Saturday, June 28, 2014

"1700 Scenes From London Life," by Maureen Waller

Whether you're a writer or just plain curious, “1700 Scenes From London Life,” by Maureen Waller is a great resource for understanding what it would have been like to live in that time and place. In today's London, you can visit the house where Benjamin Franklin lived from 1757-1775, which is an excellent example of the construction described in this book.

London town homes were “vertical” in design -- that is, several floors high, with only a few rooms on each floor.  
“[T]he houses have one floor made in the earth, containing the kitchen, offices [privies?], and servants’ rooms.  This floor is well lighted…a sort of moat, five or six feet in width and eight or nine deep, is dug in front of all the houses and is called the ‘area’.  This moat is edged on the side next the street with iron railing.  The cellars and vaults where coal is stored are very strongly built beneath the streets, and to reach them you cross the area.  Almost all the houses have little gardens or courtyards at the back.”
A typical terraced house would have:
Basement – a kitchen, cellar, and servant’s quarters.
Ground floor – parlour.
First floor – dining room, drawing room, lavatory.
Second floor – Bedrooms and a closet.
Garrets – servants’ rooms

A tax on windows was implemented in 1696, which prompted many Londoners to brick up their windows. Residents tried to alleviate the windowless effect by placing mirrors around the room -- copying a style of decor popular in France. It was also popular to place mirrors between sash windows in order to maximize the effect of limited light.  Painted plaster ceilings were popular, especially in the principal rooms.  Walls were typically painted, while wall-paper was a less common option.
Benjamin Franklin's London home; built circa 1730
Beds had a feather mattress and hangings, with warmth provided by blankets of wool, cotton, silk, or quilted fabric.  Down-filled comforters were not used in England until the 18th century.  Clothes were kept in the “garde-robe” – a closet or dressing room directly off the bed chamber.  Women would have an elaborate “toilette” (brushes, combs, face powder, etc.) set out on a dressing table that was equipped with a mirror.

Upholstered furniture came in around the turn of the 18th century; the word “sofa” was apparently introduced in the 1690s. Chairs still had to have high, straight backs in order to accommodate corseted and coiffed ladies. Other typical furnishings included a card table with chairs, a cabinet for displaying decorative ornaments.

Dining tables were round or oval, rather than rectangular, and would have been covered with a white linen cloth for meals.  A nearby buffet or cupboard would hold drinks until these were wanted at the table.  Plates, cups, and tea and coffee canisters were stored on shelves in the dining room.  Lighter weight furniture was made of walnut or mahogany, which was replacing the previously traditional oak.  Side tables might have elaborate inlaid designs (“marquetry”).

Rooms were “heated” from the fireplaces, which in London mostly burned “sea coal” (i.e. coal delivered by sea, in contrast to charcoal) from Newcastle.

In 1700, no house had a “bathroom” as such, nor did they have running water.  The less well off retrieved water from community standpipes or took deliveries from water carriers.  Wealthier households paid to have water piped into a basement cistern.  Communal bathhouses were popular, as they saved the trouble of carting a bathtub and hot water upstairs at home.  Otherwise people washed themselves (as much as they bothered) from a basin.

Chamber pots and close stools were emptied into a cesspit or dumped out the window.  "Night soil men" showed up periodically to empty the cesspits, but sewage often overflowed to contaminate drinking water.

“Medical treatment” was available -- for a price -- from apothecaries, physicians, barber-surgeons, unashamed quacks, and “travelling mountebanks” complete with clown and monkey.  Bedlam (the famous institution for incarceration of the mentally ill) was a popular entertainment venue, where the public could tip porters for a look at chained and raving “madmen.”
“The Royal College of Physicians and the Worshipful Company of Barber-Surgeons were entitled to a maximum of ten criminal corpses a year free of charge for purposes of dissection.  There are occasional hints that representatives of these learned institutions visited Newgate [prison] to pick out the best specimens before death and tipped the clerk of the court to ensure that their executions coincided with a scheduled anatomy lecture.”  
Not only was the allotment insufficient for the needs of the named institutions, there was no provision at all for the growing needs of private teaching hospitals.  Thus the body snatching trade.

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