I wrote a while back about how smelly a place the past was. I spoke about horse manure in the streets, open sewers, pea-soup fogs and clothes infrequently laundered. I meant it when I said my eyes watered at the thought of a tannery next door, but the reality is that I live in nice suburban house, in a big suburban garden untouched by night soil. My neighbours, while occasionally letting their swimming pool turn green, are clean folk who have never slaughtered or skinned an animal in their yard.
I had no real concept of this dirty, dirty (and smelly) past until this past weekend. On Sunday, Charming Husband, Devious Daughter, Salubrious Son and 16 members of our immediate family (23Thorns’ family is not doing their bit to manage population growth) caught a steam train from Pretoria to Cullinan.
Cullinan is a small diamond mining town north of Pretoria named after the original mine owner, Thomas Cullinan. In 1905 a miner named Thomas Evan Powell brought to the surface the largest gemstone quality diamond in the world. It weighed in at over 3100 carats. It was named the Cullinan Diamond, cut into nine pieces and given to King Edward VII as a birthday present. The two largest stones were set into the Royal Sceptre and the British Imperial Crown. I’m not sure that I speak for all South Africans here, but I imagine we’d quite like to have them back. Our president is building himself a R200 million (that’s about 20m Sterling or 25m USD) palace in rural Kwazulu Natal and I dare say ‘The Great Star of Africa’ at 530 carats would make a particularly fetching door knocker.
(Oh dear! I am laughing so much at my own silly poster that I’m not sure I can get back on track here.)
So…us band of merry adults, wholly outnumbered by our children, gathered along the tracks on a beautiful summer’s morning for our 2 1/2 hour train journey to Cullinan. It was terribly exciting. Steam coughed from the engine scaring the children. Engineers fiddled with copper pipes and handles. We drank hot coffee from polystyrene cups and imagined ourselves in another time. A time when life was slower. A time when you didn’t need seatbelts but you did need a corset.
By the time we got going, it was working up to be a pretty warm day. Despite forecast rain, the temperature was quickly approaching 30 Celsius (I think that’s about 90 Fahrenheit). The 1950s passenger cars were not air-conditioned. This was authentic steam travel. How thrilling! How quaint! We opened the train windows to feel the wind in our hair and, to be honest, to blow dry the rivulets of sweat that were dripping down our noses. Almost immediately, however, I realised that it was not wind in our hair but granular, very black coal smoke from the engine. It got in our eyes and noses. We choked. We spluttered. We were covered in black dust which clung to our sweaty bodies. We were very dirty, very quickly.
It was a spectacular day though. Cullinan is wonderful: sandstone miner’s cottages with wooden floors and pressed steel ceilings, antique shops, people walking the streets, a children’s playground with rusted old mine equipment for the children to play on (!). Only one child fell ill on the journey and only one received a head-wound which required medical attention.
While we all loved every second of it, I don’t think I have ever felt dirtier than I did on Sunday evening. I was so excited to see my bathroom with its shampoos and bubble baths and body lotions and perfumes and soaps, I could almost have popped. I’ve gathered a few other modern comforts below. Even if I don’t take them entirely for granted, it is nice occasionally to be reminded that we really do live in the best of times despite all that is still wrong with the world.
In early modern times (looking at the period from 1500 to the French Revolution of 1769) most families worked, ate, and slept in one room of the house. Separate rooms for separate functions are relatively new.
In terms of furniture, beds of a sort were a given, although you shared them with brothers, sisters, grannies and sometimes goats. Chairs and tables though are new. Most peasant houses would have had a board stored up against a wall which could be balanced on boxes or trestles at mealtimes. Benches pushed up against the walls for the day could be moved into place for mealtimes. Basque tradition forbade women from eating at the table of the paterfamilias. In several other European countries, the women and children were also expected to stand for the meal while the men sat and got to choose their food and eat it first.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am very grateful for sofas and dining room tables and chairs. My children have enough trouble not messing food and drink as it is. I cannot begin to imagine what a floor of rushes would look like after a standing meal with my lot. That being said, in the late 18th century crofters in the Outer Hebrides shared their homes with chickens, geese, goats and cows. The rush floor was only changed once a year! Once a year! We couldn’t compete.
Chicken for all
If you were poor or a single woman, you couldn’t eat chicken. In the early modern period, birds and fowl were considered suitable fare for the upper classes living as they did above ground. Turnips from underground were suitable for the lower classes. Poultry was thought to increase sexual excitement, so single women and widows were instructed to avoid it to preserve their chastity.
No tea and god forbid, no coffee
Tea only arrived in England in the beginning of the 17th century. Coffee houses only started appearing in England about 50 years after that although you could have popped over to Venice from the 1570s onwards and enjoyed a cup. A long way for my morning sanity!
To compensate for this deprivation, English families in the 17th century – both adults and children - drank about 3 litres of beer per day per person. Life without water must have given one a headache.
So there you have it. I am grateful for coffee. I am grateful for bathing daily. I am grateful that delousing my children doesn’t form part of my daily ritual. I am so grateful I do not smear them in grease and sew them into their vests at the beginning of winter. I’ll go on the steam train again though. I want to spend a night in Cullinan and I want to go down the mine. Next time though, I’ll take along waterless hand cleaners and more wipes.
For more on why we are blessed, read Family Life in Early Modern Times ed. David I. Kertzer and Mario Barbagli published by Yale University Press ISBN 0300089716