Writing your family history – small domestic tasks

I had a great session with my Family History Writing Group; we are exploring how to tell the story of the past, our past, our forebears and ancestors. Sometimes their lives were mundane and ordinary, sometimes incredible and extraordinary. But how do we write about them? How do we make accessible all the work we have done on our genealogy?

My group ponders and thinks about this. Today, as a starter, I gave extracts from a selection of 1940’s and 50’s books which explained all about domestic tasks, just ordinary everyday things which we do now, and the people who came before us also did – but differently.

Here’s a selection of extracts from a variety of sources (including me):

  • How easy for me, and how hard it was in past generations; the mum and daughters would be up early to light the fire under the copper to heat the water – in even earlier generations I guess it would be pans of water over the fire, or just using cold water from the pump or nearby stream or river. Once the water was hot, then the clothes could be washed – or in case of whites, boiled, along with some powder or soap to get the marks out. Things would have been scrubbed, washboards used, things pounded on slabs, or stones by the river. To get rid of excess water the washing would be squeezed and wrung and passed through a mangle. Then the laundry could be put on a line, or thrown over a bush, or laid out on clean pasture. Wooden pegs, wooden clothes props, and wooden clothes horses… I do have wooden pegs, but I have a whirligig clothes line and plastic-coated, metal clothes horse.
  • Recipes From an Old Farm Kitchen – Sue Robb
    When farmhands were in plentiful supply those who did not sleep in the loft over the kitchen had to be in the yard by 6a.m. That meant a long walk in the eerie morning light, and potholes were like a magnet to the steel toecap of a big nailed boot. Putties were unrolled every morning and bandaged from boot to knee cap. They were part of the farm workers uniform in the days of earthen floors, ash pits and brass knobbed kettles. The fire in the hearth or the big black range had to be lit, then to wait patiently until it was well kindled before putting on the outsize pan filled with thick slices of home cured salty bacon, soda farls and yellow yoked eggs.
  • The Happy Housewife Ruth Drew
    • when putting clothes through a wringer, see that the buttons and trimmings are folded inside for protection
    • berets and caps can be dried successfully on plates or basins of the appropriate size –
    • Do not peg corsets or girdles for drying by shoulder straps or suspenders. Hang lengthwise
    • Getting really dirty collars clean – Wet the collars overnight. Massage in some soapflakes, or detergent powder. Roll each up tightly, like a Chelsea bun. This loosens dirt gently
    • To wash delicate old lace – pour some suds made with the best quality detergent into a jam jar or wide-necked bottle. Pop the lace into the jar, cover the top, and shake really well. Rinse thoroughly and roll in a towel to absorb the moisture
    • To wash corduroy at home – the bath is the best tub! Move the corduroys up and down in a rich lather. Don’t rub or twist. Go over very dirty places with a soft nailbrush. Hang to drip dry – no wringing please
  • The Happy Housewife Ruth Drew
    Rugs for the bedroom or nursery can be made from oddments of unravelled wool. Either work in firm double crochet using the wool double or treble, or work in garter stitch, again using the wool double or treble. The needles should be fairly fine compared with the thickness of the wool, to make a firm fabric. Alternatively, several thicknesses of wool to make tufted rugs or mats, a delightful multi-coloured spot effect being obtained by making every tuft a different colour.

Unravelled wool is as good as, and sometimes better than new wool for darning, and a collection of oddments is invaluable when trying to match colours for mending or embroidery.

  • Constance Spry
    • if you don’t have a double sink supplement your single one with a rinsing bowl
    • use soap flakes not detergent (if you have to use detergent take special care with rinsing so no smell is left behind)
    • a slice of lemon dipped in salt will remove tea stains from cups
    • use a little vinegar in your rinsing water
    • do as old-fashioned housewives did – boil your silver spoons and forks, dry while hot, and polish with a leather (this avoids cleaning with ‘plate powder’)
    • dry mustard rubbed on the blade of a knife removes the smell of fish or onions
    • fine wire wool and soap is the best way to clean saucepans (wire wool once used becomes rusty so keep it in a jar of cold water – you can also add left over bits of soap to the water)
  • Constance Spry – washing up: what you will need:
    • fairly loose-fitting, rough-surfaced rubber gloves
    • one or possibly two papier mâché bowls
    • a rubber scraper
    • a roll of rough crêpe paper, sold for the purpose of wiping crockery or cutlery clean before washing
    • two or three mops
    • tea and glass cloths
  • Historically most ordinary households wouldn’t have had sinks; water would have been brought in buckets from a well or pump and then decanted as needed. Then a bowl to contain water to wash dishes would have been the only way to do it; later such chores as  washing clothes would have moved from an outside activity in a stream or river, to an inside activity, using a sink – then it would have been important to have a separate bowl for dish washing. The first sinks would have been made of some hard material, some sort of stoneware or ceramic and it would be easy to accidentally break dishes or cups against the sides, so an inserted tub or bowl would have been practical from that point of view.
  • Recipes From an Old Farm Kitchen – Sue Robb
    • onion porridge to cure a cold – 3 large onions, peeled, soaked in water then chopped and 1 apple chopped added to ½ teacup of water, 1 teaspoon honey, 3 cloves, water salt and pepper all simmered together until tender and eaten at supper time
    • an old-fashioned remedy for exhaustion – two fresh eggs beaten with a little warm water… apparently “inside 15 minutes the eggs thus taken all turned to nourishment…
    • celery milk for rheumatism – wash, trim and chop sticks of celery into small pieces, simmer in water and milk for an hour, pound then strain through a jelly bag and use as required freshly made


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