Nineteenth century household hints: from bedbugs to hartshorn

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Portfolio
  • Nineteenth century household hints: from bedbugs to hartshorn

Weblog post: Research Tips for Writers

I’m always running into terms which stump me while reading 19th century newspapers and articles.  You can look things up, of course, but what we now understand under ‘hartshorn’ may have changed a lot since the 1880s. 

The best source for information on 19th century terms, especially when it comes to housekeeping and medicine (in my experience) is, where out of print works are made available to read online. And the technology is very good. You can search for terms inside books, read page by page on line, or download entire volumes. 

These sources are valuable for a wide range of reasons, only one of which is the cost: nothing. This becomes significant when you look at contemporary scholarly studies of the same subject, for example  The Objects and Textures of Everyday Life in Imperial Britain (Amazon link) which looks very interesting, but not so interesting that I’ll pay $150 for 244 pages. This is the problem with scholarly publications. 

Here is a list of books on housekeeping that you can consult online and I have found useful. So for example, when it occurred to me that in the 1880s they may not have used the word ‘armoire’ I started with a general Google search, went on to look at websites that specialize in antiques, and ended up at to see how ‘armoire’ ‘wardrobe’ and ‘dresser’ were used. I found what I needed. If not I would have gone on to search novels written in the 1880s for these words.

The housewife’s library. George A. Peltz. 1883.

Housekeeping and home-making, with chapters on dress and gossip. Marion Harland. 1883.

click for a larger image

A domestic cyclopædia of practical information. Todd S. Goodholme. 1878.

Miss Leslie’s lady’s house-book; a manual of domestic economy containing approved directions for [everything] (also available at hathitrust, another great place for reference works). Eliza Leslie. 1869.

Another book which would be extremely useful but is not available online (if you find it somewhere in the ether, please let me know) is this gem:

The Art of Housekeeping: a Bridal Garland.  M.E. Haweis. 1889.

I saw Mrs. Hawais’s title  quoted in  Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, by Judith Flanders (out of print, but readily available for a few dollars, used) on the subject of bedbugs, which were not to be expected in decent bedrooms, according to Mrs. Hawais, but might be imported unwittingly from cab, omnibus or train. 

Keating’s Power

One technique for dealing with bedbugs was to call a carpenter in the spring, who would take all the  beds outside, dismantle them, scrub every piece with calcium hypochlorite and then douse it all with Keating’s powder (a pyrethrum-based insecticide). Sometimes this had to be more than once. 

I realize that my fascination with the details of 19th century life might strike you as somewhat odd, but I yam what I yam. And I write about these things, so there’s an upside.