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