How to Experience the Life of a Working Class Victorian

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This was a small social experiment the children and I carried out over one school day.  We will be doing something similar when we come to world wars and I thought it might be fun to have experienced the Poor Law Food allowances (aimed at increasing the amount of food the average working man ate four out of seven days per week) and rationing during World War 2 (aimed at decreasing what the average person was allowed to eat).  My son was not at all impressed by the whole idea, let alone the reality.  He gets grumpy if he doesn’t eat approximately 27 times a day, so the idea of only eating three tiny meals for a day filled him with horror.  I figured it would do his character good to see how others less fortunate than us lived (and still do live in certain parts of the world).

However, by the end of the week I was so completely fed up with the moans about me ‘starving them’ (I even received a threat to get the police involved for neglect!!), I shelved all hopes of reducing their intake and just made sure everything I served was Victorian.  All I can say is if it had been March or April or September or, in fact, any month but February, I would have cajoled everyone into a good attitude, but I am never at my best during February and frankly I did not have the energy.

I used the following two books for guidance whilst planning:

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We had already watched the following videos.  Whilst these were not about poor people per se, they gave the children a very in depth look into Victorian life for the working class people.  These were so fun to watch, especially the Victorian farm series which had three historians who volunteered to live like Victorian farmers for a year.  We learnt a huge amount and I would recommend them to anybody!

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Okay, back to our social experiment.  Obviously, as we were only doing it for a short amount of time we couldn’t replicate everything but I have to admit to cram-packing the day full of ‘fun’ activities.

Preparation for the big day

  • Soap:  We made some plain Victorian soap using fat and sodium hydroxide, which we grated.  We bought a coal tar soap which we also grated.  We melted both together in a double boiler and poured into molds.  Each child will have their own soap.  They are delighted.  No really they are…..victorian-14
  • Toothpaste: There were a few alternatives to toothpaste (or dentifrice as it was called) such as ground chalk and camphor, or powdered cuttlefish and myrrh, but the one we chose to use was a simple salt and bicarb mixture.  The Victorians had brushes very similar to ours, made of wood rather than plastic.  We wetted the brush, dipped it into the salt and bicarb mixture and brushed:victorian-4  victorian-5
  • Shampoo: We made a simple rosemary water rinse using rosemary sprigs seeped in boiling hot rain water.  This actually worked particularly well, smelt very strong and looked like it might actually do something good to our hair 🙂victorian-13
  • Pomatums: Pomatums were a little like hair wax and were used to set a style.  We mixed lard and wax (one could also add lavender oil for scent but we were too poor!) and popped it into a jar.  I used left over goose fat from Christmas and melted it alongside some wax in our double boiler:victorian-pomander
  • Dress up: The littles already had some Victorian dress up which they very enthusiastically donned for the day:victorians-2 victorians-1 We were all set for a day of learning:                                                                                                             victorian-2

On Rising

I wanted to wake them up at 6am by tapping their window just like a Knocker Up would have in Victorian times but mornings are not my thing especially over February, so we all got up at our normal time of 7am (except Charlotte who, bless her heart, gets up early each day to make freshly brewed coffee which she brings to Thomas, Lillie and I in bed, and who also cooks porridge for the masses).  The girls got up and gave themselves a stand up wash in our slate floored bathroom.  Bearing in mind I had decided not to have any heating on for the day, this was a little chilly for them.  I had left a bowl, jug of hot water, a flannel, some soap and a slop bucket for this purpose:victorian-3

Each child washed one part of their body at a time – pouring a small amount of the hot water into the bowl, dipping the flannel in, wringing out, applying a small amount of soap, scrubbing, rinsing, drying – then moving on to the next part.  I’m thinking my children would be very very dirty if the moans of how cold it was was anything to go by.

Deodorants

The Victorians, especially the poor, did not really have deodorants per se, but they did have methods which reduced smelling.  The term ‘the great unwashed’, coined by William Thackeray, was generally applied to the poor and working class.  The middle and upper class took great pains to decrease the likelihood of smelling nasty using some or all of the following methods:

  • Wearing easy to wash underwear which could be changed more frequently than their outer wear
  • Washing with strong carbolic smelling soap:
  • Wiping areas prone to sweat with ammonia or vinegar or sprinkling with sweet smelling talc:

As we were meant to be of the poorer persuasion I compromised and we washed with our carbolic soap and then tried out the vinegar and corn flour.victorian-15  As the day went on we became more and more thankful we lived in the 21st century rather than the 19th?  ‘Nuff said!

Oral Hygiene

We used the salt and bicarb tooth powder we had made earlier.  The littles loved it, Charlotte almost vomited on the spot.victorian-10

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Hair

The girls washed their hair in the rosemary water which we had pre-prepared earlier in the week.  We toweled dry, rubbed in the pomatum (see above for recipe).  The rosemary water definitely did something to the hair.  Kind of made it ‘squeaky clean (yes, it actually squeaked!).  The pomatum no-one was very interested in trying, but it did seem to make the hair shiny and more manageable.  All very interesting.

Chores

In general, if you were of the poor persuasion chores were done prior to eating breakfast.  Slop pans and chamber pots were emptied and scrubbed clean, fires were built, and breakfast prepared.  We just did our normal chores.  There was no emptying of chamber pots.  My children might very well have left home at that 😉

Breakfast

The Victorian working household would most likely have a chunk of bread or a bowl of porridge accompanied by a cup of tea for breakfast.  The porridge was made with only water and not served with milk, butter and sugar like we are used to these days.  It did not look very tasty and was not very tasty.  But it was warm and filled our tummies.

Poor Law Model Diet

In the How to be a Victorian book above, Ruth states that the Poor Law Model Diet (a diet recommended for working men in the work houses for at least four days a week) consisted of 1 1/2 pints of gruel (a liquidy porridge), 19oz of bread and 3 1/2 oz of cheese.  And I did ponder whether to try that out for the day, but Thomas and Charlotte threatened to run off to London for the day if I did 🙂

Instead we attempted to keep their food amounts as realistic as possible for a working class family.  And that meant porridge and tea for breakfast, and a pasty and water for lunch:victorian-9

The Working Day

I wanted to give the children a fair idea of how the Victorian working class lived during a regular day.  Thomas, being the man of the house, left and worked outside for the day.  We had pre-agreed chores for him to do in the garden, which he immediately set out to do once breakfast was over:

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Laundry the Victorian Way

Whilst Thomas was working away in the garden, the girls and I turned our hands to do some laundry the Victorian way.  I posted all about our laundry fun on Monday, so if you missed it, do pop over and have a look by clicking on the photo below:

victorian-laundry

This day was bittersweet for me.  It has shown me, that whilst my older guys join in with dress up activities such as these, they are nearing an age when they will soon feel too old.  Very possibly Thomas is already there.  This is sad because we have spent the last 14 to 15 years on one huge adventure and for them it is coming to an end.  I kind of wanted to cry 😦

That said, I don’t want them to be children forever and fourteen years of fun is a great run.  I am very blessed.  I have two younger children whose enthusiasm more than makes up for the older one’s lack.  It didn’t bother them to work all day on household chores pertaining to the Victorian time, or dress up or have less food.  They acted just as the older ones had just a few short years ago.  I can breathe.  I have a few more years of creative home school left in me yet, and another huge adventure with my little two 🙂

5 comments

  1. I am there too, for even my youngest is wanting just book work these days. Sad for me and much less interesting posts for the blog. It is such an eye opening experience for me to see your kids in what I had always associated as American pioneer costumes and realize that they were wearing the same thing in England at the time. As far as the poor man’s day, I can see the pull to immigrate to America. LOL

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