Home and contents: the master bedroom

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.

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the master bedroom. Image. M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

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.

The front bedroom, looking towards the hall. The cupboard would have been a later addition – Victorian villas had very little built-in furniture (Salmond 1986: 153). Image: M. Hennessey.

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.

“Colonial bedroom”, an illustration in the Bruce Herald (26/10/1894: 1). Although drawing rather heavily on USA colonial themes (the furniture was modeled on pieces from Mt Vernon), a 19th century Christchurch bedroom may still have contained many of these elements (maybe not the four-poster!).
Left: a selection of chambersticks, plain and decorated. Chambersticks, sometimes just referred to as candlesticks, were portable candle holders, often used in the bed chamber. Centre: large vase, c. early 1900s. Right: brass candlestick, c. 1870s. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.
A selection of ewers, chamberpots and washbasins from the Christchurch assemblage. Most of these are too early to have been used in the Chalmers household, but it’s relatively rare to find complete ewers and washbasins, let alone matching sets like the four on the right of the image (chamber pot and matching washbasin at top, washbasin and matching sponged ewer at base). Their rarity in the archaeological record is not a sign that matching sets weren’t used in Christchurch, but rather that if one part of the set was broken, the other half continued to be used. The Chalmers might have owned something like the brown washbasin (second from top left), the plain bone china chamber pot (bottom left) or the Magnolia decorated washbasin (second from bottom left), which are closer in date to their household. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.

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.

A selection of personal grooming artefacts from the Christchurch assemblage, from haircare to dental hygiene to skincare. Left, top to bottom: comb, possibly made from vulcanised rubber, n.d.; Price’s pomatum, used for styling male (usually) hair, c. 1860s; Bay Rum, c. 1890s-1900s, used as a ‘tonic for the hair’ (as well as other things). Centre, top to bottom: three bone toothbrushes, n.d., all of which would have had boar’s bristles for the brush; Areca Nut toothpaste, n.d.; Rimmel’s Cherry Toothpaste, n.d. Right, top to bottom: shaving or lint brush, c. 1870s; two different lids for cold cream jars, used as skincare, c. 1870s; two cologne bottles – Mulhens 4711 cologne (left) and Farina Eau de Cologne (right). Images: J. Garland.

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.

A selection of medicinal artefacts. Clockwise from top left: prescription vial with label from H. A. Papprill, Christchurch chemist, c. 1890s-1900s; Holloways ointment jar, for everything, c. 19th century; Fred W. Hale’s Herbal Oinment, for inflammation and other things, c. 1880s+; Weston’s Wizard Oil, for everything and nothing, c. 1870s-1880s; and Scott’s Emulsion, for general health and growth, n.d. ImagesL J. Garland.
Priscilla’s death notice, indicating that she died at home, and possibly in her bedroom. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1.

Jessie & Katharine

References

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Pollock, Kerry. ‘Pregnancy, birth and baby care – Childbirth, 19th century to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/pregnancy-birth-and-baby-care/page-3 [Accessed 27 April 2020].

Salmond, Jeremy. Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940. Auckland: Reed, 1986.

Toomath, William. Built in New Zealand: The Houses We Live In. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1996.

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