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Archaeology of domestic life in early 20th century Britain

The aim of this blog is to publish data on early 20th century buildings, whilst this is still accessible. Much material of interest to the historian is being destroyed through 'home improvements' and DIY, and objects are increasingly being divorced from their context through dispersal after the death of their owners. By creating an easily accessible contextual record of material culture, it is hoped that those interested in this period of history may have a resource through which the details of domestic life might be studied.

If you have any artefacts of interest, or make discoveries during the process of your own investigations that you would like to share, please contact me!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Lymehurst bathroom: ongoing reconstruction - toilet & decor

Lymehurst bathroom before investigation

The reconstruction of the  bathroom at Lymehurst is nearing completion (although work on the southern wall - which will involve the removal of modern tiles - has yet to begin). As can be seen from an earlier post and the photos above, it appears that many of the original fittings remain in place. However, closer inspection reveals that this is not necessarily the case...

The bath is of cast iron, with a roll-top, and bottle-nose chrome-plated brass taps (with ceramic inserts labelled 'hot' and 'cold' - suggesting that hot water was provided by a boiler - possible behind the range in the 'kitchen' - and pumped to the bathroom: a hot water tank can be seen on the plan below) that, as can be seen from magazine adverts (e.g. within Good Housekeeping), continued to be sold into the 1930s. 

The possibility cannot be excluded  that this 1930s bath was installed at a later date. Wear to the enamel surface of the bath and to the taps (and the form of plumbing for the taps), and paint on the bath (see below) - as well as the style, demonstrates that this bath is contemporaneous with the house. However, the later hardbord flooring lies beneath the feet of the bath, the plumbing, and distance from the wall, suggests that, if not a later replacement for a long-gone original, this bath was moved at some point (perhaps in order to tile the wall, and possibly to replace earlier plumbing materials).

Chrome-plated brass bath taps, with ceramic inserts
The brass plug, and chrome-plated brass chain, are probably original.
Bras bath plug and chrome-plated brass chain
The feet of the bath, whilst into the Edwardian period quite ornate, are now devolved (developing from bird or animal claw designs of the Victorian period) to compare with some of the angular decorative forms that typify the inter-war period. 

Cast iron bath feet

The outer surface of the bath has been painted several times - the first colour appears to be cream (perhaps to match the colour of the walls: see below), which is followed by a bright 'emerald' green, as can be seen on the underside of the roll-top in the photo below - a typical mid 20th century colour; it has been repainted cream (see below for a discussion of paints).
 Early paint beneath roll-top of the bath

The white ceramic wash basin, made by 'Royal Venton' (manufacturers of ceramics, established in 1897 and located in the Potteries, also making decorative ceramics under the name John Steventon & Sons Ltd., now part of the Ideal Standard Group), appears to be contemporaneous with the original bathroom installation - the style is typical for the early 20th century. However, it has a British Standard number (BS 1188) stamped on the underside of the basin, which seems to indicate a late 20th century (post 1974) date.  During renovation of the property in the 1990s, attempts were made by a previous owner to install fittings of contemporaneous style; it is possible that the sink was installed during this time.

Royal Venton wash basin and pedestal

The style of the makers mark also differs to examples used 1926-36. This goes to show that style can be misleading (as many archaeologists realise)! Some styles endure for many years and others may come in and out of 'fashion'. Previous owners have replaced the original taps (perhaps due to wear to the plate, but perhaps to achieve a 'period' style) with modern (1990s or later) chrome plated taps. The original chrome-plated brass plug fitting remains in place.
Wash basin makers mark
A stain on the floor-boards, seen after removing the late 20th century floor covering (cork tiles over hardboard), demonstrates the original position of the wash basin pedestal, probably coinciding with installation of the Venton basin. The original position, to the left of the current basin, can also be seen on the building plan; marks on the ceiling also demonstrate that the ceiling light was previously to the left of its current position.
Stain showing original position of bathroom basin pedestal
The plan also shows the intended location of the original toiletagainst the southern wall. However, 'scars' on the walls show than an early, high-level, cistern was (instead?) placed on the eastern wall. It may be speculated that the plans were a little too optimistic regarding adequate space, and that, once a pan had be placed in this position (hopefully before plumbing!), the layout was re-thought. The earlier wash basin position support this interpretation (there would have been insufficient room for a toilet on the southern wall with the sink in this location). Further restoration (including removal of the modern tiles from the southern wall) will hopefully show whether the toilet was initially installed in this position, and then for some reason later removed.
Lymehurst: plan of first floor
After removing the modern (c. 1990s) toilet bowl and cistern, the position of the original seat-lid rest bracket (a contemporaneous example, with rubber buffer, can be seen in the photo, below) is evident from holes in the wall, The bracket may have been fixed on to a wooden block behind the pipe.The position of the original pipe can be seen, to the left of the replacement pipe.
Original position of bracket and pipe can be seen behind and to the left of and below the replacements

A  cast iron cistern and bowl, comparable to 1920s-1930s types (though possibly earlier), galvanised pipe, and contemporaneous seat stop, have been reinstated, as shown in the slideshow below. The cistern was made by 'Roboro' - a name noted in connection with the Rowe Brothers foundry of Handsworth, Birmingham (late 19th - early 20th century). It is an unusual 'bell syphon' type (an outline of cistern development can be found here and here), and not very efficient when water pressure is low; the pipe used here came with (was attached to) this cistern. 

Roboro cast iron toilet cistern
 Mid 20th century 'Dauntless' cast iron brackets support the cistern; the original position of cistern brackets can be seen by marks on the wall, although it appears that the original brackets were not directly fixed to the wall, but supported by wooden blocks. It is likely that the original fittings were very similar to the Edwardian - 1930s examples found in Mr Straw's House: a lead cistern encased within a wooden surround, with ornate cast brackets; however, after searching for several years for such an example, it was not possible to replicate this arrangement during reconstruction, due to prohibitive costs. The 'scars' on the wall (which unfortunately do not show well photographically - drawn plans will be posted in the future) also demonstrate that the original position of the cistern was higher on the wall than the replacement cistern (again, the 'Mr Straw's' example seems high in comparison to the replacement).

'Dauntless' cistern bracket

A later 20th century electric heater in the bathroom is operated by brass chain with a (broken) ceramic handle - of the type used for high level toilets during the early 20th century: it's possible (but not certain) that this handle derives from the original toilet.

Later 20th century electric bathroom heater, with brass chain and toilet pull handle

The modern toilet bowl was replaced by a white ceramic 'Art Deco' style bowl made by  'Alerto', although the date of this fitting is currently unknown.The makers mark, however, is consistent with a 1920-30s date. Plus the basin is shaped to fit an older style seat - the example used for the reconstruction (see below) fits perfectly.

Toilet bowl and makers mark
Toilet seat: underside (above), and fitted (below)

'Scars' on the wall again show the position and size of an early toilet roll holder. A late 19th - early 20th century toilet roll holder (wood plate with bronze holder) - much replicated today, though the patina of this fitting, its bronze material, and the deal plaque, suggests that it is an original - has now been fitted.
'No. 1 Bronze Toilet Fixture' toilet roll holder

The end result of the toilet renovation:

In painting the bathroom, attempts have been made to replicate original and early colours. However, this process is not without problems. As pigments often change over time, frequently darkening, only an approximate guide may be obtained without microscopic and chemical analysis (some very interesting articles on this topic here). It is also important to remember that paints continued to be hand-mixed by many into the 1930s (resulting in variations; interesting descriptions of Edwardian paint mixing and colours can be found within Robert Tressel's novel 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'); however, attempts at standardisation can be seen in the development of British Standards (BS 381C: 1931); early colour charts have been used during this reconstruction project to get close to the original colours.
Bathroom, partially renovated to replicate early decor

The wooden doors (to the stairs and to the airing cupboard) had been stripped (seemingly in situ) of their paint before reconstruction began, but enough early paint remained (within hard-to-reach crevices to determine the approximate colours of the finish; the original handles on the main door handle and escutcheon (ebony stained deal), and airing cupboard door handle (porcelain and brass), remain in situ

Airing cupboard door handle
Door handle
 The doors have been repainted in a similar colour: it was closest to the Little Greene Paint colour 'eau de nil' (which was one of the '1930s collection' developed with the support of English Heritage); however, the colour seen through a PC monitor differs to the colour of the paint. This colour was commonly used during the interwar period for bathrooms and kitchens (however, it's possibly that the early colour was closer to 'pea green' - again, monitors misrepresent this colour, though more seen here). This colour seems not to have been the first colour chosen for the wood-work: by examining the underside of the airing cupboard wood-work, it is possible that the stain shown in the pre-reconstruction photos is original (also noted on the door); in addition, a darker colour can be seen beneath the green paint of the skirting-boards, which closely resembles the dark brown paint that forms the first paint layer within most other rooms. This colour resembles Little Greene's 'Purple-brown' (again not very well represented on their site, through a PC monitor - again a closer representation seen here), one colour from their 'Victorian' collection, but found in many early 20th century homes, when it was sometimes referred to as 'ox-blood' brown, and the 'cherry' colour used on the doors (see the first photograph, above).

Wood stain marks on floorboards

As noted above, removal of the later 20th century flooring revealed the deal boards beneath. The presence of paint (emerald green) and wood stain (the same dark colour used on the bathroom threshold) suggests that (at least at particular points in time) the boards were covered in some way (probably by lino). Comparisons with contemporaneous properties (such as 'Mr Straw's House'), and with illustrations (particularly from catalogues relating to interior decoration) demonstrate that this was usual for the period.

Behind the bath, with original wall colour, and early plumbing, seen in the middle of the photo (darkened by the shadows)
Having removed a modern radiator (the restored chrome-plated heated towel rail - perhaps a 1950s example), the original custardy-cream colour of the 'enamel' paint on the walls could be seen; this colour can also be seen behind the bath. An interesting correlation comes from the memory of a previous, now elderly (if, hopefully, still living) resident, who, on passing the property a few years ago spoke to one of its more recent owners in the garden. The older man lived here as a child in the 30s [and perhaps as an adult for some time?], and remembered a few details about the house. He described the 'yellow' walls of the bathroom; some might easily describe the remaining patch of original colour in this way, suggesting that this paint has faded little. Unfortunately, as renovations funds are tight, it has not been possible to use a comparable paint finish; oil eggshell has instead been used. The Little Greene Paint colour 'Ivory' (again found within the 1930s collection) is very close to the original colour as it may be seen today (however, the colour seen through a PC monitor is again different to the actual colour of the paint).

As can be seen, the task of removing the tiles from the southern wall (to the right of the above photo) remains, which will be quite an arduous task, and therefore probably not completed before autumn; it is also hoped that lino can be found to replace the mid-late 20th century lino tiles that currently cover the floor...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Objects of leisure: ec20 winter sports for the well-off woman

As it's been snowing, it might be interesting so see some of the objects used at play in the winter during  the early 20th century.

During the 1920s and 1930s, women did not generally wear trousers; the skirt, although still worn by some for sports such as skating, were cumbersome (and at times surely dangerous). So clothing used within other sports that necessitated trouser-type garments - notably horse riding - were often appropriated for a range of sports. Jodhpurs had been worn for some time; increasingly during the 1920s and 1930s, the side-saddle skirt (beneath which they were previously worn) was abandoned. Before trousers, they provided a comfortable garment for women engaging in winter sports such as skating and skiing, and during other seasons of the year, cycle and motor-cycle riding. The lose fit - as epitomised in the laughable 'elephant ears' - protected modesty, and provided comfort and ease of movement that may have been quite liberating in comparison to every-day wear.

Here's the sort of thing that was worn the well-to-do woman before WWII, after which trousers were more frequently worn by women - being introduced for war-related work (such as Civil Defence and Fire Service) that was neither modest nor safe to undertake in a skirt:

Skate-wear (above and below): leather skates worn with jodhpurs and knit-wear

The ('Lilley & Skinner') skating boots above are likely to be pre-war examples, probably dating to the 1920s (or perhaps the 1930s, as the boot length is a little shorter that early examples). Above the eyelets are studs around which the lace is wound.They came complete with leather lace-guards. the blades seem much narrower than modern skates, and are much harder to walk in! The text on the blades read:


The blade plates are stamped '690', 'No. 15' and '101/4'. The sole of the boot is stamped '7' - they correspond in sie to a modern 7, although are quite narrow across the foot - and 'CUSHION INSIDE'.

The interior heel is stamped & painted in gold 'Sports'

The Patent application number is '90X587' (a number higher than the 1920s examples at Mancester Museum), with a number after this '70610K3'. Below this is '7 274'

Label on tip of skis

There are a few interesting websites and blog posts on 'vintage' skis for further info...

Archaeology of servitude: objects of domestic service

Much of my research into the negotiation of social status and identities within eC20 domestic contexts is concerned with relationships between domestic staff and their employers. In particular, it is evident that spatial organisation had a primary role in the construction of difference between 'master' or 'mistress' and 'servant during the Edwardian period. Within the relatively (financially) comfortable middle-class home at this time, construction of houses over three or four stories enabled strict divisions between employer and employee to be observed. Whilst the ground and first floor rooms were the domain of the householder, their family, and guests (though children's nurseries were sometimes located on second floors), the highest (usually attic bedrooms) and lowest  (frequently basement workspace) rooms were commonly the domain of domestic staff - who were physically as well as socially separated and distant from their supposed 'betters'.
My main question has so far been, considering these clear socio-spatial boundariesof the pre-war (WWI) era (further defined by the green 'baize door' - which separated the worlds of servant and 'master' (and / or 'mistress'), how were these differences enacted within 1920s-30s households (increasingly within sub-urban, rather than urban, contexts) that either 'kept' live-in domestic staff (an decreasingly common situation), or engaged 'daily' domestic staff, considering the changes made to domestic buildings during the interwar period?

Although (for many reasons) fewer 'live-in' staff were engaged, daily 'help' was still deemed as necessary for many households headed by 'professionals'. With the expansion of the Middle Classes during the 1930s, and the spread of upwardly mobile families into newly developed suburban estates, many women from families that had perhaps previously engaged at least a 'maid-of-all-works' undertook domestic chores themselves, with the aid of new technologies (principally aided by the development of electricity services: see fig. 1; but also with innovations such as the thermostatically controlled gas oven). Household chores were rebranded under the heading of domestic 'science' for the middle class 'house-wife', becoming a more acceptable facet of suburban life for the 'comfortably off'. 
Fig. 1. 1930s enamelled (with wooden handle) electric steam iron (© K. Jarrett 2012)

(All objects are from Derventio Archaeology's teaching collection.) 

Dress was also a principal mechanism for distinguishing between the powerful and the subservient, uniforms going some way to conceal the individuality of domestic staff. Some items of domestic service uniform are shown here:

 Victorian or Edwardian cotton half-apron (fig. 2, above) and pinafore apron (fig. 3, below) (© K. Jarrett 2012)

According to the testimonies of several women in service at this time (e.g. Powell ), the cap (especially) was seen as a symbol of servitude. Here are several aprons, collars, and cuffs, the colour of which suggest may have been worn with either the morning print / patterned dress (figs. 3 and 4), or an afternoon plain dress of mid - dark brown (see fig. 5), though black was the usual colour (figs. 6 and 7)

Fig. 3. Cotton chambray morning dress, the dropped waist, and mid-calf length, dates this to between the late 1920s to early-mid 1930s. With cotton pinafor apron below (fig. 4), and (modern reproduction) hat (© K. Jarrett 2012)

Fig. 5 Organza pinafore apron, collar and head-dress, with brown stripe (as with the black dress below, this type of uniform was also worn within a restaurant or cafe) (© K. Jarrett 2012)
Synthetic fibre (probably Rayon) Black 'afternoon' parlour-maid's dress, with removable collar and cuffs stitched in place (fig. 6). The waistline and length suggests this dress dates between the mid 1930s to early-mid 1950s (above, fig. 6; shown below with half apron, fig. 6)

An added mechanism for social tension were the (often despised) uniforms; the caps in particular seemed to have been associated with opression. Servants entering into the profession usually had to provide their own - frequently at great cost. Although there were usually sufficient jobs available for those willing to work in domestic service,  this cost (for girls and women, who were usually, but not inevitably, drawn from the working-class), often required substantial financial sacrifice for families, primarily because their meagre wages were usually essential to the survival of the family at home. But here (figs. 7 and 8 ), we can see other routes by which female servants might obtain her uniform. 

Fig. 7. (Above) Probable 1920s - 30s cardboard gift folder containing a set of service accessories, with apron, cuffs, collar and headdress (with brown velvet ribbon) in coffee-coloured cotton (fig. 8, below)

However, once in service, it had become traditional practice for wealthier employers to provide female servants with sufficient fabric to make a new uniform dress for the following year, as a Christmas bonus. Servants were often given rooms for with few modern facilities. For example, even if much of the house was supplied with electricity, the servants' rooms often had to rely on candles; and even if equipped with an indoor toilet and bath, servants were often not permitted to use them, and had to rely on chamber pot and wash-stand. 

Much of the mobility of women witnessed within census records relates to domestic service: for example, my own great-grandmother appears to have moved from the West Country to the West Midlands, and on to Derby (where she met my great-grandfather - a railway worker), where it is apparent that she became a nursery nurse at the turn of the 20th century for a well-known cricketer, at the propoerty in Friargate that is now Pickfords Museum. Even if having accumulated a number of possessions (of course modern consumerism is very different to the early 20th century, and very few categorised as working-class had many possession), this travel (usually unaccompanied, and often over long train journeys) limited what the employee might take with them to their new post; this would have had to include the various uniforms (as seen above). Perhaps the most ubiquitous possession was the trunk or 'box' (see fig. 9). This small but durable container (commonly made of metal) would hold the bare necessities of belongings for servants in the positions of employment - and even empty and often made of relatively light-weight tin, these containers are quite heavy. 

Fig. 9. Steel trunk (with mid-buff grained-effect painted decoration), of the size and type used by domstic employees to contain belongings whilst in service (© K. Jarrett 2012)
Pehaps the most obvious objects that epitomised the relationship between employer and employee are the servant call-button ('bell') (figs. 10 and 11), call-box (fig. 12 and 13), and bell (fig. 14 and 5) - the usual route by which the servant was called for by their 'master' or 'mistress'.
Fig. 10. Hard-wood (mahogany?) and ivory (or 'ivorine') electric call-button (back, fig. 11, below) (© K. Jarrett 2012)

Fig. 12. Early 20th century servant call-box (above); interior, below (fig. 13.) (© K. Jarrett 2012)

Fig. 14. Early 20th century brass and hard-wood call-bell;  interior, below (fig. 15) (© K. Jarrett 2012)

I am particularly interested in in situ examples (if anyone still has any examples within their own homes, please contact me!). My study of Building C was influenced by the example shown below (figs. 16-18).

Fig. 16 Servant button in living room of Building C, c. 1930 (© K. Jarrett 2012)

Fig. 17. Servant button in dining room of Building C, c. 1930 (© K. Jarrett 2012)

Fig. 18. Servant call-box in kitchen of of Building C, c. 1930 (© K. Jarrett 2012)

A building report of Building C, putting these objects in context, is available here. A future post will highlight some of the written sources available on this topic...