How the Victorians cleaned house 

Like so many other things, how you cleaned house in Victorian England depended on how much money you had. Money decided how much time you had, how much stuff you owned that demanded to be cleaned, and whether you cleaned it yourself or had other people do it for you. It decided how sooty your neighborhood was and how far you had to go to get water. But what people cleaned with didn’t vary that much.

It was heavy work, and all or almost all of it was done by women.

 

Baking soda

The Victorian era ran from 1837 to 1901, and baking soda was introduced in 1846. It was–well, the phrase I grew up with was that it was the aspirin of the its dayera, meaning you used it for just about anything, but aspirin isn’t the aspirin of our time anymore, so let’s say baking soda was the reboot of the age. It was the first thing you’d try, and it fixed a surprising number of problems..

Baking soda’s primary purpose was to raise your cakes, your quickbreads, and your scones, and it revolutionized baking   But it also cleaned your oven and your silverware.

True, most of us  wouldn’t have had silverware if we’d lived back then, but never mind that. It was so new and so amazing that it cleaned your imaginary silverware. All you had to do was set your imaginary silver in a mixture of baking soda and water and it would bubble away like some magic potion. You could also use it to clean copper pans or add it to dishwater, possibly because it made dishes easier to clean and possibly and possibly because everyone agreed that it did. What the hell. It was new, it was exciting, and so you’d toss it in..

How many times have you rebooted not because you knew it would work but because everyone knows it’s the place to start?

Irrelevant photo: This is Fast Eddie, Senior Cat of the Houeshold, who did not consent to bringing in a kitten and is not amused.

Vinegar and other acids

You could clean windows with white vinegar and rub them with newspaper. You could get burned food out of pans by soaking it in cider vinegar and boiling water. (I expect any vinegar would’ve worked, but I’m parroting what I read.)

You could also, bizarrely, get a stain out of an enamel pan by putting a stick of rhubarb and water in it and simmering it for ten minutes, then leaving it to cool for an hour or so. 

You could crush eggshells, mix them with lemon, and use them to scour pans. 

 

Tea

You could also clean your windows with weak tea that you’d left sitting around for a few days. (I have no idea why the sitting around mattered. Sorry. You’re on your own there.) You could also sprinkle the rug with tea leaves that you’d squeezed almost dry, then take it outside and beat the hell out of it. The tea leaves, according to one source, helped get rid of the smell of tobacco smoke.

Yes, of course anyone who smoked did it indoors back then. 

You could also sprinkle an ordinary hard floor with tea leaves before you swept it. The theory was that it would “lay the dust.”

 

The yucky stuff 

What would you do when you needed a heavy-duty degreaser for carpets and woolens? Well, you’d use stale urine–and yes, it does actually matter that it’s stale. It has ammonia, which neutralizes dirt and grease, which are slightly acidic. 

I asked Lord Google for more information on that and his top offering read, “Shop stale urine as a degreaser.” 

I didn’t bother. I can make my own and it’s free.

But let’s not stop there. The Victorians had more fun ways to clean  Got bed bugs? Mix four egg whites with an ounce of quicksilver–that’s mercury and it’s extremely fucking poisonous–and brush it onto the mattress. It’s as damaging to humans as it is to bed bugs, but we tend to be larger so it takes longer. The World Health Organization says:

“Neurological and behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Mild, subclinical signs of central nervous system toxicity can be seen in workers exposed to an elemental mercury level in the air of 20 μg/m3 or more for several years. Kidney effects have been reported, ranging from increased protein in the urine to kidney failure.”

You prefer the bed bugs? It’s your choice. The bites do itch.

 

Water

I can’t give you a solid date for the point when indoor plumbing was introduced–it’s not that simple–but it’s safe to say that almost no one had it. So unless you were wildly rich, you wouldn’t use any more water than you had to. In Ironbridge, Shropshire, some people had to walk a third of a mile for water–and then haul it back, preferably without spilling it. 

 

Feather dusters and cheaper alternatives

As the Victorian era rolled on, people further down the economic scale were able to afford some soft furnishings, some books, some knicknacks–little non-useful things that could be set on a shelf and admired. And they all of them collected dust. 

So you dusted. Feather dusters were best–they were made from ostrich feathers, which had barbs that caught the dust–but they were also too expensive for ordinary households. So you might use a soft cloth. 

You could also squidge white bread into any crevices that you couldn’t reach with a cloth or a fingernail.

 

Floors

I’m shifting categories here, from things people used to clean to the things they cleaned with them. Somewhere out there lurks a way to avoid that, but I can’t be bothered to hunt it. It’s a sly old beast, and I’m simply an old one. So pretend you don’t notice.

In working class homes, the floor would be a hard surface–tile, wood, stone–and you’d sprinkle it with tea leaves, sweep it, then get down on your hands and knees and scrub the beast, using soapy water or water and soda–but this isn’t baking soda, it’s something both stronger and harder on the hands. 

Let’s take Ironbridge as an example, because its museums have a good website. It was at the heart of the industrial revolution, a town full of factories, furnaces, and dirt, soot, and smoke (they went together). People heated with coal, which kicked out some more soot. So everyday cleaning was a battle. And the streets–at least in working class neighborhoods–weren’t paved, so when you came in your shoes would be muddy. 

This is Britain, remember.

One Ironbridge resident said, “I’ve seen my mother scrub ours twice a day, year in, year out sort of thing.  Because she used to do it in the morning.  Well then we used to come home from school, we used to be pittering and pattering, in and out, because there was no tarmac roads, you carried a lot of rubbish on your shoes.  And I’ve seen my mother set to and scrub the floor before my father come home from work.  And that was twice a day, and that was regular.” 

 

Laundry

This was one of the heaviest jobs and not technically housecleaning but if you were a housewife (and having gone through what housekeeping was about I begin to think women did marry the house) it was part of the deal.

First you’d collect your water (wherever it was–up to a third of a mile away, remember) and heat it on the stove, then add some soap flakes and toss in your first load of laundry, which you’d agitate by hand, using something called a dolly or a posser. (These days, you can buy a dolly tub online for £170 and use it as a lawn ornament. It’s good to know that irony isn’t dead.) 

You’d do that for, oh, say, half an hour. Then you’d run everything between the rollers of a mangle to force the soapy water out and put the laundry into fresh water to rinse.

Then you’d run it through the mangle again and rinse it again. And again. Then you’d add some blue dye to make everything look brighter. 

Then you’d run it through the mangle one last time and hang it out to dry, hoping to hell it wasn’t raining. If it was (this is Britain, remember), you’d have to hang it indoors.

Then you’d go back and do it all over again with the next load. And the one after that. And the one after that.

When everything was dry, you had to iron it, using a flat iron that you heated on the kitchen stove. 

If you wonder why mothers yelled at their kids about getting their clothes dirty, that’s why.

 

Spring Cleaning

But everyday cleaning wasn’t enough. You had to do spring cleaning as well.

You’d start, I expect, by getting the chimneys cleaned, because that knocked dirt from the chimney into the house. You wouldn’t want to do that after you’d cleaned, and you would want to skip  this step. You could burn the house down. 

After that, you’d get to work.

According to the Ironbridge Gorge Museums website, you’d start this at the top of the house and work down, moving all the furniture out of a room, taking the curtains down to wash, repainting the walls or cleaning the wallpaper, cleaning the floors and woodwork, cleaning and polishing the furniture.

This applies, of course, to people whose houses had multiple stories and multiple rooms, and all the stuff that went into them. Adapt it according to your circumstances.

You’d take your carpets outside and whack the hell out of them. Lighting fixtures? These would’ve been gas, oil, or candles and all involved open flames, which brought the gift of dirt as well as light. The fumes from oil lighting tarnished metal. Candles smoked. So clean all your lighting fixtures.

Be sure to polish all the wooden furniture. If you iron your polishing cloth, it will leave a better shine than an unironed one.

Have I missed anything? Take that out and clean it too.

Move everything back in and start on the next room.

 

What works and what doesn’t?

English Heritage–an organization that maintains historic buildings for the public to troop through and gawk at and charms money out of their pockets in the process–has been trying out Victorian cleaning methods. Here’s what they can tell us.

Cleaning tricks that work

  • Using white bread to clean wallpaper. Remember to clean up the crumbs.
  • Using milk to clean flagstone floors. Skim milk’s best,and you’ll need to get down on the floor and attack it with a scrub brush. They recommend trying it on a small corner first to make sure, because stone isn’t all alike.
  • Polishing waxed wood floors with a mix of beeswax and turpentine.
  • Dusting furniture and figurines (of course you have figurines) with a pony hair brush. (Of course you have a pony hair brush. And of course you know why this is different from a horse hair brush.)
  • Using chamois leather to polish your mirrors.

Clearing tricks to avoid

  • Sprinkling the carpet with damp tea leaves before sweeping. They don’t say why this isn’t recommended, but I’d guess it has something to do with the combination of carpets and brooms.
  • Cleaning oil paintings with a wet slice of potato, sponging it with lukewarm water, and drying it with an old silk handkerchief. 
  • Cleaning wallpaper by covering it with oatmeal, then sweeping it off with a feather duster or a soft broom.
  • Shining silver with salt and Worcestershire sauce.
  • Washing wooden floors with beer.
  • Cleaning copper pans with lemon and salt.

If they tried stale urine on anything, they haven’t mentioned it. 

 

A final word on Victorian cleaning

It seems only right to leave you with an abbreviated part of the lyrics to a traditional song, “The Housewife’s Lament.” Apologies for the formatting. I haven’t figured out how to set it as a poem.

One day I was walking, I heard a complaining

And saw an old woman the picture of gloom

She gazed at the mud on her doorstep (’twas raining)

And this was her song as she wielded her broom

Chorus

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble

Beauty will fade and riches will flee

Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double

And nothing is as I would wish it to be

In March it is mud, it is slush in December

The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust

In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September

The wall paper rots and the candlesticks rust

Chorus

With grease and with grime from corner to center

Forever at war and forever alert

No rest for a day lest the enemy enter

I spend my whole life in struggle with dirt.

You can listen to it here

The Skeleton Army and the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army was founded as a London mission in 1865, offering food and shelter to the down-and-out, the poor, and the very, very drunk. The Skeleton Army was founded by people who enjoyed a good drink and a fight, and in the 1880s and 1890s it harassed the other army.

The Salvation Army came first, so let’s start with them: According to one account, its goal was to wage war on poverty and religious indifference, which testifies to humanity’s long and history of waging war on things that can’t be shot, slashed, or speared. 

And there I was thinking all that war against abstractions and inanimate objects started with the U.S. declaring war on drugs.

Never mind. The Sally wasn’t the first organization to fall in love with a bit of overblown rhetoric, and it quickly took on a military structure, complete with uniforms, recruits, ranks, and marching bands.

Irrelevant photo: An October seed pod. A friend thinks they’re from an iris, in which case I’ll guess a yellow flag, which grows wild.

The Sally’s own website doesn’t talk about warfare but about saving souls and relieving “the Victorian working classes from poverty. In Booth’s eyes [Booth being the founder], this involved morality, discipline, sobriety and employment.”

In other words, unlike the unions and proto-unions of the period, they didn’t see the causes of poverty as low pay and killingly long hours, they were immorality and drinking.

Not to mention gambling and salacious entertainment. 

Within the Salvation Army, women’s ranks–and this was radical for the period–were equal to men’s, and women played a powerful role in the organization. Although having said that, it was started by two people, Catherine and William Booth. I’ve put her name first because I’m like that, but I’m a minority of one in that. He’s credited as the founder and Catherine sometimes gets a mention–and not always by name but just as “his wife.” She may have played a secondary role–I’m not sure–but even if she didn’t, he was the Methodist minister in the family, and if that wasn’t enough he carried a Y chromosome, along with the physical oddities that follow from it, so he walked around with neon arrows pointing him out as the important half of the couple. 

Still, I’m writing that from a contemporary point of view. For the time, the organization was startlingly equal.

The world they campaigned in was a brutal one. Industrialization meant cities and towns had grown massively, and people’s hours, pay, and working conditions were, literally, killing. 

And in spite of the way the language is changing, literally there doesn’t mean figuratively. It means the hours, pay, and working conditions killed people. And crippled them.

Housing was overcrowded, germs hadn’t been so happy since the Crimean War, and beer and gin were cheap, so people drank. Sometimes that was all that got a person through one day and into the next.

Into that setup marched the Salvation Army, not to quietly establish soup kitchens and wait for people to come eat and get preached at but to march down the street, thumping the drum, playing the tuba, waving banners, and preaching against the evils of et cetera.

Et cetera can be extremely evil if left unchecked. 

This won them both recruits and enemies. Plenty of people wanted a drink and a dance and a fight. 

Along England’s south coast, this response coalesced into a group that called itself the Skeleton Army. Chris Hare, a historian from Worthing, one of the Skeleton hotspots, traces their origin to groups of Bonfire Boys–working class young men who raised hell on Bonfire Night, as well as on Mayday and any other occasion that gave them the opportunity. They didn’t bother with ranks or uniforms, but they did sometimes wear yellow ribbons in their caps or sunflowers in their buttonholes.

No, I don’t know how either. Maybe sunflowers were smaller back then, or buttonholes were tougher. 

They also took the Salvation Army’s songs and wrote rowdy lyrics to them. Fair enough. The Sally had taken popular secular songs and reworked the lyrics to suit their purposes, so they were only stealing what had already been stolen.

Skeleton mobs attacked the Salvation Army, throwing paint-filled eggs, dead animals, burning coals–whatever came to hand. Except for the eggs. Those took planning, because getting paint into an egg and keeping it there long enough to throw? That takes work. In fact, how you do it is a deeper mystery than anything the established religions have yet cooked up. But never mind, the eggs appear in more than one telling and seem to have been real. 

Where were the town’s respectable people while all this was going on? Unhappy not about the Skeleton Army but about the Sally. Individually, they wrote letters to the newspapers, worrying that the Salvation Army would give their towns a bad reputation and drive visitors away. 

As for the religious establishment, it preferred its religion inside the church, not bothering people on the street corner. And landowners and industrialists had an interest in keeping their workers drunk and if not happy at least not demanding higher pay and forming unions.

The Salvation Army was anything but revolutionary, but it offered enough prospect of change to worry the powers-that-were. 

Collectively, they were glad to look the other way when the Skeleton Army broke up Salvation Army events. 

To the extent that the police got involved, they were likely to blame the Salvation Army for any uproar. In Worthing, when one “Salvationist applied to the bench for a summons against those who had assaulted him,” he was told,” ‘You know what you do provokes others to interfere with you, and then you come to us for protection.’ ”

In Eastbourne, the mayor and the brewers endorsed the Skeleton Army. In Torquay, the local government banned marching music on a Sunday. It attracted troublemakers, so they arrested the marchers. 

Attacks on the Salvationists–as the articles I’ve read call them–increased, and the women, especially the women in authority, were the primary targets. 

Are you surprised?

One woman, Sussanah Beaty, was killed.

There were riots in Exeter, Worthing, Guildford, and Hastings, and brawls in 67 towns and villages. From the 1880s to the early 1890s thousands of the Sally’s officers were injured. 

But by the early 1890s,  the police became more likely to arrest attackers. Opposition began to die down and the skeleton army faded away.

After that, the story isn’t half as interesting, so we’ll abandon it there.