Friday, May 30, 2014

“Home Comfort; a History of Domestic Arrangements in Association With The National Trust,” by Christina Hardyment. Academy Chicago Publishers in association with The National Trust 1992



"Home Comfort" is hard to find in the U.S., but second-hand copies are available through Amazon.com. I was able to check it out through my local library, and do not own my own copy.

The book is primarily concerned with the facilities for, and duties of, servants in British great homes, from Elizabethan times forward.  Apart from the generally interested reader, it provides a very useful reference for writers wanting to check details of life (upstairs or down) in such homes. Information on provisioning, storage of food, the house farm, dovecotes, poultry yards, fish ponds, etc., as well as the making of butter and cheese, ale, bread, spirits…all of these were originally done in house in large households. Eventually, such work was “contracted out” to businesses in town.  A lot of terminology we still use comes from old processes.  “Larder,” for example, as a cool room for storing food, came from the practice of potting joints of meat in large barrels or tubs covered with lard.

Self-igniting matches (“lucifers”) weren’t invented until 1831.  Before then, it was necessary to keep a kitchen tinder box filled with flammable materials, to be lit by striking a flint against a steel.  A “match” (tipped with brimstone, or sulfur) was used to transfer flame to the kitchen fire.  Alternatively, embers could be kept glowing under a metal dome: “couvre-few” = curfew.

Spit-roasted meats were popular, and in some large houses, the spits were turned by dogs running in a wheel (just like a large hamster wheel).  These seemed to have been in use from at least the mid-16th century into the 18th century.
One of the ovens in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace
“Built-in charcoal ranges were a feature of eighteenth-century kitchens” – but it’s less clear to me if these would have been limited to homes of the wealthy, or when they would have come into more common usage.  “The first patent to combine a kitchen grate with an iron oven was applied for by Thomas Robinson, a London ironmonger, in 1780.”  The design, combining an open fire, oven and hot water boiler, was quickly improved and spread rapidly in coal mining areas and in cities (where coal could presumably be delivered).  Though in large homes, old-styled wood ovens were still considered preferable for baking.  Gas began to replace solid fuel for cooking in the 1890s.  Electric cookers were developed around the same time, but were slower to catch on—not really becoming popular until the 1920s when electricity networks spread across the country (the UK in this case, I don't know if the same dates would apply to homes in the U.S.).

Rushlights were the simplest and cheapest form of candle—consisting simply of a peeled rush dipped in fat. Tallow candles were a step up, and made by repeatedly dipping cotton wicks into pots of melted fat, gradually building up the layers.  This was a smelly and unpleasant job usually done by/or at a chandlers, rather than in each home. Molded candles used a better quality of fat and gave better light with less smoke and spluttering.  Beeswax or spermaceti candles were far superior, but also much more expensive.  Paraffin (hydrocarbon wax) candles were first marketed in 1857, and were in general use by 1900.

Oil lamps were known since ancient times, and could burn animal or vegetable oils.  Improved designs incorporating a reservoir and chimney were not available until 1784.  Whale oil was gradually replaced by mineral oil (kerosene) following its discovery in 1859.

Experiments with gas lighting began as early as 1780. The incandescent gas mantle (a hood made of knitted cotton impregnated with thorium and cerium) was invented in the 1880s.

Early electric carbon lights were suitable for light houses as early as 1858, but not for home use. Thomas Edison’s carbon filament incandescent light bulb was invented in 1878.

Early sources of heat were, of course, the burning of wood, charcoal, and, in some areas, peat or turf. Charcoal “has been made and burnt in Europe for at least 5,500 years."  While the Romans had mined surface deposits of mineral coal for use in their hypocausts, after their departure from Britain, coal seems to have dropped out of use until the 12th century.  “Sea coal” was the term used for mineral coal, because it was usually transported by sea -- as opposed to charcoal, which was typically just called coal. By the early 17th century, depletion of timber led to increases in the use of (mineral) coal.  Innovations in fireplace and flue design are discussed, but the book does not mention the Franklin stove. Perhaps these were never popular in Britain, even though I believe Franklin was living there when he invented it. A preference for open fires over closed stoves, gas fires, or central heat lasted through most of the 19th century.

Early sanitary arrangements sometimes used flowing water or reservoirs of sifted dirt to “flush” away waste.  The earliest description of an individual cistern to be used for flushing was by Sir John Harington, godson of Elizabeth I, in 1596.  Even great houses varied in how much this type of arrangement was used—some had a convenience in every bedchamber, others preferred to rely largely on separate outhouses.  The valve water closet was patented in 1775.  This design introduced the famous (and necessary) S-bend in the pipe, which remains filled with water, keeping out the stink.  It’s not clear, however, when these arrangements were introduced and became commonplace in more modest homes.

Laundry was also a complex chore.  Whenever possible it was desirable to dry clothes and linen outside, and large homes might have a special walled drying green near the house (to deter thieves).  Hedges of rosemary and lavender were grown for the purpose of having clothes laid over them to be dried and scented – a lovely idea I'd like to revive! 


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