Sunday, September 14, 2008

THE 1900'S HOUSE: A Review

Chronologically, the “1900’s House” comes before the “Manor House,” but I didn’t order them that way, so I’m just watching however they arrive. This one really WAS about the house itself, because in order to be authentic a modernized house originally built then had to be retrofitted, restored to the original elements.

The central character is this family was definitely the mother, though the father was a lovable Green Beret Royal Marine. The whole family was a bunch of characters, including twins and a young boy, and a teenager who kept her lipstick in spite of it all. (Shampoo became an issue after the first weeks -- one soon understands why hair was greasy, pinned down, and kept under caps.) The mother was quite deeply committed to the whole project since she was a history buff, an advocate of the “natural way,” and a strong feminist. The father was switched to a recruitment center where he could wear his period uniform to make his pitch.

I was entranced by the first episode which was about peeling back the plasterboard to reveal all sorts of ingenuities and dangers in the original row house. In fact, one of the overriding messages of this part of the series was the constant hazards: arsenic in the wallpaper, cyanide in something else, gas lights piped through the house (the piping turned out to be sound and usable after a hundred years!), beetle traps (a dish with a hole to a false bottom that contained sticky syrup to entice and then entrap the beasties -- why aren’t they selling them in cockroach territory?), and a massive (though small of its kind) ancestor of the English Aga that dwelt in a brick fireplace, simmered away hot enough to make the cook’s face red, but never produced hot water until after two tries the cautious heating engineer managed to get the water reservoir close enough to the firebox. Having read reports from the period about exploding overheated water reservoirs, he created a stainless steel replacement for the missing original. There were so many hazards, esp. for children that one in four kids never made it past the age of six. In fact, horrified safety inspectors nearly shut down this whole experiment.

Not least among the original hazards were non-potable piped water (people of the time at least filtered it), carbon monoxide from the coal and gas, and disease: cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, and a host of others. On the other hand, if one considers them helpful, a host of drugs now strictly controlled -- opium, heroin, morphine, cocaine -- were available on the open market at a “chemist.” I’m sure these were very enticing for women in corsets so tight they squeezed their stomachs practically into their boots. “Fainting couches” for women (there was one still at Meadville/Lombard's only ladies’ room in 1978) might have also been convenient for a “high” afternoon.

This was another reality-by-script sort of story where dynamics that must have been real were heightened by encouraging impassioned monologues via a hidden camera. Most of the story revolved around women’s issues like way too much work juxtaposed against no scope for thinking, creativity, or exploring. There was a servant for a while -- I never did figure out where all that fluff came from and neither did they! The lone maid was the same mix of friend and skivvy as in the Manor House. It was emphasized that economic dynamics were lifting up this house for middle-class occupants into a new era of mini-luxury (MANY knick-knacks) even as the gentry in their Manor House were losing their grip on privilege.

At the end in the Manor House series everyone was reduced to tears by having to leave the horses behind. In the 1900’s House it was the chickens. Mom would eat eggs but it was the chickens’ personalities that made the family love them. I don’t know of any organized settlement where one can keep a rooster, but they got away with it somehow. The chickens were Black Orpington’s, supplied by a specialist in heritage breeds. He said they were very popular because their coloring matched with the pervasive soot of those days so they didn’t look dirty. One brief moment sticks in my mind: when an upset hen flew the coop, the big tough Marine father recaptured the bird, clasped it to his mighty chest -- stroking it as one would pet a cat -- and soothed, “There, there! It’s all right!”

Originally there had been rabbits to raise for eating, but they were immediately nixed by the mother, not only because she was a determined vegetarian (the only one in the family) but because she knew her girls would become so attached that they would fight to take the rabbits along at the end of the project! They were given to a pet store. Outside of that, the family came into the project fairly easily and left it the same way. They were, after all, a military family who had already moved twelve times and had lived in dubious places. The one most pleased to leave at the end was the small boy, who HATED, HATED, HATED the food until a researcher discovered that fish & chips came available about this time, early takeaway food. From then on, he did better. The father’s biggest hurdle was learning to shave with a straight-edged -- called a “cut throat” -- razor, but like many things that are difficult until mastered, at the end he asked to keep his razor.

Even with the bathtub, bathing was a problem, but that was alleviated when they discovered the neighborhood swimming pool which had been a government innovation to improve slum sanitation. Originally there was even a de-lousing room. Part of the rise of the middle class was a privatization of baths, baking, meat roasting, and other daily necessities, but until refrigeration (though ice cabinets helped) shopping was done daily, though by this time often the purveyor came to the door of the family.

The uncomfortable isolation of the family was artificial. In rowhouses of the period there was no doubt much going to and fro, much twitching of lace curtains, much sharing over the back fence. Church would have occupied time and energy while knitting people together. But this family was very good at inventing pastimes for themselves, putting on little shows, writing newspapers, taking piano lessons, inventing new games.

Next up is “Regency House Party.” I’m very fuzzy about what “Regency” is, but I gather it’s the “age of romance” in the early 1800’s. Stay tuned.

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