Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Primping in the Regency

A fellow writer of historical romances asked this week: “What amenities did London hotels have in the 19th century for the proper lady to refresh herself in relative privacy in front of a mirror?”

Now that’s an interesting question – and it’s one I don’t have a definite answer for.

The best sources for information about what happened in particular historical periods are diaries, personal letters, and artifacts – surviving locations and/or possessions. For instance, we know what sort of undies people wore during various historical periods because examples have survived. And we know the basics about how and where people relieved themselves, because a few of those places and pieces of equipment still exist. But figuring out whatever the 19th century equivalent of a power room would have been – that requires figuring out context.

Personal hygiene isn’t something that people talk about, even today – at least not unless it’s something unusual. (I’m pretty sure that the first time I encountered a ladies’ room attendant in a posh restaurant, I mentioned it to my friends.) But powdering our noses is such a commonplace thing that we don’t give it a second thought – aside from the occasional complaint about inadequate facilities, I suppose. Our sisters in the 19th century didn’t write about it in letters either, or note it in their diaries.

So I’m speculating here, trying to figure out context – based on hygiene, comfort, convenience, and taxes – of how a 19th century lady would have powdered her nose.

The first question, of course, is what part of the 19th century we’re talking about.

In the Regency period, personal hygiene most often involved an outdoor privy, or a chamber pot (or the equivalent) inside. This crucial piece of equipment was also called a close stool or necessary stool or toilet chair – here’s a picture of one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_stool

In the Regency era, there wasn't much incentive for designing or building special facilities for personal hygiene. Running water was rare, early designs for flush toilets often let sewer gases creep back into the room, and servants (to dump and clean those chamber pots) were inexpensive.  However, the resulting odors and lack of cleanliness meant that a lady probably wouldn't primp near her chamber pot.  Her dressing table would likely be across the room from the sanitary facilities, and it might or might not boast a mirror on the wall – because glass was expensive and hard to produce in large sheets, and it was taxed like the luxury item it was.

Because of the mirror tax, public hotels probably didn’t have many mirrors either. In their best bedrooms, possibly – which is why I think the lady who wanted to primp while traveling would most probably ask to be shown to a bedchamber.

It’s also likely that our proper lady would travel with her own hand mirror. Remember those sets that our grandmothers – or maybe we should say great-grandmothers, by now – kept for pretty on their dressers? A hand mirror, a brush, and a comb, all in the same pattern – those sets were treasured and handed down from mother to daughter. If she was carrying her dressing set, our lady could have primped just about anywhere that no one was looking.

By the mid to late Victorian era, flush toilets were more common, bathrooms were being included in houses and water closets built in public areas, and the mirror tax was defunct or nearly so.  So a Victorian lady could most likely have primped in front of a mirror in a semi-public area of a hotel – though I’m still not sure what that room would have been called. A ladies’ retiring room, perhaps?

If anyone has sources or speculations to add, I welcome your insights!

1 comment:

  1. I can remember seeing some years ago the Ladies at the Fleishacker Zoo in San Francisco and thinking it seemed very Victorian. Befor you entered the room with the stalls and sinks there was another room, a sort of lounge, with several antique wicker fainting couches. I think they were painted in forest green enamel and a couple of matching chairs, one may have been a rocking chair. It seemed to be a place where Ladies could rest, tend and nurse their babies. I think there was a sign saying that boys were welcome only until the age of six. The masonry walls were quite thick and very tall. It was noticably cooler when you walked in and very quiet. Most of the light in the room seemed to be coming from short but wide windows, so high up that they almost seemed more like skylights, and it had a sort of golden quality much like the golden light of some evenings. I hope this helps. Mrs. K.