Category Archives: women

Life before plastic

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An example of 19th century nitrocellulose jewellery – if you rubbed it, it could explode! From Wikipedia Commons.

Many visiting students are shocked to learn that plastic didn’t exist in 19th century Australia. The Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750, encouraged the creation of many products which could be mass-produced in the newly-invented factories. Some plastic-like products – like fake ivory jewellery – were being produced as early as the 1860s, but the nitrocellulose from which they were made was extremely dangerous. Wikipedia says ‘When dry, nitrocellulose is explosive and can be ignited with heat, spark, or friction’! Therefore, the development of modern plastics (largely made from the fossil fuel crude oil) is a 20th century story. So how did people survive without plastic in the 1800s?

At Sovereign Hill, we have numerous garbage and recycling bins so our visitors can dispose of their rubbish responsibly, but these didn’t really exist in 19th century Ballarat. Before cheap plastics and paper (paper was expensive before we began making it entirely from wood pulp in factories), people rarely produced household waste. Items were reused and often re-purposed, and when they eventually fell apart, they would be disposed of in the fireplace or in the garden where most would biodegrade. Let’s describe a typical (European) family home’s production of waste over a normal goldrush day here in Ballarat to compare and contrast it to a family’s waste output today.

The family wakes at dawn (clocks were made of metal and were therefore expensive, so most people were woken by the sun). Their bedsheets were mass-produced in Manchester, England, from cotton shipped from the United States of America, and their woollen blankets were made in Bradford, England, from wool shipped from Victoria. If they were wealthy, they might also own a hand-made possum-skin rug, bought from the Wadawurrung people – these were sold on the Ballarat diggings for the equivalent of $4000-$5000 in today’s money! All of these items were made to last, and once they had reached the end of lives as sheets and blankets, they would be made into clothes or nappies (most 21st century nappies are made of plastic), used to stuff pillows, or as cleaning rags.

manchester from kersal moor by edward goodall c.1850

An industrial city indeed, full of cotton-spinning factories. Manchester from Kersal Moor, by Edward Goodall, c.1850. From Wikipedia Commons.

The house would be warmed by lighting a fire in the fireplace. This is also where the family meal would be prepared. Today, our energy is produced hundreds of kilometres away, by burning fossil fuels like coal or harnessing the energy of wind through turbines. Their fire fuel – wood – would be cut down from a nearby forest. Even the ash from the fire found other uses in 19th century Australia; ash could be used to make soap, polish metals, keep snails off the lettuce, fertilise the garden, or be used in the outhouse (also known as a ‘dunny’)!

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Clarke Bros. Grocers at Sovereign Hill – sometimes we have to wrap food in plastic for safety reasons, even though it isn’t historically accurate.

A breakfast would be prepared using food grown in the garden, or bought at the local grocer’s (the supermarket wasn’t invented for another 70 years!). Most store-bought food would be sold wrapped in paper (often wax paper), or perhaps even weighed and placed immediately into the family’s cooking pot (made of local iron from Lal Lal) or bucket (often made of cheap leather at this time). Only (relatively expensive) preserves like jam or mustard would be sold in glass jars or ceramic (clay) pots. After the meal, food scraps would be used again in cooking (bones for making broth/soup) or fed to the family chickens/pigs/goats/dog. The wax paper would be reused to wrap other foods until it disintegrated (the invention of Tuppaware was nearly 100 years off) and it would then be thrown in the fire. Jars or ceramic pots would be saved for another household purpose. The plates used to eat such a meal would have most likely been made in Staffordshire, England from nearby natural clays, and then shipped (by wind/steam power) to Australia. Drinking water was collected from local rivers and groundwater pumps.

If children were lucky enough to be sent to school, there they would learn the ‘3 R’s’ (reading, writing, and arithmetic) using slate boards and graphite pencils (which would last many generations of students) in the younger years, and after Grade 4 would begin using paper, ink, and dip pens (but only if they passed the Grade 3 writing test – paper was too expensive to make inky mistakes on!). For most children except the very wealthy, 19th century toys were typically handmade from wood or animal bones (which are all biodegradable materials, unlike plastic). As school uniforms were yet to be invented, children simply wore their normal clothes to school.

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Clothes waste in the 21st century – a big problem because much of it will never biodegrade. From Wikipedia Commons.

While cloth for making things like sheets and clothing was getting cheaper in price thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most people – including children – merely owned two to three outfits at any one time. The wardrobe only became common in houses in the 20th century when ready-to-wear clothing became fashionable and was being produced very cheaply. Therefore, in the 19th century your clothing was cared for, and carefully patched and refitted, until the fabric disintegrated. Clothing was most commonly made of cotton (or sometimes other biodegradable natural fibres like wool or silk), whereas today lots of the clothing in your wardrobe is made of plastic.

While the children were at school, and wives/mothers busied themselves with 19th century housewifery, men would be at work. Most men in Ballarat worked in the goldmining industry, or in another industry that supported mining, such as a candleworks or foundry. These types of workplaces produced some waste (but nothing in comparison to most industries today!), and while some was biodegradable, some industrial waste from the 19th century is still causing pollution to Ballarat’s soil and waterways today (like arsenic from mining). The safety clothes men wore (if any!) were made from thick leather and would often last their entire working lives.

At lunch time, family members would return home for a hot meal prepared by the woman of the house. If the wife/mother had found the time to visit the grocer, baker, or butcher (all selling food produced locally – refrigeration wasn’t invented yet, so only dry food like flour, lentils and herbs could travel vast distances), she may have fresh food to serve the family. Otherwise, people ate preserved foods like salted meat, stewed fruits or re-hydrated beans. Fizzy drinks were invented in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that mass-produced glass and good sealing techniques made these beverages widely available. Dinner would be similar to lunch, and any leftovers would be saved for the next meal.

At night, candles made from animal fat (called tallow) would be lit if the family could afford it. Soap was also made from animal fat at this time. Again, today your candles and soaps are most commonly made of petrochemicals (taken from crude oil, the same as plastic).

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A typical sight at the supermarket today – food wrapped in plastic. From Wikipedia Commons.

So, no plastic for covering or storing food, no plastic for toys, no clothes made from plastic, and no plastic safety wear at work. No drinks in plastic bottles, no plastic bags to carry the groceries, and no plastic pens and rulers etc. for school. This meant there was no need for weekly bin collections – because there were no bins! Life certainly was different in the 1850s.

Links and References

What is plastic?: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic

The history of waste management: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_waste_management

An ABC Catalyst episode on the arsenic in Ballarat’s soil: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2843289.htm

A 4-part vlog on life as an 1850s woman produced by Sovereign Hill: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/students/video/woman-of-the-hill/

A great documentary series about the history of the rooms of our houses (and many of the items you can find in them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrn42rvTlpk

1850s Hair Dos and Don’ts

While you may think that hairdos in history aren’t really worth studying, they can actually tell us a lot about what life was like in the past. A hairdo can tell us about technology, through the kinds of products historical ‘dos’ required, or about fashion and making a statement, or about social class (whether you were rich or poor, powerful or powerless … ), and it can even be handy for dating historical paintings and photographs!

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A collection of unknown Ballarat women from the Gold Museum collection sporting a range of 19th century hairdos. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum.

For thousands of years, people have enjoyed using hair from their heads to decorate their bodies. Hair can be a very important part of someone’s identity; it can relate to religion, law (yes, there have been laws in history that have controlled hairdos!) or simply fashion, and, of course, hairdos are closely linked with humanity’s various and ever-changing ideas around beauty.

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Self-portrait of Queen Victoria, 1835. An image from Wikipedia Commons.

In the 19th century, hairdos for women in the British Empire (which included Australia) tended to follow the style of Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years. This powerful woman had a huge influence over all things fashion, and is even thought to be the bride who popularised the white wedding dress, which many women still wear today. Before her time, British women simply wore their best dress on their wedding day, whatever the colour. Fashions in both hair and clothes changed a great deal during her time as queen, as you can see here.

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The first known photograph of Queen Victoria, pictured here with her eldest daughter, c.1845. An image from Wikipedia Commons.

By the 1850s, Queen Victoria tended to wear her hair parted in the middle. It was either pulled back behind the ears (which would then be covered by a day cap/bonnet), or would be used to cover the ears when a head covering wasn’t necessary (at a ball, for example). Otherwise, she, like the millions of women in her empire during this time in history, covered their heads out of Christian politeness, and always when outside (providing they could afford it!). Not only did wearing head coverings out of doors keep your hair clean before the invention of the shower and hair dryer, they tended to protect you from sunburn. And back then, fancy ladies wanted the whitest skin possible – ‘Only peasants and natives have tans!’. Beauty ideals like these demonstrate how acceptable racism (and classism) was in the 19th century.

For men, the beginning of the 1800s saw the end of elaborate powdered wigs and a return to natural hairstyles and colours. A few decades later and beards and moustaches also came into fashion. A male fashionista of the time, Beau Brummell, led the way with these new, relaxed, natural hairdos, which got shorter and more controlled as the century rolled on. Hair styling products such as hair oil became popular with men during this time; however, they didn’t have the means to wash it out like we do today (with shampoo) until the 1890s. The first shampoos were powders, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that we saw the invention of liquid shampoos.

Most people’s washing habits in 1850s Ballarat mirrored those practiced in England; however, clean water (that which wasn’t polluted by goldmining or human waste near it … ) on the diggings was often hard to come by. Miners and their wives would pay a lot of money – particularly during dry summers – for buckets of fresh water taken from what was then called Yuille’s Swamp (now Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree). Bathing usually only happened once a week (typically on Saturday nights so the family was clean for church on Sunday), but that bath wasn’t for washing hair, and besides, you had to share the water with your entire family because it was so scarce!

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Photograph of an unknown man dubbed the “Chinese Giant”, 1870. Notice his long queue. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum. 

Of course there were many nationalities present on the Ballarat goldfields, which meant yet more hair styles could be seen around 1850s Ballarat. One of the most striking hairstyles common during this era was the ‘queue’ worn by Ballarat’s many Chinese miners. Back in China, it was compulsory for men to sport this ‘do’, which involved shaving the front of the head, and growing the back very long and wearing it in a plait. The Aboriginal people of this region – the Wadawurrung people – may have worn their hair differently to the Europeans and the Chinese; however, from the limited photographic evidence we have, many appear to have adopted European hairstyles by this time.

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Marcel curlers, also known as hot curling irons or hot curling tongs. 

An exploration of 19th century hair in Australia wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the fashion for hair artworks and even hair jewellery, which was commonly something a lady would give to her lover, or someone would make from the hair of a recently deceased loved one. You can see lots of examples of this curious practice here. Another weird habit of European women in the 1800s was the collecting of hair from a hairbrush to use as padding to create certain hairdos. Hair was collected in a ‘hair receiver’ and then moulded as required into a ‘rat’ to place inside a bun or to give hair volume. Lastly, the rather terrifying ‘Marcel Wave’ hair curler became popular towards the end of the century, even though it was very easy to burn your hair off while using it – it was heated in the fire before being applied to hair!

Links and References

A pictorial overview of Victorian hair styles: http://www.whizzpast.com/victorian-hairstyles-a-short-history-in-photos/

A series of videos on this history of women’s hairdos (Eurocentric): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpGc2ylEgfQ&list=PLWpk-1VZu_yM5ms7Mm1wBirhm5G1UPOwZ

A brief visual history of men and women’s hairdos through history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVr8W6HME4A

A video on the history of shampoo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEjeTYzZjzg

Horrible Histories on Incan shampoo…: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqWoWscljQs

A great history of hair from the Chertsey Museum: http://chertseymuseum.org/hair

A great BBC article on the history of the wedding dress: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140503-how-wedding-dresses-evolved

A woman’s life on the Ballarat goldfield: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf

Childhood in the 1850s

Growing up on the Victorian goldfields was tough, even for children from rich families. If you had healthy parents, you could expect to have lots of brothers and sisters, and if they couldn’t afford to send you to school, you would be sent to work instead. Girls and boys experienced childhood quite differently back then, and if you had one or even two toys, you were a lucky child indeed!

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Ballarat Orphanage boot factory, date unknown. Reproduced with permission of the Gold Museum.

Life on the goldfields was dangerous for children. While falling down a mineshaft or being trodden-on by a horse was always a risk, the big killer of children was disease. In the 1850s, people – especially children – often died from diseases which rarely kill Australians today, like scarlet fever, pneumonia, diphtheria and consumption (tuberculosis). However, children were most likely to die from drinking water contaminated by human ‘poo’ … Horrible diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid killed thousands of children during the Victorian gold rushes. Until Germ Theory was developed and the flushing toilet introduced, such ‘poopy’ diseases could kill as many as HALF of all British children before the age of five! Parents sometimes died of diseases and accidents too, and life was especially tough for the orphans of the gold rushes. Fortunately, we had kind people (philanthropists) in Ballarat like Emanuel Steinfeld, who established a free school for local orphans during the gold rushes.

19th century goldrush families tended to be larger than Australian families today; having lots of children ensured that some survived to old age and were therefore able to look after their elderly parents (there was no pension to support senior citizens back then). Another reason for large families was tradition. Before the Industrial Revolution (c.1750-1900), most Europeans lived and worked on farms, and having lots of children meant that you had extra hands to help look after the animals and grow the food. That’s why many children worked in England’s factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was absolutely normal for children to work and contribute to the household income. So, when Europeans moved to Victoria in their tens-of-thousands during the gold rushes, many brought this idea of working children with them. Young boys often worked in mines or as assistants to labourers and shopkeepers, while young girls would train as maids or seamstresses (women who sew clothes) but would only work until they were married (because after that they were expected to be full-time mothers and housewives).

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Lollies – like our famous raspberry drops – were adult treats in the 19th century!

Eventually, people decided that childhood was a special time in a person’s life and should be dedicated to learning and play, which meant that sending a child to work became illegal. Nowadays, children in Victoria can’t legally work until they are 13 years old, and can only work then if they have a special ‘Child Employment Permit’ from the State Government. If you are 15 years or older, you are free to work without a permit.

Believe it or not, there was no free schooling in Victoria until the 1870s. So, if your family arrived in Ballarat in the 1850s, you would only be sent to school if your parents could afford the tuition costs. This meant that lots of poor children didn’t learn to read and write, and girls were often kept at home to learn the ‘art’ of housekeeping while their brothers received an education. If girls were sent to school, they often learnt different skills to the boys (they might learn cross-stitch while the boys learnt technical drawing). The girls were also encouraged to play different games to the boys during the breaks between lessons. ‘Graces’, for example, was a game specifically for girls. During the 1850s and 60s, it is thought that only half of Victoria’s children were lucky enough to get an education (Bradby, D. and Littlejohn, M., Life in Colonial Australia, Walker Books Australia, 2015, p.17).

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Girls playing a gentle, ‘feminine’ game of Graces in the Sovereign Hill Costumed Schools Program.

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Women’s underwear in the 19th century: a corset, chemise and pantalettes.

Boys and girls wore very different clothes during the gold rushes, but only after a boy was ‘breeched’. Both boys and girls wore dresses until boys were toilet-trained and considered ‘ready’ for pants (in those days, boys’ pants were called knickerbockers). This ‘breeching’ often involved a little party to celebrate this rite-of-passage for young boys. Girls wore short dresses and smocks over their pantalettes (loooong white underpants) until the age of 12-14 when they would begin wearing women’s clothes like crinolines, corsets and long dresses. Not long after this, they would start looking for a husband … Young women usually married quite young in comparison to now, while young men waited until they had a good job and enough money to support a wife and children. Those who had been academic high-achievers at school could become teachers from as young as 14 years of age!

Being an Aboriginal young person would have been very difficult at this time also; by the 1850s, thousands of Victorian Aboriginal people had been forced off their ancestral lands by European sheep farmers and gold miners. Many Aboriginal people across Australia found it very difficult to practise traditional culture, and pass on their knowledge, skills and stories to the next generation thanks to the European colonisation of this continent.

So, if you could be born in another historical period, would you choose the 19th century? Why/why not?

Links and References

The history of child labour: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labour

Industrial Revolution English children – in their own words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87eVOpbcoVo

The history of the concept of childhood video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MqMuqJpVyM

The history of the concept of childhood on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood#History

Children on the goldfields: http://www.resourcesandenergy.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/109324/children-on-the-goldfields.pdf

More information about children on the goldfields: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/golden-victoria/life-fields/children

School in the 1850s: http://www.myplace.edu.au/decades_timeline/1850/decade_landing_15_1.html?tabRank=3&subTabRank=2

Children’s fashion in the 1850s: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/11/26/gold-rush-babes-childrens-fashion-in-the-1850s/

Women’s work in the 19th century: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/womens_work_01.shtml

Bradby, D. and Littlejohn, M., Life in Colonial Australia, Walker Books Australia, 2015.

Deary, T., Horrible Histories: Vile Victorians, Scholastic Children’s Books, London, 1994.

Fabian, S. and Morag, L., Children in Australia: An Outline History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980.

In praise of washing machines

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An 1850s ‘washing machine’.

Many historians believe that the invention of electricity was the most important nineteenth century invention because it changed women’s lives dramatically. In the 1850s, there was no electricity and therefore no electric washing machine. What did this mean for those charged with washing the family’s clothes?

Nineteenth century gender roles, meaning the different kinds of jobs men and women were expected to do, were very strict – men worked outside the home in the ‘public’ world, while women worked inside the home in the ‘private’ world. Activities like working in mines or participating in politics were supposed to be performed by men, while taking care of the children and doing the family cooking and cleaning were activities performed by women. Nowadays, it is more common that all jobs, whether it’s mowing the lawn, making money from working in a factory or supermarket, or ironing clothes, are done by both men and women.

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A tallow melting pan and a soap mold from the 1850s.

Washing clothes was a woman’s job in the 1850s. It required some very simple technologies: a large tub (bucket), a washboard, and some soap. Here, on the early diggings, most soap was homemade using tallow (which, in Ballarat, was sheep fat) mixed with some ash. Water had to be collected from creeks and lakes by bucket and was then heated over a fire. When Ballarat became a more established city, wealthier households built laundries in their gardens and installed ‘coppers’ (big copper buckets built over fireplaces) and garden water pumps (utilising underground ‘bore’ water) to make this work easier, but women still spent at least one entire day every week washing the family’s clothes.

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A laundry copper.

Have you ever heard the expression ‘She mangled her finger’? This comes from a clothes washing technology called a mangle. At first, these rollers, through which clothes would be squeezed near-dry, were hand-cranked, but when electric mangles were introduced many people (including children!) got their hands and hair caught in these machines with disastrous results. Thankfully, some of the most dangerous designs were outlawed. However, this wasn’t the only hazard to washer women. Irons made of heavy cast-iron were heated on the fireplace and then used to smoothe fabric. Modern irons are very safe in comparison! Women could easily burn themselves with 1850s irons, and getting serious burns (before antibiotics were invented) sometimes resulted in gangrene, blood poisoning and even death!

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A 19th century mangle, also known as a wringer.

Until the electric washing machine became a common household appliance in the 1950s, women dedicated large amounts of their lives to washing, rinsing, wringing-out, drying, and ironing clothes. Some academics, like Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, believe that the electric washing machine was ‘the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution’ because it suddenly afforded women time for things like education, work outside the home, and politics, once the washing machine was introduced. Can you think of any other inventions which have had a similarly big impact on people’s lives?

Links and references

A brief history of the washing machine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_machine

A history of laundry: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/history-of-washing-clothes.aspx

A brief history of the mangle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangle_(machine)

A history of irons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothes_iron

A history of antibiotics and infection: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/treatments/Pages/The-History-of-Antibiotics.aspx

A teacher resource on ‘Laundry in the 19th Century’: http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/files/Laundry_19th_Century_06-01-09.pdf