Clean Clothes

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Scottish Lifestyle 300 Years Ago by Helen Kelsall and Keith Kelsall
    John Donald, 224 pp, £10.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 85976 167 3
  • Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall
    Hutchinson, 576 pp, £25.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 09 164700 2
  • A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children over Three Centuries by Linda Pollock
    Fourth Estate, 319 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 947795 25 1

The Kelsalls and Davidoff and Hall are worker pairs who have been looking into the family life of a restricted group over a halfcentury or so, using a wide range of the documentation generated by their subjects. Both groups studied were experiencing insecurity. The Scottish families were of landed class, made insecure by sudden changes in politics and in the control and policy of the Church; the English families a century later were of the emerging middle class, busy creating niches in the professions and in the world of manufacturing business. Both sets were, as things turned out, upwardly mobile, the Scottish family of the Homes of Polwarth ending up as earls of Marchmont, the English families establishing what are now household names of useful products – Reckitt, Ransome, Cadbury, Bird, Courtauld. Success could not be foreseen: the promise was not sure, and false steps were dangerous. The threat of trial and execution for treason, which was an elastic concept in Stuart Scotland, forced the Homes into a period of near-penniless exile: the ladders of upward mobility for the new middle class were associated with many snakes – risks of bankruptcy or of relegation to the ranks of manual labour. Failures had to leave a world with a carefully constructed ethos, and become part of the general mass of non-persons. But political revolution enabled the Homes to become part of a new aristocracy in the opening years of the 18th century, joining others newly ennobled such as the Roseberys and the Stairs. A century later, economic success gave permanence to the families making new household aids.

Both groups lived in a society taking Christianity for granted, using it as social cement and interpreting the Christian message as confirmation of existing inequalities. It was religion that justified the gulf in independence and opportunity between the sexes. Women, whose writings provide much of the material for both studies, were a second class of people. They were expected to have administrative ability and manual skills, to be literate and numerate. The emphasis on numeracy for women in the Scottish upper class is particularly interesting. The account books from which much of the Kelsalls’ work is done are exceptional, for very little of women’s account-keeping survives from elsewhere in Britain at this time. The relatively scatty accounts of the Countess of Polwarth are probably responsible for her daughter’s insistence, reproduced by Linda Pollock in her anthology of comments on family life, on a daily dose of arithmetic for her nine-year-old daughter. Women, even of the upper class, and even though aided by servants, were expected to carry out a wide range of manual domestic tasks. From other Scottish sources we have descriptions of them supervising the production of cloth and candles as well as food. The middle-class woman of the late 18th century had much of her time taken up in the physical care of young children and of sickness. Davidoff and Hall show how in the early days of class development the wives helped in shops, trained apprentices, and often kept the accounts. Male manual skills for the upper class seem to have been kept for sport or warfare. The Kelsalls point out from the diary of a lesser laird, George Home of Kimmerghame, that the enthusiasm for gardening and for household tasks meant organising other people to do things: planting, pruning and protecting plants were all things for which orders were given. We are a long way before the ingrained dirty nails of some late 19th-century titled ladies showed that they really worked their own gardens.

In both sets of households the undercover noise is of warfare with the servants. With the Marchmont family we know that this went on for some time. The leading member of the next generation, Lady Grisell Baillie, whose household books have long been known, had a remarkably rapid turnover of servants. Some stayed only one night, and the average length of stay has been calculated at three weeks. One explanation is readily available from the social setting. A child of eleven or twelve was moved from family life in a small hovel to semi-institutional life in the great house of Mellerstain, an experience of new people, a new physical world, new tasks and a new level of discipline: no wonder flight home seemed attractive. Discipline, though, does not seem to have been very marked in the ancestral house of Marchmont in the next generation, for one of the family letters shows that the writer ‘hopes to have the servants so drunk at night that there will be no trouble’ provided they don’t set the house on fire. By the early 19th century the class warfare was less overt, for by then the quality of a housewife was measured by her ability to train and keep her servants. Mansfield Park contrasts the smooth order of the title house with the constant warfare in Portsmouth over the work and recreation of the so-called upper-servant Rebecca. But as servants came more under control, so they were made into lesser beings. Warnings were issued about allowing the children of middle and upper-class families to associate with them: the children should be reared by ‘the skilful hand of the intelligent Christian mother’ rather than depend on the ‘mercenary services of ignorant domestics’, stated one manual of household advice, without stopping to explain the reasons why domestics were ignorant or why it was mercenary to work for wages but not to run a business. Linda Pollock gives examples of the same aversion to contact with servants: Margaret Cavendish retails from the early 17th century her mother’s emphasis on this. The children were not ‘suffered to have any familiarity with the vulgar servants, or conversation’; their mother, though, insisted on ‘an humble civility’.[*] This social severance contrasts with the attitude of Samuel Pepys to his servants, and with the early 20th-century tendency in big houses for children and servants to be natural allies.

These two studies bring out the much greater consciousness of religion in the middle class of the Industrial Revolution – of religion intruded into every aspect of life. In the earlier period the aristocracy had a casual approach to the expression of religious belief, even though they formally accepted a rigid Calvinism. Davidoff and Hall have been able to command an extraordinarily wide range of material, and much of it is worded in religious terms. Some part of this conscious emphasis may come from the fact that it is particularly in Dissent that their families are located, and Dissent was very much aware of being ‘different from them’ and even more intent on religious observance. God’s concern in every detail of human life was used to provide a religious basis for social facts, particularly for inequality. The method of separating the roles of the two genders often seems bizarre, but in practice it was effective for a couple of generations. In the 17th century women were held simply to be inferior to men: not only were they physically weaker but the poverty of their education made it easy for men to sneer at their mental capacity. They were kept from power and from the control of money, and then ignored since their province did not include these important areas of life. That they were inferior was obvious from the Fall. A good supralapsarian Calvinist could not actually claim that, but for Eve, Adam would still be in the garden of Eden, but it could be implied. The sacredness of property meant that sexual irregularity was a crime as well as a sin in a woman, a peccadillo in a man of property. In the later 18th century a new line of thought was put forward. Women were finer and purer than men, but more fragile in their virtue. It was therefore necessary to protect them from the dangers of worldly life by caging them in the home. Their labour and activity were not to be seen in the outside world of business, travel or employment. As St Simon Stylites probably found, standing on a pillar revered for piety means a loss of control of more earthly affairs. The most extraordinary episode produced by the belief that nature had formed women only for activities within the home was the famous anti-slavery meeting of 1840 when uproar was created by the proposal that some visiting women from the United States might take part as delegates in the debate. Yet, as this book shows, the vast amount of unpaid female work put into 19th-century charitable societies was eventually to lead to a new evaluation of their role. Also the handing over to them of the early religious and secular training of the young was to lead to the demand for formal education for them, and in the end, for emancipation.

Davidoff and Hall have concentrated on the world of Evangelical Dissent, but much the same emphasis can be seen in the world of Tractarian households, as shown in the novels of Charlotte Yonge. This lady’s book Woman-kind, written to show girls how to behave as women, paints a picture of their role very similar to that in the writings of Jane and Anne Taylor, Congregationalist in faith. Young girls, Charlotte Yonge thought, should not be able to reserve any time for their own private occupations, except that on Sunday afternoons they should be able to prepare for the Sunday school which they would hold the following week. No form of economic enterprise was seen as appropriate to women except the raising of charitable funds. The only criticism that I would offer on the thorough and substantial research carried out by Davidoff and Hall, apart from a grouse about a misquotation from Surtees, is that some of the features which they locate within the period of the Industrial Revolution can be found earlier, and some of those they regard as specifically related to Dissent can be found in other religious groupings which were conscious of being a minority. The stifling world of the late Georgian and Early Victorian middle class extended further than they think, in time, in class and in doctrinal base.

Once middle-class women had been pushed out of visible economic activity – though some still earned money as teachers or writers – there was, for many families, increased labour available within the home. Home could be sanctified as a place free from the hubbub and pressures which family life generated. The new scope of manufacturing enabled houses to be stuffed with goods, and the major transformation of the 16th-century Domestic Revolution was taken a stage further. Curtains and valances, tablecloths with fringes, furniture with knobs, bulges and stuffings, glass cases within doors and glass houses without, all provided evidence of status, and gave opportunity for strenuous activity. Fabrics had to be mended and washed, furniture polished, the kitchen range covered with useless and time-consuming blacking, potted plants tended, framed objects dusted. Many of the new and continuing names in business relate to the labour of middle-class home life, from the starch of Reckitt, which gave garments an extra stretch of cleanliness, to the lawnmowers of Ransome, which symbolised the amenity of the new suburban gardens. Particularly did clothing develop both to mark the separation of sex roles and to take female labour. The black cloth suit of the businessman was as ready to show a grease spot as the lightweight muslin of his wife: both garments appear simple and plain but call for a great deal of upkeep. It became accepted that though women were not physically suited to the rigours of outdoor life, they should dress in a way to minimise the retention of body heat. With the black suit came highly polished black shoes, and eventually the stiff collar, both requiring daily labour.

The new type of godliness was using cleanliness as its support system. What had been an upper-class fad in the late 17th century – the desire to be free from the unpleasantness and smelliness of dirty hands and stale clothes – had moved down the social scale, and become a sign of social and religious status. In the period covered by the Kelsalls it took a pound of soap a month to keep a person in clean linen for bed, board and person. Washing of the body, other than the hands and face, seems to have come later. Cleanliness spread from visible garments to undergarments. Then, as the key to respectability, it spread to the rising middle class. In the later 19th century it went first to the skilled workers and then to the unskilled. By the early 20th the acceptable standard of cleanliness meant that many households were simply private laundries, without mechanical aids other than the mangle, for the first two or three days of each week, full of wet and steaming cloth and the smell of cheap soap, encouraging the men of the family to take refuge in the pub. Cleanliness followed godliness in keeping women in their place.

It was a social marker. People who could afford a clean shirt every day in a situation when washing days were spaced by several weeks had to have enormous stocks. There exists a note made by a small tacksman of the 1770s, recording that he had ‘only’ 29 nightshirts. The distinctions of wealth that sustained such stocks would be apparent olfactorily. Even in inter-war business offices it was easy to spot those who relied on a weekly wash of under-clothes and those who could afford to be more fastidious. Whereas in the Middle Ages everyone was dirty, and all that the code of chivalry required of knightly courtesy was a little dabbling of water on hands and face, and for those aiming at sainthood vermin were a saintly plus, in the modern world cleanliness has meant a deep but shifting chasm between the have’s and the have-not’s, and the burden of keeping a family on the right side of the gulf has lain on the women.

Of course cleanliness, as it spread, had beneficial effects. Somehow we have to account for the improving life-expectancy of the 18th century: death was horridly frequent in the later 17th. It is likely that the expansion of the medical profession accounts for some part of the frequency, at least among the upper class. Linda Pollock’s book gives us the voices of the upper class – for it was rare for anyone else to express themselves in writing on family matters – as they display their joys and fears. Rearing children was a traumatic business: it still is, in terms of hard work and loss of sleep, of expenditure and exasperation, but only a few of today’s parents in the developed world face the likelihood of infant and child death. When doctors were called in by our ancestors, the urge to do something was likely to enhance the risk for the patient. Babies would be filled with calomel or ipecacuanha, purged and blistered, so that the greater resources of these families in food supply, and in labour for child care, may have been more than counteracted by medical intervention.

The likelihood of death forced haste on the process of child indoctrination. With a high risk of annihilation at an early age it became urgent to make sure the child was a believing Christian. Dr Pollock might have given us more information about the denominational allegiance of the parents in her book, but it looks as if this was a common need across the doctrinal spectrum. As the 18th century became more open-minded, some intelligent mothers were prepared to recognise that some religious concepts were beyond childish imagining, and such women were willing to modify the process of indoctrination. For some parents, too, religious information might run counter to the current idea of what was seemly for young girls: that at least seems to be the gist of Fanny Burney’s criticism of the explicitness of the Authorised Version of the Bible on sexual matters.

Dr Pollock’s main point, already established in her earlier book, Forgotten Children (1983), for which this one can be seen as the illustrative material, is to say ‘rubbish’ to those historians who have claimed that family love did not exist in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that children then were not appreciated or adequately cared for. The evidence is all the more striking since her samples here are mostly from the upper class, and they show that these families took it for granted that new born babies should be put out to nurse. We must expect that mortality and economic need both limited the way in which children could be allowed full expression. For the better-off, hellfire had to be used as a disciplinary aid, and for the rest of society the need of all from the age of eight or so to contribute to their own support meant that they became adult early. Today when the rights of parents over childcare policies are under considerable criticism, and when the showing of visually explicit sex movies to a child is labelled sexual abuse, it is moving to see how much more traumatic could be the transmission of Calvinist dogma. The cry from 12-year-old Samuel Mather is quoted here, his terrifying suspicion that ‘I belong not unto the election of grace’.

This anthology brings home how difficult other generations have found the control of adolescents. Children failed to study earnestly, broke their apprenticeships, formed undesirable acquaintances and rejected approved marriage partners. Dr Pollock might have also used the letters which show how nervous some landed couples were that their eldest sons, earmarked for better things, should not run away to sea. When Christopher Parker in the 19th century tells his 18-year-old son that the boy has never hitherto caused him any anxiety, we know that here we have a parent relatively distanced from infant care. Anyone really involved in such care even today finds that the first three years of life are the real time of worry – with the additional threat now of teenage access to motor-bikes.

Grief is none the less real for being conventional in expression. It seems to be a feature of the trauma that it forces those experiencing it to relive the experience of earlier generations. The loss of even a new-born baby elicits sentiments totally bound by stereotype, whereas the fears expressed while children are ill come in deeply felt and entirely individual language. The stereotype of the past entailed the vision of an after-life seen very much as an extension of that on earth. Indeed we know from sermons that to the 18th-century divine the separation of ranks, necessary to the happiness at least of those at the upper end of society, would continue in the other world. I daresay that women would be kept in their place too. That wives should be always available as emotional support is the theme of the final stanza of the most distasteful document in the book by Davidoff and Hall: a poem by James Lubcock, a Birmingham manufacturer, pretending to be a eulogy of him by his wife. It ends

Thou Power Supreme – thee I implore,
What e’er the bliss for us in store,
United with me for ever more
                               My Husband.

She did not write it. Would she have subscribed to it? One wonders. God was a useful adjunct for the new modes of suppression of women and she was pious. Probably she would have subscribed.

[*] A biography of Margaret Cavendish by Kathleen Jones was published by Bloomsbury on 3 March (A Glorious Fame, 192 pp., £15.95, 0 7475 007 1). This supplies many lively details about ‘Mad Madge’, among them, her account of the charm of French patches: ‘judiciously applied’ to the face, a patch was like ‘the punctuation in a sentence’.