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Podcast Episode 56- Laundry & Hygiene Part 2

Upon waking up, a woman in Upper Canada would already be wearing a linen shift. If you listened to Part 1 of Laundry & Hygiene, you might remember that the linen shift was the clothing piece that was closest to the skin. This also served as a nightgown. Most women in the Talbot Settlement had 2 shifts. Though they did have limited outfits and pieces of clothing, having 2 shifts allowed for the wearing of one while the other was washing. Woolen stockings were then put on, followed by boots. Boots were put on before the other clothing because of the difficulty surrounding stays. Stays are like corsets. Rural women mostly wore leather stays as opposed to bone, worn by upper-class women. This was because it was an inexpensive alternative and allowed for a little more movement. Nevertheless, for upper- and lower-class women it was still very difficult to reach the feet once their stays were laced. Next, the petticoats were put in place. Multiple would be worn and in different fabrics depending on the season. For women shawls were a common outer piece used to keep warm instead of coats. Linen caps were worn on the head and often covered by a large, brimmed hat. Lastly, the apron wrapped around the many petticoats with string.  

For the working woman, the clothes they wore were bound to get stains on them. In Part 1 of Laundry & Hygiene, we discussed how settlers washed clothes in the early to mid 1800s.  In this episode, we will be talking about laundry in the late 1800’s. The basic process of washing clothes had pretty much stayed the same. Clothes were still soaked, soaped, boiled, rinsed, wrung, dried, starched, and ironed. The big difference lies in the stain removal process. A number of solutions arose in households, with the spread of manuals. Women now had access to many different tips and tricks, old wives’ tales and recipes.  

In many of these manuals, a bluing stage was proposed. Bluing is essentially a stage in the washing process where the white clothes are soaked in boiled water lightly dyed blue. Because blue is a complementary colour to yellow, the stain would remove. A variety of other actions were suggested, some of which include, Cotton fabric bleached by soaking in buttermilk for a few days or adding turpentine to the first washing stage. For muslin, solutions of sal-soda and chloride of lime were used after the first boil with soap, followed by hanging the clothing to dry in the sun. Finally, flannels could be bleached with ammonia in the water. 

Collars and cuffs were the first to get dirty. Clothing made of cotton or muslin was fairly easy to rid of stains with the help of various solvents. However, on dresses with lace, the washing process was a bit more difficult. It was actually recommended to remove the lace from the clothing piece. Once removed, the lace was rolled out smoothly around a clean black bottle and secured with needles. It would then be sponged with sweet oil and soaked in a wash kettle containing white castile soap. It would then be left to boil for no less than an hour and dried in the sun. Depending on the size of the lace, it could be wrapped around a ribbon block, or pressed between a large book.  

Now that we’ve gone over the washing and stain removal process, let’s talk about how they stored these clothes. All the ‘handsome’ dresses, or dresses that were expensive and not worn often, were usually stored in wardrobes or armoires. This ensured that the clothes were being taken care of, therefore, lasting longer. For those who did not have a wardrobe, they could CAREFULLY fold the clothes so that ruffles or flounces did not crease in the wrong places and store them in a dresser. In our area most of the clothes worn by the settlers would have been handmade out of wool or linen. For the average settler, it wouldn’t be until the towns began to grow that more fabrics, buttons, clasps, and such would be easily available. A big aide for the rapid growth in Upper Canada is due to the arrival of the railroad in the 1880’s. This made the transportation of goods and people across Canada much easier than before. Shortly after, there was consequently a boom in product consumption and mass production of goods. 

In the 1800’s society was every bit obsessed with plentiful, smooth hair as they were with fashion. Appearance mattered in society, especially to the middle and upper classes. Finding all the latest trends and products was made easy with, of course, the help of manuals. Here is a hair cleansing ritual from 1861 published in Godey’s Lady’s Book.  

“To Have Good Hair 

About once a fortnight, boil for half an hour or more, a large handful of bran in a quart of soft water. Strain it into a basin, and let it cool till it is merely tepid or milk warm. Rub into it a little white soap; then dip in the corner of a soft linen towel, and wash your head with it thoroughly, dividing or parting aside the hair all over, so as to reach the roots. Next take the yolk of an egg (lightly beaten in a saucer), and with your fingers rub it well into the roots of the hair. Let it rest a few minutes, and then wash it off entirely with a cloth dipped in pure water; and rinse your hair well, till all the yolk of egg has disappeared from it. Afterwards, wipe and rub dry with a towel, and comb the hair up from your head, parting it with your fingers. In winter it is best to do all this near the fire. Have ready some soft pomatum, made of fresh beef marrow, boiled with a little almond oil or olive oil, stirring it all the time till it is well amalgamated, and as thick as an ointment. When you take it from the fire (and not before) stir into it a little mild perfume; such as rose-water, orange-flower water, extract of roses, oil of carnations, or essence of violets. Put it into gallicups that have lids and keep it for use; always well-covered. Take a very small quantity of this pomatum and rub it among your hair on the skin of your head, after it has been washed as above.” 

Lady’s manuals just like this one became increasingly popular, and by the 1880’s, a variety of books were available to learn the do’s and don’ts of Victorian beauty. Many of these books targeted young unmarried women and new wives soon to be starting families. An article in the Lewisburg Journal of PA, October 30th, 1889, reads; “Keep children’s hair, especially boys’ closely cut. With girls, after the hair has been allowed to grow long, it is better not to cut it, for good authority says that the hair never afterward grows to the length it would otherwise have attained.” 

Of course, we now know that this is false. Hair will eventually grow back to its previous length. In Victorian times, hair was a very important aspect of one’s character. The longer the better. So, it makes sense that the Victorians also had a solution for hair loss! “The ladies and gentlemen of this city and elsewhere, are respectfully informed, that John Oldridge, has fortunately discovered, by the power of chemistry, the grand desideratum of preventing hair from falling off in FORTY-EIGHT HOURS. This balm will absolutely, in the course of a short time, make the hair grow healthy and thick. This valuable balm will cause whiskers and beards to grow rapidly. Prepared and sold, at 1 dollar for a pint, or 50 cents for a half pint bottle.”- The National Gazette of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania December 28, 1821 

These manuals promised fast results and anti-aging capabilities persuading women to purchase products in order to “gain youth and beauty back”. It’s safe to say Victorian women had no shortage of beauty products to choose from, however, like most concoctions and advertised remedies, they didn’t work. People’s hair still went grey, and hair still fell out. In fact, atop most lady’s washstand was a hair receiver. Hair receivers were little containers that collected the loose hairs that stuck to brushes and combs. Once the lady had brushed her very very very long hair, there were bound to be strands stuck in the brush. They would be collected and placed in the hair receiver. This hair could be utilized for a variety of purposes. One common use was in textiles. Hair could be used for decorative pieces like hair wreaths, picture frames, brooches, and many more. It was not uncommon for many generations of hair to be collected as well as those who had passed away. The hair could be used as memorabilia and made into home decorations! 

Speaking of brushing, toothbrushes were not too common in this area during the 1800s. Instead, people found other ways to try to keep their teeth clean. Salt and charcoal were often rubbed across the teeth and then rinsed away. However, the most common way of taking care of teeth involved taking a birch twig and fraying the end. This made a primitive brush. Dental powders were also used. They were made from strange concoctions of burned eggshells, ashes and animal hooves. Sometimes settlers would use wool dipped into honey and rub it on the gums of their teeth. This was used to get rid of bad breath. In 1855, a recipe for toothpaste was printed in the Farmer’s Almanac. It called for myrrh, honey, and green sage. Another recipe called for cream of tartar mixed with clover oil and cuttlefish bone. Though the various methods they used would have gotten rid of bad breath, it would have led to a lot of cavities. Toothbrushes were common in 19th century Britain, but for the average person it wouldn’t be commonplace until the late 1800s to early 1900s. Victorian toothbrushes were mostly for the upper class. They were sported with hog bristles and handles made of bone or wood and if you were really wealthy, silver. The first toothbrush to be patented in North America was by H.N. Wadsworth ca. 1857. However, it wasn’t until 1885 that these toothbrushes would become mass produced, a whopping 95 years after mass production in England. 

Many of you may have wondered, what did women do on their menstrual cycles and how was it thought about in society? Well, many doctors and writers in the 19th century thought that women were wrecks on their menstrual cycle and purposed that all women rest and be relieved of all taxing duties. Though most women out in the backcountry of Upper Canada, did not have this pleasure of laying around. Despite all the historical papers and propositions from 19th century doctors- all male of course- most women carried on with their household duties and tended to their family the same as any other day. In the early days, women used moss collected from the forest and sandwiched in between cloth as a makeshift pad. Back then there were no companies making menstrual products, so for centuries women found whatever was around to make do. They often used cloths or rags which would be tied around the waist or buttoned to belts. This was known as a T bandage. Remember, back then, the underwear in the fashion that we have today was not around. Instead, they had crotchless pantaloons and petticoats providing easy access when going to the bathroom. A women could have changed out of her T bandage anywhere from 12-20 times per day. Though the makeshift pads or diapers did the job, we can imagine they must have been uncomfortable. The cloth often chaffed women’s thighs especially when wet. The cloth pads also were inconvenient for urination. This is why some women instead preferred to wear thicker petticoats and scrapped the use of T bandages. 

So how was menstruation perceived in the 1800’s? While women carried on with MOST of their daily activities, it was widely believed that periods were ridding the body of superfluous blood. If the blood did not flow, it would cause all sorts of illnesses. So, women refrained from any activities that were thought to stop the flow of blood. Some include, getting chilled from cold water, or working outside in damp, cold weather.  

Doctors began to wield considerable influence due to the establishment of institutionalized medicine in the 1800s. By the 1850’s the medical definition of menstruation was expressed as an illness and failure to reproduce. Women were perceived as unwell and mentally vulnerable at this time. Hence, doctors started to suggest that women were incapable of participating in society during their cycle. Menstruation was thought to be what ‘made’ women. Their sole purpose was to reproduce, placing them as domestic homemakers by virtue of their biology. This medical perception aided in limiting females from education and the world of work. In other words, Victorian doctors used menstruation as a way to reinforce misogynistic views. The absence of menstrual periods, also known as amenorrhea, was often thought to be caused by the women herself. Unfortunately, it was common for amenorrhea to be sufficient enough to admit a woman to an institution on grounds of insanity. This was known as ‘Amenorrhea Insanity’.  

A woman named Eliza E. was admitted to Pen-y-Fal hospital in June 1868. The medical attendant noted: “after [finding a mutilated body in a ditch] she had numerous hysterical fits for many months and has ever since been weakly and hysterical, menstruation being deficient she has been in a state of hysterical mania for a week.” In this case, Eliza’s behavior wasn’t contributed to the trauma of discovering a dead body, but instead menstrual deficiency. Not only was regular menstruation seen as an illness, but the failure to was as well. Sadly, the view on menopause during the 1800’s was just as bad. The cessation of menstrual flow was seen as ovarian insufficiency and the decline of femininity. Medicines were created to try and force the return of menstruation. Like, amenorrhea, certain behaviors were summed up to menopause and were therefore grounds for insanity. This was known as ‘Climacteric’ or change of life insanity. Alternative factors were neglected in many cases, and women were being misdiagnosed left and right.  

So, after everything we’ve talked about in this episode, would you try some of the old-fashioned tips in Victorian manuals? We sure covered a lot of topics! With all the information we found while researching, we could make a whole episode just on hair or beauty tips of the 1800s! If that’s something you would like, let us know in the comments!