Lost in translation

People say the past is a foreign country (well, L. P. Hartley wrote it in 1953 and we’ve sort of just been repeating it when it suits ever since), which is a sentiment that, as it turns out, is a lot more complicated than I initially thought when I decided it would make a good framing device for this post. I’ve got it stuck in my head now, though, and I can’t think of another way to start this, so I’m just going to run with it. It’s an appealing statement, one that seems to, in six words, encapsulate the gulf that can appear when we look back on past ages and aeons and the people, societies and cultures that inhabited them. However many questions I have about the analogy (and it’s a lot, apparently), I have to admit that it’s also one that seems startlingly apt, sometimes, when I’m researching people and places from long ago. There’s a great deal of familiarity in the past, in the way that people interact with each other, in their motivations and behaviour, in the way they use objects and construct their physical surroundings. But there’s also quite a lot of unfamiliarity, a dissonance between then and now that is apparent in many ways, but perhaps, for me, never quite so much as when I come across terminology and phrasing from the Victorian era that is either completely indecipherable in meaning or somehow close enough to modern English to be even more obviously from a different time (or country). 

Me, a lot of the time.

I’ve already written about language and archaeology on here, in relation to the languages of analysis and recording around the world, and how speaking the same language is not always a guarantee that words have the same meaning. This post takes the same principle, but shifts focus a little to the language of the 19th century, not as a linguist (which I’m not!) but as a researcher who finds that the English of the Victorians sometimes requires a bit of thinking outside the box to translate to the modern day. So, the following is a handful of terms and phrases that a) confused me greatly when I read them and b) turned out to have interesting (if not always good) stories behind their meaning.

“Dead-eye dick literature”

The story behind this phrase involves one of my favourite anecdotes from Victorian Christchurch. I came across it while researching a man named Thomas Pillow, the proprietor of one of the shops I have artefacts from and a man who had the misfortune to be remembered, at least in part, through this misdeeds of his son, Albert. In 1879, at the tender age of 18, Albert decided to a) steal a bunch of antique weaponry from Canterbury Museum and b) hold up a carriage in Riccarton, wearing a black mask with cut-out eyeholes, two pairs of trousers and two coats, armed with a revolver and an antique Japanese dagger, one of the spoils from his trip to the museum.

It did not go to plan.

The people being held up did not take kindly to it, there was a bit of a scuffle and Albert was arrested and charged with assault and, after the police had searched his bedroom at his dad’s house and found the imitation poignard, and two spear heads from the museum, larceny. Headlines at the time had fun telling the story of “Pillow, the Christchurch Highwayman” and the story lived on long enough to be included in George Ranald Macdonald’s Dictionary of Canterbury Biography  entry for the Pillow family. In it, Macdonald has this to say about Albert’s actions and motivations: “A youth of 18 after doing a course of Dead-Eye Dick literature stole 2 daggers from the museum and armed himself with a revolver and ammunition. Putting on 2 suits to increase his size, he held up a carriage in Riccarton. He couldn’t quite carry it off and was charged with assault.”

Part of the 1879 account of the incident in question. I particularly like the sequence of Albert asking for money, Mr May saying he doesn’t have any and the driver coming to the rescue with “I’ve got four shillings, will that do?”. Image: Ashburton Herald 14/10/1879, p. 2.

It turns out that “Dead-eye Dick literature” refers to the dime novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, stories of adventure and daring – often in the American west – that featured characters like “Deadwood Dick”(possibly based on a real cowboy, Nat Love?) and “Dick Deadeye”, among many others. The term ‘dead-eye” seems to be synonymous with marksmanship and straight shooting, although it might also have something to do with sailors but, by the 1930s, “Dead-eye Dick literature” appears to have become a proxy for all dime novels, as this 1937 headline in the New York Times magazine suggests.

A screenshot of a 1937 article on the collectability of Deadeye Dick literature, which mostly waxes lyrical about how much these books were beloved by children and hated by adults in the nineteenth century. Image: New York Times, 1937.

The emergence of dime novels seems to be attributed to Irwin P. Beadle and company in 1860s America (well in time for Albert Pillow to have grown up with them) and they were very popular by the 1870s, when they’re first mentioned in New Zealand newspapers. As the decades progress, they quickly become associated with bad behaviour – not just of children! – in newspaper accounts, a kind of anti-moralistic devil-on-the-shoulder kind of influence (not far from the modern day “kids and their videogames!” I reckon). All of which might come to explain why George Macdonald uses the term to explain Albert Pillow’s somewhat ill-fated actions in 1879 (although it’s worth noting that I couldn’t find a reference to dime novels in the 1879 accounts of the incident).

“for their booty consisted only of thirty-six keys, which they had taken from the bed-room doors” Image: Hawera and Normanby Star 27.02.1884: 2.

This whole story, and the terminology used in the different accounts of it, is a great example of how much the information in a historical record can be influenced by the time period in which it was written, as well as the person who wrote it. And how much language changes over decades. Macdonald was writing in the mid-twentieth century, about an incident that occurred in 1879, both of which I’m reading about from 2020. It seems likely that the phrase “dead-eye dick literature” would have been as unfamiliar to Albert as it is to me – it doesn’t appear in New Zealand newspapers until the 1900s, despite frequent mention of dime novels themselves in earlier decades, and a lot of the international examples I could find of the term were early to mid-twentieth century in nature, like these “Dead-Eye Western Comics” from 1948. In a way, its use tells me as much about mid-twentieth century New Zealand as it does about Victorian Christchurch, as well as mid-twentieth century attitudes towards objects and events of the nineteenth century.

“Knights of the burnt cork”

In an era that happily named meetings of like-minded people things like the “Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes”, this seems like it could mean anything. But no, it’s a reference to blackface (surprise, racism!).

Blackface is a topic too huge and too complicated to really discuss in a short section of a single blog post (and one that has been written about in detail elsewhere), but suffice to say that minstrelsy, including blackface minstrelsy, was a part of the live entertainment available to New Zealanders during the course of European colonial settlement, from the nineteenth century onwards (unfortunately, it still crops up sometimes, even in 2020). I came across this particular term for it in an account of a ‘juvenile’ minstrel show performed by children at a school in Christchurch in 1879, and it can be found in other advertisements for blackface minstrel shows throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Image: Nelson Evening Mail 14/12/1885, p. 2.

The term itself comes from the use of burnt cork – often mixed with water or petroleum jelly – to darken the skin of the white actors performing in blackface (Mahar 1999). The title of ‘knights of the burnt cork’ serves to imply a gallantry and nobility that is completely at odds with the nature of blackface as a tool that demeans, caricatures and denigrates, but it also – at least to me – evokes the terminology of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members were also called ‘knights’. It seems like peak Victorian whimsy on first reading, but, like so much of that era, the whimsy is just a cover for the deeply terrible attitudes and racism that went hand in hand with European colonialism around the world.  

“Gone over to the great majority”

Monty Python should have used this one in the parrot sketch. Yep, it’s yet another way of saying that someone has died. One that both implies a sort of crossing of the picket line between life and death and recognises that the living are greatly outnumbered by the dead.

An excellent example that nevertheless makes me laugh, mostly for the inclusion of “he has done good service at the stud even with limited opportunities.” What a way to be remembered. Image: Lyttelton Times 4.06.1890, p. 6.
Image: Southern Cross 17.09.1898: 5.

Good wine needs no bush”

Image: Star 17.09.1913, p. 5.

I really didn’t understand this one when I read it. I came across it in an advertisement for Woods’ Great Peppermint Cure, which is ironic, as the phrase appears to mean that a good quality item or product requires no advertising (similar sentiment to gilding the lily, I think). It seems to be derived from two things – the use of a branch  or bunch of ivy, hung outside a tavern, to advertise the presence of wine within and a very old tradition of adding a ‘bush’ of rosemary to drink to improve the flavour. Like so many English idioms, it’s also Shakespearian, found in the epilogue to As You Like It.

In nineteenth century New Zealand, it seems to have been co-opted by everyone from politicians, advertisers and entertainers to those who also seemed to be confused by it, including a contractor who managed to baffle the Lyttelton Times by stating that “good wine needs no bush, but a good bridge needs a great deal”.

What DOES it mean!? Image: Lyttelton Times, 7.11.1870, p. 2.

Funambulist” and “Equilibrist”

I love both of these terms, because you can see the relationship of the word (especially the compound ‘funambulist’) to their meaning. They both refer to tightrope walkers: funambulist – rope + walker (sadly, not fun + walker, as I first thought); and equilibrist – basically, ‘balancer’. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between the two terms, although I’ve found at least one example of an equilibrist act involving bicycles, and I get the sense it might have been more generally used to refer to those whose acts involved feats of balancing.

Equesquiriculem! Another incredible word. Image: Lyttelton Times 21.01.1884, p. 1.

Both terms appear in several of the advertisements for the circuses that used to set up shop on what is now the site of the Isaac Theatre Royal, from which a fairly large assemblage of artefacts was excavated between 2012 and 2014 (Webb et al. 2016). The section was vacant during the nineteenth century and, as well as functioning as a space for people to throw their litter, it was the temporary home of a number of different circuses and travelling performances during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, including those who travelled with equilibrists and funambulists (and, just in case you thought this was a light-hearted fun story, also featured a variety of acts that were racist in execution and/or in advertising, including minstrel troupes likely to have included blackface).

“Finest white snowdrops”

This, you’d think, is fairly self-explanatory, but no. It doesn’t refer to flowers, but to sugar. “Finest white snowdrops in pockets”, as advertised frequently during the 1870s in Christchurch.

Image: Lytelton Times 13.03.1878, p. 2.

You might be amused to know that I found myself wondering if the term was ever co-opted in the twentieth century for cocaine and so googled “finest white snowdrops cocaine” and, rather than finding anything about the history of drug terminology, found this story about Walmart selling a “Santa snorting cocaine” Christmas jersey. Never underestimate the ability of the internet to surprise you.

Enjoy the long weekend everybody!

Jessie

Home and contents: a bird’s eye view

“We shape our buildings; and afterwards our buildings shape us” – so said Winston Churchill. He was referring particularly to the House of Commons’ Chamber, but the statement is true of any building, and it’s a process that works in a myriad of ways. Buildings reflect the world around us, whether by affirming what society values or the norms of the days, or in opposition to that. Those that affirm the values of the day, such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s house, also serve to reinforce those values and to encourage the behaviours that form part of that, rather than challenging the norm or seeking to change it. And so James and Priscilla’s house reflects the ideal that middle class Victorians aspired to, and is characterised by three things: gendered roles, public and private space and display. You could easily extend that argument to cover much of Victorian life, but let’s stick to houses for now.

The house that James and Priscilla built in 1889. Image: M. Hennessey.

Gender, space and display in Victorian houses were all interconnected, most obviously through the connection between public spaces and masculinity and private spaces and femininity. Display weaves its way through those spaces, characterising them as either feminine or masculine and underlying the performance of middle class identity. It might seem strange to us to characterise a space within a house as being feminine or masculine, beyond the obvious example of some children’s bedrooms, although that’s slightly different from the way middle class Victorians thought of space and gender. But interior decoration is frequently characterised as being masculine or feminine – the results of googling “[insert appropriate gender] interior design” are depressingly predictable. And this modern characterisation has at least some of its roots in the Victorian era.

Public versus private space in the home is probably something we’re much more familiar with, and many people are likely to have rooms in their house that they don’t take visitors into, although what rooms in particular probably vary from house to house, depending on the occupants’ preferences. We still use objects in the household along public and private lines, some placed to be seen (recent scrutiny of people’s bookcases on Zoom is an excellent case in point) and others hidden away, or used only to – privately – prepare spaces for public expectations (cleaning products!). There are differences, though – we’re less likely to show off our bedrooms, perhaps. Kitchens, though, are now much more public than they were in the Victorian era, thanks to the rise of open-plan living, changes in gender roles and changes in family life. Ironically, this has led to sculleries becoming a kitchen feature again, as people once again seek to hide the work that goes into preparing a meal, to maintain a sense of order and tidiness throughout. For others, though, the very act of preparing a meal has become an act of performance, particularly with the rise of a ‘foodie’ culture.

An example of recent global fascination with other people’s homes and backgrounds through the Zoom lens.

And we do still think carefully about how we furnish our rooms and what we display in them, although these features are less likely to be built-in (such as ceiling roses and ceiling cornices) than they might have been in the late 19th century. Recent trends in domestic architectural design, though, turn the fabric of the house into a feature that can be related to identity – the particular types of timber used, for example, can convey a message about what environmental values you hold dear. For many of us, though, living in houses we did not build, a great deal of the personal and social identity expressed within our households comes from the ways we use the spaces we have, and the less-fixed material culture we use to construct, augment and change the material world of the building we live in. In this we are not so dissimilar from James and Priscilla, who – although living in a house they built – would still have used objects and furnishings to reinforce notions of behaviour and space within their household.

The material culture of a Victorian household can be viewed from many perspectives, on its own or as part of an aggregate that sheds light on broader patterns in a society or culture. Considered alongside the house itself, it’s fascinating to see how it might have been intertwined with the expression of gender, space and display embedded in the physical structure. The designation of certain rooms – like the parlour or dining room – as feminine or masculine is both complemented and contradicted by the use of objects within the room. The more masculine dining room, for example, would have been filled with the material culture of dining, food production and consumption, objects often considered a reflection of women’s consumer choices and women’s labour. Yet, the material culture of the parlour likely complemented its characterisation as a woman’s space, reinforcing a Victorian ideal of women’s roles as hostesses, mothers and industrious members of the household. This may seem a rigid delineation of space to us now, but its legacy is still visible in the gendered spaces of many modern households (“man-caves”, ugh).  

The material culture of dining. Image: J. Garland.

Other objects reflect Victorian ideals of gender in a way that is divorced from the spaces they occupy within the house – items like perfume, hair care remedies and clothing connected to broader social concepts of feminine and masculine (as they, irritatingly, still do today), but were anchored to a performance of person rather than household space. In this – as with the use of objects to display wealth, status, class, social identity etc. within the household itself – that performance of identity is not just directed at the observer or, in the case of the household, the visitor, but also served to reflect the household back onto itself, reinforcing how James and Priscilla saw themselves within their world as well as how their world saw them. The things they owned connected them to the much wider world in which they lived – not just late 19th century Christchurch, but the broader expanses of British colonial culture and their own personal experiences, through time and across space. Perhaps not all of it would have been evident on first glance – or ever – to those who entered their home, but their participation in and identification with ideas and groups far beyond the walls of their house would nevertheless have been ever-present within their home, through the structure, through the material culture, and through their own social behaviour.

Jessie & Katharine

References

Beaudry, M., 2015. ‘Households beyond the House: On the Archaeology and Materiality of Historical Households’. In Fogle, K. R., Nyman, J. A. and Beaudry, M. C. (eds), Beyond the Walls: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Historical Households. University of Florida Press, Florida, pp. 1-22.

Home and contents: the pantry

And, now, the last room in our tour of James and Priscilla’s house: the pantry! A very small room with a very important function, and one that’s pretty similar to its function today, which is to store food. As you’d expect, pantries made up part of the general kitchen work area at the rear of the house, and they were full of shelves. In the absence of a fridge, most food was stored in here, although there would also probably have been a meat safe, which would have been positioned in one of the kitchen’s external walls. Like the kitchen and scullery, this room was lined with planed, tongued and grooved boards, on both the walls and ceilings. Being associated with a ‘private’ function and that of a woman’s work, this room was plain and functional, with nothing in the way of decorative features.

The pantry. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.
The pantry, with cupboards and shelves that were added during the 20th century. The small size of this room made it difficult to photograph. Image: M. Hennessey.
The pantry walls and ceiling, showing the planed, tongued and grooved wall lining. Image: M. Hennessey.

In terms of its contents, there are two main aspects to consider: the products the Chalmers family might have used and consumed, and the containers in which they were stored. We’ve a fairly good idea of the latter, from the types of ceramic, glass and metal food containers we find for this period, but the former is a little trickier to establish. Food preferences are an interesting thing, a real mix of social and cultural influences, availability (economic, geographic and seasonal), and personal taste. Some products are staples and we can assume, knowing what we do of their background, that Priscilla and James would have had a bottle or jar in the pantry – things like Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, one of the most common foodstuffs we find, or – regardless of brand – foods like jam, pickles, flour. Some of these we can see from the actual brands we find in the archaeological record, others from the jars, bottles, and containers we piece together, many of which had a specific function associated with a specific food.

An array of food containers. Top row: a whiteware crock or jar, which could have contained things like jam or preserves, likely sealed with a cloth covering; stoneware jar, likely to have held pickles, preserves or pastes; Roulland Fils Sardines A L Huile (‘sardines in oil”) sardine tin, the probable contents of which I hopefully don’t need to spell out, n.d. Bottom row: three stoneware jars, a couple of which were found with accompanying stoneware lids; and a tin can, the contents of which could have been all sorts of things. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.
We’ve not really talked about alcohol in these blogs, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Chalmers stored beer, spirits or wine in their pantry as well as food. Black beer bottles, a variety of which are shown on the left, are known to have contained beer, wine and various spirits and are possibly the most common artefact type from nineteenth century Christchurch. On the right, a variety of condiment bottles, from a wide mouth bottle that may have contained capers, to oil and salad dressing bottles to a wide mouth pickle jar. Images: J. Garland.
Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to find bottles and jars that are embossed or printed with the name and maker of the product inside or, more rarely, with the remnants of a paper label still attached. Top row, from left: Crosse and Blackwell Anchovy Paste glass jar, c. 19th century; jar of Bovril, a sort of precursor to Marmite, but a drink, c. early 20th century; French mustard from La Maison Maille, c. 19th century; Mellor and Co. Worcester Sauce bottle with paper label still attached, c. 1870s+; base of a Weston and Westall jar of table salt, c. 1870s. Bottom row, from left: French claret bottles, possibly from the region of St Estephe, Bordeaux, c. 1870s; Grimwade’s Patent Milk bottle, c. 1860s; Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce bottle, c. 19th century; sauce bottle with fragments of label still attached, n.d. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century Christchurch still relied heavily on Britain for trade and the British origins of many of the colonial settlers encouraged the consumption of familiar foods, many of them from England and Scotland. It’s reasonable to assume that the pantry at the Chalmers’s house contained a fair few brands that were British in origin, or foods that hearkened back to British culture. At the same time, by the end of the nineteenth century, food and beverage production in New Zealand was well-established and we start to see increasing evidence of local food brands in the archaeological record (although many of the foods themselves are still very British in nature). It’s very likely that James and Priscilla also had a reasonable quantity of local Christchurch products in their 1890s pantry, from aerated water to pickles and preserves, not to mention local vegetables, dairy and meat (traces of which don’t survive well in the archaeological record). Exactly which products (and in what quantity), however, remains difficult to establish without artefacts from the site itself, as so much of the choice of food consumption at this level is the result of personal preference. We can form a reasonable idea of the food culture to which the Chalmers household identified and with which they participated – especially given the strictures and social expectations of dining and entertaining that we’ve already talked about – but, without material evidence, I can only guess at the specifics of what they ate. Did they like pickled oysters? Did Priscilla prefer Burnett’s vinegar to Champions? Did James like apricot jam or raspberry? Did Margaret think Worcestershire sauce was disgusting or delicious?

British foods found in Christchurch. In particular, Crosse and Blackwell, a British food distributor and manufacturer, are well represented on Christchurch colonial sites. Top row, from left: James Keiller and Sons Dundee Marmalade, c. 19th century; cheese in a jar! Peck’s Gorgonzola Cheese, London, n.d.; Crosse and Blackwell’s Anchovy Paste again, this time in a ceramic jar, c. 19th century; Fred Davies “Cook and Confectioner” jar, probably containing jam or something similar, c. 1880s. Bottom row, from left: bottle with Crosse and Blackwell Calves Feet Jelly label, c. 1870s; vinegar bottle, n.d; Sir Robert Burnett’s Old Tom Gin bottle, c. 1870s; Crosse and Blackwell’s Mushroom Catsup, a kind of early ketchup, only mushroom flavoured, not tomato, c. 1870s. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson.
New Zealand brand foods found on sites in Christchurch. Top from from left: Edmond’s Baking Powder tin, c. 1890s-1900s; Hayward’s Pickles, Christchurch, c. 1890+; H. Olson’s Tomato Sauce, Auckland, c. 1870s-1890s; Kirkpatrick’s jam jar, c. 1883+. Bottom row, from left: Maclean’s Pickle jar, Christchurch, c. 1883+ and Christchurch embossed soda water botle, c. 1860s-1870s. Image: J. Garland.

Many of the foods in the pantry at James and Priscilla’s house would have been familiar to us, especially to those reading this in twenty-first century New Zealand, where the influence of colonial food culture is still very apparent in our own pantries. Others would not: some because we’ve found other ways of getting the nutrition of a particular product; some because our methods of cooking and lifestyles have changed or supply and preservation has changed; and others because they’ve simply fallen out of fashion. Others might seem unfamiliar because we’ve become even more distant from the origins of our food than we were 150 years ago and, a lot of the time, we forget or don’t know what’s in the things we eat. Calves Foot Jelly is one of my favourite examples of this – jelly is still a common resident of the pantry, gelatin still a common ingredient in a huge array of foods, but the labels of those products no longer remind us that gelatin is made from the bones, skins and cartilage of cows and pigs and sheep. For the Chalmers, and other households of the nineteenth century, such a reminder would not have been so necessary.

Edmonds! What could be more familiar to the twenty-first century New Zealand kitchen than that. Image: J. Garland.

As noted at the start of this post, this is the final room in Priscilla and James’s house. From a modern point of view, there are a couple of glaring absences in this tour: a toilet and a bathroom. These are both rooms we would consider an essential part of a house. In fact, you might regard two of each as a bare minimum, depending on your family circumstances. While some late 19th century houses in Aotearoa certainly had indoor bathrooms and toilets, particularly towards the end of the century, this was by no means the norm. Ewers and wash basins (as described for the bedrooms) would have provided the washing facilities for many, with the possibility of some kind of tub arrangement for use in the kitchen, if more thorough washing was required. And toilets were outside. For many, the toilet would have been a long drop or a privy. Flush toilets – water closets – became a possibility for parts of Christchurch after the establishment of the sewerage system in the early 1880s, which you can read more about over here. Even once the system was established, however, there was no compulsion to connect to the sewers. Of course, there are many parts of the world where an outdoor toilet is still the norm.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of James and Priscilla’s house, and that you’ve learnt a little about Victorian domesticity as a result. We’re going to take a short break now, but we will follow up with a concluding post about this house, about domestic life in late 19th century Christchurch and about James and Priscilla Chalmers in a week or so.

For, now, let us leave you with this, my favourite recipe from the nineteenth century and one that involved anchovy paste, a product we’ve found in Christchurch. It’s one we’ve had the misfortune (well, I definitely considered it misfortunate for my taste buds – Jessie) to try. I’ll let you decide what your reaction might be, should you be so lucky to taste it yourself…

Image: Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

Jessie & Katharine

Home and contents: the scullery

The scullery was the second in the suite of three rooms that typically made up the service area of the house. It was typically a small room, located off the kitchen, and it was where dishes were washed. And other things, such as clothes, were washed there too (in houses where there was not a copper, which seems to have most commonly been located in an outbuilding – or at least, that’s where you’re most likely to find archaeological evidence of a copper). You could think of a scullery as a wet room. So no, dishes were not washed in the kitchen. Why not? Well, it was partly because the Victorians believed in the specialisation of room function wherever possible, but also because of the risks of miasmas rising up from drains and causing disease (there is no evidence that there were any drains in this room; Leach 2014: 36). Miasmas (literally, bad air) and the breathing in thereof were believed to be the cause of infectious disease throughout much of the 19th century and  thus people were keen to avoid them wherever possible.

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

But discussing Priscilla’s scullery is a little difficult. Because I’m not completely certain it was a scullery. You see, this particular room is a funny one. Understanding it isn’t helped by the fact that it was extended at some point in its history, probably in the early 20th century, judging by the fabric used. This extension nearly doubled the size of the room but, of course, also removed one of its walls, which may also have removed vital clues to understand how the room was originally used. The entrance to the scullery was via a curiously narrow door, and there was no external door, something sculleries often (Leach 2014: 35). There was also no evidence in the room for where there might have been any benches or the like. Such marks often remain visible on wooden walls, making it possible to better establish what a room looked like or how it functioned.  It’s also not clear whether James and Priscilla’s house had running water when it was built.

The narrow – and colourfully painted! – door from the kitchen into the scullery, on the kitchen side. Image: M. Hennessey.

But sculleries (and kitchens) were typically lined with planed, tongued and grooved boards, as this room was. The story goes that this is because these boards were easier to clean than wallpaper was. The scullery would have contained a sink for all that washing, as well as a bench for draining washed items on and storage space for some of the items used in the kitchen (Leach 2014: 35). Like the kitchen, it was a plain, functional room, with no decorative elements.

The scullery, with the door from the kitchen at left. The batten at right marks the extent of the original scullery. Why the curious jutting out bit of wall to the right of the door is not clear. Image: M. Hennessey.

If this was a scullery, the material culture of the room would have been as plain and functional as the walls. The objects of cleaning and washing and storage: brushes, cleaning products, containers for water and soap. The cleaning products are interesting to me, not just because of the many terrifying ingredients they held and the mistaken ideas of what they were good for, but because they would have been a key aspect of the public presentation of the house and household, despite being very much within the bounds of the private side of the house. A clean, tidy and publicly presentable parlour, bedroom, hallway and dining room required the private household activities of cleaning and starching and washing. It was this work – the work of the room right at the back of the house, away from prying eyes – that propped up that public façade, both of the house and of those who lived within it.

Disinfectants! Used for household cleaning, sickrooms and, extremely unfortunately for the women involved, feminine hygiene. On the left: Kerol, a disinfectant advertised around the turn of the century, sometimes with poetry (from the Colonist 24/02/1920). In the middle: Lysol, a highly toxic disinfectant that was, horrifically, advertised as a douching agent for women in some of the most sexist and awful advertisements I’ve ever seen (example shown from here. And right: a bottle of Jeyes Fluid, a disinfectant commonly found at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It’s very likely that if the Chalmers owned one of these products, they’d have had a bottle of Jeyes Fluid. Image: J. Garland.
Some products came in tins and pots. On the left, a tin of Poliflor Wax, a 1920s New Zealand made polishing wax intended for waxing furniture to a shine, as well as leather goods and floors. On the right, Joseph Pickering and Sons’ Celebrated Polishing Paste, for cleaning and polishing brass, copper and silver, among other metals. Images: J. Garland.
And last, but not least, boot polish! If not carried out in the scullery, it’s quite likely that the implements of boot polishing would have been stored there. Left: blacking bottles, sometimes used for shoe and boot polish, among other things. Centre and left: an advertisement for and example of Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss, advertised specifically for the shoes of ladies and children. Image: J. Garland, Underground Overground Archaeology.

Katharine & Jessie

References

Leach, Helen. Kitchens: The New Zealand Kitchen in the 20th Century. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2014.