Country House Amenities; Part IV, Cleaning.

Finally, and after several weeks of attending to the ‘day job’, here is the fourth and last installment of my peep into country house amenities.

This post is to do with the upkeep of interiors and the supplies and resources required for ordinary cleanliness. My concern here is the maintenance and cleanliness of the interiors rather than the hygiene of the occupants since connotations of civility and taste came with keeping the house clean, neat and orderly.

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The early nineteenth-century maid. By William Brocas (1762-1837), pencil drawing c.1800 (National Library of Ireland)

Cleanliness was part of household maintenance at any level of society, but in the country house it was detached and formed a part of mundane routine. The elite owner was the proprietor of the house, its collections and everyday objects, but it was the servants who touched, washed, dusted and repaired these things. Outside tradesmen and journeymen were often involved in the general upkeep of furniture, textiles and hardware too, and so the cleaning of the country house was a constant feature.

Those doing the cleaning varied due to the type of work involved. All types of general cleaning – dusting, sweeping, carpet beating, bed changing, scrubbing, and polishing were the domain of the housemaids. Under the watchful eye of the housekeeper, these chores were set to daily, monthly, biannual and annual routines. Linens went down to the laundry which was normally situated away from the main building due to the smelly and steamy processes and also offered access to easy open air drying. Here garments and bedding would be washed, bleached and boiled, mangled, dried, ironed and folded before being sent back to the house.

Silverware was the province of the butler, whilst the footmen took charge of miscellaneous chattels like candlesticks, lamps, some items of furniture and the occasional picture frame. Valets and personal servants like the groom of the chambers were responsible for the more intimate or expensive items of their master or mistress like clothing, ornaments and paintings. Whilst at the bottom of the servant hierarchy, the porter/hall boy and scullery maid had the delightful share of menial tasks which could involve anything from clearing out roof voids to scrubbing drains.

In getting the house clean, many relied upon bought goods and hardware; this is particularly true throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some tradesmen offered specific products and services for ridding the place of bugs, rat-catching and reducing general problem vermin. Patented goods might be used for cleaning fire grates, for polishing woods, and for sprucing up clothing accessories like hats and footwear. In other instances, the master or mistress depended on tried and tested recipes or old favourites. The most common practices in the country house were;

  • Floors to be scrubbed with water, soap and soda. Sand was also used to lift heavy soiling from wooden boards and show the grain. Mixed with soap and water, sand also removed scuffing from white painted wood.
  • Gum water (solution of gum arabic in water) for fire grates, and to be buffed with a dry leather, or emery paper for the bars.
  • Wainscoting (skirting boards) to be washed with soap and water, whilst white paintwork to be gently rubbed with fuller’s earth.
  • Hartshorn (the grated/powdered horn and hooves of the male red deer, used as a detergent because of its high ammonia content) for the plate (metal ware including silverware) and for stain removal in clothes and other textiles.
  • Used tea-leaves to be sprinkled on the carpet before sweeping. These gave a pleasant aroma, but also collected the dry dust particles.
  • Old silk cloths, flannels and old rags (Mrs Beeton recommended the tops of old cotton stockings) for polishing and dusting. A goose feather duster was the answer for those hard to reach places.
  • Turpentine, vinegar, linseed oil and beeswax were best for treating and removing stains from woods.
  • And freshly boiled water and pearl ash (potassium carbonate) were essential for clearing out sticky oil lamps.

Soaps.  At Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire there were five types of soap kept in the Housekeeper’s Store; Ball soap (lyes/ashes and fat rolled by hand into a ball, sometimes scented), Crown Kegs, Rosin, Blue Stone and Blue Powder. The Blues were crucial in ridding white clothes of yellow hues and sweaty stains. The blue ingredient came from indigo or smalt (ground glass originally coloured with cobalt). Crown Kegs could very well be Crown Soap which was used to clean leathers, and Rosin is a pine tree resin still used today and in the country house would have been a brown coloured soap used in washing clothes and maybe for more general cleaning due to its weaker affect as a detergent compared with hartshorn. Other soaps like yellow or purple took their names from the scented ingredients like lavender or thyme or simple dyes.

Yet, it is the ‘big clean’ which seems so peculiar to the country house. This cycle of immense cleaning is not a new

C.L. Marlatt’s article for the US Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin, 1915.

circumstance brought about through public visiting numbers or matters of conservation. The diversity of materials found in large establishments means they have always been invitations for all kinds of indelicate creatures and creeping organic matter.The Spring Clean.

One ugly tale I was told several years ago surrounded the remounting of some early nineteenth-century wallpaper. Upon removal several silverfish (fishmoths) fell to the floor (I’m not sure if some were still alive!) as staff cringed. These little bugs love the old glues and starches present in the substances holding the wallpapers up, and were clearly a recognised problem before the days of more academic conservation methods and theories (see right). Here, entomologist Charles Lester Marlatt noted this problem and quoted from Robert Hooke’s fantastic Micrographia of 1665 which described it as a silver-coloured book-worm ‘much conversant among Books and Papers’.

Bug debris and similar matter is symptomatic of the main problem in any large establishment – dust. Many bugs hide in dark corners or infest undisturbed areas like bookcases, pelmets, floor boards and wooden beams. But dust lingers and eventually rots away at whatever it has sat on for too long because it is not only abrasive but is able to chemically react with certain surfaces, especially woods and textiles. The complete removal of dust is impossible, and when cleaning a house interior it might feel like the dust is being swept from one area to another. To combat this in the country house, the Spring Clean helped to eliminate long-standing muck and grime.

The process would have taken about two weeks and involved everyone on site as well as extra staff hired from nearby villages. Many account books will reveal nameless entries (usually female) who helped at such busy periods in the house and laundry departments. Contemporary literature recommended the cleaning start at the top of the house with the removal of hangings, bedding, blankets, and carpets; all had to be brushed, washed and beaten. The housekeeper may have even ordered in extra pairs of hands from the garden and stable departments, so the heavy work could be undertaken by more burly staff.

The laundry at Castle Ward, County Down. (National Trust)

Other maintenance issues included whitewashing in the cellars and basements, chimney sweeping, drain clearing and window cleaning. Although local traders and journeymen attended to these on a regular basis, it was not uncommon for servants to get involved at some time in the biannual or annual ‘renewal’ of interiors in this way. As the cleaning process moved down the house, more specialist cleaning was required from the valet, the butler, footmen and groom of the chambers (often a gentleman from lower ranks of the social strata who had had training in upholstery and furniture care). Delicate items would be packed away for the summer, or simply cleaned and then covered to prevent fly damage. Some pieces of hardy furniture (most likely that from the servant rooms and utility rooms) were even dismantled and damp dusted.

Clearly, a good clean water supply was essential in getting and keeping the house in shape. Until the installation of plumbed waterworks, water would have been carried up and down staircases (many of which were small cramped spaces), and from interior or nearby wells. Country house ‘plumbing’ had only existed in piecemeal fashion until the nineteenth century by which time, and especially in Britain, it was still slow to catch on in large houses. Notions of plumbing were related to the treatment of waste until the eighteenth century, and so a pumped supply of clean water remained rather elusive. Laundries and kitchens had their own supplies – either from outside pumps and wells or from cisterns which caught rainwater as it fell off the roof. Conserving water was the norm until the arrival of electricity. Such a pattern in behaviour also highlights the seasonal influence of country house living, since with Spring comes the April showers, May blossoms and early Summer scents. All were vital ingredients in putting the house in order and readjusting it for the coming year.

In our modern homes there has been a resurgence of interest in more natural home remedy based cleaning. Fears over chemical cleaners have left many people seeking alternatives. And yet, in the present-day country house both methods are common. There are huge tomes which relate to matters of cleanliness and conservation, and are undoubtedly consulted everyday by staff up and down the employment hierarchy. Chemical cleaners may even be more prevalent than natural substances – though a bit of water and a duster will get you most of the way there! The cycle of cleaning and maintenance still exists today, but it is multi-layered in a way it had never been in the past. The old regimes are still there – washing, wiping, dusting, polishing, and buffing – but there are structured conservation teams with specialisms too. There is also more out-sourcing and therefore greater dependancy upon external agents and services who do not always have the same (or adequate) specialisms. Perhaps it is time to compromise and make a return to the profound tick-tock of the seasons? I would still keep the vacuum cleaner though …

Links:

Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester http://tiny.cc/0vrbhw

Dusting the Royal Historic Palaces http://www.hrp.org.uk/aboutus/whatwedo/collectionscare/monitoringdustlevels

Cleaning the house in eighteenth-century dress, Rhode Island Historical Society http://rihs.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/a-day-of-experimental-archaeology/ and http://rihs.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/all-cleaned-up/

Andrew Graham-Dixon and Petworth House, Sussex http://nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/andrew-graham-dixon-mucking-in-at-petworth/

Conservation and Nostell Priory, Yorkshire http://nostellprioryconservation.wordpress.com/

17th-century cleaning for a ducal town house http://www.oldandinteresting.com/17th-century-washing.aspx and laundry bluing http://www.oldandinteresting.com/laundry-blue.aspx

The realities of cleaning and housework http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/housework.cfm

References and further reading:

Many contemporary pieces of literature can be found on Google Books in their full form (See especially S. and S. Adams The Complete Servant  and Beeton’s Book of Household Management). Others have been ‘transcribed’ or edited by individuals or through the UK National Trust which hinders their availability through modern-day copyright. British charity shops (as well as Ebay) often have these stashed on shelves, so for the curious these are a good purchase – keep your eyes peeled!

Samuel and Sarah Adams, The Complete Servant (1825)

Isabella Mary Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). My copy is an edited first edition facsimile from 1984.

Jessica Gerard, ‘Invisible Servants: The Country House and the Local Community’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, LVII, (1984), 178-188.

Mark Girouard, A Country House Companion. (1987)

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements (National Trust, 1992)

Joanna Martin, Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House (2004)

Pamela A. Sambrook, The Country House Servant. (National Trust, 2004 reprint)

Alison Sim, The Tudor Housewife (1996)

Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (2009)

Susanna Whatman, The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman (1776-1800). Introduced by Christina Hardyment (National Trust, 1997)

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7 Comments

Filed under Men and the Country House, Servants, The running of the country house, Women and the Country House

7 responses to “Country House Amenities; Part IV, Cleaning.

  1. Wonderful. That was a joy to read. Thanks very much for the post and all the references and links too.

  2. Jeff Aldridge

    Your excellent post brought to mind the excellent DVD about the “Country House Big Clean” …. Most enjoyable!

  3. Margaret Powling

    I have ear-marked this post to read later with a cup of tea! I collect housekeeping books and have written about this very subject for various magazines – how difficult it was to keep places clean in the days before constant running hot water, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and always the soot and smoke from coal and wood fires, candles, and later, oil and gas lamps, to contend with. We don’t know we’re born today!

    • Margaret, could you please send me the details of your articles to me, I’d love to see what you’ve come across. I also do family history as a freelancer (it sort of comes hand in hand with houses) and I’m intrigued by how people and buildings ‘fit’ together – how one runs the other as it were. My email address is househistories@yahoo.co.uk. I re-read 1900 House the book from the 1999/2000 tv series, and had my annoyance renewed in the limp wristed attempts at keeping that terrace house clean and tidy the old fashioned way!

  4. Oh my goodness… I just found your blog and I am in love. I am certainly your newest follower. This post blows my mind, Im going to have to share it on facebook. Blessings!

    • Haha! Many thanks, and greetings to my newest follower! There are some great resources for understanding long-forgotten cleaning methods, and this was certainly one of my favourite posts to write. My intention is to disseminate what I discover, but I hope one day to be able to reconstruct something from all the things I’ve learnt. Maybe I should buy myself an old worn-out house and restore it!

  5. Pingback: The Servant Hierarchy | countryhousereader

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