Conveniences: Shampoo, Toothpaste, Electric Light?

If you found yourself translated back to a previous era, what modern conveniences would you miss? It’s a question I often think about when I turn on a light, for example, or when I read a book or watch a TV documentary about how things were, way back then.1900 House book cover, a story with few conveniences

I am reminded of the Channel 4 documentary, The 1900 House, the first of several such re-enactments. The whole family had signed up for the project, but they met problems and lack of conveniences that none of them had expected.


One of the most contentious problems was the lack of shampoo which hadn’t then been invented. Early on, the mother cheated and bought modern shampoo because she couldn’t cope with her horrible hair when she washed it with soap. Eventually, she found a better 1900 solution: egg yolks whisked with lemon juice. The children were let off: they were allowed to use modern shampoo at the house where they changed into 20th century school uniform.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria in full dress

Empress Elisabeth by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865, showing stars of diamonds and pearls in her hair

Empress Elisabeth's long hair, without conveniences of shampoo or hairdryer

Empress Elisabeth, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864, the favourite portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph

In the 19th century, all sorts of preparations were used on the hair. The beautiful Austrian Empress Elisabeth (nicknamed Sisi) had an extraordinary head of hair as you’ll see from these portraits

Her hairdresser washed her hair every few weeks in a mixture of egg yolks and cognac (rather than lemon juice). The process took a whole day which is not surprising. Her hair does look very thick and we learn that it reached to her feet.  If shampoo had been available—plus a hairdryer—it might have been less of a palaver, perhaps?

Old Castle courtyard, Hofburg, Vienna, © Joanna Maitland

Sisi found formal court life and constant attention oppressive. (Think Princess Diana transposed to the 19th century.) She had only one son, Rudolf, the Hapsburg heir, whose early death by suicide is depicted in Mayerling (several films and a ballet)If you have a chance to visit the Sisi Museum in the Hofburg palace in Vienna, you will see Sisi’s apartments and how she exercised to keep her slender, youthful figure (using wall bars and fixed ceiling rings in her dressing room). Even when she died (assassinated in 1898, aged 60) her waist measured only 18½-19 inches. In her younger years, it had apparently been just 16 inches (40 cms). Phew!

Toothpaste and toothbrushes?

In your 19th century or earlier incarnation, what do you use to clean your teeth?

Spring colours apple orchard in blossom

Apple Orchard Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Twigs were often used, from a variety of trees depending on the climate. Cheap to make from, say, the apple or pear tree in the orchard. And toothpaste was unnecessary if you had the right twig, used in the right way.

In 19th century Britain, toothbrushes and tooth powders were available and widely used. (Egyptian tooth powder, dating from about 5000 BC, included such enticing ingredients as burnt eggshells and powdered ox hooves.) Most tooth powders were home-made. Although the 1900 House family used bicarbonate of soda, the book includes the following recipes for tooth powder:

  • precipitated chalk, pulverised saponis (soapwort??), oil of eucalyptus, carbolic acid;
  • precipitated chalk, borax, powdered orris root, bicarbonate of soda, attar of roses;
  • a piece of well-browned toast, powdered as finely as possible;
  • ground charcoal (known to be unpleasant to use)

Can’t say I fancy any of those, but clearly one had to have something.

Dental hygiene, even for lovers?

Remember, in Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep, that when Miles Calverleigh abducts Abby, and asks whether she wants a London house, she protests:

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer“No, of course I don’t! Miles, do you realize that I haven’t even a toothbrush?”
“Do you know, I believe you’re right?” he said. “What a fortunate thing that you mentioned it! We must buy one in Reading.”
“Have you had the audacity to— Oh, you are too abominable! I won’t marry you! I will not! Take me home!”
Mr Miles Calverleigh brought his horses to a halt at the side of the road, and turned, and smiled at her. “Tell me that that is what, in your heart, you want me to do, and I will!”
…”You may be able to abduct me,” said Abby, with dignity, “but you can’t force me to tell lies…”

An improvement on Elizabeth I’s black teeth. Or indeed, Empress Sisi’s. Her teeth were her only flaw and she took great pains to conceal them when she spoke. Better tooth powder needed?

Electric Light?

18th century woman with candleIn the 1900 House — and that wasn’t all that long ago — the downstairs rooms had gas mantles and oil lamps as lighting. Upstairs, there was no gas lighting; it was considered dangerous to health. Instead, they had night lights (candles) in special holders. Or they stumbled around in the dark.

In even earlier times, there were candles and oil lamps. No gas mantles (which date from 1885). It’s difficult for us to imagine buildings without electric light. We take it for granted that you go into a room, press a switch and lo! there’s light.writing with quill by candlelight

In previous centuries, you took your light with you, in the form of a candle or a lamp, and you took great care to shield any naked flame to ensure it didn’t blow out and leave you in pitch darkness. If you woke up in the night, you had to find your tinder box in order to light your candle. Or you too would have been stumbling round in the dark.

In the dark…

Georgette Heyer has a terrific illustration of this in Faro’s Daughter. Max Ravenscar, having been kidnapped at Deb’s orders, is bound, locked in a cellar room, and left to darkness and reflection. But he will not yield in order to be freed. On Deb’s last visit, we hear this exchange:

Faro's Daughter by Georgette Heyer“It will be quite your own fault if you catch a cold down here,” she said. “And I daresay you will, for it may be damp for anything I know!”
“I have an excellent constitution. If you mean to leave me now, do me the favour of allowing me to keep the candle!”
“Why should you want a candle?” she asked suspiciously.
“To frighten away the rats,” he replied.
She cast an involuntary glance round the cellar. “Good God, are there rats here?” she asked nervously.
“Of course there are—dozens of ’em!”
“How horrible!” she shuddered. “I will leave you the candle, but do not think by that that I shall relent!”
“I won’t,” he promised.

She does not yield. And neither does he. He escapes (you have to read the book to find out how) and puts Deb to the blush when he reappears upstairs in the gaming room.

I’m with Deb on the question of dark cellars and rats.

Long live electricity…

I think the last word on electricity should go to Joyce, the mother of the family in the 1900 House. When their three months in the house was over and they had returned to 1999 civilisation, she went totally bonkers, she said. She was turning lights on and off, watching ads on TV, making toast in a toaster, making cups of tea, and it was all very strange.

light bulb ideaI’ve got an invisible fairy maid and she’s called Electricity and she whizzes around the house doing everything for me.

She’s right, isn’t she?
Long live electricity! And modern conveniences, too!
What couldn’t you do without?

Joanna Maitland, author


13 thoughts on “Conveniences: Shampoo, Toothpaste, Electric Light?

  1. Jan+Jones

    I think I would miss electricity too. Thinking about the ‘invisible fairy maid’ comment, electricity could be one reason fewer household staff were needed as the century progressed

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think a lot of things came together, Jan. Yes, electricity helped, but also women became increasingly reluctant to be domestic servants as the century progressed. And more non-domestic jobs became available to them, in factories and offices, so they had more choice.

      In the 30s and certainly into the 50s, it was common to have domestic servants. We owned a Hampshire house built in 1936. It had servants’ bells and fireplaces in every room. By the kitchen (servant’s) door, there were stores for coal and coke. As the book of the 1900 House makes clear, a huge amount of the cleaning work was caused by using dirty coal as a fuel which continued well into the century. We had an electric cooker in the house I grew up in, but heating and hot water was from coal fires. So it was well on in the century before we stopped laying fires and clearing ashes.

  2. Sophie

    I remember getting very annoyed about power cuts when I was trying to work in countries where they were common. One of my interpreters pointed out that her grandmother thought she was incredibly lucky to have electricity at all, even if it was only on for three hours a day. It hadn’t yet reached their village.

    I wonder whether we’ll start seeing scheduled power cuts here? It would certainly be one answer to lowering our usage of fossil fuel, not to mention cutting the bills.

    1. Joanna Post author

      It shows how we take constant electricity for granted, doesn’t it? We live in the sticks and we do get power cuts because of storms (fallen trees) and heavy snow. We fall back on a real fire, torches and candles. And I have a gas hob so the vital tea can still be made. The last such cut, in January I think, lasted 5 hours. We coped. But I was glad when the “invisible fairy maid” came back to us.

  3. Liz Fielding

    As a small child, the house we moved into had no electricity and we had gas lights. Up and downstairs. My father had electricity installed very quickly, but a friend along the road still had gas for a long time. There’s a family story that my father’s great uncle invented the modern gas mantle. I have no evidence.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Interesting, Liz. I said in the blog that the gas mantle dates from 1885 but I didn’t include the reference. According to Wikipedia, the gas mantle was invented by an Austrian, Carl Auer von Welsbach, and patented in 1887. There was an earlier version invented by a Frenchman, Charles Clamond, and also patented. So unless your relative was one of those…?

  4. lesley2cats

    I often wonder how someone transported from a previous era would react to our modern world. I remember the 1900s House, and the several BBC series “Back in Time For…” and Victorian Pharmacy. Fascinating.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m with you in being fascinated by re-enactment series. Ruth Goodman is especially good. I seem to remember the BBC did a fiction series in which a man from 1900 was reborn in the modern era. They showed him as being puzzled often, but quickly adapting to the modern world. Mind you, that was ages ago, before computing became so prevalent and long before social media etc.

  5. Rosemary Gemmell

    Great post, Joanna. Wish I’d watched that programme, but I did visit the Hofburg and Sisi Museum when in Vienna and bought the book about her fascinating life. So many wonderful conveniences we take for granted these days – I can’t even imagine what I’d miss the most!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Rosemary. The series was good but the book is also. And useful for quotes for blogs 😉 Much recommended. Like you I was fascinated by the Hofburg museums and Sisi. I love visiting Vienna.

  6. Elizabeth+Hawksley

    I enjoyed this post. I remember watching ‘The 1900 House’ and Joyce’s daughter once back home, darting to the fridge, shouting ‘Cold milk! Cold milk!’ It must have been wonderful instead of tepid milk which went off by the end of the day, especially in summer.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I enjoyed watching the series too, Elizabeth, but I don’t remember that bit. I do remember the hoohah over the shampoo, though. I was brought up in Glasgow and we didn’t keep milk in a fridge and, interestingly, it didn’t go off. But then it’s colder and wetter up north 😉

Comments are closed.