An Intimate History of Your Home
(Lucy Worsley in ‘The Historian’, the magazine of The Historical Association, number 111, Autumn 2o11.)
‘You’ve gone over to The Dark Side’.
These were the worlds of a well-respected historian to whom I’d been enthusing about the pleasures and perils of Dressing Up.
During 2009-10 I spent several months in historic costume, recreating the habits and rituals of domestic life in the past. It was a rather unusual means of carrying out historical research but I did it because I was writing a book, ‘If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home’, and working on a TV series of the same title (shown earlier this year on BBC4).
Many serious historians - like the one who mocked me - look down on the people who are best known for Dressing Up and Trying Things Out. Historical re-enactors, who do it for fun at weekends, have an obsession which often seems to professionals to be overly romantic, unscientific, and far too frivolous to be taken seriously.
At Hampton Court, where I’m employed as a curator, I am of course familiar with the terrific stuff done by the re-enactors’ more serious relatives: the ‘live interpreters’ who work for companies such as Past Pleasures and Historia. Even so, the primary reason we have live interpreters at Historic Royal Palaces is to inform and entertain our visitors. They’re not there purely to investigate life in the past, however brilliant they are at doing that too.
So I used to be one of the sceptics, placing my faith in the close reading of documents rather than in experimental archaeology, in books rather than in things. But after my season spent living in the past, I was completely won over to the argument that recreating the material world of a particular period helps you to understand it.
Let me try to persuade you too, and let me start in bed.
Pictures of pre-modern people in bed often show them in a curious half-sitting position. Propped up against pillows and bolsters, they look rather uncomfortable, and one wonders if they could really have slept like that. I’d long assumed that art did not mirror reality, and that artists always positioned their models to get the best possible view of their faces. (It seems similarly unlike, as contemporary images also seem to suggest, that medieval kings slept in their crowns.)
But now I think the explanation for the pose is that early beds, strung as they were with rope, cannot fail to dip in the middle, and feel rather like hammocks. In fact sleeping on one’s front is well-nigh impossible in bed where the mattress is placed upon a mesh of bed-strings. I discovered this for myself when I spent the night in the reproduction Tudor bed displayed in the medieval farmhouse at the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton in Sussex.
I also had the opportunity to spend several happy days at the warehouse of the costume hire company Cosprop, trying on replica dresses from various periods. In my Georgian lady’s dress, I came to realise the importance of eighteenth-century accessories. When your hips are hidden beneath padding and a voluminous skirt, the hands are inevitably placed upon prominent display. You can’t hang them down by your sides or hide them behind you. So it helps to have something elegant for them to manipulate: this is the role of the fan.
I also experienced a revelation about textiles during the course of investigating the lighting in a Georgian drawing room. I knew, of course, that high-status Georgian clothes were often woven with gold or silver thread; we have many examples in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace. But I wasn’t aware of the practical function this served in illuminating interiors. Coal and candles were both heavily taxed items, and the available light could be made to go further by utilizing reflective surfaces. That’s why drawing rooms have mirrors, dinner plates have gold rims, even why the casings round keyholes are made of shiny metal. They all glint and guide the eye in low light levels. And a lady wearing a dress woven with a metallic thread - as I did - became a walking silver candlestick.
As a former library-lubber, I was astonished to discover just how simple and effective much of the technology of the past really was. The Weald and Downland Museum has an amazing collection of houses from many different centuries. In one of the oldest, a cottage called Hangleton, I spent a day as a medieval peasant, foraging for and cooking my food. Of course I knew that the one-room medieval peasant’s dwelling contained a central, open hearthstone, but I hadn’t realised until I tried just how easy cooking on it must have been. This flat rock provided the base for a fire which burned sometimes for years without ever being extinguished. It would be nursed carefully as it was no mean feat to ignite a fresh flame. Over such a fire hung an iron pot with a round bottom. Although it can’t be stood on a table, a round-bottomed pot is easy to make, to nestle into a sandy floor, or to sit upon an iron tripod. To stir your pot without getting burnt you need a long-handled wooden spoon.
This is very straightforward but works brilliantly. You can throw any available food (plus water) into your pot to make the soup called ‘pottage’, which cooks all day with minimal attention. Pottage, the ubiquitous dish of medieval England, can be kept on the go for days at a time: hence the rhyme ‘pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot [sometimes literally] nine days old’. To cook food for such a long time had the advantage of killing the bugs and making it microbiologically safe. You could even cook numerous items simultaneously in a single pot, wrapped in cloths, or separated by wooden dividers. In early twentieth-century Oxfordshire, the rural family described in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1939) still eat a whole dinner cooked in a cauldron: a small square of bacon; boiled vegetables; a pudding in muslin. So the open fire and iron pot reigned supreme for centuries.
At the Weald and Downland Museum I also benefitted greatly from meeting historians such as Cathy Flower-Bond and Hannah Tiplady who took me through the daily chores of Tudor women. At Hampton Court I often see our food historians recreating magnificent Tudor feasts, but at the palace we tend to concentrate upon high-status, courtier food produced in an all-male, high-pressure food factory. I was interested in what ordinary yeomen farmers and their labourers might have been fed by their wives.
The staple was bread. Early ovens work quite differently from modern ones, where heat is provided continuously throughout the cooking process. A stone or brick-lined oven is heated before the food goes in, by the burning inside it of bundles of twigs called faggots. Then the ashes are raked out, loaves are shovelled in, the door is closed, and the bread is left to bake in the slowly-cooling oven.
When I used the bread-oven at the Weald and Downland Museum, we stopped its opening with a wooden door (soaked in water to prevent it from catching fire). We sealed the gaps its edges with a strip of uncooked dough. When this dough was baked, we knew that the bread inside must be finished too. After the baking of the bread, the oven still contained just enough heat to bake a second round of cakes or biscuits. The very word bis-cuit means second-cooked. Doing the job myself, I appreciated for the first time the economies of scale that lay in several families sharing the cost and labour of heating the oven, and realised why ovens were often communal resources, located outside the home.
Washing clothes is another important part of Cathy and Hannah’s work, and experiencing Tudor laundry day has transformed the way I look at portraits from the period. I discovered that clean underwear played a surprisingly important part in the Tudor and Stuart concept of personal hygiene.
Medieval people thought it was highly desirable to bathe their bodies in tubs of water – hence the bath-houses and saunas which thronged the south bank of the river in London. However, Tudors were less keen on immersing themselves in water: they believed that their bodies were made up of four liquids or ‘humours’, which could be thrown out of balance (the very definition of illness) if water were to penetrate the pores of the skin.
So they instead turned to linen as an alternative to the tub. Fresh underwear, they thought, would soak up the sweat and juices of the body. A shirt ‘today serves to keep the body clean’, wrote a commentator in 1626, more ‘effectively than the steam-baths of the ancients who were denied the use and convenience of linen’. Hence the emphasis on sparking white collars and cuffs in Tudor portraiture: they signify a clean body beneath those heavy and unwashable outer garments - and a virtuous mind as well. But, as I’ve discovered through doing it, a shocking amount of effort is involved in producing sparkling white linen. So, as well as attesting to personal cleanliness and to virtue, to wear white also signified status and wealth.
The next time you admire a stiff white linen ruff in a Tudor portrait, pity the laundresses who made it that way. Their first job was to make ‘lye’, or caustic soda, the main detergent. This was done by dribbling water through the ash from a fire. The water was passed through the ash again and again, absorbing its chemicals, and growing stronger each time. Dirty linen was then soaked in this lye to loosen the dirt, a stage analogous to the pre-wash in a modern washing machine. The receptacle used for soaking, a big wooden tub, was called the ‘buck’. (Hence the name for the laundry tub’s smaller sibling, the ‘bucket’.)
A stand-in for stain-devil was to be found in the form of urine. Hannah Woolley in 1677 gave these instructions ‘to get Spots of Ink out of Linen Cloth’: ‘Lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.’
Next on Tudor laundry day came a vigorous stage of scrubbing the linen with soap, and beating the dirt out of it with a wooden bat called a ‘beetle’ (i.e. a tool for ‘beating’). As I soon discovered, it’s very tempting to thwack the balls of soap about with the bats, and there’s a theory that it was the children of laundresses who invented the sport of cricket. This stage of scrubbing and beating was like the main washing cycle in your own machine at home today.
The soaped linen needed a good rinse, and then to be squeezed (today’s spin cycle). Here a cross-shaped post in the ground formed a useful anchor for twisting a rope of linen round and round to wring out the drips. Finally, instead of the tumble drier, clothes and sheets were then laid out on bushes to dry in the sun. Rosemary is ideal, for its sweet smell, and hawthorn is also extremely effective as its prickles act like little clothes-pegs to hold the fabric in place.
All this effort was worth it, not just to wear clean clothes, but to have a clean body, as underclothes performed part of the function of the still-non-existent bathroom. In order further to investigate life without the bathroom, I spent a week following a Tudor personal hygiene regime, denying myself the use of my shower. The rules were: no toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, bath or shower. Washing in a bowl with soap was allowed, and so were the contemporary equivalents of toothpaste.
Tudor and Stuart people did indeed clean their teeth: with water, and with powdered toothpowder rubbed on with cloths, twigs or sponges. But they also had sugar, and therefore cavities. (The aged Elizabeth I was a fearsome figure with ‘nose a little hooked, her lips narrow and her teeth black’.) Once decayed, teeth were yanked out, and rudimentary false sets of ivory or bone were worn.
Until I worked out the best Tudor toothpaste option, having dirty teeth was definitely the most unpleasant part of my experience. I ended up rejecting the splayed twig in preference for a cloth, and I abandoned ashes, burnt toast and salt in favour of ground-up cuttlefish bone as a toothpowder. Cuttlefish, mixed with rosemary for its taste and its antiseptic properties, followed by a gargle of vinegar, made a very acceptable alternative to modern toothpaste. However, I refused to risk my enamel with a Georgian tooth-whitening treatment: ‘A few grains of gunpowder … will remove every blemish and give your teeth an inconceivable whiteness’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1764).
Denied the use of my bathroom, I ended up washing my face in the kitchen, and I discovered just how people managed without baths. It was actually very convenient, being able to wash in any room of the house, and I can see the advantage of having your maid bring an empty chamberpot to your bedroom and to take it away when full. Why would you want to walk to the loo when the loo could come to you? No one would see you en route to the bathroom, and you’d never have to queue. I began to appreciate why, even though Queen Elizabeth I had a flushing toilet (the technology was known) it didn’t catch on until the nineteenth century.
As I told colleagues and friends about my experiment, I was surprised just how many of them began to reminisce about childhoods with just one bath a week, and indeed many had recollections of houses without plumbed-in bathrooms at all. New working-class homes were not expected to have baths with hot and cold water until legislation was passed in 1918, and of course many older houses remained without for decades after that date.
With the expected changes to our climate, the increasing shortage of water, and the future necessity of limiting its use, I will not be surprised if we once again change our attitudes and abandon the daily shower. I imagine that the late twentieth century will become one of those periods, like the golden age of the steam-baths of medieval London, upon which historians look back with amazement, thinking ‘weren’t people surprisingly clean?’
I’ve been converted to ‘learning by doing’. But I’m not saying that the documentary sources essential for constitutional history and political history and foreign affairs aren’t important: they are, and will so remain. I simply remain astonished to discover just how much I could learn about the history of the home from re-creating some of the nitty-gritty dirty detail from our ancestors’ domestic lives.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley