Research Notes – The Great War (11) Keeping House In 1914

My current work in progress is a historical novel partially set during World War One. To write the story accurately, I’ve been reading about all things war related. This is not really about The Great War, but it is about the time period. As with the details of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic and other events that would impact the lives of my historical characters, I want to make sure I write everything authentically. That includes the way they would have worked, eaten, dressed and housed themselves.

My central character in the 1910’s timeline, Gladys Henry, is a young woman who, although would have been considered fairly middle class –her father is a clerk at the bank in their town in the west of England– has had to take on a job when the family falls on hard times. Her father becomes too ill to work and of course, without work there is no pay. In those days, the options for women to work were limited. Without some sort of training in a profession like teaching or nursing, women would likely have to find work as domestic help. This is the case with Gladys. She spends her days as a maid in the services of a wealthy family in the town, cleaning the manor house in which they live.

Now, this all probably sounds very Downton Abby, but I absolutely refuse to rely on another work of fiction as a source for information. (Besides, I really wasn’t a fan after they killed off Matthew. Ugh.) Anyway, in my internet search, I came across an article titled “Home Duties” from a periodical of the time which describes the tasks involved in keeping house in those days.

In cleaning the bedrooms for example, windows would be opened wide, no matter the season. Curtains or draperies would be taken from their rods and shaken out, carpets would be rolled up and removed to the outdoors to have the dust beaten out. The now bare windows would be washed as would all the mirrors. Upholstered furniture would be brushed and leather furniture wiped down with damp, flannel cloths.

Sheets would be stripped from the beds and taken to the laundry where they would be washed and scrubbed by hand and then hung on lines to dry, after-which they would be ironed by a fire-heated iron. The rest of the bedding: blankets, quilts, coverlets, etc. would also be shaken out and left to air on the outside clotheslines. As you can imagine, the weather would have a huge impact on the housekeepers’ ability to perform these duties!

When furniture needed to be polished, a home made polishing agent was concocted. I found this recipe for one in the article:

  • Half pint of cold water
  • One ounce of Castille soap cut into slices and dissolved in the water
  • Half pint of turpentine
  • One ounce white wax, one ounce bee’s wax, dissolved in the turpentine
  • Mix the water solution and the turpentine solution together
  • Add one to two tablespoons menthylated spirits and shake vigorously.

When all was cleaned, dried and removed of wrinkles, everything would be put back in place, and if the rooms would not be in use till guests once again visited, everything would be covered with dust sheets.

Whew…. makes me grateful for my Shark vacuum and my Maytag washing machine. This might seem like research ovrkill, and in truth not all of that will make it into the story. However, just knowing how they performed their duties helps keep mistakes from creeping in. For example, erroneously describing the use of a commercial product which may not have existed in those days. It’s the small things that can make or break a story sometimes. I just wish I had a couple of Victorian ladies to beta read this book for me!

23 thoughts on “Research Notes – The Great War (11) Keeping House In 1914

  1. This is one of my favourite parts of writing historic fiction! I’m currently researching the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically the activity of piracy and ireland. It’s so fascinating learning about all the customs and politics of the era. I’m especially interested in women in piracy since my story will be following a woman in Ireland who ends up becoming a pirate. I have most of the research done and a lot of the plot now. I don’t know about you but I always feel like I should have more research done! When is there a solid enough foundation that you can start writing?

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    1. Ah! You’re speaking my language! I always worry about not getting the details right and having someone call me on it!

      Now your book! Ooh, I love this idea! I travel regularly to Ireland, the Galway area in particular, so I know about the famous Grace O’Malley and have visited her castle in the Westport area. Are you living in Ireland? Or Irish by heritage? Since I’ve been visiting, I’ve wanted to set a story there! As for the exhaustiveness of research, I suppose there’s a point where you just have to start writing the story and then keep fact checking as you proceed. Best of luck to you and thanks for connecting!

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  2. Love Grace O’Malley sadly I can’t fit her into the story cause she’s in the distant past. But you can bet someone will be bringing her up. I live in Canada but have Irish, Scottish, and Welsh background. I’ve been to Ireland once and fell in love. I’m definitely planning to go back as often as possible. I haven’t visited Grace O’Malley’s castle but it’s on my list! I agree about the research. I’m currently focusing on my fantasy series so the historic fiction is on the side. I’ve been researching when I get some spare time but a lot of my writing energy goes to editing the other series and writing book two!

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    1. I get that… I’m doing more reading than writing on the war era while I wrap up a lengthy short story (maybe novella). My ancestry is the same as yours. I believe we have hiraeth: a nostalgia for a place we’ve never lived! 😉

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      1. Completely. Mind you I grew up filling my head with Irish fairytales. Specifically O.R.Melling. That definitely was what kickstarted my interest in Ireland. Now I’m learning Irish Gaelige and discovering as much as I can about the history of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

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      2. That’s awesome! Irish Gaelic is making a comeback in the country – they are teaching it again in the schools and some small communities are opting to go “Gael Tach” where they use Gaelic only. It’s very cool! So when you visit, you will fit right in!

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      3. I’m in Ontario and apparently we actually have a Gael Tach. I definitely am aiming to become fluent! Glad it’s making a comeback. Everyone says it’s a dead language but it’s so beautiful.

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  3. As a fellow historical fiction author, I get the seemingly endless research required. But in the early 20th century the labor of daily city or farm life was subject to many of the physical limitations of the time. No Tylenol or Bio Freeze. Knee and shoulder surgery was unheard of and a bad lower back was possibly disabling. A rusty nail could lead to a painful death and who the heck inspected the meat?

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  4. Very interesting all round, especially the exchange of author talk! The opening of windows in bedrooms etc reminded me of when I first joined the army in 1964. Each Friday afternoon, during basic training, there was period set aside for “conservancy.” We had to strip beds, shake all blankets outside (never mind the weather), clean all windows, walls, lockers, bed frames etc etc. Oh, what joy!

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    1. Thank you! You know… in reading all of this, it made me think how much naturally cleaner the home would have been. Airing out, especially. Our homes are so sealed up tight in the modern age. Although the labor involved was so intensive I can see why ‘housekeeping’ was a full time job!

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  5. Fascinating stuff and a difficult job to housekeep/serve in a household. Most of these jobs appear very physical, and I can imagine how difficult this would be for women as they got older and had less energy. Then again, If you were used to doing these things and kept doing them, that would keep you in shape and your body used to the tasks at hand. I did love ‘Downtown Abbey’ and the only thing I can assume from that movie is that if you start out as a younger maid/housekeeper, a woman would have the chance to move up in the household and not have to these physically exhausting tasks all their years of service. At least I would hope! Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed! I believe you are right: either you would be in great physical shape or you’d be worn out with the exhaustion. And I suppose too it would depend on other factors like the quality of your diet and whether or not you ever injured yourself!

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  6. I read a story online a few years ago about a young married couple who are both so into the Victorian era that they live it for real. I think they sneak in a few modern things (maybe a blog?), but they really know the lifestyle. Find them, and you have a couple beta readers!

    I write historical non-fiction, and research and getting it right are soooo hard. I just have to leave out what I can’t find out, or find a creative way to speculate. And I can’t even invent a plot. But, I’m dedicated to making this work to be the truest story possible.

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    1. Aha! They would make excellent beta readers! I’ll see if I can track them down! As for the reading and research: I’m discovering the same issues – you can’t find out every single thing. I do my best to bypass the things I can’t confirm. At least with fiction writing, I can choose what to include and what to leave out. I imagine there’s less room for that in writing an actual historical account. Thanks for your comments and the clue about the Victorian couple! 😃

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      1. Thank you. I just read the article. Wow, they have really gone to great lengths to immerse themselves in Victorian life. I appreciate you looking them up for me! Thanks again!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Right?!? I think people were a lot more tolerant of uncomfortable conditions in those days. But how much more naturally clean the place would have been (provided of course they weren’t in a highly polluted area…) 😃

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