Saturday, February 1, 2014

Downton Abbey always reminds me of the Channel 4 reality shows in which modern people are made to live for a few months in a perfect replication of some other period of time.

My favorite is 1900 House.  A family moves into a Victorian rowhouse which has been impeccably restored to its original era.  There is not a trace of modern convenience except a secret room which contains a phone, in case of emergencies.  Otherwise, the house is arranged and decorated in strict compliance with the day.  My favorite was one of the set historians who admitted (resentfully?) that they used modern paint for the walls and adhesive for the wallpaper, because he supposed it wouldn't be appropriate to use materials containing lead and arsenic.  Ugh!  The patronizing society we live in.

The family also has to dress in strictly Victorian attire and use only products that would have been available at the time.  Incidentally, the Victorians didn't have shampoo as we know it now, which was of greatest concern to the women of the family.  I don't exactly blame them.  There's a reason hair often looks so limp and waxen in historic portraiture.  Not only was there no shampoo, there was hardly any proper soap at all that you could use on your body, because the only soap in the house was the lye for the laundry.  Unless you were a rich French woman, for whom fancy soaps were made as a cosmetic, but this was generally seen as a ridiculous frivolity of the rich.  So it was recommended to just rinse the shit out every few weeks, or maybe put an egg yolk on it, or to use a little castile soap if you had it.  Too dreadful.  Eventually (spoiler alert) the mother and daughter steal into a modern shop and buy some Suave, but they feel like cheaters about it and go back to using the hideous period concoction they probably found in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) to be good sports.

Another incredible hardship is keeping the coal stove on.  This house had upstairs plumbing, but to get any hot water in the bathroom, someone had to be stoking the coals all the bloody time, including through the night.  If you don't have servants, this pretty much sucks, and you can begin to imagine why people were so economical with the bathing.

Come to think of it, everything you do is harder when you're a Victorian, and if you're a woman, just give up now.  It's hard to cook, because the stove doesn't heat evenly.  The recipes are very complicated and some of the terminology is different, so you don't know what the hell the ingredients even are.  If you're a fancy or even an upper middle class lady, you have to change your clothes and re-do your hair several times a day, and the rest of the time you just spend sitting around, looking out a window and wondering what your neighbors are wearing.  If you're poor or a servant, you have to go grocery shopping every damned day, because you don't have an icebox, or if you do, it's very small.  Cleaning is hard because the house is very dark and you have no Swiffer.  Some people had those roller vacuums, which only function by way of slavish, vigorous rolling motions done over the carpet.  There are no paper towels, so you have to do the laundry all the time too, which takes the entire day and is exhausting and terrible even with your crew of forced labor (children), and you can be burned by the soap.  This helps us to understand why standards of household cleanliness back then were considerably lower than ours are now.  It was just too hard.  Also, no trash pickup.  If you live in the hood, then the streets are actually comprised of compacted horse manure mixed with the trash that people just throw on the street and sidewalk.  Old school and poor people still use chamber pots, which they just empty any old place.  The hems of your skirts are quite foul.

And, of course, the women were doing all of this in corsets and tight, unsupportive leather shoes.  And the corsets weren't those stupid decorative things that goth kids wear to prom.  They were reinforced with steel, to keep you utterly in place.  I've read news clippings from the 1890s talking about women who died after falling off a horse or something, because they were impaled on their own corsets.  Also, the clothes were very heavy.  Dresses weighed many pounds, and your undergarments were voluminous to say the least.  And don't wear makeup unless you want people to think you are a prostitute.

God, even leisure time is potentially awful.  You have to sit in a room with your family and listen to someone read aloud.  If you're lucky, they're reading the latest novel, as long as it's not pornographic or written by a lady.  If you're unlucky, which you probably are, they are reading the bible.  There may be some piano playing or embroidering to get you through.  Perhaps you sing, or study at dancing a reel for a semi-annual dance.  Perhaps you are collecting your own hair to boil, wax, and form into small rosettes that you will frame or have set into a brooch for a loved one.  Oh, and you are supposed to have a whole raft of children, half of which will die as infants.  You just keep cranking them out (this is easy, because there is no reliable birth control other than non-compliance, which your husband can divorce you for which will then get you excommunicated and sent to hell) until a few stick it out through babyhood.  Or worse, they all live and you find yourself having to feed 14 unwashed people every day.  I'm just saying.  It was probably hard.

So anyway.  We don't envy our great-great-grandmothers much, even if they did have better furniture.  I would, however, definitely partake in an experiment like 1900 House, and I very much resent that doing so isn't available as some kind of themed vacation for historians, nerds and escapists.

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