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Household Heating, Lighting and Hygiene in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By Marie-Claude Letarte, Louise Pothier, Michel Harnois and Annick Poussart

A big family or maids galore, many pairs of hands were needed to do all the work in a household. Around 1800, to heat a house you needed a good woodstove and... strong muscles to chop and carry the wood; to light with candles you had to repeatedly trim the wick to revive the flame; and for many chores you first had go get water from the well or cistern.

Supplying heat, light and water to the home was hard work. But the era of rustic comforts was coming to an end; industrialization would soon revolutionize domestic life.

Water and personal cleanliness

Sold by water deliverymen, carried by women and children, water didn't exactly appear magically out of nowhere. And its primary use was definitely not personal cleanliness! Bathing was governed by numerous beliefs and restrictions, with the degree of personal hygiene measured largely by the "quality" of one's odours. Privies were relegated to the outdoors, and bodily odours were encased in a layer of clothing - or, if you had the means, masked through the liberal use of perfume!

Once a month, once a week... By about 1800 baths were becoming part of the routine for the bourgeoisie. But many people were reluctant to completely immerse themselves in a bathtub; it was widely believed that prolonged contact with water, especially hot water, was detrimental because it weakened the organs and opened the pores in the skin.

Often, the bath was a simple foot bath or a bidet stool, reserved for women. But every household, those of the wealthy like those of the poor, was equipped with a pitcher and basin for daily bathing.

Soft light and the progress of lighting

All of the comfort in the world in a beam of light... In the 19th century, lighting was a means of socialization. The single candle in the habitant's kitchen, the scattered oil lamps illuminating the living rooms of the bourgeoisie: Light brought family members together.

It was common for a son-in-law to be required to give his in-laws several pounds of candles annually as an annuity.

The search for better light sources was a major preoccupation in the 19th century, and a great deal of research was done on fuel types and the efficiency of various methods of lighting.

Candles made from tallow, or animal fat, and whale- or seal-oil lamps had obvious inconveniences. Tallow candles might need to be trimmed up to 40 times in one evening, and candles made of animal fat produced a very strong smell when burned. Reason enough to find a new light source! In fact, these two types of lighting had all but disappeared by the middle of the 19th century, with the advent of the stearic candle (made from refined tallow), the woven cotton wick and kerosene (made from oil). You could now sit comfortably in a lit room at night ... without gagging and choking!

Cold outside, warm inside

Come September, the battle to ward off the cold was the prime concern of everyone in the house. English-speaking Canadians had long relied on fireplaces - so pleasing to the eye - to warm their homes. But woodstoves, with their radiant - and sometimes suffocating heat - were four times more efficient than open fireplaces. French Canadians had realized their merits in the early 18th century.

When in the 1800s almost everyone had rallied to the more-efficient woodstove, homes themselves began to change. Now that pipes could carry heat to any number of rooms, homes became more compartmentalized.

The standard, all-equipped home

Homes as we've known them since the 1950s, with electrical outlets in each room, fully-equipped bathrooms and central heating, are a legacy of the Victorian era: The 19th century served as the incubator for the advancements of the 20th century.

Most domestic innovations originated in the Industrial Revolution. The tools used in factories were being mechanized, why not those used in the kitchen? The jobs of workers were being rationalized, why not apply the same principles to the home? In Montreal and other North American cities, those responsible for the smooth running of the household wanted to be freed from gruelling domestic chores. Comfort was becoming equated with household efficiency.

A gas stove, all-equipped bathroom, electric lighting... such innovations became possible with the advent of three utility systems: natural gas, water and sewage, and electricity. Homes and cities were transformed overnight. Comfort was becoming available to all, and affordable.

But industrialization was accompanied by the growth of working-class neighbourhoods and, in turn, the degradation of living conditions in the urban environment. Unfit and overcrowded housing was rampant - all the impetus needed to give rise to a new breed of crusader: the hygienists.

Supported by both empirical observation, the house to house investigation, and scientific advances such as Pasteur's discoveries on the transmission of disease by bacteria, committees of experts began drawing up public health regulations. Drinking water was to be filtered and purified, homes were to be provided with adequate plumbing and rooms were to be scrubbed and disinfected.

Montreal's water distribution system was inaugurated in 1856. After 1918, most homes in the city were supplied with filtered and chlorinated water. Natural gas, the first wickless source of lighting, became popular after 1860 whether as a means of lighting, cooking or heating. Finally, clean and adaptable electricity appeared in homes around 1900, never to leave!

Conquering housework

Utility hook-ups, energy sources at the flick of a switch, homes were modernizing. A whole range of new household devices ensured even greater comfort in the home. Would the electric motor that Nikola Tesla introduced in 1899 result in less drudgery? Little by little, the American dream was taking shape...

After 1920, every domestic chore was transformed. Women no longer had to take their carpets outside three or four times a year to beat them clean; now all they had to do was go over them once a week with an electric vacuum cleaner. Mechanization was making household chores easier, but it was also multiplying them!

Source: "Warm, Clean and Comfortable: Two Centuries of Domestic Technology," Exhibition Texts, McCord Museum, 1998-1999


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