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!