Various Facts of the Not-so-Pretty Victorian Age

1. On New York city streets, horses deposited 2.5 million pounds of manure daily.- source, “Victorian America” by Thomas J. Schlereth

2. “The Thames stank.  The main ingredient was human waste….Human excrement was sold as useful fertiliser to the nursery gardens and farms outside London, by the night-soil men who emptied the cesspits.  Sometimes chamber pots were upended out of windows on to luckless passers-by, or on to streets, their contents adding to the rich mix of dead dogs, horse and cattle manure, rotting vegetables.”- source, “Victorian London” by Liza Picard

3. Washing sheets:

 Water was heated in a copper in the scullery.  The linens (soaked from the night before) were rinsed in hot water and then placed in a washtub where they were beaten with a possing stick.   After the sheets were wrung out, a jelly (made by shaving a bar of soap and dissolving it in water) was rubbed into them.  More water and jelly was added for a second scrubbing.   Next, the sheets were placed in the copper for an hour and a half to remove all the soap.  Once that was completed, the sheets were removed and rinsed again in boiling water and then finally, rinsed in a tub filled with cold water.- source, “Inside the Victorian Home” by Judith Flanders

4. While the upper-classes had several servants to perform different tasks, the less well-off made do with one maid-of-all-work.

A typical day for this general servant was thus:

-rise at six a.m.

-open all curtains and shutters

-draw the fire in the breakfast room

-put the kettle on.

– polish boots and knives

-while waiting for the water to boil,  shake the hearth rug outside, and then clean the fireplace

-dust the furniture and sweep the floor of the breakfast room

-scrub the floor of the front hall

-whiten the front steps

– empty all the fireplaces of cinder

-draw the kitchen fire

– change clothes

– serve breakfast (and eat her own)

– air bedrooms and strip the beds

-empty slop buckets and clean the chamber pots

-clear breakfast table

-clean, dust, and sweep the rooms

– change clothes

-prepare dinner

-clean up after dinner

-eat her own dinner in the kitchen

-clean the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea

-serve tea

-clear up after tea

-Nighttime: put out the fires, turn off the gas, lock the doors, and shut the windows

…”The Mistress said she was very glad to be at home again, it’d been such a hard day for her.  She said that as I carried the umbrella over her from the front gate.”- Hannah Cullwick

source: “Inside the Victorian Home” by Judith Flanders

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28 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. At least they had soap, although soap did not become popular in homes in the U.S. until the early 20 century!

  2. I’ve read that bathing with soap became more widespread (if not popular) in the mid 19th century. The germ theory had a lot to do with the change in the average person’s daily hygiene practice.

  3. I enjoyed reading what the maid did in an average day. Imagine what it would have been if there was a dinner party.

  4. Yikes! Puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?

  5. I’m going to revisit this post the next time I feel like my 8 hours in front of a computer with headset, endless free tea, and space heater, qualifies as a hard day. 🙂

  6. Back in those days life was mercifully shorter. So much for “the good ol’ days.”

  7. Hi Rosemerrie,

    Good point about dinner parties. Egads! In those cases, if there was only one servant, the mistress did do some work, too. But of course, the servant was left with the hardest tasks.

  8. Indeed, Melanie! Next time I have to throw in a load of laundry and hit the start button…

  9. Me too, Amy. We really take so much for granted nowadays. Not only all the work that was involved in daily life back then- but to have to do it without modern conveniences.

  10. Hey DD,

    Indeed. I love the 19th century for the Victorians love for art, literature, science. They were so intrigued about the world around them.

    But the daily living conditions! We take so much for granted: sanitary conditions, labor laws, modern conveniences…

  11. The first item reminds me of my childhood first (and only) visit to Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where cars are banned in favor of horse-drawn carriages. All I remember is the aroma. These days I’ll just watch “Somewhere in Time” if I want to experience the beauty of the island (and Jane Seymour ;)) without the olfactory offense.

  12. Edward,

    How interesting! I’ve never heard of that island.

    And regarding what you said about remembering the aroma- no doubt! I’m sure if we were to go back in time, it would be the smells that would shock us the most.

  13. Edward, I love that movie. Interestingly, though, the iconic theme used, Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, by Sergei Rachmaninov, wasn’t even composed until 1934. I love Rachmaninov, I guess most people aren’t as much of a geek about that stuff as I am 😉

  14. Yeah, the Victorian period wasn’t as romantic and beautiful as we like to think now 😛 I think if we somehow were able to travel back in a time machine, our poor little noses would be shocked by the overall smell of everyday life 😛 But I guess then you were used to it and never really noticed it much.

    I knew that the Thames was an absolutely horrid smelling river. When I was watching the mini-series Little Dorrit and they showed her favorite spot being next to the river, all I could think of was “Why? Wouldn’t it have smelled something awful?”

  15. It’s interesting, the emptying of chamber pots into the street. I’ve been reading about it (and those laws pertaining to said activities) during the time of the Plague. It’s fascinating.

    They apparently moved the ditch through which sewage was ostensibly to pass, but the fact of the matter is that it would often block up and become pointless. Plus either way, it was on the street. It used to be the law that people emptying chamber pots had to shout three times in warning before doing so. I forget the words. Something like “watch out below!” 🙂

    Oh, and Digital Dame, I love that type of knowledge that hits you when you’re watching a film. So long as it doesn’t stop you from enjoying it. 🙂 Then it just kills…. 🙂

  16. I’ve been to Mackinac Island quite a few times over the years and never remember it giving “olfactory offense”…true, there are horses…doing what horses do-do, but it’s no worse than dealing with exhaust fumes from cars 🙂

    Gypsy-You might like Mackinac Island. The big Grand Hotel sits up on the hill from the small dockside town…with the town, the hotel, and numerous other “cottages” (almost mansions in many cases) giving the more populated part of the island a real Victorian feeling. Summer draws lots of visitors, and the island pretty much closes up over the winter (except for a few year-round residents and businesses)…but I like visiting in the fall the best. Crowds have thinned and the weather is still great enough to ride a bike around the island, horseback ride, hike and visit some of the less populated parts of the island.

  17. Great post! Certainly does put much in perspective. Manor House, which was a PBS program, http://www.pbs.org/manorhouse/ and is about Edwardian Britain, also has an accompanying book that was interesting because the modern day people who were in the show and were trying to do the housekeeping at the manor house came face to face with how hard it was back in the “good old days”.

  18. I know. Those regency books sure go through a lot of glamourizing the era. Which is why they make the time period sound oh, so romantic!

  19. Hi Dara,

    I wonder what would shock them the most if they traveled to our time. Perhaps everything moving by them so quickly. The cars racing by, the planes overhead. And maybe the constant noise of telephones, televisions, music players.

  20. Sput,

    I wonder if people could be sued if they didn’t yell out the warning three times? 😉

  21. Hi Dominque,

    I would definitely love to visit the place. Come to think of it, it does sound a bit familiar to me now. Have you mentioned it on your blog?

  22. Jenna,

    Thank you. Glad you liked the post.

    I heard of Manor House, but never got a chance to watch it. Sounds fascinating. Not at all like other (usually) trashy reality shows.

  23. Indeed, Jewel!

    Sometimes I think that those who only know of the 19th century through Jane Austen novels and BBC productions think it was so beautiful and sweet.

  24. It was if you could afford an army of servants and lived far away from London (and farm animals in general).

  25. Hey Tasha,

    Thanks, that was an enlightening read! Not only did it make me grateful for my cushy life, I was pleased that one of my heroines decided (at the age of eighteen) that being a rich man’s mistress was better than working as such a maid.

  26. Hey Marian,

    Um yeah. I’m with your heroine. I wouldn’t have even bothered packing or saying goodbye. Let *them* take care of their own slop pails!

  27. I always say how much I hate the modern age but my heavens I don’t know if I would have lasted very long in the Victorian age And can you imagine giving birth? Those women were warriors. No epidurals… xx

  28. Hi Josephine,

    I can relate very much to that. I’ve never felt I belonged in this time that much, yet I also hold no illusions to the harsh realities of the 19th century. And I couldn’t stand to live in a time before all the rights we have now.

    And yes, giving birth back then was frightening on many levels, indeed.


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