Good evening and welcome to another edition of ‘Back in the Day…’, where I’ll look at how life was lived in the days before we had all our modern conveniences. If you’re wondering where the first posting covering this subject is, you can find it here.
I’ve always been interested in social history. How ordinary people lived ordinary lives in ordinary times. How did they tackle common, everyday tasks that we do today with machines and electricity and which take an hour or two? What took a hundred years ago, perhaps a whole day or more to complete? Here, I’ll be looking at more aspects of ‘household history’…
Today: Washing-Machine, laundry-powder
Yesterday: Washtubs, dollysticks, washboards, crystals and bluing
These days washing clothes is pretty easy. You seperate them. You chuck them in the washer, you toss in the powder, set the buttons, press the big fat knob that says ‘START’ and then go off to watch ‘Two and a Half Men’ while a big white machine churns away to clean all your clothes. It’s convenient. It’s fast. You have more free time and you don’t have to worry about all that extra work. But how was clothing washed back in the days before automatic washing-machines and modern whizzydowhippy soap-powders and stain-removers and whiteners and fabric-softeners? Admittedly this isn’t something we think of every day. But perhaps it’s something we do occasionally wonder about. And that’s what I like writing about.
Back in the old days, before all our modern detergents and soaps and powders, housewives and their children battled the wash with two things. Soda crystals and bluing.
Soda crystals, also called washing-soda or more scientifically as ‘Sodium Carbonate’, are white crystals used as a washing-detergent on clothes. You can still buy them today, but they’ve largely been made obsolete by more effective cleaning-agents. Soda-crystals were used to clean clothes that had stains or grease or oil on them and they were effective in this job, if rather rough. Because of the coarse nature of the crystals, they were rather harsh on clothes, to say nothing of being hard on the skin of your hands, and in those days, washing was a very hands-on process.
Bluing was another product used in washing clothes back in the old days. You might still use this stuff today, actually. It’s used to wash linen such as napkins, towels and bedsheets. Bluing is a dye that is added to the wash-water. What it does is tints the whites a very light blue to counteract any greying that appears in bedsheets and linen due to extended use, cleaning them and returning them to their original bright, white condition.
Although it was generally sold in solid blocks or powders to be diluted in water, you could also buy Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing instead. This product is still available today
Of course, adding aggressive cleaning agents to the water (which you had to boil yourself) wasn’t the only thing that you needed to do to clean clothes. Once the clothes were chucked into the pot and the water and chemicals had been added, you still needed to run the wash through the good, old-fashioned spin-cycle. And it was you who would be doing the spinning.
No, this isn’t some sort of weird milking-stool or broom or butter-churn. This interestingly-shaped wooden device is called a dolly-stick. So called because it’s the stick with which you did all the dollying with. What’s dollying? It’s the agitation of the clothes and wash-water. Before modern spin-cycles in washing-machines, shoving this into the wash with the hot water, the clothes and the soda-crystals and working the T-shaped cross-handle at the top back and forth, created your own spin-cycle. It did the same thing – mixed up the cleaning agents, water and clothes, as well as working the soda crystals through the clothes and agitating the clothes to remove grease, dirt, stains and sweat – only now, you got a free workout at the same time. If clothes were particularly dirty and whacking them around with the dolly-stick didn’t beat out all the dirt, you might also have to use a good old-fashioned washboard to clean them up with. No, not your boyfriend’s chest. This thing:
Washboards such as this one provided the washer with a hard surface against which clothes could be scrubbed and brushed to remove stubborn dirt and grime that hadn’t come out from the furious beating given to them by the dolly-stick. Scrubbing against the board also worked the cleaning-agents through the clothes in order for them to be more effective.
Once the clothes had been run through the washtub with the dolly-stick, you took the clothes out, rinsed them, washed them again, dollied them again, rinsed them again and then ran them through the mangle, literally:
Mangles like these were used to wring out as much water from the clothing as possible before the clothes were eventually hung out to dry.
Once the clothes had been washed, rinsed, scrubbed and dried, it was time for ironing. Before the days of modern, electrically-powered irons, housewives and laundresses would use old-fashioned, solid metal flatirons such as this one:
Flatirons like these were filled with red hot coals from the kitchen stove and once the metal was hot enough, they’d be used to quite literally, iron out the wrinkles in your clothes. Of course, if you didn’t have the benefit of a coal-heated iron, you would have to make do with an even older technology, solid metal irons heated on the stove, like these:
Irons like these were placed on hearths next to open fires, or on the kitchen stove, to heat them up until they were scorching hot. Because the heat from the iron would eventually disappate, housewives would often have two, three or even four such irons on their stoves or fireplaces so that when one iron cooled down, they could put it back on the hearth and just pick up another one and continue with their work. It’s where the phrase “to have many irons in the fire” comes from, meaning that you always had something else to fall back on.
During the ironing process, it was common for the washer to add household laundry starch to the clothing. Starching was often done to collars, shirt-cuffs and women’s undergarments to help them stay stiff and keep their shapes. But starch also protected the clothes from stains and sweat. When clothes got dirty, the grime would stick to the starch, not the fabric and the starch and grime would wash off more easily when the clothes went through that exhaustive wash-cycle again.
Because washing clothes by hand was such an intense process, it wasn’t uncommon for people to send their laundry out to big, privately-run laundries which would do a household’s load and then send it back fresh and clean, once a week. For those people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t send their clothes out to be washed, all this was done at home in a special room which was known, not as the laundry, but as the scullery. The scullery was the forerunner of the modern laundry and it was the room allocated in a house for the purpose of cleaning clothes (and sometimes, dishes as well). In grand houses, the person who spent most of her time here (and it would’ve been a ‘her’) was the scullion, more commonly known as the scullery-maid.
After all that work, which could take a day or more of effort, you would probably have incredibly sore or amazingly strong arms. But still, thank God for companies like Miele.
Today: Microwaves, electrical and gas stoves
Yesterday: Coal and wood-fired range stoves
Cooking these days is an easy thing to do around the house…provided you know how to cook, of course. You fire up the gas or you turn the knob on your electric cooktop, you chuck on the pot or pan and while it heats up, you start preparing ingredients. If the stove’s too hot, you move the pot or you lower the heat and then raise the heat again when you need a real sizzle. But have you ever tried cooking without some sort of controllable flame or heat source, or a heat-source that was as dangerous and as unpredictable as it was intense, hot and wonderful? Try cooking on a range.
These days, the majority of people have modern stoves with adjustable temperatures which can be turned on and off in a flash, which come with ovens which can have their temperatures adjusted minutely to bake that perfect cake or that amazing roast. And on top of it all, these stoves are easy to clean and easy to look after. It wasn’t always so simple.
This labled photo of a typical range-stove comes from an old magazine. B is the BOILER. C is the OVEN. Between them is G, the FIREBOX. Above the oven, firebox and boiler would be E, the BOILER RINGS (hotplates on a modern stove). A are the doors that open into the flue behind the stove for cleaning the chimney. F are the DAMPERS that would open and close, regulating airflow into the firebox. D is FUEL HATCH through which extra coal could be added to the fire. In smaller ranges, the boiler-ring directly over the firebox was removable and with the aid of a metal rod, you levered it up to add in extra coal to the fire.
Before modern gas and electric stoves, range-stoves like this that were fired by coal (such as this one) or wood, were the norm in thousands of houses around the world and were to be found in kitchens from the smallest terraced house to the grandest of millionaires’ mansions. Stoves such as these were invented in the 1700s, but they lasted well into the mid-20th century in some places and a hundred years ago, they were the standard cooking-appliance that would’ve been found in every home. They varied by size but they all operated the same way and performed the same functions.
Cooking on a range was a considerable challenge compared with cooking on a modern stove. To begin with, you were still battling an open fire which required constant tending. Ranges had to be swept, poked and refuelled every hour if they were to function properly throughout the day. Failure to do this resulted a weak fire which wouldn’t cook food fast enough and which wouldn’t heat water fast enough. In many houses, the kitchen range did double-duty as the water-boiler. Pipes running through the back of the stove would be heated up by the range-fire which would then heat up the water running through them from the home’s plumbing network. Ranges have no real temperature control, so using one for cooking, baking, boiling, roasting or any other form of cooking, requires considerable skill to know how to manage the fire effectively. Adding too much coal would cause the fire to be too strong. This would create too high a temperature which might ruin a cake or a roast. Not having enough coal would mean that food would take too long to cook. Knowing when to add more coal to the fire so that your cooking-temperatures could be adjusted was a fine art that required mastery of the fire and precision-timing.
Using a range had its own set of hazards as well as difficulties. The risk of fire, although not as great as it once was with open fireplaces, was still present and grills, doors, shutters, boiler-rings and hearths existed to prevent sparks and embers from exiting the stove. The bigger risk, however, was that of exploding boilers and water-pipes. If the fire was too strong, the extreme heat could cause a buildup of pressure in the boiler that could cause catastrophic damage if pipes ruptured or if safety-valves failed to work.
Ranges also required constant cleaning. Ash-trays had to be emptied daily to prevent buildups and to allow proper airflow around the fire. Because ranges were often the only source of central heating in a house, they were usually kept burning nonstop and maintenance was vital.
By the mid-20th century, ranges were on the way out. Gas started replacing older coal and wood-fired ranges as early as the 1910s and electric ranges came around fairly soon after, but in most places, coal or wood-fired ranges remained the norm until after the Second World War.
Today: Electric Lighting
Yesterday: Gas Lighting
These days, domestic lighting is as easy as flipping a switch and watching the glow of an old-style incandescent globe or a modern LED or a hideous old flourescent tube. But a hundred years ago, domestic lighting was made up of something significantly more dangerous. Gas.
In older times, domestic lighting was made up of candles, fireplaces and oil-lamps of various styles and designs, but starting in the early 1800s, a new form of lighting started to replace the old. This new form of lighting was more powerful and much brighter than candles and it removed the worry of smoke and soot from the house. It was gas!
Gas lighting started in the 1790s and remained largely experimental until the early 1800s. Gas lighting was originally restricted to public street-lighting and the lighting of large public buildings such as office-buildings, theatres, hotels and railroad stations. By the 1820s and 1830s, gas-lighting was beginning to spread in England, where it was conceived, America and Europe and from there, steadily around the world. Gas technology improved as scientists experimented with different types of gas, trying to find the one that would burn bright, burn clean and not produce unnecessary heat.
In 1891, the incandescent gas-mantle was invented. Much like how a fireplace mantle stands over a fireplace, the gas-mantle was a special sleeve that stood around the gas-fixtures within private residences, which were beginning to benefit from widespread gas-lighting from the second half of the 19th century. The chemicals with which the mantle was impregnated glowed extremely brightly when exposed to heat, so the flame from the gas-fixture was significantly intensified.
Gas mantles varied by shape, size and design, but most were sold as flat-pack meshes like this, which you then opened up and fitted over the appropriate gas-fixture
Gas lighting was a fixture in society for a long time. For a period, almost everything was lit by gas. Domestic lights. Lights on trains. Lights on ships. Streetlights were gas-fired. Lights in large public buildings were powered by gas. Even the lights on the first automobiles were powered by gas!
Today: Telephone, internet
Yesterday: Speaking-tubes, pneumatic tubes
I won’t be covering telegrams, radio and the telegraph here because I’ve already written an article on them, which you can find here. But what I haven’t covered are the probably more obscure communications methods that were used a hundred years ago: Speaking-tubes and pneumatic tubes.
Also called voice-pipes, speaking-tubes were common communications devices on ships and in large buildings such as grand manor-houses or large office-buildings and department stores. Before the age of the telephone, they allowed quick communication between the different rooms of large structures and were relatively compact and easy to use. Although made largely obsolete by the arrival of the telephone, some ships still have speaking-tubes installed. In case of an emergency and a loss of electrical power, they still allow quick communications through the vessel when the telephone-system might be out of action.
This desk has the brackets for four flexible speaking-tubes attached to it, which you can see on the left side of this photo
Speaking-tubes or voice-pipes were also sometimes called ‘whistle-pipes’ since it was common practice to whistle down the pipe to the other end to indicate the start of a conversation (much like how a telephone bell rings to signal the presence of someone at the other end).
In the days before email, the fastest way to send information around a large complex such as a busy office-building was through the use of pneumatic tubes.
Pneumatic tubes, such as the ones in the picture above, were used to whizz cylinders around large buildings using air-pressure and suction. Important documents were rolled up and pressed into special cylinders or capsules which were then sealed and shoved into the appropriate tube to be sent on its way to the correct department within a busy building. Tube-systems such as these were handy in buildings and businesses which had to handle large amounts of paperwork in a hurry, such as post-offices, office-buildings, telegraph-offices and hospitals. In some places (such as hospitals) pneumatic tube-systems are still used today due to their effectiveness and speed.
Subject: Keeping Clean
Today: A shower every day or every other day.
Yesterday: A bath once a week.
Concepts of cleanliness are a lot different today than they were a hundred years ago. Although we like to look at photographs of smartly-dressed men and glamorous women in their suits and hats and long, flowing dresses and think that they were all squeaky clean, the truth is that washing on a daily (or near-daily) basis, is very much a 20th century thing. At the turn of the last century, bathing was often done probably once or twice a week or even more rarely. With the lack of hot running water, the weekly scrubdown took quite a while to prepare. Water was boiled on the range-stove in the kitchen and then that water was used to fill up an old hip-bath until it was full enough to accomadate bathing.
An old hip-bath
Once the bath was full of hot water and soap, the entire family would wash themselves in that one bath, hopping in and out, one after the other. Hot water was so precious and took so long to prepare that not a drop of it was wasted and the one bath would do for the whole family for the rest of the week. Your parents or grandparents might even have told you stories of the bath doing double-duty as the wash-tub and having to clean dishes in the tub!
If your house was lucky enough to have running water, you might run the pipes through the boiler that was backed up onto the range-stove downstairs. Although only moderately effective, this would allow you a certain amount of running hot water so that you could have a big, comfortable bath upstairs in your own bathroom.
Not only did people not bathe as often as they do today, but they also changed their clothes a lot less frequently than they do today. We might be used to wearing a typical business-shirt for a few days or a week before washing it. However, in Victorian and Edwardian times, it wasn’t uncommon for men to wear their shirts for one week, two weeks or even up to a month, before having them washed. Washing took so long (as explained above) that people wanted to get the most out of their clothes before they needed to be washed again. Often, the shirt-collars and cuffs would be removed and washed on a regular basis and fresh collars and cuffs (held-on with button-studs and cufflinks) would’ve replaced them, before the shirt itself was finally washed after several weeks.
Subject: Musical Entertainment
Today: MP3-players, Winamp, radio, CDs
Yesterday: Phonographs, pianos
These days, music is at our fingertips and we really don’t think of it. And it’s changing so fast too! I remember a time when the most high-tech musical playback device was a bloody walkman! But what was musical enjoyment like back a hundred years ago?
Although today we’re used to slipping a CD into the radio or turning on our iPods, opening Winamp or Windows Media Player or iTunes on our computers or twiddling with radio-knobs to get the tunes that we like to chill out, rock out, or jazz out to, a hundred years ago, the idea of portable and easily-accessible music was only just coming out of the novelty-stage.
In the 1870s, American inventor Thomas Edison created the world’s first practical audio-playback device. The cylinder phonograph. Before the days of iPod nanos, discmans, Walkmans and even radio, this was what mechanical musical enjoyment looked like:
To operate a machine like this, you slotted a wax recording-cylinder onto the metal bracket and locked it in place. You cranked up the machine and then put the needle and amplifying horn against the cylinder-record before flicking the release-switch that let the mainspring unwind which turned the cylinder and spun the record past the needle. Records of this length typically ran for two to three minutes. Sound-quality was mediocre at best, but by the 1880s, the cylinder-phonograph was becoming a popular item in homes around the world. Cylinder phonographs like this one were popular from the 1870s up to the 1920s. Even at this early date, the phonograph actually did double-duty, not only as a playback device, but also as a recording-device. If you purchased blank record-cylinders, you could slot them onto the machine, hit the ‘record’ button and record your own voice or music (which had to be directed at the amplifying horn) and then switch the gears around so that the cylinder spun in the opposite direction, playing back your own compositions. Home recording like this wouldn’t really become possible again until the invention of the Walkman and the audio cassette-tape nearly a hundred years later!
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, a new technology began to replace cylinder records, the more familiar disc-records that are still manufactured today. Disc-records were more popular than cylinders because they took up less space, they were easier to store and they ran more smoothly under the playback needle, producing crisper and more uniform sound.
Of course, not everyone could afford these newfangled ‘phonographs’. Although they were becoming more and more popular, the main form of musical instrument continued to be the piano. Up until the Great Depression, the United States had dozens and dozens of little piano-companies that were churning out thousands of instruments a year. The Wall Street Crash put all but the most established companies out of business. Some notable pianomakers include companies such as Chickering & Sons, Steinway & Sons, Baldwin, Richard Lipp & Sohn, Erard and J. Broadwood & Sons (which holds the record for being the oldest pianomaker still in business, dating back to the 1700s).
In modern times, the popularity of music is determined by CD sales, download-figures, viewing-statistics on YouTube or how many people shove an earphone-piece into one of those holes either side of your head and says “Hey dude, listen to this!” A hundred years ago, the popularity of music was determined by record-sales but also by the sale of sheet-music. Music-shops sold the sheet-music to individual songs for a few cents or pennies each, a bit like how websites today let you download a song for free, so long as you pay 99c first (somehow the definition of the word ‘free’ has changed in the 21st century…). Learning how to play the piano was a popular pasttime engaged in by both men and women of all ages and having a piano in the house was as common in the 1890s and 1900s as having a TV is today.