Victorian Era Conveniences: Things that Made Life Easier

Victorians homes were not just thick carpets, plush drapes, and overstuffed furniture. They also contained many homemade Victorian Era conveniences “that hundreds of house-keepers … found useful.”[1] These devices lightened “the labor and ‘saved steps’ to [help] many an over-worked house-keeper.”[2] Among the many items that Victorians such as Hetty Green, Hubertine Auclert, Madame Récamier, Madame Tussaud, or Biddy Mason might have been familiar or had in their homes was the ash bin, butter mold and stamp, carriage steps, cooking steam pipe, egg tester, flour box, foot scraper or boot cleaner, hammock, household slop disposal, iron pot scrubber, pigeon holes, poison box, and rodent trap.

Ash Bin. Every household created ashes from their fireplace in the 1800s and when they disposed of them, they needed somewhere to store them. Victorians who were economical also separated the ashes from the coal cinders so that they could reuse the cinders. Because ashes could ignite fires, it was always best to store them properly, and many a Victorian learned this as fires were frequently traced back to the improper disposal of ashes. Thus, among of one of the best Victorian Era conveniences was ash bins that were fire-proof and kept ashes fresh and dry.

Butter Mold and Stamp. Molds and stamps allowed Victorian homemakers to add a special touch when working butter into rounded cakes. To accomplish this, cold water was used to prevent the butter from sticking to the mold or stamp. Once molded or stamped, the butter could then be sold or used “for the table in houses where neatness of appearance [was] studied.”[3]

Butter mold. Public domain.

Carriage Steps. Another of the Victorian Era conveniences had to do with the fact that Victorians traveled primarily by buggy, carriage, or coach. This made exiting and entering such vehicles a constant issue for women plagued by long skirts and hoops. Although men may have thought entering and exiting a vehicle a trivial event, women needed to enter and exit gracefully to avoid ending up face down in the dirt or ripping or tangling themselves up in their skirts. Gentlemen or servants frequently assisted a woman with this task of entering and exiting but sometimes a woman might be left to her own devices. One way to avoid problems when entering or exiting a carriage was to use carriage steps. There were many types of carriage steps, but one rather popular carriage step was built into a fence. For convenience sake, this carriage step was also often placed near an entrance gate, inside the grounds of the home and had the additional safety feature of a handrail.

Carriage steps. Public domain.

Cooking Steam Pipe. Sometimes unpleasant odors could permeate a house and no one wanted their guests to be greeted by unpleasant cooking smells. One way to avoid this was to use a popular contrivance known as a cooking steam pipe. It functioned by having one end of a tube attached to the lid of the pot or boiler and the other end attached to the stove pipe. As steam was generated, it was conveyed from the pot to the pipe and then up the stove pipe, which carried it outside.

Egg Tester. Victorian Era conveniences also included an egg tester. Apparently, in a Victorian home “a bad egg [was] never welcomed,”[4] and thus to avoid bad eggs, an egg tester was something all Victorian could easily have on hand. The one shown here was homemade and involved the following:

“[A] small tin cup three inches high, and two and a half inches in diameter, narrowed in at the top to hold an egg endwise. A small mirror [was] placed as shown by the dotted line. The light pass[ed] through the egg, and form[ed] an image … which [was] distinctly seen at the side opening.”[5]

Victorian Era convenience - egg tester

Egg tester. Public domain.

Flour box: A deluxe flour box consisted of four drawers, closet, and spice rack, although it could also be made without such conveniences. They drawers were useful for holding sugar, buckwheat, towels, baking tins, etc. and the closet was used to hold syrups, butter, or eggs. Shelves were also used to hold baking items. The flour box itself was wider at the top than the bottom and rested on “pieces of thick leather, fastened to [the box] … and to the floor when finished. A strip … [was also] screwed under the top, for the box to shut and open against.”[6]

Victorian Era convenience - flour box

Flour box with dotted lines indicating where it is located and how it pulls out. Public domain.

Foot Scraper or Boot Cleaner: Some Victorian men had a tendency not to “pay attention to the removal of dirt from their boots and shoes.”[7] To prevent mud and dirt from being tracked into a kitchen or sitting-room, the Victorian era convenience of foot scrapers or boot cleaners was not considered so much a convenience as a must-have convenience. These were conveniently placed near the door of a house, a barn, or an out-building, and it was further suggested that the “house-keeper … occasionally … refer the careless member of the family to the foot scraper.”[8]

Hammock: One of the Victorian Era conveniences that could be enjoyed by the whole family was a hammock, a sling made of fabric, rope, or netting, suspended between two or more points. It could be made from “awning-cloth” and involved “two pieces, six feet long and a little over a yard wide … [with] … two [scalloped] strips five inches wide, to go along the sides. … The two end [were] bound with braid. Eight curtain rings [were then] … sewed on each end, and to each ring … fastened a heavy hammock cord … [with all the cords joined] to a large iron ring.”[9] It was then hung in a shady spot, between two trees or between to pillars of a shady veranda. It was also important to ensure one end was slightly higher than the other for a person’s head. In addition, thought was to be given about “when trees serve for supports, ample provision should be made to prevent injury to the bark, by means of stout canvas or heavy bagging between the ropes to which it is suspended.”[10]

Victorian Era convenience - hammock

Hammock. Public domain.

House Slop Disposal. Just like Victorian families needed to dispose of ashes, they also needed to dispose of slop (kitchen scraps). This was often a difficult task because servants had tended to throw things out the back door “in the most ‘convenient’ spot.”[11] This resulted in accidents, attracted unwanted varmints or pests, and caused bad odors. To avoid these problems, one Victorian Era convenience was a good-size cask that could be used as a slop barrel. The cask was then mounted on wheels in the summer and on runners in the winter so that it could be easily transported to the “proper spot” for disposal and then returned to its proper place to be refilled.

House Slop Disposal, Public Domain

House slop disposal. Public domain.

Iron Pot Scrubber. To help housekeepers preserve their fingernails, pots and pans were cleaned with “chips, spoons, knives, and other substitutes.”[12] However, that was not the best thing to use on pots and pans because the best cleaner was claimed to be a wire pot scrubber made from iron rings. It functioned like a piece of cloth and when something was stuck to a pot or a utensil or if something was burned on to a pan, “a little hard rubbing with this scrubber quickly remov[ed] it.”[13]

Pigeon Holes. One of the more interesting Victorian Era conveniences helped Victorians store small items, such as papers, seed packets, pencils, letters, etc. safely. This storage solution for small items was referred to as “pigeon holes” because they were “usually made of thin boards, dovetailed or otherwise fastened together,”[14] but they could also be made out of square oyster cans. When made from oyster cans, they were thoroughly washed, one end or the front of the can was opened, and the ends melted and hammered down to prevent sharp edges. A bracketed shelf was then built to hold the cans from underneath, and the cans were arranged side by side so that they could be accessed from the front or the top.

Poison Box. Victorian people often dealt with pests and one of the Victorian Era conveniences that helped when dealing with them was a poison box. These were sectioned boxes that held poisons for the destruction of insects or rodents. A poison box also involved labeling the poisons with “glaring labels” so that they could be easily identified. However, “glaring labels” were said not to be enough because people were often accidentally poisoned, such as in the Bradford lozenge poisoning case in 1858. Extra emphasis was also used to ensure that poisons boxes were never placed in areas where unsuspecting people might use them inadvertently or where someone might mistake the box for “harmless medications.”

Poison Box. Pubic domain.

Rodent Trap. Rodents were an ongoing source of problems for Victorians and so if you could not afford a rat catcher you might use the following ingenious and unpatented trap that involved a bucket, filled with water and “fitted with a circular board or false cover, which [was] … suspended, [so] that a slight weight upon either side of the center [would] cause it to tilt.”[15] In addition, bait was suspended by a wire so that the rodent could only access it from the “treacherous platform,” and after doing so, the rodent would fall into the bucket and drowned.

Rodent trap. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Halsted, Byron David, Household Conveniences, 1884, p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 75.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 128.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 128-129.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 82.
  • [7] Ibid. p. 7.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 8.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 19.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 20
  • [11] Ibid., p. 8.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 102.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 103.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 211.
  • [15] Ibid. p. 220.

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