ever noticed the incredible depth of field and realism in old photographs, in spite of inferior lenses when compared with modern ones?
Wrong cause, wrong effect. The lenses used in many old cameras were generally superior to modern lenses. Lens technologies that were common during the 1930's and 1940's only appeared on modern SLR's during the 1990's, and even then only on high end models. Many of those lens technologies that were promoted as being new and improved were really just new to the 35mm market. They applied proven lens designs to the new, mass market, format.
The qualities that you describe in those old photographs are largely due to using a tripod, a small aperture, a long exposure, and a very good lens. All perfectly achievable with modern equipment if you make the right choices.
Largely, but not entirely, dysfunctional.