And so we reach the truly ‘private’ part of the house, which guests would never have entered. You could call this part of the house ‘private’, or you could call it a place of work. Both would be equally true and the fact is that the latter led to the former, for the care and maintenance and provisioning of a Victorian home was supposed to be effortless, thanks to the skilled management of the woman of the house. The kitchen (and the associated scullery and pantry) was specifically a place of women’s work, whether it was the women and girls who lived in the house, or the servant(s) employed by them, or both. As already noted, we’ve not found any evidence that the Chalmers employed servants, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t. By the 1890s, though, servants were becoming hard both to find and to retain in Aotearoa New Zealand, as other employment opportunities for women became more appealing (Macdonald 2000: 42).
The ‘private’ nature of the kitchen is key to understanding why the kitchen, the scullery and the pantry were all connected. Yes, it was convenient (and by no means everything about Victorian house layout was), as these spaces were used in tandem, but it also ensured that all the work carried out in these rooms remained invisible, that nobody had to pass through the hall carrying dirty dishes, or an armful of food or, worse still, to bump into a visitor while doing so. This too, is perhaps why the dining room in this particular house was connected directly to the kitchen, which was by no means the norm – in fact, it was not uncommon for the dining room to be some distance from the kitchen. The fact that neither solution was perfect highlights the difficulties of maintaining the separation between public and private.
The exact uses to which a kitchen was put would have depended on how the rest of the house was used. If Priscilla and James had had more children and had consequently not had a dining room, the kitchen would have been used for the consumption as well as the preparation of food. In a house without servants, it would have been where the woman of the house, and possibly her young children, spent much of the day. In a house with several servants, even family members would probably have spent little time in this part of the house. But it was always a place for preparing food. As such, the room was purely functional, with nothing in the way of decorative features. It would have had a large table in it, for preparing food at, and the walls in Priscilla’s kitchen were probably originally clad in match-lining (given that the walls in the adjacent scullery and pantry were).
The cupboards and walls would also have been home to the instruments of cooking and food preparation used by Priscilla and/or her possible servant. Many of these would have been familiar to us today – pots and pans, mixing bowls, baking dishes – although the materials from which they were made differed. No Pyrex or heat-proof glass for the kitchens of the nineteenth century, and probably fewer metal mixing bowls (stainless steel wasn’t a feature of kitchenware until the twentieth century). Those that did exist would likely have been enamelled to protect the metal from the food and vice versa. Pots and pans would have been cast iron in most cases and, again, some would have been enamelled on the inside. Ceramic was still one of the best, most durable and most heat-resistant materials of the nineteenth century, and the baking dishes and mixing bowls of the kitchen would have reflected this. All of these vessels, unlike the ceramics used on the table in the dining room, are likely to have been quite plain, although some examples of decorated mixing bowls exist in the Christchurch assemblage. Most of the utensils used in the kitchen are likely to have been made from wood or metal, and the fragility of those fabrics in the archaeological record means they’re not often found.
There seem to be two main ways in which late 19th century kitchens would have differed from modern kitchens. Well, actually, there are an awful lot of differences, but these two were fundamental and had a significant effect on the women who worked in late Victorian kitchens. They were the coal range and the meat safe. Or, in the case of the latter, the absence of a fridge and freezer. Think of what that means in terms of food storage and the frequency with which you’d need to go shopping, particularly at a time when you couldn’t get everything from one store, that dry goods came from one shop, meat from another, etc, etc. Then start to realise just how much preparing food might dominate a woman’s life. If preparing food dominated a woman’s life, the coal range was probably the most obvious symbol of that. Unlike a modern, temperature-controlled oven, a coal range needed to be carefully tended and fed. Further, it was often used to heat hot water (through a wetback) and was generally used year-round. So you had a fire going in the kitchen all year. The heat in here must have been in stark contrast to that in much of the rest of the house.
Katharine & Jessie
Macdonald, Charlotte. “Strangers at the Hearth: The Eclipse of Domestic Service in New Zealand Homes c.1830s-1940.” In At Home in New Zealand: Houses, History, People, edited by Barbara Brookes, 41-55. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2000.
If much of the rest of the house was about the display of feminine respectability, the dining room was masculine in character. And I’d like to pause here for just a moment to remind you, dear reader, that this was an ideal only, and one that was predominantly the focus of the middle class. Reality could be quite different, and no doubt every household negotiated its own way through the gender roles prescribed in those times. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking about a European ideology, one that was strongly associated with countries that were part of the British Empire, or had been. How gender roles played in households from other cultures is something we’re less familiar with. One of the strengths of archaeology – and, indeed, any study of the past – is to enable us to better understand how these ideals played out in reality.
But, yes, the dining room was generally considered to be a masculine space. Other spaces were too, such as libraries, studies and smoking rooms, but these rooms weren’t generally found in the homes of the lower middle class in Aotearoa New Zealand (Tange 2010: 137). Furthermore, these were private spaces, whereas dining rooms were not. They were public spaces where people were entertained over, well, dinner. And, part of the point of the dining room was that it was where masculinity could be displayed publicly, so that guests could see that the man of the house was performing that role successfully (and thus the family as a whole was conforming to the ideals of the day). The foundation of this masculine role was that the man of the family earned enough so that his wife could arrange an appropriate dinner, served on appropriate dishes, and decorate the room in the appropriate way. Of course, her role in this generally went unacknowledged (Tange 2010: 157). The man of the house was also expected to be a gracious host – genial, interested and interesting. The room tended to be decorated in a ‘masculine’ fashion, with heavy furniture in dark colours and dark furnishings (Tange 2010: 148).
We cannot know exactly what the Chalmers’s dining room looked like, nor how often (or indeed, if) they entertained people for dinner, but there are subtle indications in the room that it was perhaps more decorative than either of the twobedrooms. This may indicate that it was seen as a public space and used as such, in spite of being behind the hall arch that separated the public and private spaces in the house. And the position of the dining room in this house indicates some of the complexities when it came to conforming with the separation of public and private, and the decisions that needed to be made with regard to what room went where, and whether the dining room or the master bedroom should be in front of the hall arch. Of course, James and Priscilla’s dining room was close to the kitchen in this position behind the arch (in fact, there was an interconnecting door).
The subtle differences that indicated that this room was perhaps seen as a public space related to the fireplace, which was the only original feature that remained in the room. You might remember that the fireplaces in the two bedrooms were identical, and slightly less decorative than that in the parlour. The fireplace in the dining room wasn’t quite as decorative as that in the parlour but was more so than those in the bedrooms, just in the details of the mantelpiece, where there was additional timber moulding above the fire and the bases of the mantelpiece legs were moulded in the same way as the skirting boards. Such small details, and their small nature perhaps reflects that Priscilla and James did not have the budget for more elaborate ornamentation – or preferred to spend their money on other things that they valued more.
It’s possible that they relied on the material culture of the room to provide the more elaborate ornamentation that was missing from the architectural details. As with the other public spaces of the house, it’s likely that ornamental objects played a role in the dining room, although perhaps not so great a role as in the parlour. Lighting is likely to have been fairly good, more on par with the parlour than the bedrooms, and would probably have included fixed wall lamps as well as candlesticks, or portable lamps, on the mantel and/or table. Along with the table, the room may have included a display cabinet or similar piece, inside which the best material culture of the household could be displayed.
Most of the objects used within this room, however, would have been associated with the primary function of the room: dining. And, as is the case in many modern households, there was a significant and substantial material culture associated with the behaviours of food consumption, and ‘dining’, both publicly and privately. The ritual and structure of dining in the late nineteenth century, especially in a more public setting, was very much linked to social influences like class. For the middle classes, like James and Priscilla, conscious or unconsciously, these included ideas of gentility, respectability and order, all of which had an effect not just on the appearance of the objects they used at the dinner table, but the actual vessels themselves (Fitts 1999; Wall 1999).
For example, the use of individual dishes, and specialised vessels – like soup plates – for particular foods is not something European/colonial households had always done. In the eighteenth century, somewhere like colonial America, it would have been more common to eat from communal vessels (Fitts 1999: 52), or to have a single vessel from which most foods could be eaten. By the nineteenth century, however, a much greater variety of vessels were required to present the dining table that James and Priscilla’s guests would have expected. One study I’ve read (American, rather than New Zealand, so apply with caution) suggests that the basic middle class table ware set of the late nineteenth century should have contained: dinner plates, soup plates, twifflers (a kind of smaller plate with a name that never fails to amuse me), muffin plates, sauce tureens, a soup tureen, various platters, covered serving dishes, open serving dishes, bakers, a butter dish, a pitcher and a gravy boat (Fitts 1999: 53). It’s a lot, especially if, as was sometimes the case, the Chalmers’s owned two dinner sets – one for entertaining and one for private use within the household.
Social expectations, particularly for the middle class, also affected the appearance of the vessels used at the dining table – specifically, the need for them to match. Ownership and use of a matching dinner set among Victorian era middle class households is in part linked to a middle-class ideal that drew heavily on order and regularity (Fitts 1999: 54). Having a matched set was about more than just the aesthetic appeal – it was about the ability to present an ordered, neat, respectable household through material culture. There’s also an idea that, among a family, or at a dinner party, using a matched set of vessels emphasises the communal experience of eating together, which I find interesting (Wall 1999: 113).
It’s quite possible that the Chalmers would also have owned glassware for use in the dining room, from tumblers, and wine glasses to table pitchers or even glass dishes for desserts and sweets. Tumblers, and even wine glasses are not uncommon finds, but glass dishes and serving vessels are relatively infrequently found on Christchurch domestic sites, so I’m not clear on how many households actually used them. That said, a large number of stemmed glasses, dishes and ‘unusual’ glassware were found on the site of a nineteenth century shop a couple of years ago, so we do know they were available to consumers.
Of course, dinner wasn’t the only meal that might have been eaten in the dining room, and the material culture of breakfast and lunch differed from that of dinner, formal or not. Breakfast, in particular, had its own associated set of vessels. I’m not going to talk too much about particular types of food in this post (you’ll have to check back for the kitchen and pantry posts to see that), but it’s important to note that the breakfast of the nineteenth century probably didn’t resemble modern ideas of breakfast, either in foods consumed or in the vessels used to eat it. Cooked breakfasts and savoury foods were more of a thing (including last night’s leftovers) and modern breakfast staples like cereal and toast were not as common as they are now. Ceramic “breakfast sets” were sold alongside dinner sets: these might have been made of bone china, instead of earthenware, and included small plates and eggcups alongside matching teacups and saucers. It’s no real surprise, is it, given the number of objects associated with the consumption of food (and how much they would have been used), that tea and table wares are among the artefacts most frequently found in the archaeological record.
Katharine & Jessie
Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.
Fitts, R. K., 1999. ‘The Archaeology of Middle-Class Domesticity and Gentility in Victorian Brooklyn.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 39-62.
Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.
Wall, D., 1999. ‘Examining Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century New York City.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 102-117.
Having described and discussed James and Priscilla’s bedroom, we move on to Margaret’s bedroom, which was immediately behind her parents’ bedroom. Margaret would have been about 18 when the family moved into the house and, as with her mother, we know very little about her life, particularly prior to her marriage. In fact, the only pre-marriage information (as it were) that I’ve been able to find is that, at age 12, she won a prize at school for her sewing (Press 17/12/1883: 3). Which is lovely, but just seems to feed into all the stereotypes about women’s roles in the 19th century. We don’t know how much longer she continued at school for (education was compulsory for Pākehā children up to the age of 13 in New Zealand from 1877), or whether or not she might have worked after she finished school, as became increasingly common for young women at the end of the 19th century (Olssen 2003: 84).
Margaret’s bedroom was pretty similar to her parents, although it was slightly smaller. The two bedrooms had identical fireplaces and mantelpieces, and this is one of the pieces of evidence that makes us think that the master bedroom was a master bedroom. The biggest difference between the rooms was in fact the amount of natural light they would have got. Priscilla and James’s bedroom faced northeast and would not only have received sun for most of the day, it had a pair of sash windows that would have let in a reasonable amount of light (veranda notwithstanding). Margaret’s bedroom, on the other hand, had just one window and it faced southwest. This would have been a cold, dark room.
Margaret’s bedroom would have functioned in a similar way to her parents, although it would not been a place for visitors to leave their coats and nor would it have been a place where children were born. Materially, there’s not likely to have been much of a difference between the objects used in each room (except, one assumes, a lack of male grooming products in Margaret’s bedroom!). Perhaps fewer ornamental objects, and smaller furniture. Her washbasin and ewer set may have been of slightly lesser quality, given that the space was more private than her parents’ bedroom, but they may also just have been decorated in a style more suited to her personal tastes. Unfortunately, without any artefacts from the house, it’s impossible to know what this might have been.
While we pause here in the second bedroom, about which there’s not a great deal to say, there two elements of late 19th century housing in Aotearoa New Zealand that I’d like to turn to very briefly. First up, door locks. Every internal door had a lock. Whether this was to really emphasise the point about privacy, or was for added security, I’m not sure, but it intrigues me. More to the point, I’d like to know when it stopped being a thing. Secondly, skirting boards. As already noted, the hall arch separated the public from the private within the house, and the (public) rooms in front of the hall arch were typically more decorative than those in front. One of the ways this played out was through the height of skirting boards, which were often higher in the public rooms than they were in the private rooms. This wasn’t just about display, but also about budget – the greater the height of the skirtings, the more they cost. In the Chalmers’ house, however, this was not the case and the skirting boards were the same height (and, at 270 mm high, these skirtings were a fairly normal height). Why there would be no difference is not known. Certainly, it’s clear from the other small details in the house that the Chalmers recognised and understood the relationship between public and private rooms and display. Perhaps the builder offered them a discount for a job lot of skirtings of the same height?
Katharine & Jessie
Olssen, Erik. “Working Gender, Gendering Work: Occupational Change and Continuity in Southern Dunedin.” In Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939, edited by Barbara Brookes, A. Cooper and R. Law. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
Just across the hall from the parlour was the master bedroom, meaning that it was in the ‘public’ part of the house. This was a fairly standard position for the master bedroom in a single storey house (Salmond 1986: 155, Toomath 1996: 127), although a quick perusal of 19th century house plans from Christchurch indicates that this was by no means always the case (and if you love old house plans, there are far worse ways to spend your time than looking at the Collins and Harman plans online at the Macmillan Brown Library). The dining room was arguably a more public room than the master bedroom but, as the posts in this series continue, you’ll see why we think that the dining room in this house was behind the parlour, in the ‘private’ part of the house.
This notion of the bedroom as a public room is one I can’t quite get my head around, because I tend to think of your bedroom as the ultimate private space within a house. It makes more sense, though, if you think about the fact that most houses had a fairly limited range of rooms: a parlour, bedrooms, and a kitchen and the associated service rooms. The Chalmers’s house was unusual because it had a dining room – and, to be honest, if they’d had more than one child, they might not have had one, as that room might have functioned as a bedroom, depending on the age, gender and number of children. It’s worth noting at this point that mid-late 19th century houses in Aotearoa New Zealand had, by and large, identical layouts, although actual room function might vary, as in this case.
As you’d expect, the master bedroom was where the husband and wife slept, but it was also a place where visitors might leave their coats (Toomath 1996: 127), this being its ‘public’ role. As a public room, this would have been a decorative space, and another room where a woman might be expected to demonstrate her respectability. The two front rooms often had very similar forms of built-in decoration, although in this case the fireplace in the master bedroom had a slightly less decorative mantelpiece than that in the parlour (the differences, however, are so small that finding them is a bit like playing spot the difference).
The fireplace in the master bedroom, which was just very slightly different from that in the parlour. Image: M. Hennessey.
With the function of the room as a public space, there’s a good chance that decorative objects played a role here, as well as in the hallway and parlour. Lighting would also have been a concern, although good lighting was perhaps not quite as essential to this room as it would have been to the more productive space of the parlour. Portable lighting – like chambersticks, and finger lamps – would have been important, particularly if James or Priscilla had to get up in the night to find their way through a darkened house. In terms of the function of the room as a place for sleeping, the material culture of a bedroom in the 19th century is not so different from what we’d expect of a bedroom now: a bed, perhaps a vanity or set of drawers, a wardrobe. Maybe even a ceramic bedwarmer (the 19th century version of a hot-water bottle). The greatest difference is the role of personal hygiene – ablutions (I love that word) – in the function of the room. The Chalmers would likely have had a washbasin and ewer set, for washing in the morning or evening, and quite probably at least one chamber pot. The chamber pot would have been tucked away beneath the bed, but the washbasin and ewer may have been displayed on a washstand, some of which even had towel rails attached. Because this room was more public than the other bedroom in the house, the chamber pot, washbasin and ewer may have matched, were probably decorated and – if they had two sets – would have been of better quality than the set used in the more private bedroom in the house.
This room is perhaps where we might also find some of the most personal objects in a household – those related to personal grooming and dress. If the room contained a vanity, it could have held cosmetic pots, hairbrushes, razors, hairstyling pomades and oils, toothbrushes and powders, perfumes and colognes, lint brushes and jewellery. It may surprise some to realise, given modern gender and beauty assumptions, that many, if not most, of the personal grooming artefacts found in the Christchurch archaeological record are related to the beauty standards of men, rather than women. This may have a lot to do with packaging and what survives in the archaeological record, but it’s worth remembering that as many of the personal objects in the room could have belonged to James as to Priscilla.
It’s difficult to be sure exactly where medicinal and pharmaceutical products were kept in different houses (in the absence of the modern bathroom), but there’s a good chance that some of these may also have been found in the bedroom, particularly as the other function it might have had was as both a sick room (not so different from today) and as a place for giving birth (Flanders 2003: 14-22). In general, European women in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand gave birth at home, although there were some private maternity homes in cities (Pollock 2018; in fact, one of the houses I’m looking at for my PhD was used as such later in the 19th century – the women who gave birth here mostly seem to have lived in the country). Of course, James and Priscilla’s only child was born before they moved into this house, and James and his second wife, Annetta, did not have any children. So no children were born here in the 19th century. But Priscilla died at home, at the age of 44, and it is likely that she died in this room. If she were sick for a time before her death, it is possible that she spent time in this room, while she was being treated.
Jessie & Katharine
Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.
And so, from the hall, to the parlour, the ‘best’ room in the house and, in more wealthy circles, known as the drawing room. As an aside, these naming schemes fascinate me – at exactly what point (in the social/wealth scheme) did a parlour become a drawing room? And when and where and why do sitting rooms, living rooms and lounges come into the picture, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand? And how do breakfast and morning rooms fit into the picture? More importantly, what do these name changes tell us about what’s going on in society and domestic life at a broader level?
But back to James and Priscilla’s parlour. Or maybe that should be, Priscilla and James’s parlour. The drawing room in Victorian Britain, with its ‘upper’ (used here to refer to both the upper middle and upper classes) class associations, and consequently with a class that employed servants, is generally considered to have been a feminine room, and one where women spent much of their day, reading, sewing, entertaining guests and organising their household (Tange 2010: 62). To what extent this was true of the parlour in late 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand is not clear, particularly in the case of Priscilla and her daughter Margaret, who may not have employed a servant, meaning that they may not have had a great deal of time for relaxing in the parlour during the day.
The identification of the parlour/drawing room as a feminine space was a key part of the middle class ideology of separate spheres discussed in the previous post. This room was where the women of the house would entertain their friends, and it was thus the most important room in the house for displaying their respectability and taste. As part of this, the parlour/drawing room showed how a woman created a beautiful, tasteful and relaxing sanctuary from the torments of the public world for her poor hard-working husband… Which completely ignores all the hard work that would have gone into creating this space, keeping the house clean and tidy, looking after children, preparing the meals, and doing the shopping, all whilst appearing suitably respectable – and calm. Anyway. The parlour, though, was not just used for entertaining, it was also used by the family as a space to relax together.
The parlour, then, was the most decorative and decorated room in the house. It was also usually the most prominent and Priscilla’s parlour was a classic example of this, with its protruding bay and bay window – so it would have been clear to passersby that this was the parlour. The room had a fireplace, in order to provide cheer and – maybe – some warmth. The fireplace was also an important place for display, in the form of the mantelpiece itself (which also provided a place for displaying goods), the fire surround (some were tiled, although the Chalmers’s one was not) and the tiles on the hearth (which had been removed in this instance). There was little else in the way of built-in decoration in this parlour – no ceiling or cornice and no picture rail to hang pictures from (although such things could have been removed latterly). The walls, though, were no doubt originally covered in a decorative wallpaper.
Decorative objects would have played a role in the construction of this space, things like ornaments, vases, decorative lamps, well-chosen and placed furniture, as well as hung pictures and fabric coverings. Sketches and photographs of contemporary parlours (themselves a performance that probably didn’t quite equal reality – I’m sure that the rooms shown in modern interior design never look quite that tidy in everyday use) even show decorative or ornamental plants placed about the room, not so dissimilar to today.
Within this space, James and – especially – Priscilla, would have entertained and hosted guests with the aid of their material culture, particularly through the rituals of tea-drinking and, perhaps, alcohol consumption. The taking of tea involved in the full performance of afternoon or morning tea was not, as I suspect most of us do it now, limited to a teabag, a cup and some boiling water, but instead tea in a teapot, with matching milk jug, sugar bowl, teacups, saucers and, perhaps, even side places for the accompanying snacks.
At a different time of day, or in different company, the tea service may have been switched out for alcohol, and the Chalmers may have used glass sets of decanters and tumblers to serve their guests. Glass or ceramic dishes may have been used to set out sweets, delicacies or snacks. The parlour may have also been wreathed in smoke, from time to time, if James, Priscilla (unlikely) or their guests smoked a pipe, or – by the early 20th century – cigarettes. It’s just as likely, however, that smoking wasn’t an activity that took place in the parlour – it may instead have been restricted to the dining room, as a more ‘masculine’ space (see following posts).
Games may have been played through the course of this entertaining. ‘Parlour games’ is still a phrase we know and one that was often used in the 19th and early 20th century to mean a more lewd, less socially appropriate activity. Nevertheless, games were absolutely a part of the function of a parlour, both in its role as a space for guests and within the privacy of the family sphere. Games like dominoes, for example, may have been played by children and adults alike. There’s no evidence to suggest that James and Priscilla had a piano, but musical performances and practice may also have fallen within the use of this particular room.
It’s important to remember that the parlour was not a space that was only used when guests were present. It would also have functioned as a space of work and leisure for the family in private. James and Priscilla may have had a writing desk, for example, at which they wrote letters or carried out professional or personal projects. We know that James was a member of multiple associations, including those dedicated to improving the lot of the working class – perhaps this room is where he wrote and read towards those efforts. For Priscilla, the parlour is also the room in which she’s likely to have done needlework – engaging in that ‘genteel’ domestic industry. The bay window would have provided sufficient light during the day to carry out such work and, in the evenings, if the room was well lit (lamps again! – they’re going to be a feature of every room), the fireplace, lamps and candles would have made the room bright enough to continue.
Katharine & Jessie
Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.
The hall was, literally and figuratively, the centre of the middle class home: it typically ran down the middle of the house and it was the room that connected all other rooms. Except the service rooms at the rear of the house – there was a reason for this, which I’ll come to in a subsequent post. In general, in a middle class house, there wouldn’t be a direct connection between the parlour and the bedroom, for example. Instead, you’d go out of the parlour, into the hall and then into the bedroom. This was important, because it meant all spaces were separate, and private. The concept of the private world is critical to understanding both the Victorian villa and Victorian domestic life.
In the Victorian world, the prevailing middle class ideology held that the home was a private place, separate from the ‘public’ world of commerce, politics and economy. There were very clear gender divisions associated with this ideal, the private world of the home being the realm of women (and children) and the public world the realm of men. A woman’s role, then, was to create a calm, peaceful and respectable home that offered respite for her husband (or brother or son or father) from the vicissitudes of the public world. I can’t stress enough that this was an ideal, not necessarily reality, and a middle class one at that (Tange 2010: 12). Some scholars have suggested the idea of intersecting and overlapping spheres is a more accurate reflection of reality (Archer 2005: 201), while others have outlined the tensions implicit in the attempts to keep the public and private separate, and the impossibility of keeping the public world out of the home (Tange 2010: 12-16).
One of the ways the public world came into the home was through guests, who were by definition external to the family (I feel we’re getting awfully close to bubbles here…). While female guests are unlikely to have been seen as part of the public world, given that it was considered to be masculine, their access to the house they were visiting was still controlled, and it was controlled by the hall. In a middle class house such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s, the arch across the hall, with its decorative plaster work, demarcated public from private. Those spaces in front of the arch were the public ones. Because visitors did not go beyond that arch, these public spaces were often more decorative than those behind, in terms of both features that were part of the house and the objects that were displayed.
The hall itself could be decorated, and the site of decorative objects, were it big enough. The Chalmers’s hall might just have been wide enough for a rather narrow table, but even that might have been a stretch. So there would have been little in the way of surfaces for objects to sit on, and there’s no evidence that were was a picture rail to hang pictures from. Nor was there a ceiling rose. So, while Priscilla and James had chosen to have a hall arch (and this was by no means the norm – people also used curtains or doors across the hall to separate public from private), they had elected not to have any other decorative features in the hall and to construct a hall that was too narrow for the extensive display of decorative objects. This is evidence of the complex interplay of factors that have always influenced the decisions of those building a house, whilst still remaining within – or at least close to – the budget.
For this reason, even if we had found artefacts from the Chalmers’s house, it’s unlikely we would have found any associated with the hallway. This is not to say that it wouldn’t have been a space in which portable material culture existed, but that most of those objects would have been temporary fixtures in the space, in keeping with the liminal function of the hall. There may have been an umbrella stand, or a coat rack, to hold the umbrellas, coats and hats of guests and residents alike. Unlike many of the objects in a house, these are ones that come and go with the people, rather than remaining with the house.
There was probably a door mat and, if Priscilla and James did have a narrow hall table, it may have held ornamental objects, like a vase or decorative figurines. In truth, perhaps the most likely object to have been placed in the hallway is one that we tend to take for granted now: lighting. Lighting is so much a part of modern household interiors that we can forget to think of it as the household artefact that it is. Built in the late 1880s, Priscilla and James’s house may quite easily have had gas fitted lights, but documentary and archaeological evidence shows that portable oil lamps and candlesticks remained in use decades after the introduction of gas lighting. However, without a hall table on which to rest, those lights would also have been temporary additions to the space, carried in and out of the darkened hallway by James and Priscilla as they moved from room to room throughout the house.
Katharine & Jessie
Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.
Kia ora koutou! And welcome to our online exhibition! As the title above indicates, it’s called ‘Home and contents: the archaeology of a Victorian villa’ and it’s part of the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s Archaeology Week 2020. You can find out more about that and all the other events taking place over here. The exhibition that we’ve curated is a room-by-room tour through a late 19th century villa in Ōtautahi Christchurch, looking at how each room was used and the kind of objects that would have been used in them. Through this, we hope to give you some insight into what domestic life in late 19th century Christchurch was like. And seeing as so many of us have become quite, quite familiar with our own homes over the last month, it seems quite appropriate.
Disclaimer: the artefacts featured were not recovered from the house that’s featured. Sometimes archaeology doesn’t give you what you want and, between us, we didn’t have a good house to feature that also had lots of artefacts.
And, particular thanks on this on to Matt Hennessey, for his excellent photographs of this particular house.
The house that James and Priscilla built
James and Priscilla Chalmers arrived in New Zealand in 1878, landing in Dunedin (Otago Daily Times 13/11/1878: 2). James was an engineer by trade, but more your 19th century type of engineer (i.e. working with his hands) than your 21st century type of engineer (more involved with design and supervision). Which is really just a complicated way of saying that James was very definitely working class. James was born in Liverpool in 1848 and started his working life as an apprentice in the Liverpool Dockyards. From there he moved into railways, a career choice that would end up taking him to Russia, of all places. He spent several years in Russia, only leaving at the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war of 1878-1879 (Press 19/4/1905: 8).
At some stage prior to this, James and Priscilla had married. Exactly when isn’t clear – 19th century women are frustratingly elusive. They typically only appear in the papers (the main source for so much research – thanks, Papers Past!) if they were socially prominent, in trouble with the law or advertising for servants. And of course, women signed the suffrage petition(s), another way they became historically visible (disappointingly, Priscilla did not). Sometimes a birth, marriage or death notice might make it into the papers, but in the case of the first your husband might get more of the credit. However, Priscilla and James had presumably married by the time their only child, Margaret, was born in c.1871 (BDM Online 1907/3963).
By c.1880, the Chalmers were resident in Scott Street, Christchurch, and James was working as a fitter at the railway workshops, as so many of those who lived in this part of the city did (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Heathcote) 1880-81: 6). Unfortunately, it’s not possible to work out exactly where on Scott Street the family were living, but the street was home to numerous small workers’ cottages, some of which remained standing until the earthquakes and it is possible that the Chalmers lived in a house that like these. Unsurprisingly, because we don’t know exactly where the Chalmers were living, it’s not possible to work out whether the family were renting a house or had bought or built one.
Two 19th century workers’ cottages on Scott Street. Images: K. Webb (top left) and P. Mitchell (bottom right).
By 1886, the family had moved (to somewhere on Lincoln Road) and James was now working for the Canterbury Tramway Company (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Sydenham) 1885-86: 7, Press 29/10/1886: 3). Just a couple of years later, James purchased the land – in Richmond Terrace (now Waller Street) – where he would build the house that’s the focus of this exhibition (yes, sorry, it took a while to get there). In June 1888, James took out a mortgage against the land with one Alexander Christian Fife (LINZ 1888). Mortgages in 19th century New Zealand were often personal loans, and James is likely to have known Fife through both work (Fife was involved with the railways) and the St Augustine Lodge, as both were also involved with this (Star 18/1/1895: 1, Press 21/12/1915: 6). It is likely that the mortgage was used to fund the construction of the house (mortgages taken out in such circumstances – against a bare piece of land – are often interpreted as being used to fund house construction, although the method is by no means foolproof).
The house seems to have been completed in 1889, by which time James was the general manager at the Canterbury Tramway Company (Press 7/11/1889: 1, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1890-91: 122). There’s a nice symmetry here, whereby James is moving up the employment ladder (and thus, to a certain extent up the class ladder, a managerial position like this one generally being associated with middle class status) at the same time that his family’s housing status seems to be improving, as you’ll come to see. Because the house that James and Priscilla built was a step up from the workers’ cottages typical of Scott Street.
The Chalmers built a bay villa, that typical late 19th century New Zealand house, albeit one that was much plainer than the classic examples (although my research suggests that bay villas were not, in fact, common in Christchurch in the 19th century). This villa was not particularly ornamental – there were pediments and panelling on the bay window, coloured and etched glass around the door and there may have been eaves brackets on the front of the house. There certainly were on the sides and rear but no evidence of them having been on the front remained. I think of this all as a fairly restrained form of decoration, and I am not the first person to suggest that houses in 19th century Christchurch were somewhat plainer than those built elsewhere in the country (Mulligan and Wright 2019: 70).
Details of the house that James and Priscilla built. Clockwise from top left: etched and coloured glass in the door surround (note also the vertical letter slot); panelling under the bay window; pediments associated with the bay window; the eaves brackets on the rear corner of the house. Images: M. Hennessey.
With seven rooms, the house was of a fairly average size, and would have allowed the Chalmers family to live there in some comfort. There was no room for a servant to sleep-in (and nor did Priscilla ever advertise for one – which is not evidence that she did not have one to help around the house), but there was a separate dining room, along with a scullery and pantry (as well the standard parlour, bedrooms and kitchen). The toilet would have been in a separate building in the back garden, possibly along with a copper for doing the laundry. This range of rooms was fairly standard for a family of the middling sort in this particular time and place.
Sadly, though, the family did not long enjoy the house. Priscilla died in 1892, aged 44, and a year later, Margaret married, leaving James alone in the house (Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1, Star 8/1/1894: 2). There’s no evidence of James advertising for a servant either. While this isn’t evidence that he didn’t have one, this possibility is a tantalising one for the era. James remarried in 1897, to Annetta Kinsman, who was almost the woman next door – her brother had bought the section next to James’s in 1890 and was living there by 1898 (LINZ c.1860: 669, BDM Online 1897/2040, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1898-99: 233). The couple did not have any children, and James died in 1905, after being ill for a time (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He left the house to Margaret, although he gave his wife permission to live there for three months after his death – this strikes me as curious, as he had, to all intents and purposes, left his wife homeless. He did leave her the rest of his estate, so she was not left penniless (Christchurch High Court 1905). The house, in fact, would stay in the Chalmers family until 1930 (LINZ 1888).
In all of this, I have not mentioned James’s political involvement. James was a member of the Working Men’s Political Association, which was established to advocate for the rights and working conditions of working men (Globe 4/3/1882: 3). Given this obvious interest, it is no surprise that he was also a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He held executive roles for each of these organisations (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He was also, for a time, a member of the Conciliation Board, a board that mediated in disputes between employees and employers (this short sentence significantly downplays the role of these boards in New Zealand’s labour history – you can learn a bit more here; Press 19/4/1905: 8). James was also a fairly active mason (Press 19/4/1905: 8). While I can’t speak to James’s involvement with the masons, his membership of the other organisations indicates a concern with the conditions and livelihood of his fellow members of the working class (or, if you prefer, a rabble-rousing troublemaker – but there is nothing in what I have learnt of James that suggests this).
So, that’s the story of James and Priscilla and the house they built. It’s a story of change and social mobility and the opportunities that New Zealand offered its European settlers (and hidden under that is the terrible cost of this to Māori). It’s a story of loss and possibly one of ambition. It’s also a story of labour activism, and of the roles everyday people play in much bigger social change. And it’s the story not just of the position of women in the 19th century, but their visibility in the historical record. I hope you’ll join us over the course of the next week as we explore more of the stories of James and Priscilla and the house they built.
New Zealand Electoral Roll. Available online at Ancestry.com.
Mulligan, Amanda, and Gareth Wright. “‘Why Not Live There?’ Two 1908 Houses in Addington and Hataitai.” In “The raging fury of Edwardian ornamentation” Meets “a virtual frenzy of stylism”: New Zealand Architecture in 1900s: A One Day Symposium, edited by Christine McCarthy, 65-70. Wellington: Victoria University, 2019.
Originally, I had intended to write this post about climate change and the construction of consumer behaviour and culture, as seen through archaeology, but I think we’ve all been forced to confront the constructed fragility of our society just a little too much in recent weeks. Instead, let’s talk about things! And stuff! And if I sneak a little theory in here, well, I’d say sorry, but I wouldn’t mean it.
Part of what had got me thinking about climate change and consumer behaviour in the first place was the relationship between what I study and my own life. Both in terms of relevance – the ability of archaeology to aid in understanding and making choices in the present day – and in terms of personal perspective. How much my research makes me question my own relationship with the material world, for example. How much my things say about me, but also how much my things mean to me. If I’m looking at artefacts from 150 years ago as objects with social meaning, items with value that go beyond the economic, what meaning do I find – and place – in my own things?
The things we own say something about us, whether we want them to or not. That is a central tenet of material culture studies, particularly within archaeology, where that meaning allows us to interpret broader socio-cultural behaviours and patterns from the rubbish past peoples have left behind (key point here: material culture studies is the study of material culture). But the things we own also say something to us, as conscious or unconscious tools in how we reinforce – or even construct – our own sense of self. One of my favourite examples of this are my keys. A meaning they held that I wasn’t aware I had given them became apparent when I moved to Australia a couple of years ago. For the first week or so I was there, I had no keys. I didn’t have a house yet, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have an office. No gates, no locks, no responsibilities. I felt untethered from what had, until that moment, been my adult life and I realised just how much my keys – the most mundane of objects, yet one that (along with my phone) I look for and use every single day – had come to embody being an adult. Not in the sense of my age, but in how they represented the behaviours that characterised the person I had become in my adult life – the independence of owning a car, living in a house I was at least partially responsible for, having access to a workplace that in itself represented a career I had chosen and a contribution I (hopefully!) was making. All of that, bound up in a few funny shaped pieces of metal on a ring.
This may have been an association that I was surprised to realise I made, but it’s certainly not an unprecedented one. Keys have been a symbolic representation of adulthood for at least a century in New Zealand, gifted as part of the ritual coming of age encapsulated in a person’s twenty-first birthday. I did a little research into this, trying to find the origins of the symbolism, but it’s not particularly clear from the limited online research I’m able to do. Some accounts link it back to medieval knights and the age structure associated with the progression of a boy from page to squire to knight, but none of these are referenced at all, so I take it with a grain of salt (Marris 2018; The Great Race 2018). The presentation of an ornamental key at the age of twenty-one seems to be a peculiarly colonial tradition, associated with Australia and New Zealand in particular, although the sources for this are also a bit lacking (Williams 2017). It does appear that it’s largely a tradition of the twentieth century, perhaps tied into the social and economic significance of twenty-one as an age of ‘majority’ (Swarbrick 2013; Temuka Leader 20/01/1927: 3; Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser19/02/1935: 1). It’s not quite the same association I’ve inadvertently made with my keys, but it’s not far off.
Like my keys, the Christchurch archaeological assemblage is full of countless examples of objects that held meaning beyond the functional: from clay tobacco pipes that were both tools of smoking and political propaganda; to christening cups that were commemorative items and also tea wares; ceramics that carried the stories of empire, trade and British colonialism in their designs; and foodstuffs that evoked familiarity as well as sustenance. Things that may have been bought and used for more reasons than just their economic or functional values. Things that were important to who people were, where they came from and what they wanted to be. This meaning might not be the easiest to interpret from the archaeological record (not impossible, though), but it’s an important factor in understanding the relationship between people and things in the past. It’s also an important reminder to consider, when interpreting an archaeological assemblage – whether from a household or a city – not just what that collection of objects might say about the people who used and discarded it, but also what it might have said to them, about where they came from and who they were.
For example, if being momentarily bereft of keys in a new country made me confront the unconscious representation of my adult life in some bits of metal, then the lockdown has reminded me, yet again, how important my accumulated material culture is to my sense of self. There is nothing quite like rapid change to make you re-evaluate your world and your place in it and, if you are a student of material culture studies, nothing quite like being separated from your stuff to force a bit of introspection. Like Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone (or you can’t access it. like flat whites. do not underestimate how much I miss flat whites right now.).
I’m on lockdown in Christchurch, while my things remain in Melbourne, minus the two suitcases I brought with me (one was mostly books and whisky, I’ll be honest). After the situation with the keys, I should have realised how unsettled I would feel now, to be living inside a house, for who knows how long, where very little of what surrounds me is mine. It’s not just the familiarity of a certain aesthetic that’s important here, or any kind of possessiveness: it goes deeper than that. The story of who I am – the history of my identity – is bound up in the things I own. Gifts from people I love, things I have bought at different points of my life, things I’ve held onto from childhood, things that remind me of a moment or an experience, a collection of stuff curated by what I’ve chosen to keep, that speaks to me of what’s important to who I am. Without it, trapped inside a house for an unknown period of time, I feel ill at ease, untethered again.
The effect that being separated from my stuff has had on my sense of self throws my mind back to the experience of the Christchurch colonists, specifically the significance of British material culture in their creation and reinforcement of self – as individuals and as a community. This land was not their home and the making of it was forced, through the construction of familiar social, political and cultural structures and through the construction of a material world that reinforced their sense of self, individually and collectively (and came at the expense of the world of tangata whenua, who had been there for centuries). The things they brought with them had a role to play in the transposition of British colonial culture onto New Zealand, through the behaviours and social rituals they reinforced, from teacups and afternoon tea to the clothes, needles and gender roles of the ‘cult of domesticity’ (i.e. Middleton 2007, 2013; Staniforth 2002). Others reinforced a sensory connection to Britain, through food, through the aesthetics of colour and form and texture in furnishings and ornamentation. Others still would have contributed to those colonist’s ideas of who they were in this new place, and what they had come here to do.
There is a danger in retroactively applying notions of the present day onto past societies, particularly subjective meaning like this. But there is also a danger in assuming that, if we cannot easily find the more ephemeral meaning of the past, it does not exist. That the functional and the economic were the only relationships that past people had with the things they owned. I do not know if the colonists of the 1850s recognised the materialistic nature of their world, or acknowledged the importance of their material culture with quite this level of self-awareness. All the same, I’m certain it was important, to their continuing and developing sense of self, and to the colonial venture in general.
Ours is a materialistic society, as theirs was. If there’s one thing this research has forced me to recognise in my own relationship with things, it’s that I’m really quite materialistic. I feel like I should say that a little bit like confessing to an addiction. Hello, my name is Jessie and I am materialistic. It’s a word that evokes conspicuous consumption, ‘new wealth’, “keeping up with the Jones’”, gaudiness, vulgarity, debt, the worst of consumerism and consumer culture. Despite the overwhelmingly consumerist capitalist society we live in (or did until now, who knows what next week will hold, what even is anything), somehow, ‘materialistic’ still carries something of a slur with it. It’s a meaning that owes a great deal to Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, but it’s had the unfortunate effect of obscuring many of the other ways in which material goods are valued by people in the modern world (i.e. Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Most of us are materialistic, in the significance we place on the things we own and the comfort they provide. More simply, our interaction with material goods is an essential and everyday part of our lives, and our selves. Tell me it isn’t, the next time you find yourself craving something you can’t access during this lockdown, or taking comfort in the things you do have.
To put it more flippantly, when you come down to it, Madonna was right. We are all material girls, living in a material world. (Sorry.)
Douglas, M. and Isherwood, B., 1979. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. New York: Routledge.
Heath, B., Breen, E. B. and Lee, L. A. Material Worlds: Archaeology, Consumption and the Road to Modernity. New York: Routledge.
Middleton, A., 2007. ‘Silent Voices, Hidden Lives: Archaeology, Class and Gender in the CMS Missions, Bay of Islands, New Zealand 1814-1845. In International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 11, Issue 1, pp. 1-31.
Middleton, A., 2013. Missionization and the Cult of Domesticity, 1769-1850: Local Investigation of a Global Process. In Spencer-Wood, S. (Ed.), Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public. New York: Springer.
Miller, D., 1995. Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London and New York: Routledge.
Staniforth, M., 2002. Material Culture and Consumer Society: Dependent Colonies in Colonial Australia. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.