Today’s post continues the theme of the last one (a little), in terms of exploring the relationship between products and industries in the past and their connection with our lives today. It’s easy to scoff at some of the things we learn about the 19th century – like how backward the ideas were – but there are certain aspects of history that remind us how some human traits transcend time and generations. One such aspect of human behaviour that’s come to my attention recently, thanks to some artefacts we’ve found in Christchurch, is to do with cleaning the house, of all things. Specifically, how we can see delineations between public and private spaces in the products used by a 19th century household as much as we can see it in the actual physical structure of the house itself.
The object that triggered this train of thought was found recently, on a site in the Christchurch CBD. It’s a small ceramic pot, similar to others that we’ve come across before, that has the useful distinction of still having its label attached. This label identifies the original contents of the pot as Joseph Pickering & Sons’ “celebrated polishing paste”, for “cleaning and beautifying” a range of metal objects. The significant word here, I think, is ‘beautifying’. Products like this polishing paste had a very specific purpose, and that purpose had everything to do with appearance. After all, something is polished so that it can be seen, is it not? Shiny harness ornaments, gleaming silver and brass, burnished copper – they’re there to look good, and to make the people associated with them look good in the eyes of others. The virtue of keeping a clean house, and the reflection of that virtue on a person’s character, is not a new concept to any of us (even if we don’t always follow through as much as we should). Pickering’s polishing paste is a product that has everything to do with this concept, with that public face of a household or business and the social construct of domestic pride.
It got me thinking about the other household products we find in archaeological sites and how they fit within this notion of public and private space in the home. With the exception of polishing paste, almost all of the other cleaning products we find are disinfectants. Products like Kerol, Jeyes Fluid & Lysol were all advertised primarily as disinfectants for the home (and on the farm, in some cases), although they also claimed medicinal properties among their applications. Kerol was advertised as a remedy for infantile paralysis (polio), due to its germ-killing properties (Wanganui Chronicle 24/03/1916: 6), while Lysol had some interesting (and disturbing) alternative uses (Evening Post 4/10/1930: 27). In the early 20th century, along with causing a number of deaths, it was marketed and used as a form of birth control and feminine hygiene product (Sanger 1917). Unfortunately for women, the extremely caustic and highly toxic disinfectant, which was applied by douching, created all manner of disastrous and highly painful health problems rather than solving them (Palmer & Greenberg 1936:142-146).
All of these disinfectants are associated with the gradual acceptance of germ theory during the late 19th century, along with the new understanding that personal and household hygiene formed an important aspect of individual health. For that very reason, as cleaning products, they form something of a contrast to Pickering’s polishing paste as products that sit firmly within the private sphere of household cleaning. Their ability to kill germs notwithstanding, disinfectants like these would have little to contribute when it came to presenting the public spaces of the household to guests and visitors. In fact, horrifying feminine hygiene aside, their use in the home hasn’t really changed during the past 100 years.
This is what I’m getting at, really. The products themselves may have uses that seem barbaric (douching with disinfectant, ouch), or ingredients that we wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, but the driving force behind their use hasn’t changed so much. The average household today might not have a lot of silver and saddlery to polish (to be fair the average household then probably didn’t either) but a bottle of furniture polish wouldn’t be unusual in most cleaning cupboards. Nor would glass cleaner, starch, or shoe polish, all of which are used more for the presentation of a clean house (or footwear) than for hygienic reasons. At the same time, although many solely ‘private’ products, like bleach or disinfectant, are common in modern households, so too are products that combine the appearance-based cleaning with the hygienic side of things. Anti-bacterial Spray & Wipe is an excellent case in point.
Perhaps that’s the real difference between then and now. There’s still the same drive to have a clean house, the same kind of domestic pride and same wish to be free from illness or disease: it’s just easier to fulfil now. More convenient. The people haven’t changed, not so much, but we’ve changed the world around us, one product at a time.
Colonist. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, 2014. [online] Available at http://www.mum.org/
Palmer, R. L. & Greenberg, Sarah K., 1936. Facts and Frauds in Women’s Hygiene: A Medical Guide Against Misleading Claims and Dangerous Products. Vanguard Press.
Sanger, M., 1917. Family Limitation. [online] Available at http://archive.lib.msu.edu.
Wanganui Chronicle. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.