THE VICTORIAN HOME, perhaps not quite what you thought it was

With the Victorian era came a large rise in the middle class, a period of evangelicalism and churchgoing, an increase of factories and offices, etc. It was in other words, a time of great change.

In times of great change people tend to turn inwards toward their homes. For the first time the home became the moving force in British culture. People wanted a place of their own, a castle, a nest, a private place. The demand for housing increased tremendously and thousands of inexpensive row houses were built. This trend was not followed on the European mainland, however. There they met the need for more housing by building large blocks of apartments, or flats.

In American cities they tended on the whole, to follow British trends, probably because the books on modern living were initially mainly by British authors. I guess if the Germans had translated their style books into English and shipped them off to America, there might have been a whole different look to cities. Even in US cities, there were differences. Philadelphia was nicknamed the city of homes and churches. This was because there was more individual home ownership there than in any other American city.

I recall reading that people who came to one of the World Expositions held in the late 19th or early 20th c. were astonished at the example of a Philadelphia row house that was built there. They were surprised that the inexpensive Philadelphia working man’s home could be so sturdily built and attractive. Now in New York, for example, more people tended to, on the whole, live in apartments or flats. I also wanted to note, for those in America, that in England the row houses, or as they are known there, terraced houses, were rented. It is estimated that only 10% of people owned their own homes.

It was also during this era that the suburb was born. A place where the working man, who could afford it, could have his own quiet place away from the noise and dirt of the city he worked in. I grew up in what were, in Victorian days, the new railroad suburbs of Philadelphia.
As the tracks moved north west, away from the city center, neighborhoods of houses rose. A ride on the commuter train would take you on a little history of domestic architecture. At one stop, the neighborhood homes would be of the style of the 1870’s. A couple of stops down the track you’d see the 1880’s, etc.

Renting your home worked well for the British city dweller of the Victorian era. They moved constantly. If you made more money you HAD to move to a better neighborhood. If your neighborhood starting changing you felt the need to move again.

The Victorians were very much caught up in doing the right thing, wearing the right clothes, decorating and serving meals in the proper manner, etc.

In the Victorian home the man was God. What he said was law, on the whole, anyway. The woman had the duty of running the home under his command. The husband expected to come home to perfection. A clean house, a well prepared meal, no children underfoot. The ideal was to have baby fast asleep upstairs before Papa came home. Under these circumstances it would be surprising for hubby to remember that he was a papa at all. Keep in mind that everything I write in these articles was not the norm for everybody.For example, someday far in the future perhaps folks will say, “Oh yes, early 21st century Americans rarely ate at home or cooked. They dined primarily on ground meat sandwiches and prepackaged salads that they bought at drive through food dispensing areas.” See what I mean? By the way, most of what is written about the Victorian era pertains to the middle and upper classes.

I found this section in a history book I read interesting.
In 1860, a child was murdered in a middle-class family home. People were shocked by the brutality of the slaying but also by the fact that it was ….”almost certain that some member of a respectable household-----such as yours, reader, or ours-----which goes to church with regularity, has family prayers, and whose bills are punctually settled, has murdered an unoffending child” as the author of this book notes
that the ingredients that made up a respectable household were church, family prayer, and prompt bill-paying.

Victorians had a large array of books and magazine that would happily tell them how to properly arrange their lives, and they read them eagerly. If you made some more money or inherited it, and followed the guidebook religiously, you too could climb into the next class up the ladder.

As to the house itself
The Victorian home was divided into public and private spaces. The drawing room, parlor, dining room, front hall, etc. were all public spaces that a guest would see, and were decorated accordingly. Everything else was private and not much money was spent there. Family rooms were private. The servant’s area was separate. Cooking smells should not waft through the house. You should not see any part of the kitchen from the hallways. Interior doors should open out into the room, and not up against the wall. This was so that a servant entering a room could swiftly recede without seeing who was occupying the room or what they were doing.

The Victorians increasingly felt the need for each room to have it’s own function. For example, you sleep in the bedroom, you do not play games there, or write letters there or use it as a sitting room. Rooms in the past were multifunctional. However, just because you were supposed to use each room for only one thing to be modern and fashionable, that didn’t mean that everyone stuck to the rules.

The English row house, and its cousins in America, often had a well, or area, in front of it, that went under the main steps to the house. There would be a separate flight down. This was the tradesmen’s entrance. The generic house would be set up like this, I’m using the British lay out here.
Top floor; servant’s and children’s bedrooms
Half-landing; often a bathroom was placed here
Second floor; master bedroom, dressing room ( in larger houses),
and second bedroom
First floor; drawing room
Ground floor; dining room, morning room
Basement; kitchen, scullery, perhaps a breakfast room

Smaller houses might have three floors, kitchen and scullery in the basement, dining room and reception room on the next floor and 2 bedrooms above. Servants were lucky if they had a room at all. Often they would drag out bedding and sleep on the kitchen floor. I recently studied many plans of Philadelphia row houses and comparing them to some Baltimore and New York and London plans, found them all remarkably similar. One difference was the renaming of the English ground floor to the American first floor, and that sometimes the drawing room was on the American first floor and the dining room and parlor were on the second. By the way, in English townhouses, the scullery would be a small ell attached to the back of the house, with it’s own chimney, and the privy, outhouse, whatever you want to call it was generally attached to it. By the way, it was very common to keep pigs in your backyard in London, even if you were well off. It helped get rid of the garbage for one thing.

The Victorians were great believers in waste not want not, they saved and reused everything. Sheets were expected to last 5 to 7 years, when they were worn down the center, you cut them in half and stitched the 2 outside edges together and used them some more. Later they would be used as dust covers, after that they would be torn up into strips for bandages or given to the poor. In Britain after 1875, refuse removal
became an obligation of the city. Before that you had to handle it on your own. Anything paper could be burned in the kitchen stove, but clean paper was re-used. Some of it was cut up and used for toilet paper, which did not become commercially available till some time after the invention of the flush toilet. Paper was also recycled to make ‘spills’ which were long strips of twisted paper used to light fires.

There were many street traders who went door to door buying used items.
This was true in every major city and town. Paper was bought by paper mills and manufacturers of paper mache furniture and ornaments. Dealers bought iron, metal, wood, lead, and old bottles. Old textiles and bones were bought by the rag and bone man who sold these things to paper mills, glue, gelatin, match, toothpick and fertilizer manufacturers.
Any kitchen waste that could not be re-used or burned in the stove was dumped into a bucket. A thrifty cook had very little to throw out. The contents of the bucket was called “wash”. A washman came regularly to buy it, it was then sold as “hog-wash”, or pig swill. There was a big demand for it. Many working people in London kept pigs in their back yard to make extra money. An unscrupulous cook could tell her employer that she needed money to pay the man to take the wash away, then collect from the wash man too.

Fish heads were used to make soup, the water vegetables were cooked in was used to make gravy, as were plate scrapings and unfinished wine. Tea leaves were rinsed and scattered over carpets to help collect the dust when sweeping, then burned in the stove. Leftover tea was used to wash windows.

In the US, cities had garbage removal. In Boston, during the 1870's there were 2 collections a week in winter and 3 a week in summer. New York City had regular trash collection by the mid 1800's. Trash was deposited in garbage boxes or ash barrels, and on windy days refuse would go flying down the streets.

Before refrigeration the best they could do in a city house was to use a cool cellar or a tiled room with a north facing wall. In the countryside you had the springhouse or a storage cellar of some kind. There were many ways to try to extend the shelf life of food. It was recommended that you check your meat regularly, and powder it with ginger or pepper against flies. Charcoal was also used to help keep it fresh and remove any bad odors. Scalded milk stayed drinkable for more hours than fresh. To keep it for several days you’d add grated horse radish to it. Eggs could be boiled and packed in sawdust and kept for 3 months.

Imagine doing all this yourself without any help, or even with the aid of a maid or daughter. That's one reason for the old tradition of Monday--washing ; Tuesday -- ironing ; Wednesday something else, can't recall offhand. There was a major job to be done every day but Sunday, because these jobs took up the whole day. It's why young girls took on so many wifely tasks at such an early age.
In America, by the way, the term servant was not used much, except by the highest classes. Most referred to them as "hired help", it was more democratic.

The Victorian city dwelling woman was constantly fighting a battle against dust. This was not the kind of dust that we are used to. It was dried city mud, with particles of decaying animal and vegetable matter, horse droppings, etc. Coal dust and soot were everywhere, from the smoke pouring out of the chimneys to the coals as they were carried about the rooms from fireplace to fireplace, to the ashes that had to constantly be swept and gotten rid of. Soot was thrown out by the fires and blackened everything. People would cover surfaces and wash the covers regularly. However, over time the covers became more and more decorative and less and less washable. The covers now needed covers.
Can you see where this is heading as far as Victorian decorating goes?

It was advised that you should have 3 hairbrushes. One to start the day out with a clean brush, the second to be washed and set to dry for the following day, the third to lend to a friend if she needed it. A woman remarked that it was impossible to keep your hair clean “ our brushes look black after one using”. If your hair got that dirty in one day, with a hat on when you went outside, imagine how filthy your clothes and furniture would be.

Central heating was usually found only in larger more expensive homes till later in the century.
From an 1861 book, Sloan’s Homestead Architecture : “It will be observed that provision has been made in all the rooms on both floors, except the chambers for warming by fire-places. However much this may seem out of date to those accustomed to the modern appliances of hot-air, steam, and hot-water furnaces, our experience convinces us that many years must elapse before the old-fashioned fire-place will be dispensed within the warmer portions of this country”.
The above was written about plans for a large villa.

Most homes relied on stoves in the rooms, but there was a strong interest in any modern heating systems. It took a while for technology to come up with more efficient ways of distributing warmth through the house.

Fireplaces were expensive to use and maintain and weren’t very efficient. The Victorians knew this, but loved them anyway. The fireplace was considered the heart of the home. In the 18th century Count Rumford developed improvements to the fireplace, which caused it to throw heat out into the room instead of up the chimney. I can attest to this, having had a regular fireplace in my old house and one designed on the lines of Count Rumford’s in my present home. My family room can get quite toasty with the glass hearth doors open. Generally most fireplaces of the 18th and 19th c. kept you roasting on one side and freezing on the other. A gadget from those days was the fire screen, a device meant to shield a lady’s face from the heat of the fire, while the rest of her person stayed cozily warmed.

The wealthy had the cash and the servants to keep their fires going as much as they liked. Those on the economic rungs beneath them couldn’t afford it, but wanted all those fireplaces, rarely lit some of them and told themselves it was healthy. Many books claimed that warm rooms sapped your energy, that sleeping in a warm room could make you become nearsighted. One author suggested that the proper temperature for a bedroom was 50 degrees, but a sick person might be more comfortable in 60 degrees. Another advised the maximum temperature to remain comfortable in a heated room was 56 degrees (Fahrenheit). Many people never lit the fireplaces in their bedrooms.
It was common to find the water in your wash basin frozen.

For some unknown reason the British apparently never warmed up to American or German heating methods. The Germans had large stoves covered in ceramic tiles for a couple of centuries, which did a fine job of heating. Similar stoves were used in various parts of northern Europe. Central heating was more or less born in America. Even those Americans of the Victorian era that could not afford central heating systems
were warmer than the British, from what I’ve read.

Parlor stoves were popular and much more efficient than fireplaces, and safer. I recall that in one of Louisa May Alcott’s books a young farmer’s daughter longed to be able to use the sealed up fireplace in her bedroom. She felt that the stove in her room was so boring and practical. Her father gave in and let her use the fireplace. Shortly after that a gust of wind caused her window curtain to fly up and it caught on fire. The stove went back to its customary spot and the girl decided she could live without her romantic fire.

In Britain fireplaces had a ‘hob’ or ‘grate’ as it is known in the US. Later in the Victorian era in England the ‘register grate’ was developed. It was a one piece unit that combined a hob, a chimney register (to control airflow) a fire back and an inner surround. Simple hobs continued to be used in smaller homes and rooms up to the end of the century. Fireplaces in America rarely used the register grate and
relied on simple grates supplemented often by cast iron stoves or central heating.

At the beginning of Victoria’s reign mantelpieces were mostly neo-classical and simple in decoration. Marble was the most common material. A cheaper alternative was the slate mantelpiece which was very popular in the 1880’s. Many were painted to look like inlaid marble panels on a black background with gold decoration.
Wood continued to be used for older classical designs as desired by the builder. Sometimes a circular cast iron register grate determined the circular line of the mantelpiece which enclosed it. By the late 1850’s and early 60’s mantelpieces of cast iron with register grates incorporated into them were mass produced. Many Victorian fireplaces came complete with a matching fender or marble curb. Since these fireplaces were smaller than in days of yore they needed them. Bedroom fireplaces could be even smaller.

During the 1800’s, fireplaces were increasingly replaced in the cold climates of the US by efficient stoves or central heating systems. The thermostat, by the way, was patented in 1885 by the Honeywell Co.
Hot-air systems grew more and more commonplace in the 1840’s and 50’s. A furnace was installed in the home of President Martin Van Buren in 1854. It remained in use until 1937. Today the original ductwork is still in use with a modern furnace.
The early central heating generally did not serve the entire house. Usually just the rooms on the ground floor were heated. Sometimes a duct would be built into the stairwell to waft some heat to the second floor. In some cases only the rooms on the north side of the house were heated, the rest were served by fireplaces or stoves. Even the heated rooms would often have fireplaces to supplement the heat. In addition, their flues helped hot air through the room from the registers.
By mid-century, however, central heating was still rather expensive.

Steam heat began to be used in America mainly after 1850. It was expensive to install, so it was mostly used by the well to do. Hot water heat began to be used late in the 19th c and used radiators virtually identical to the steam ones. There were several electric heaters patented in the 1850’s, but they were impractical and too expensive.

Early Victorians relied mainly on oil lamps or candles, however, by 1816 gas lighting was common in London. By 1823 53 British cities had gas companies. By the late 1840’s it was available even in some villages. In 1862 London alone was consuming as much gas as the whole of Germany. In the US, by 1855 there were 297 companies selling gas to more than a quarter-million customers.

As much as the population embraced the brightness of gas lights, they also had a bad side. The gas depleted the air, it was dirty, smelly, and destroyed objects that the product came into contact with. Pictures began being hung with cords instead of wires because the gas corroded the wires very quickly. The heights of ceilings rose because the smoke from gas lights and the sulfurous fumes tarnished metal and discolored paint. The aspidistra became the exceedingly popular plant of the Victorians because it was one of the few plants that could survive the gas laden atmosphere. The gas could visibly weaken cotton fibers within one year of manufacture. For this reason many shops began to put the lights that illuminated
their windows on the outside.

In some public places gas was a mixed blessing. Going to the theater often gave people headaches because of oxygen depletion. It also raised the temperature. It could reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit at the seats in the top balcony.(38 degrees Celsius). Theaters began to turn to electric lighting as soon as it became available.

Many homeowners limited the placement of their gas lights to places that they found difficult to do without it, hallways (because drafts would blow out candles and lamps), nurseries (because of the danger of lamps and candles being knocked over by children), kitchens (simply because of the greater need for bright light) and sometimes bedrooms, so that a lamp could be lit to find a match in order to
light a lamp or candle.

Gas quickly dropped in price. By 1880 it was cheaper than candles. For this reason, many of the grander homes would be lit only by candles. Wealthy homeowners wanted to show that they could afford it. However, when electricity arrived on the scene, it was so expensive that the wealthy switched to it immediately.

In all, Victorian households used a mixture of lighting methods. There was oil, which
was rather expensive and could be dangerous. Kerosene, which was distilled from coal. It had a low flash point and sometimes the whole lamp could explode. By the 1860’s however, this was not as much of a problem, due to advances in technology. There were sperm oil lamps, but they were too dangerous to move around. Paraffin was a new product, but it was smelly. Also, insurance companies required higher premiums if you used it. As for gas… there were wall sconce jets and gasoliers (ceiling lights). Neither of these did a good job of illumination for reading or sewing, etc. so for these tasks people employed oil lamps which could be carried to the table or gas lamps which were connected to the gas supply by long rubber tubes.

Improvements in glass production which enabled the making of large plate-glass windows together with the new gas lighting made a big difference in shopping. The windows would be illuminated all evening. There was a downside to evening shopping, though. One man in desperate need of a suit, found what he thought was a nice gray one with a subtle lighter striping, just the thing. However, the next morning he discovered to his horror that the suit was a bright green with garish yellow stripes.

The use of gas lights continued into the 20th c., however, until electric light was available everywhere. During the latter part of the Victorian era houses often had a mixture of oil, gas and even some electric lights.

What was considered at the time to be terribly bright, dazzlingly white, bright as day or an artificial sun, to us would seem quite dim.
When light bulbs were introduced in the 1890’s they were about 25 watts, the equivalent to the light of one gas jet.
The light from a modern 60 watt light bulb is roughly equivalent to the light from 74 candles. A 15 watt bulb equals roughly 9 candles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What wonderful articles. I love reading all of them. Thank you.