By Tim Lambert
Well-off people lived in very comfortable houses in the 19th century. (Although their servants lived in cramped quarters, often in the attic). For the first time, furniture was mass-produced. That meant it was cheaper but unfortunately standards of design fell. To us, middle-class 19th-century homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments, and knick-knacks. However, only a small minority could afford this comfortable lifestyle.
In the early 19th century housing for the poor was often dreadful. Often they lived in ‘back-to-backs’. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one on top of the other. The houses were literally back-to-back. The back of one house joined with the back of another and they only had windows on one side. The bottom room was used as a living room cum kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms.
The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds. However, housing conditions gradually improved. In the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back to backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced over the following decades.
In the early 19th century skilled workers usually lived in ‘through houses’ i.e. ones that were not joined to the backs of other houses. Usually, they had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for the best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room. As the 19th century passed more and more working-class people could afford this lifestyle. In the late 19th-century worker’s houses greatly improved. After 1875 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.
By the 1880s most working-class people lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms. Most had a small garden. At the end of the 19th century, some houses for skilled workers were built with the latest luxury – an indoor toilet. However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were still many families living in one room. Old houses were sometimes divided up into separate dwellings. Sometimes if windows were broken slum landlords could not or would not replace them. So they were ‘repaired’ with paper. Or rags were stuffed into holes in the glass.
In the late 19th century most homes also had a scullery. In it was a ‘copper’, a metal container for washing clothes. The copper was filled with water and soap powder was added. To wash the clothes they were turned with a wooden tool called a dolly. Or you used a metal plunger with holes in it to push clothes up and down. Wet clothes were wrung through a device called a wringer of mangle to dry them. In the USA John E Turnbull invented a clothes wringer in 1843. In the UK Robert Tasker invented one in 1850. In 1875 a man named John B. Porter invented a portable ironing board. Sarah Boone patented an improved device in 1892.
At the beginning of the 19th century people cooked over an open fire. This was very wasteful as most of the heat went up the chimney. In the 1820s an iron cooker called a range was introduced. It was a much more efficient way of cooking because most of the heat was contained within. By the mid-19th century ranges were common. Most of them had a boiler behind the coal fire where water was heated.
Gaslights first became common in well-off people’s homes in the 1840s. By the late 1870s, most working-class homes had gaslight, at least downstairs. Bedrooms might have oil lamps. Gas fires first became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s. In the last 2 decades of the 19th century, many British towns and cities installed electric street lights. However electric light was expensive and it took a long time to replace gas in people’s homes.
In the early 19th century only rich people had bathrooms. People did take baths but only a few people had actual rooms for washing. In the 1870s and 1880s, many middle-class people had bathrooms built. The water was heated by gas. Working-class people had a tin bath and washed in front of the kitchen range.