The stuff we think we need – it wasn’t always so
While most of us wouldn’t want to go back to the way people lived centuries ago, it is interesting to look at the development of possessions through the ages.
It is only in the last hundred years or so that what we consider the essentials in our homes has become such a long list.
In Medieval homes people didn’t have special rooms for sleeping, just a single living space for everything.
The poorest lived in simple wooden huts of wooden frame filled with wattle and daub. They were generally just one room, with windows that had no panes of glass, only shutters. Floors were often just earth covered with straw and cooking was done on a fire in the centre of the room. Furniture would be benches or stools and a simple wooden table with chests for storing clothes and other valuables. Tools and pottery vessels were hung on hooks. The inhabitants slept on straw.
Rich people’s homes were hung with wool tapestries or painted linen. They were not just for decoration. They also helped keep out drafts.
There were no bathrooms and use of a chamber pot in the bedroom, once they existed, was common.
Bathrooms Didn’t Exist
Over time bed linen, sheets, blankets and eiderdowns all developed, reaching a peak of sophistication in the nineteenth century.
Two hundred years ago, bathrooms didn’t exist. The bathroom’s development has not been a straightforward matter, and you might be surprised to learn that many Tudor people had worse personal hygiene than their medieval ancestors.
By Tudor times glass had begun to be used in the windows of the wealthier homes, but as it was expensive to produce people would often take the glass with them when they moved.
Furniture was becoming more widespread, but still basic. For the wealthy it would be made of oak and was heavy and large but was expected to last through the generations. Comfortable beds with feather mattresses were more common among the emerging middle classes.
While chairs were more common than in the Middle Ages the poor still had to make do with stools and benches.
During the Jacobean period for the middle classes there was more specialisation in rooms developing, centred around a hall, where people would eat, entertain and socialise, but by later in the century, the parlour and the dining room became the main living areas for the family, and more expensive items from overseas like silver, porcelain, colourful textiles, mirrors and clocks to adorn their homes started to appear.
Poor Homes Remained Much The Same
But life for the poor remained much the same with very plain and basic furniture. However there were some improvements in poor people’s houses in the 17th century in that houses were built of brick or stone.
Chimneys, too, became more widespread but glass in windows was still a luxury until late in the century when it became cheaper to produce.
By the 1700s, rooms were becoming larger with the important entertaining and family rooms on the first floor at the front above the noise at street level and there would be a family parlour would be at with bedrooms were on the second floor with servants and ‘poor relations’ housed in smaller rooms right at the top of the house.
By this time, carpets had moved from the walls onto the floor and fireplaces became a focal point in many homes.
However, craftsmen and labourers lived in just two or three rooms, with the poorest people still living in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain.
By the Victorian era homes were becoming divided into more specialised spaces, among the wealthier often with 12 rooms or more including bedrooms with adjacent dressing rooms, and large reception rooms with high ceilings, elaborate moulded plaster cornices and marble fireplaces.
Specialised rooms included the sitting room or parlour for females, the dining room or study for the men of the house. Towards the end of this period most middle class homes had flushing toilets, gas lighting, inside toilets and open coal fires.
Labour Saving Devices
The kitchen and the scullery for the laundry were on the ground floor and a proliferation of equipment was emerging, including the forerunner of the fridge – the ice box – a wooden cupboard, insulated with cork, lined in tin or zinc and filled with ice.
However, early 19th century housing for the poor was still appalling, often consisting of ‘back-to-backs’ – houses of three, or sometimes only two rooms, one of top of the other, with the living room/kitchen at the bottom and the upper rooms used as bedrooms. Many people were still sleeping on straw even at this stage of history.
Over the century workers’ houses, especially after 1875, when most towns passed building regulations which stated that e.g. new houses must be a certain distance apart, rooms must be of a certain size and have windows of a certain size.
While most working class Victorians lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms even at the end of the 19th century there were still many families living in one room.
In the early 1900s new labour-saving devices, such as early washing machines and vacuum cleaners, were becoming more widespread and the first electric fridge was invented, but was only seen in the very richest of homes – most housewives still used a marble shelf in their larder.
At the start of the 20th century working class homes in Britain had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.
20th Century Improvements
During the 20th century ordinary people’s furniture greatly improved in quality and design but ordinary people did not have electric light until the 1920s and 1930s.
By 1959 about two thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However, fridges and washing machines did not become really common till the 1960s.
So, it was not until the second half of the 20th Century that ordinary homes began to be filled with “designer” furniture, gadgets, soft furnishings, fitted carpets, and eventually all those gadgets and gizmos that we think are so essential just 70 years or so later.