I found the following information in Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003), which is a really good overview of the Victorian era as a whole.
I think when people think of Victorian houses, they generally think of places like these:
Now, these places are bright, airy, and sparkling. All the wood gleams, all the fabrics are spotless, candles don’t drip wax anywhere, and there’s loads of space to move.
What we’re thinking of, then, when we think of these places, are the homes of the incredibly wealthy, or of the aristocracy, of the nineteenth century. These homes tend to be older, build in the 1700s (when that stark, airy, Neo-Classical look was the mode of the day). These homes also tended to be on large estates, where there was plenty of space to spread out and have access to fresh, bright, clean air.
This was not true for most Victorian citizens. Even relatively wealthy middle-class Victorians would never have homes like this. Why? Well, firstly because the bare Georgian style of architecture and home decoration had gone the opposite way: Victorians loved stuff. Houses generally tended to be crammed full of objects and decorations, which was not only an aesthetic choice for the era, but also served as a marker of wealth. The richer you were, the more stuff you could afford. (Okay, the second picture is actually a good example of this Victorian decorating style, but hold on just a minute and we’ll get to the reasons why that’s not a typical Victorian house; rather, it’s the home of an extremely wealthy family). Additionally, having lots and lots of material objects got tied in with all kinds of issues of gender, and women making the home a plush, comfortable domestic space full of doilies and knick-knacks, and shit.
Secondly, most people could not afford houses as spacious as the ones in those photographs. So we’re dealing with more stuff crammed into a smaller space.
Thirdly, and most significantly for this post, the Victorian era was fucking filthy. It’s easier to have a beautiful, gleaming home like the ones you see above if you’re in a spacious place out in the country, away from all the coal dust and smoke and pollution, and you’re wealthy enough to have loads of servants to stay on top of it.
Even the ever-so-respectable Victorian middle classes (who could afford at least one servant) had a hell of a time handling the dust and dirt, the likes of which none of us have probably experienced today. This is in part because of the fires that people had, and the fact that they burned a lot of coal. Additionally, the farther away from the country you lived, the closer you were to factories, which belched out all kinds of nastiness that settled all over the city. “Kitchen ranges and fires for heating throughout the house, together with London’s foggy climate, ensured that London was filthy, inside and out . . . . It was coal that created this menace, and this was formally recognized in 1882, when the Smoke Abatement Exhibition was staged. It displayed fireplaces, stoves and other heating systems that attempted to deal with this nuisance, but for decades to come housekeepers simply had to accept that soot and ‘blacks’ were part of their daily life” (70).
And let’s not forget things like horse droppings, which you had to be careful not to track inside. I know, for example, horse droppings became such a problem in New York in 1900 that it actually partially shut down the city and encouraged a lot of people to transition over to motor cars.
So how did Victorians combat the general film of skank-ass coal nastiness that settled on their daily lives?
“Latches to doors – both street and inner doors – had a small plate or curtain fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt. Plants were kept on window sills to trap the dust as it flew in; or housewives nailed muslin across the windows to stop the soot, or only opened windows from the top, which diminished the amount that entered. Tablecloths were laid just before a meal, as otherwise dust settled from the fire and they became dingy in a matter of hours” (70-71).
There was also a Victorian practice of putting flowers and clocks under glass jars, as you can see here in this illustration from Alice Through the Looking Glass:
It was far easier to clean a glass jar than it was to tidy the delicate mechanisms on a clock, especially when these objects appeared on mantles, right over a fireplace.
This is actually the origin of spring cleaning, as fireplaces produced so much grime and took up so much of the servants’ time during the winter (in which fireplaces had to be lighted and maintained throughout the whole day). When spring came around and fires were no longer needed to the same extent, servants finally had the time to tackle the mess that fires had produced the previous winter (71).
Servants also had special clothes to wear at certain times, so they didn’t spread the dirt around (or at least this was true of lower-income households with only one or two servants): a maid, first thing in the morning, would polish the cooking range and draw up fires in the main rooms, while the family slept. She would then clean the household’s boots and knives. After this, she would dust the furniture and sweep the carpets. She would then take all the mats and rugs outside and beat them or shake them out. Front steps would have to be scrubbed, and floors in the front rooms mopped and polished.
After this, a maid would be filthy and would be “expected to change into a clean cotton dress, apron and cap. (This was the lower- and middle-middle-class version of the segregation of duties. The upper classes had one servant for each type of task. In less well-to do houses, separation of function was made clear by the different uniforms worn at different times of day to perform different parts of her job). She then laid the table, and cooked and brought in breakfast” (103-04).
While the family ate, the maid would go upstairs and strip the beds to air out and turn the mattresses. She emptied chamberpots and rinsed them. The upstairs floors were mopped and carpets swept.
“After the family had finished breakfast, the general servant put on a large bedmaking apron, to protect the bed from her clothes, which were dirty once again, this time from the bedroom fires and slops . . . . Then she prepared whichever room was to have a thorough cleaning that day: anything that needed protecting from dust was moved out of the room; the rest was covered, and curtains and valances were pinned up out of the way” (105).
The maid would then be required to be tidy again for lunch and/or dinner, depending on if she waited at table, or just brought up the food.
So the next time you watch a period piece, ask yourself: was it really that clean? Does the family honestly have the resources to employ enough servants to keep things this tidy? And then you can lecture all your friends about how historically inaccurate the film was, and everyone will be super impressed. Or will stop inviting you to go to the movies with them.