Oh dear me…it’s a sair fecht!

Cooking, cleaning, shopping, working, looking after bairns and auld folks, blethering with neighbours, paying the electric and gas, rent and insurance…it was all in a day’s (or week’s) work for our mums and grannies. One of the corners of our wee museum that gets a lot of attention is the one packed full of the paraphernalia of housework. From packets of Fairy Snow and Persil to blocks of Carbolic or Sunlight soap, our visitors recognise and remember a lot of the objects on display and can immediately recall seeing many of them being used on a regular basis.

Do you remember your mum or granny wearing this kind of pinny?

Wash day blues

Although we don’t have any copper boilers for washing, or early twin tubs, we do have a lot of other objects that were regularly used either in the local steamie or the outside wash-house before most households had access to washing machines. We have lots of wash-boards (although it is surprising how many visitors still want to donate them) which were used every wash-day – possibly at the big Belfast sink which was a feature of most tenement flats or single ends. We often use a selection of twentieth-century boards in our reminiscence sessions to spark a debate about the perceived merits of the glass ones over the Zinc or galvanised steel ones – we don’t have any all wooden ones which are even older. It is not quite clear if one was better than the other, but perhaps a compromise was the Duplex variety which combines both glass and steel. Of course the other use for washboards that some visitors demonstrate is as a musical instrument – often associated with the skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan.

Washing and cleaning materials, including a Duplex washboard.

Of course using a washboard required the use of solid soap blocks. We have a variety of soap blocks which are still recognisable – some have never been used; others have had a bit of use. Familiar brands such as: Lifebuoy, Knight’s Family Soap, Nubolic, Fairy, Wright’s Coal Tar, and of course, Carbolic and Sunlight. Many of these hardened blocks have retained their distinctive aroma and picking them up and sniffing can evoke memories of wash days – but also bath nights when the soap was also used to wash children!

Some younger visitors wonder what Orlando Jones Cold Water Starch or Colman’s Azure Blue were used for. Starch was recommended for ‘imparting a creamy colour to laces, muslins, frillings, and curtains…’, and once applied to the material would be ironed, resulting in a stiffened texture. Azure Blue – or perhaps more commonly Reckitt’s Blue Bag – was added to white washes to cancel any yellowness which developed on older white textiles.

Persil and Fairy Snow soap powders; Orlando Starch
and the familiar round canister of Vim.

We do have packets of Persil – ‘For your whitest white wash’ – and Fairy Snow washing powders for use in machines. Fortunately we also have a copy of ‘The Persil Plan for Home Washing’ booklet, which is full of handy hints about how to plan a weekly wash with or without a washing machine! Mrs Holiday of the Persil Home Washing Bureau can also be contacted for further advice…

She wis down on her knees scrubbing…

Washing the family’s clothes was a weekly chore but there was also the house and stair, close or step to maintain. Scrubbing the dirt with a bucket of water and a handbrush was how it was done. Cleaning was done using abrasives such as Chemico Household Cleaner. Vim or Ajax, and Flash powder – ‘The Cleaner for Every Task’ – came in later. Cardinal (green or red) tile polish were quite familiar brands for many households and were used for polishing the tiles at the doorstep. Silvo, or more often Brasso, was used to polish the brasses on the front door – shiny letterboxes and bell-pulls would stop any criticism from nosey neighbours. It was also the responsibility of all those living in a stair to clean and maintain common areas – the ‘It’s Your Turn’ card would be passed round each flat to remind them to sweep and clean the common stair.

Taking turns at cleaning the common stair card and weekly thrift box.

Beaters and sweepers…

Thrashing the carpets and rugs was another regular feature of keeping the house clean. Rugs would be thrown over the washing line and beaten as hard as possible with cane beaters. These beaters come in a variety of shapes and sizes (again despite visitors claiming not to have noticed any, we do have quite a number on display). The beating of rugs was sometimes allocated to children as a task that they could do without causing too much damage. Of course, the beaters also had another less pleasant application: some visitors recall them being used as a form of painful, corporal punishment.

A selection of our carpet beaters – sometimes used for corporal punishment.

The cane carpet beaters were then replaced by carpet sweepers – familiar to many by the brand name – Ewebank. These were developed in the late nineteenth century – the oldest version we have is made of wood. The more modern red Ewebank Major still works and was regularly used in the unit by one of our older volunteers. With electricity, the introduction of vacuum cleaners to households was a major social and culture change. Many were made by Hoover – ‘It beats as it sweeps, as it cleans’ – and the Junior models are recognised by many visitors who describe emptying the bags and patching frayed holes in the fabric of the bags with parcel tape, making them last as long as possible rather than replacing them with a new one. Heavy and cumbersome they may appear now, but they were a labour saving device that were much appreciated by many.

Some examples of carpet sweepers and early Hoovers.

Housework was hard, physical work – many visitors comment on how heavy many of the appliances or tools are and how strong their mums and grannies must have been. There was no need to go to the gym when there was housework to do, they say. It was hard work indeed, and many labour-saving devices have made our lives easier, but being reminded just how much ‘work’ our mums and grannies had to do should make us appreciate them even more.