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