once again reunited with his beloved wife, son and faithful pooch.

Image of The Odyssey, a book with the first great nostalgist
The Odyssey by Homer
Image of Marcel Proust, an author of nostalgia
Marcel Proust in 1900

A Proustian Moment

Proust is probably the most famous author to write about nostalgia. In his masterpiece, In Search Of Lost Time, he describes how eating a madeleine cake dipped in tea, something he had not done since childhood, triggered an array of warm and powerful sensory associations. So warm and powerful in fact, that it took him seven volumes to fully divulge. 

A Proustian moment is a brief, vivid sense memory, especially one involving taste.

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate that the shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. “

– The ‘madeleine episode’ from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time


Image of madeleine cake as a dessert that helps connects with your past
Madeleine Cake

Casablanca's Most Famous Line

When Rick utters the line, ‘we’ll always have Paris,’ that’s pure nostalgia. 

The yearning for something lost, although bitter-sweet, can provide solace in times of despair or loneliness. Rick seems to know that although Ilsa doesn’t seem all that convinced. 


Literary Quotes

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof thinking of home.

– William C Faulkner

We are homesick most for the place we have never known.

– Carson McCullers

One is always at home in one’s past.

– Vladimir Nabokov

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