Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Realities of Life in Victorian Times

I fully intended to talk of palaces and duchesses with pearl covered tea gowns when I started this blog. And I will yet. But for some unknown reason, the research I have been doing takes me into some of the realities of life for the majority of people. And many of these realities hit hard for the aristocracy, too. Take for example:

Bed bugs. What a joy. No matter your station in life, you might be visited by the bed bug, and it was no picnic to get him to move along. You could probably blame it on the maids, but it did not give you a better night's sleep to do so. I am not aware of the modern means of treating a house for bed bugs, but even today, I hear it is not easy. One woman in the 19th century wrote about tossing 20 pails full of water on the kitchen floor trying to drown them. All the parts of her bed were then immersed in water, after which they were laid out in the sun for two days. The bed's joints were painted with mercury ointment (beware the vapors thereafter, although they were unaware of it's toxicity and probably blamed the maids for the onset of illness) and the curtains were taken down and washed. If you think that was an easy task, kindly refer to my post on doing laundry. Bedroom curtains were often thick, heavy fabric to help keep the cold out, and just getting them into the boiling pot would have taken a bit of energy. From what I understand, bed bugs can live within the walls of a house, so depending on whether you lived in a stone castle or a stuccoed Belgrave Square mansion, you may have to learn what could be done to evict them from between the stones or plaster.

Life with mattresses. The less expensive beds were stuffed with wool flocking, which became lumps. The wool might also become fodder for moths. Therefore, the mattresses would have to be disassembled and the wool would have to be washed, boiled and teased. After that, you would have to hire someone to come in and put the mattress back together. Feather beds were the more spendy type, but every third year or so you would have to pull all the feathers out to clean them. So, I wonder, where would you put them all? On the floor to air, while you washed and waxed the ticking cover. Enjoy the 21st century!

I am sure you are dismayed enough by now, but I thought that you should know why families only did their laundry every five to six weeks. It turns out that it is because of the etiquette books. One of them, for example, stated that "a family wash should be performed as seldom as possible". And one was, of course, to abide the etiquette books for fear of becoming a social outcast. One would surely not want a reputation for doing the laundry more than once a month!

Many thanks to Liza Picard's book, Victorian London. (Again.)

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