This past weekend as I went round my house washing all the downstairs windows inside and out, I wondered whether any Regency ladies–say, for example, Jane Austen–had been required to engage in such tedious labor.
And then I thought of Diana Sperling’s engaging Regency-era watercolors from Mrs Hurst Dancing, in particular this one:
Instead of flies, I was murdering spiders and destroying their webs, inside and out. I was also washing away the grime left by our unusually rainy winter. No maid stood by collecting the dead and wounded, but my husband did help by washing the screens. (Note: Mrs. Sperling was also much better dressed than I was!)
How Did They Do It?
Since they lacked washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and supermarkets filled with prepared foods, Regency ladies likely had to engage in some household chores. And even those who had an army of servants were supposed to know how to run a household.
Experts in housekeeping published detailed guides to help the newly married woman or the servant seeking to rise in her profession.
The 1823 Modern System of Domestic Cookery, by M. Radcliffe has this advice for the task of washing windows:
To clean Windows. To do this properly, there must be two persons, one without and another within; rub them over with a thick damp cloth, and then with a dry one; and if any spots remain, do them over with whiting.
Esther Copley’s 1838 Housekeeper’s Guide doesn’t mention washing windows but says this:
TO CLEAN LOOKING-GLASSES. Remove all fly stains and other dirt, by breathing on them and rubbing with a soft rag. Then polish with a bit of flannel, in which is tied up powder-blue.
Wikipedia says powder blue refers to ground cobalt:
…according to Etymology Online, powder blue originally referred in the 1650s to powdered smalt (cobalt glass) used in laundering and dyeing applications…
Victorian Standards of Spring Cleaning
Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s 1861 The Book of Household Management is well out of the Regency period, but she has a section on Periodical Cleanings worth mentioning. I imagine housecleaning strategies hadn’t changed that much in fifty years.
Besides the daily routine which we have described, there are portions of every house which can only be thoroughly cleaned occasionally; at which time the whole house usually undergoes a more thorough cleaning than is permitted in the general way.
On these occasions it is usual to begin at the top of the house and clean downwards; moving everything out of the room; washing the wainscoting or paint with soft soap and water; pulling down the beds and thoroughly cleansing all the joints; “scrubbing” the floor; beating feather beds, mattress, and paillasse [straw mattress], and thoroughly purifying every article of furniture before it is put back in its place. This general cleaning usually takes place in the spring or early summer, when the warm curtains of winter are replaced by the light and cheerful muslin curtains.
An interesting note about carpets:
Carpets are at the same time taken up and beaten, except where the mistress of the house has been worried into an experiment by the often-reiterated question, “Why beat your carpets?” In this case she will probably have made up her mind to try the cleaning process, and arranged with the company to send for them on the morning when cleaning commenced.
It is hardly necessary to repeat, that on this occasion every article is to be gone over, the French-polished furniture well rubbed and polished. The same thorough system of cleaning should be done throughout the house; the walls cleaned where painted, and swept down with a soft broom or feather brush where papered; the window and bed curtains, which have been replaced with muslin ones, carefully brushed, or, if they require it, cleaned; lamps not likely to be required, washed out with hot water, dried, and cleaned…
As winter approaches, this house-cleaning will have to be repeated, and the warm bed and window curtains replaced. The process of scouring and cleaning is again necessary, and must be gone through, beginning at the top, and going through tho house, down to the kitchens.
Who does that sort of cleaning any more? My own Periodical Cleanings happen more sporadically, specifically, when I’m about to host a party.
And yes, this coming Saturday, I have about thirty people coming for a Gender Reveal party for my newest grandchild. Now, must run off and “thoroughly purify” my kitchen!
Image credits: Diana Sperling’s watercolor is taken from Candice Hern’s blog, but the original watercolor can be found in the book Mrs. Hurst Dancing which contains Miss Sperling’s entire collection of watercolors. This is a marvelous resource for anyone researching country life in the period. The manuscript title pages are from Googlebooks.