Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Cleaning - A Moral Duty

It is officially (and finally!) spring, which necessitates the "spring cleaning" frenzies. In my research for last week's post about kitchen's in a Victorian middle-class house, I discovered the genesis of our spring cleaning habits. (An excerpt from 1872 from The Manufacturer and Builder, a "practical journal of industrial progress.")

During the time when houses, and kitchens, ran on coal for heating and cooking, the main reason for spring cleaning was to remove the winter dirt produced by coal, oil, gas, and candles. Also with the longer daylight hours and warmer weather, the need for the constant fires in every room diminished. The servants had more time without the daily cleaning of grates and caring for fires. 

Rather than fight the dirt and dust produced by these fuels, people adapted to its presence with some inventive tools and practices: 

  • latches to both street doors and inner doors had small plates or curtains fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt
  • plants on window sills trapped dust as it flew in
  • muslin was nailed across windows to stop the soot or windows only opened at the top to limit the amount of soot and dirt that came in
  • tablecloths were laid on tables just before meals. If they were kept out all day, dust settled from the fires, quickly making the tablecloths dingy

Thankfully we do not have coal-burning stoves and fires, oil and gas lamps, and dripping candles to clean up and care for. But it still is a common practice to throw open the windows, shake out the rugs, flip the mattresses, and air out the house after the long winter months. And there are plenty of advice books, magazines, and articles to inform and 'guide' the modern housewife on what to do and how to do it. (see any Martha Stewart article in any spring publication). Even in the nineteenth century there was a publishing market that targeted the mistresses of houses to maintain order and cleanliness within the home.

Our Homes, an advice book from 1881 by Shirley Foster Murphy stated: "If once we commence a war against dirt, we can never lay down our arms and say, 'now the enemy is conquered.'...Women - mistresses of households, domestic servants - are the soldiers who are deputed by society to engage in this war against dirt."

The war against dirt wasn't just for reasons of hygiene but also carried the banner of status. The status symbol moved from the act of possessing objects, as it was easier to own more with the rise of the mass production of products, to the expensive and time-consuming obsession with keeping clean. In addition to her physical duty, it became the housewives' moral imperative to keep a respectable house. A house many not be any cleaner than it was before, but the air of respectability indicated that it was a decent household. And a clean house was a moral house and thus reflected the clean and moral people who lived within.


Source: Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, Judith Flanders

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cooking with the Victorians

I thoroughly enjoy cooking. Not only do I love to eat good food, I love to prepare good food. Recently I have reflected on the ease with which I can create a culinary masterpiece in a short amount of time and how difficult it must have been to cook in an age when ovens were run on coal (and had to be large enough to cook meals for the mid-Victorian family, which might contain a dozen people!)  Today, our kitchens serve almost as a multi-purpose room...storing food, preparing food, cooking, cleaning of food and dishes, and eating. But in the Victorian house, the kitchen held one purpose only - cookery. 

Essential functions of what we consider 'cooking' were kept separate. Food storage, preparation, and dishwashing were carried out, respectively, in the storeroom and larder, and the scullery:

  • Scullery - food preparation that was messy, such as cleaning fish, preparing vegetables; scouring pots and pans
  • Pantry - storing china and glass (and silver if there was any), washing and polishing china, glass, and silver
  • Larder - storing fresh-food
  • Storeroom - for dried goods and cleaning equipment

Fascinatingly, in the "ideal Victorian home," each separate room had a different type of sink:

  • Scullery - a sink, and maybe two, for cleaning food and washing pots
  • Pantry - sink was of wood lined with lead to prevent the glass and crockery from chipping
  • Storeroom - lead-lined wood sink and maybe a lead-lined slop sink (where chamber pots were emptied)

A Victorian advice book on housekeeping in 1872, called The Modern Householder, provided a comprehensive list of the necessities for a kitchen to fulfill the functions to cook and clean:

Open range, fender, fire irons, 1 deal table, deal bracket to be fastened to wall and let down when wanted, wooden chair, floor canvas, coarse canvas to lay before the fire when cooking, wooden tub for washing glass and china, large earthenware pan for washing plates, small zinc basin for washing hands, 2 washing-tubs, clothesline, clotheshorse, yellow bowl for mixing dough, wooden salt box to hang up, small coffee mill, plate rack, 
knife board, 
large brown 
earthenware pan for bread, 
small wooden flour kit, 3 flat irons, an Italian iron, iron stand, old blanket for ironing on, 2 tin candlesticks, snuffers, extinguishers, 2 blacking brushes,1 scrubbing brush,
1 carpet broom, 
1 short handled broom, 
cinder sifter, 
bucket, patent digester {akin to a pressure cooker}, tea kettle, 
toasting fork, 
bread grater  
bottle jack (a screen can be made with the clothes horse covered with sheets), {a spit for roasting meat set up in front of the fire of the open range}, set of skewers, 
meat chopper, 
block-tin butter saucepan, 
3 iron saucepans, 
1 iron boiling pot, 
1 fish kettle, 
1 flour dredger, a sifter
,1 frying pan, 
1 hanging gridiron ,
salt and pepper boxes, 
rolling pin and pasteboard, 
12 patty pans, 1 larger tin pan, pair of scales, 
baking dish.

*I included a note or two in parenthesis for items that may not be familiar to some. For more definitions on kitchen and household equipment from the 19th century, I recommend a website called "Old and Interesting: History of domestic paraphernalia." 

A few items are familiar to the modern day reader, such as a number of saucepans and baking dishes. But what is surprising is the number of duplicated items. The important thing was to keep the house clean. Therefore, specific items were required for specific functions, which is why there are four different types of washing bowls, four types of irons, and the different kinds of brushes. 

As fascinating at it is to relive the past when it comes to cooking and antique tools, I think I prefer my modern kitchen, modern appliances, and modern tools. With that, I'm off to cook! 


Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic LIfe in Victorian England

Website - Old and Interesting: History of domestic paraphernalia/Kitchen Antiques -