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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.


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 …


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)


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

Life in a German Country House

Excerpts taken from The Leisure Hour: a Family Journal for Instruction and Recreation. (April, 1866). Unknown author.

An 1896 cover for the journal The Leisure Hour

       The journal contained many different items, from biographies to reference information and short stories. Copies were illustrated with scenes from the stories, and many of the editions were headed with a quote by William Cowper; ‘Behold in these what leisure hours demand, – Amusement and true knowledge hand in hand’, which gives an impression as to the aim of the publication. Each edition was originally priced at one penny and published weekly. (See Rooke Books)

       However, I found this piece on Ebay for a couple of pounds! It appears to have been neatly unbound from its original volume at some point and sold on as a separate essay. I haven’t reproduced it here in its entirety as the story is over 6,000 words! So far, it has been impossible to track which house is being discussed – which is disappointing, but the article is fascinating for many other reasons. The language is very conventional for the mid-nineteenth century, and the (female) writer clearly had set ideals concerning daily routines, dress codes and even room settings. (Note the complaints she makes about a type of bedding we now take for granted.) In many instances these are very apparent and she seems rather haughty, or at best slightly naive. Perhaps the best thing about this article is a reader’s comment at the end which questions the original writer’s authority and knowledge on the subject. Clearly, someone wasn’t impressed by the simmering haughtiness and constant cultural comparisons which favoured the English above all else!

There is a short glossary of terms at the end.


Life in a German Country House.

       Our acquaintance with the Von Fersens commenced in a singular way. The Countess broke her arm crossing the Brunig Pass in Switzerland, and was brought to Lungern while we were there. We were able to show them some attention, and were a good deal in their company; in fact, I struck up quite a warm friendship with the twin daughters – very pleasant girls. Some six months after we returned to England a very pressing invitation came for us to pay a visit to the Von Fersens at their home at Havelburg.


       As we drew up, there was a hospitable rush of the whole family outside to receive their guests. Helena and Bertha overwhelmed me with embraces and tears. The Countess, who spoke little English, exclaimed, ‘Very much welcome, my dear mess,’ as she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Welkommen, ein schones Welkommen,’ said the Count, who knew no English, giving me what he called a right English handshake. My brother Fred was most cordially received, and a tall, long-backed son, Count Albert, duly presented.


       Helena led me up the carpetless stairs, with their massive oak balustrades – stairs so smooth and shining that, running down in a hurry, I more than once narrowly missed a tumble. Going down a broad passage, we entered a pretty room, with two windows overlooking the lake. There was no toilette-table, but a tall, narrow mirror stood between the widows, secured by an ingenious contrivance of ropes. This, being rather rickety, often frightened me as I brushed my hair before it, for I was afraid of the heavy thing tumbling down on me. There was a small piece of carpet – quite a luxury – under a round table in front of the sofa. The small bed was without hangings or drapery. The sofa could, if necessary, be turned into a couch. The washing-stand shut up and formed a table during the day. An antique chest of drawers and a few chairs completed the furniture. I leaned out of the window to enjoy the prospect. How pleasant these foreign windows are in summer: it is so charming to have the whole aperture for light and air, and to lean out without risk of knocking one’s head. In winter give me our close-fitting sashes.


       There was a tap at the door, and Paulina, the young Countess’s maid, entered with a friendly ‘Guten Tag, gnadige Fraulein.’ I soon found out that the servants expected to be greeted with a few civil words on first seeing them in the morning, etc., as much as their masters did. Servants here are by no means the silent automatons we are accustomed to; and, as they talk without forwardness, and give themselves no airs, the greater freedom of intercourse with their employers seems, after all, more natural than our cold English fashion.


       A little before two we assembled in the large drawing-room. Even at this early hour the sisters were in low barege dresses, with a white muslin jacket. The Count offered his arm and we marched into the ‘saal’. The soup came first, which the hostess helped as in England. Everything else was handed round the table being covered with plate and flowers, silver vases at the corners filled with lilac and golden-rain (laburnums), and an epergne with preserved fruit in the centre. Three courses of made dishes followed the soup, very nice, but incomprehensible – most likely veal. Two plates were given us to-day for the apricots, here considered the proper accompaniment for roast pork. When we mentioned apple-sauce as the fashion at home, all the family exclaimed at the strange mixture.


       I thought then and afterwards that dinner lasted a very long time. The interval between each course was immense; but did not find it at all tedious. The young ladies spoke capital English – so idiomatic; Bertha enchanted Fred by coming out with a little mild slang, yet neither had been in England, but as is customary in North Germany, they had had an English governess for several years.


       About half an hour after dinner, old Tegel, the footman, brought round some delicious coffee; and then we all rose and dispersed in different directions. The gentlemen took Fred to look at the farm buildings behind the Schloss. These German land-owners are generally farmers; i.e., they have their land in their own hands, and manage it by means of inspectors (bailiffs). Our system of letting several hundreds of acres to one tenant seems quite the exception. For some miles round, nearly all the land belonged to the Count, and more than a thousand persons lived on his property in two villages. Havel had four hundred inhabitants, and Rosen, three miles off, was larger. Some idea may thus be formed of the number of labourers employed, and of the very large sum disbursed weekly in wages. A German nobleman, therefore, while at his landhaus, leads an extremely active and busy life.


       The garden at Havelburg was a very disappointing place. Count Fersen was considered the wealthiest man in the province, and there was much taste in the laying out of the grounds; but Fred and I were scandalised at the want of order and neatness. In spite of the efforts of several women-gardeners, who were perpetually sweeping and raking, the lawn looked like a young hayfield, while the soi-disant gravel paths were ankle-deep in dust.


       Reader, you may be well acquainted with Rhineland, you may even have done the grand round of German capitals, and still you may know nothing of a genuine German bed. The number of travellers visiting the country have effected a revolution in the chief hotels, and there we find sheets, blankets, and counterpanes much the same as in England or France. The architecture of my bed was on this wise: a spring mattress at the bottom, then a feather bed covered with a sheet, an enormous pillow for the head as big as four of ours rolled into one, and a smaller one for the feet, elevating them in an uncomfortable manner. There was only one lower sheet, and neither blankets nor counterpane. The superstructure was a large feather bed in a case, the duplicate of the one below. The night was oppressively hot, and I trembled at the idea of passing it beneath that mass of feathers. The next morning Fred enquired how I managed, and gave me the benefit of his experience. After a desperate idea of using the towels as sheets, which from their size and dampness he found impracticable, he said he ended by taking the feather bed out of its white covering, and so slept in the great case. Even in winter, when the warmth is grateful, these beds are uncomfortable, as they are apt to roll off, and it is impossible to tuck one’s self up.


       After Sunday dinner the Count asked us to drive to a neighbouring Schloss, which we declined; and then Count Albert made a vain attempt to induce Fred to join in a dance the servants had got up in the lower hall! Of course our scruples were considered unreasonable. In the cool of the evening Helena and I strolled down to the lake, and there she begged me to tell her what the day at home was like. I tried to picture to her the serenity and peace of an English country Sabbath, the rest from toil for man and beast, the quiet, happy family gathering, the freedom from worldly cares, and the holy preparation for the perpetual Sabbath-keeping that remains for the people of God. I suppose in many families there may be better usages, but I record what I saw of ‘Life in a German Country House’.


A reader’s comment.

I have been rather amused lately by an article in ‘The Leisure Hour’ for April, entitled ‘Life in a German Country House’. Though evidently a recollection of ‘auld lang syne,’ the little picture is painted in lively colours, and cannot fail, I am sure to give pleasure even to those who cannot have the same interest which I have in hearing German life described by and English pen.

But while it is only justice to say that this little narrative is amusingly written, it is nevertheless far from giving satisfaction to a German reader; and I cannot refrain from making a few remarks, and protesting, in the name of my countrywomen, against conclusions that might be drawn in too strict accordance with the sample of German country life given here. Besides, it would only have been fair to state how many years ago, and in what part of Northern Germany, the lady may have gathered her experience of German life.

I am quite ready to believe that, many years ago, in some remote part of back Pomerania or Eastern Prussia, things may have been as described in that article, from the absence of the egg-cups and toilet-table up to the dusty garden walks and weedy flower-beds. But I can only say that my experience, which is not based on one case only, is of a very different nature. It is quite true that we Germans do not, happily for us, attach so much importance to all the luxuries of life as is the case in England; but I must say that, though sometimes more than fifteen miles distant from a railway-station, and in houses where there was no pretence to luxury, I never yet found a bedroom so bare as the one described; and that wherever I went I have always been lucky enough to be provided with a well-furnished washing-stand, which was not meant to be anything else during the day.

The narrator must have gone with wonderful notions on her German visit. She seems to have expected a sort of back-woods life! She dwells with considerable length on the good-natured hospitality she everywhere meets. She praises it just as one would praise it in a savage, and is not only astonished to find a certain degree of intellectual culture in German women, but actually quite wonders not to find that they may be only good for knitting stockings and spinning flax.


Glossary of terms

Barege dress: Mainly a gauze dress

Landhaus: Country house, administrative base for estate management

Saal: Dining room

Schloss: Manor house, castle, mansion or stately home.

Soi-disant: Probably meant here as ‘so-called’ or ‘supposedly/allegedly’.

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