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Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books and The History Press. I tweet (and retweet) thought-provoking content designed to help you tweak your approach to (your family) history at @RuthaSymes . Do follow me.

Friday, 6 January 2017

'She Scrubbed Up Well' - How Your Domestic Servant Ancestor Actually Cleaned

Servants are the very backbone of British family history. With access to the 1911 census, the vast majority of us will probably have discovered that our early twentieth-century ancestors either kept servants or worked as servants themselves. Indeed, by the 1880s, around a third of all young women in Britain between the ages of 15 and 21 were likely to be in service and this corresponded with a sharp rise at the time in the numbers of families able to afford resident domestic staff. 

Large country houses and substantial urban villas might have employed a whole retinue of minions ranging from 'cook' and 'housekeeper,' to 'parlour maid', 'scullery maid', 'nursery maid', 'lady's maid,' 'housemaid,' 'chambermaid,' 'butler', 'steward', 'laundry maid,' each with his or her own special duties. But in the late nineteenth century, a majority of three-fifths of all servants were employed singly as ‘maids-of-all work’ or 'general servants' in the homes of small tradesmen such as drapers, plumbers, and coal merchants. In the two hundred years from 1750-1950, whilst the tasks of  servants remained in essence the same, inventions and advances in technology meant that new labour-saving devices were constantly changing the nature of their domestic work.  

Servant Scrubbing Steps: From the Wigan World Website (with permission)

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Surprisingly, perhaps, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the British middle classes often preferred to pay a servant to work for them rather than buy new domestic appliances to help with washing, cleaning and cooking. Whilst domestic technology took off in America, the new -fangled machines were generally considered expensive and unreliable on this side of the Atlantic. But, with the ever-improving accessibility of electricity (a new power source that could be fed directly into the home), the development of better soaps and detergents attuned to the new machines, and the continual reduction in prices, it became progressively harder for employers to resist the charms of items such as washing machines, dryers and vacuum cleaners. In addition to other (political and social) changes in the way our working-class ancestors lived, the development of labour-saving appliances was one very obvious reason why far fewer of them were employed as servants from the end of the First World War onwards.

Here I take a look at the introduction of labour-saving devices in the areas of washing and cleaning.

Washing and Cleaning

Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries


There is little wonder that the hands of our  laundry maid ancestor were characteristically puckered and bleached. Traditionally, her work was heavy and arduous. First the clothes of the household would be 'bucked with lye' - that is soaked overnight in a solution made from wood ash (and sometimes from pigeon, hen dung, bran or urine). The next morning, she would rub the clothes   through on a corrugated washboard made of wood or some sort of metal, wring them out by hand and then wash them in very hot water. Large quantities of washing were done by hand in a dolly tub using a dolly peg, posser or punch

Woman washing using a dolly peg. From the Wigan World Website with permission

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After rubbing, pounding and rinsing, the maid would boil white clothes in a furnace with shredded soap (often made by the maid herself on the premises from kitchen grease combined with lye or burnt seaweed and common salt). She would lift the clothes out of the dolly tub with a dolly stick and then rinse them in first warm, then cool and then 'blued' water. 

Traditionally, the laundry maid would mangle the clothes by wrapping damp items around a roller which she then placed on a flat surface and then rolled backwards and forwards with a heavy board. 'Box mangles' were introduced during the late eighteenth century. These comprised a thick wooden roller around which the maid would wind the clothes before using a rope or leather strap to crank over them a wooden box weighted with stones.

Lancashire women ready to hang out the washing to dry. From the Wigan World Website, with permission.
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Drying was achieved by laying the clothes outside on grass or hedges to dry or fix them to a  line with cleft wooden pegs. In large country houses, sliding drying racks were often built near to the boiler. Socks and stockings were dried on wooden, china or wire moulds to help them retain their shape.

Eighteenth-century 'box irons' were usually made of iron or steel and included an iron slug (designed to fit inside) which was heated in the fire. Some irons were heated by charcoal (taken from the embers of the burning fire) which was placed in the body of the iron. The weight of the iron, its terrific heat and the fumes emanating from it all made ironing an unpleasant and even dangerous task.
The cleaning of carpets, upholstery and drapes was perhaps one of the most arduous tasks of the domestic servant. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution (from 1750 onwards) with all its soot and grime, the old practice of covering carpets with canvas cloths when the house was empty and with rugs or druggets during times of occupation, became less and less satisfactory.

Early Victorian Period


It was  not until Victorian times that hand-driven washing machines became at all popular. Early models were of the cradle type and worked on a 'rocking box' principle. In the 1850s and 1860s, J. Picken of Birmingham and others marketed a washing machine that worked on the same principle as a butter churn.  But even if the household had such a machine, laundrywork continued to be time- and energy- intensive for the strong-armed washerwomen of the day.  Servants cleaned carpets by hand with stiff brushes, removing ink, oil and grease stains individually with a variety of home-made potions including lemon juice and white bread.

Late Victorian Period

The hand-operated 'Victress Vowel' washing machine by Thomas Bradford of Salford, was the most popular washing machine of the day. Other 'new-fangled' machines involved a variety of 'agitating' apparatus such as cogged wheels, lever-operated drums, paddles, and wooden rollers. Cheap bars of Lifebuoy Soap (invented by Lever Brothers in 1895) contributed to an easing of the laundry maid's tasks. Mangling could now be done on small upright machines (incorportaing two or three rollers made of white wood). More sophisticated charcoal-fuelled flat irons and even paraffin irons were being used by the end of the century.   The first manual vacuum cleaners, using bellows and handcranks, were devised in the 1860s and 1870s in America but did not catch on in Britain. Servants continued to brush and wash carpets on their knees using a variety of unpleasant chemical-based solutions including naptha and chloroform.

Around 1900

The turn-of-the-century laundry-maid probably benefited little from the first electrified washing machines (developed by the American companies Thor (1906) and A. J. Fisher (1908)). The machines – little known in Britain - were ungainly and hazardous, consisting of a dolly tub and dolly peg fitted to a belt driven by an external electric motor. More easily-operable mangling machines now had rollers made wholly or partly of rubber and some of these were table-mounted. By 1907, electric irons were appearing in some London stores but they were far too expensive for the ordinary consumer. The first electric vacuum cleaner, which used suction power, was invented in 1901 by H. Cecil Booth and was used to clean the carpets in Westminster Abbey before the coronation of Edward VII, but early machines like this were large industrial devices, taken by horse and cart from building to building. It was only after Hoover brought out the rotating brush model vacuum cleaner in 1908, and once devices became more portable, that servants in private homes started to feel the benefit of vacuuming technology.

1920s

After the First World War, there were many more job opportunities - offering more money, better conditions and a degree of emancipation - for working-class women. Little wonder that far fewer went into domestic service. In the twenties, those who did work in the homes of the middle-classes still undertook most of the household washing by hand despite the introduction of some new slicker cabinet-type washing machines powered by internal electric motors. The first electric tumbler dryers were also available. But  few of these machines could be found in Britain and they were extremely expensive, selling at between £30 and £50. The widespread usage of electric machines – in metal rather than wooden cabinets - was held back by the fact that there was no co-ordinated national electricity grid in Britain until the late 1930s.

1940s and 1950s

After the Second World War, the age of the servant was almost over but, for a while in the Post-War age of austerity, little seemed to have changed on the domestic front. The first electric drying machine with a glass window was invented by Brooks Stevens in 1940 but it was hardly a common sight in British homes. Vacuum cleaners too continued to be considered a luxury item until well after the Second World War. Women of the middle classes (or their hired helps) continued to use hand-driven washing machines. The mid-1940s saw the welcome development of heavy-duty detergents in America. But it was only ten years later, in the economically more prosperous and settled Britain of the 1950s, that electric washing machines (together with drying and vacuuming machines) finally started to become as popular here as they were across the Atlantic.

To learn more about the history of domestic appliances, and see and touch many of the inventions, visit York's Castle Museum (address below). Many stately homes, such as Erdigg near Wrexham, also have kitchens illustrating how different applicances were used.



Useful Books

Jacqueline Fearn, Domestic Bygones, Shire, 2005.

Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Domestic Servant, Alan Sutton, 1986.

Trevor May, The Victorian Domestic Servant, Shire, 1999.

Pamela Sambrook, Laundry Bygones, Shire, 1983.

Christina Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave, Polity Press, 1988.

Rebecca Weaver and Rodney Dale, Machines in the Home, The British Library, 1992.


Useful Websites

http://www.morphyrichards.co.uk/History.aspx The history of domestic appliances produced by Morphy Richards

www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/early-domestic-appliances/3508.html Short video on the history of domestic appliances – heat and power, washing, cooking and food preservation and cleaning.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_cleaner Complete history of the vacuum cleaner



Museums/Stately Homes

York Castle Museum
Eye of York
York
YO1 9RY

Erdigg
Wrexham
LL13 0YT

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK 2011

Click here for Family Tree Magazine UK

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Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK https://www.family-tree.co.uk/); Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine (http://www.discoveryourancestors.co.uk/); Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine (http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/). The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books (http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/) and The History Press (http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/). 

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