Longbourn – Jo Baker – The Servants

Longbourn HB

10 things you might not know about life below stairs in Jane Austen’s day.

By Jo Baker

  1. Detergents weren’t developed until the latter half of the 19th Century. Households often made their own soap out of rendered animal fat and lye – so if someone wanted a clean shirt, you first had to kill a sheep.
  2. Lye, derived from potash, was also used as a laundry-bleach. It was so caustic that it would dissolve the fat-tissue of the laundress’s hands, turning it, effectively, into soap: it’s like using bleach without marigolds on – your hands feel slippy because your own fat’s dissolving. But not in a good way.
  3. Households also made their own laundry starch. This was a bit simpler – they used the water they’d boiled starchy foods in – dumplings, perhaps, or rice. Or potatoes, which were still something of a novelty. Dip your fichu in the cooking water, and hang it up to dry. Lovely.
  4. Some clothes needed to be unpicked before they were laundered – to prevent dyes bleeding, or delicate trimmings from spoiling – and then sewn back together again before wear.  To someone who shoves everything in the washing machine, switches on a thirty-degree non-fast coloureds cycle, and hopes for the best, this sounds like a terrible faff. Though if you wore those kinds of clothes back then, chances were you didn’t do the laundry, so the faffiness probably wasn’t that much of a concern.
  5. Sculleries, where the washing-up and laundry were done, were built with the ground a step lower than the adjoining rooms – with all that water sloshing around they needed to be, or the kitchen would get flooded.
  6. Larders were fitted with slate or stone shelves to keep food cool.
  7. Slate or stone shelves aren’t that good for keeping food cool…
  8. There are quite a few extant recipes for disguising spoiled food.
  9. As well as remedies for upset stomachs…
  10. Tea, though, was good for pretty much everything. It could be used – as either leaves or an infusion – to clean carpets and wooden floors, polish mirrors, windows, and furniture, treat eye infections, draw boils, dye hair and fabrics. Used leaves could be boiled up in fish-kettles and pans to remove the smell of fish; they were also, by more unscrupulous servants, dried, re-dyed and sold on to supplement meagre wages. Tea leaves could also be steeped in boiling water, to make a refreshing and consoling drink.

Next time I fling a few clothes in the washing machine, I think I might be grateful that Mr Persil, Mr Daz, Mr Ariel et al have made my life a lot easier.  At least while the machine is on I can sit back with a cup of refreshing and consoling tea….and read Longbourn. 

But perhaps I should read Pride and Prejudice which despite seeing the famous Colin Firth version on the television and numerous film adaptations I have never read. I am sure some of you are shocked by such a notion! 

Longbourn is published on 15 August in hardback and ebook. 

I am part of the Longbourn Blog Tour (get me! – even with my blog name on a poster – see top right of blog)

Yesterday the tour was at The To Read Pile.

Tomorrow (Wednesday 14 August) it stops at What Shall I Read?

Thursday 15 August it will be with Pamreader

Finally stopping on Friday 16 August at Northern Editoral

A rather eclectic mix of places to visit and find out more about the book and the author. Enjoy your tour and hope you come back and see my review at some point in the future.