Monday, April 4, 2011

1900 house

Despite a serious attempt to get some actual fiction writing in yesterday, I was not feeling the writing vibe.  After half an hour of struggling I gave up, and decided to spend the rest of the stormy evening putting together a photo album that has been sitting in the corner with all of my old photos and newspaper articles for months now. Since the task itself did not involve much mental strain, I decided to watch a DVD while doing it.  That's when I remembered that I had yet to see 1900 House, the PBS series that places a modern-day family in a recreated middle-class Victorian house to see what it might have been like to live as the Victorians lived.

So I sat down with my photos, my clippings, my scissor, and my acid-free paper and, for over three hours, immersed myself in the realities of a Victorian lifestyle.

image source: TVrage
This particular show came out before reality TV became the norm, and I must say that I am impressed with the amount of research and elbow grease that went into it to make the family live authentically.  Not only did contractors, interior designers, costume designers, and historical experts spend countless hours making sure that all of the original rooms, products, clothes and technology were in the renovated Victorian house in which the family would live, but the producers of the program also made sure that the family themselves were enthusiastic about making the experience as genuine as possible as well.  They even had the family take classes in doing Victorian housework to lessen the potential for accidents.

It does make a difference that the family is on board with the project as a historical experiment rather than a farcical removal from the 20th century-- they have enough issues adjusting to corsets, the split in responsibilities between men and women, and even just trying to get enough hot water to take a bath, and were not always in the best of spirits.  Although various members of the family lose their cool from time to time, they do not display the dramatic freak-outs that, ten years later, have become the norm in the reality TV department.

For a social history lesson I doubt one could get a clearer view of how women lived back then.  Due to the Victorians' obsession with excessive cleaning and the family's lower middle class status the mother, Joyce, spends most of the first few weeks doing just that.  All of the cleaning jobs I saw are pretty much done as Judith Flanders describes in her excellent book: Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England.  The twin daughters, Ruth and Hilary, take a day off school to help during laundry day, a 12-hour job in a period where detergents and spin cycles did not exist.  There's constant sweeping, dusting, vacuuming with an ineffective manual sweeper, dumping the contents of chamberpots into the outdoor WC and cleaning ashes from the fire in the grange to keep it going.

image source: True Films
Eventually, due to the amount of work Joyce has been doing, she hires a maid of all work.  Although I thought it was an excellent addition, as most lower middle class households of the time period had at least one servant, I was surprised that Joyce herself did not actually help her.  Flanders points out in her book that the mistress of the house in a lower-class position still would have had to help with the household chores even with a hired servant, although the particularly dirty and difficult jobs would have been left to the maid.  Elizabeth, the maid, was remarkable.  Not only did she put up with all of that heavy labor, she also researched Victorian cleaning techniques and delved into accounts of Victorian servants for her own interest.  She used a few tips that I have found in Judith Flanders' book, such as sprinkling dried tea leaves on the carpets before sweeping the dust off of them, which was effective according to Elizabeth.

On a budget of £4 a week I was surprised at what the family could afford to buy.  By the end of the third episode they had acquired a Kodak camera, a bicycle and bathing suits for the entire family.

And talk about the amount of new knowledge I gathered from this program.  One of the major surprises was having the mother, Joyce, and the eldest daughter, Kathryn, explain how women in that time period dealt with their menstrual cycles.  I knew that women became recluses during "that time of the month," but I had always wondered what they used in place of pads or tampons.  Well, the 1900 House answered that mystery.  They just used cloth between the legs, secured with a cloth "belt" around the waist, which had the habit of leaking on the other side when fully saturated. (If I had been in the family's situation I think I would have demanded some modern feminine products).
image source: True Films

This show confirms my firm belief that it would not have been much fun living in the Victorian times.  I'm very happy for women's liberation, the ability to go out and socialize with guy friends without the presence of a chaperone, and freedom from hours of useless cleaning.  Thank heaven I never had to miss school to help with laundry and am educated enough to hold a full-time job with benefits so I don't have to depend on a husband to provide me with all of my monetary needs.  Thank goodness also that I didn't have to remain in my parents' house until marriage.

I'm not saying that being what the Victorians would have considered to be a "New Woman," the type who held a job and rejected the notion that women could only marry, have kids, and run a household for their family, is what every woman today wants.  Many women I know would love to get married, quit their jobs, and raise a family.  But not only has the 20th and 21st centuries provided them with technology that cuts down housework work such as laundry from a 12-hour job to just the push of a few buttons and maybe an hour ironing, the passage of time has also given us options in careers and life paths that most Victorian women would not have even dared to dream of for fear of being ostracized from society.

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